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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.
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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. The New York legislature approved a plan that allows the city to begin doing what London has done since 2003: Collect tolls from motorists who want to enter certain areas during the busiest hours of the day. As The Wall Street Journal reports, nobody knows how much the new fees will reduce traffic, but the city estimates they will generate about $1 billion annually to fund improvements in the subway and bus systems, while also making it friendlier and safer for bike riders and pedestrians (“Congestion Pricing Could Turn Manhattan Into Pedestrian Paradise,” April 14, 2019).
Understanding How Data Rules
Every week there are new reports of data breaches affecting the private information of millions of individuals. Unless you disable data tracking, your clicks, steps, and heartbeats are recorded and, in many cases, sold. The “glass life,” says author Shoshana Zuboff, has become an integral part of economic reality — one that rewards companies for being up-to-date on what we like, where we go, and whom we know. In her sprawling 700-page book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (PublicAffairs, 2019), Zuboff, a professor emerita at Harvard Business School, examines the inner workings of this powerful system, how it emerged, and the dangers it poses to individuals and society in general.
In an interview with Nilay Patel of The Verge, Zuboff admits that in the early days of the internet, people were optimistic. We all ran to the internet with open arms, she says: “We thought we were using surveillance capitalism’s free services.” But it soon became apparent that free wasn’t free and that the personal data of “users” was being used as the raw material for a new ecosystem dedicated to predicting human behavior. We were “just on our laptops feeding these supply chains.”
Zuboff refuses to accept the inevitability of a digital future in which the needs of people are overpowered by commercial interests. To rebalance the digital ecosystem in favor of humans, she argues for stricter government regulations on the use of personal data, increased collective action by consumers and companies, and individuals taking decisive steps to control how their information is used.