The Digital Future of Strawberries

Also, how data rules and how New York is attempting to tame traffic.

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Editor’s note: Elsewhere is a column that highlights ideas from other media platforms we believe are worth your attention.

The mechanization of agriculture is an old story. In the United States, bigger and more automated tractors are planting and harvesting thousands of acres of megacrops like corn, wheat, and soybeans, using less and less human labor. Producing specialty crops like fruits and vegetables, however, is a lot trickier — involving careful handling and selective harvesting, activities beyond the grasp of machines. But, as John Seabrook writes in The New Yorker (“The Age of Robot Farmers,” April 8, 2019), we may be on the cusp of a new era of farming, with robots able to replace humans in picking delicate crops such as strawberries.

Seabrook examines the efforts of a Florida strawberry farmer to apply technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, GPS, and machine vision to his 600 acres of strawberry fields. For years, the farmer relied on migrant laborers to pick berries. But several factors (including stricter immigration laws) have made this approach more expensive and less certain. Working with a partner, the farmer has developed a prototype for a 30-foot-long strawberry-picking machine that hovers over rows of plants and, as Seabrook describes it, has the dexterity to “cup the berries and pivot, imitating the popping action that human pickers made with their wrists.” In theory, the machine can operate day or night and do the work of 30 human pickers.

Changing the way strawberries and other fruits and vegetables are cultivated and harvested won’t happen overnight. The machines themselves are expensive, and farms that invest in them will need tech-savvy workers trained to fix them when things go wrong. While many farm tasks are ripe for automation, Seabrook notes, experience in other industries suggests that many manual jobs will continue to require human involvement for the foreseeable future.

New York’s Gambit to Tame Traffic

People have complained about vehicle traffic in cities like New York City for years (made worse, some argue, by app-based ride services such as Uber and Lyft). But it took a full-fledged crisis in the city’s debt-burdened public transportation system for politicians to act.

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