Autonomous technologies associated with the fourth agricultural revolution, such as AI and robotics, present a number of social and ethical challenges in addition to their benefits. To start a conversation about the response needed to support ethics and responsibility for AI in agri-food, the Alex Trebek Forum for Dialogue Project on AI for Healthy Humans and Environments at the AI + Society Initiative convened an event featuring Dr. David Rose from the University of Reading to speak about his team’s work on autonomous robots in the soft fruit sector, which assesses how growers and farm workers perceive these emerging technologies.
Faced with a serious migrant labour shortage, exacerbated by the dual threat of COVID-19 and Brexit, UK soft fruit growers are considering alternative strategies to perform farm work. Farm labour issues are not exclusive to the UK – and countries all over the world, Canada included, are turning towards automated farm machinery and robotics in an effort to mitigate the negative impacts on agri-food sectors from labour shortages. Dr. David Rose and his team of researchers at the University of Reading, along with several other partner organizations, have launched the Robot Highways project, which involves the largest global demonstration of robotics and autonomous systems technology on a single farming system.
Dr. Rose is a social scientist and the goal of his work is to critically engage with the promise of automated agriculture. Automation in agriculture could facilitate labour-saving benefits, enable better animal welfare, increased profitability, reduced chemical use, reduced food waste and a host of other environmental benefits. However, Dr. Rose is concerned with the distribution of benefits enabled by these technological innovations. He asks whether or not some people will be at a disadvantage due technology-led social changes: “It’s inevitable that some people will lose from this technology revolution in agriculture and farming. Indeed, technology revolutions in all sectors have winners, but they also have losers.” He and his team maintain that it is imperative to deal with the ethical challenges that may come as the farming industry moves towards an automated future.
Other social scientists have looked empirically at the ethical challenges that these autonomous agricultural technologies may bring. There has been work focused on labour issues, data ownership, work safety issues, consumer perception and animal welfare in the context of new agricultural innovations. Nonetheless, more research is necessary. Despite the rapid development of new technologies in the agricultural space, if ethical issues are not dealt with, they will not go away. Dr. Rose explains that these challenges have the real potential to hinder adoption, and to negatively impact different stakeholders: “We need to be thinking about these issues with as much time and energy as we do with designing a really cool robot.”
It is important to put these ethical issues in context. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are an example of a technology that can be beneficial for farmers in terms of profitability and productivity, however ethical issues have hindered its adoption. The lack of a strong governance framework has led to a ban on GMOs in the EU because, as Dr. Rose suggests, the design process did not include people who would be potentially impacted, such as consumers. This response could have been avoided with more “upstream” or early engagement with the public in the research and development stage of GMO innovation. To prevent this from happening with autonomous agricultural technologies, it is important to use inclusive design processes.
Dr. Rose suggests that technology developers use a framework called Responsible Innovation (RRI) so as to deal with ethical issues before they become unmanageable. Dr. Rose mentioned that Dr. Kelly Bronson, has similarly published articles calling for the use of RRI for governing emergent agricultural technologies. Using this framework, technology developers anticipate the consequences of the implementation of a certain technology, and they include citizens and a variety of stakeholders in this reflection. Furthermore, if this process results in the prediction that the future of autonomous farming will cause more problems than it solves, we must have a collective ability to halt or fundamentally alter its development process.
Dr. Rose’s team, like Dr. Bronson’s team at the University of Ottawa, is specifically concerned with ways in which researchers and technology developers can substantively include perspectives from stakeholders who might be negatively impacted by these technologies. In the agricultural context, this means incorporating perspectives from farmworkers, farm advisors, and farmers working on small-scale farms as opposed to large-scale conventional ones. Dr. Rose suggests methods such as citizen juries, the mapping of social media dialogue, stakeholder workshops, and ethnographic techniques to acquire these perspectives. The need to understand farm workers’ perspectives is particularly important as they may be the ones whose labour is replaced by autonomous robots.
Institutional flexibility is also a fundamental part of RRI. If institutions have the ability to incorporate perspectives from a variety of stakeholders, research and development can probably be carried out in a more ethical way. Policy instruments and legal frameworks are also necessary for the ethical and just innovation of these new technologies. For example, re-training of workers whose labour has been replaced by autonomous robots may be subsidized by the government.
Dr. Rose concluded by reiterating the goals of the Robot Highways Project: include stakeholders in the design and delivery of the technology; develop methodologies to include the views of growers and workers; ensure these views feed into the design/delivery process, demonstrate technologies on-farm and evaluate their impact.
After the talk, in conversation with Dr. Kelly Bronson, Canada Research Chair in Science and Society at the University of Ottawa, Dr. Rose discussed the difficulties of doing ethical research with farmworkers. It is imperative to his team that they not exploit farmworkers through the research process, as these workers are in precarious positions in terms of legal status and employment security. Furthermore, they may not speak the same language as researchers, they may not feel empowered to say no to researchers or they may believe that they need to answer researchers’ questions without speaking negatively about their employers. This discussion also touched on the question of how to get corporations and technology developers to design technologies not only for large, well-resourced farms but for smaller and diversified farms such as agro-ecological farms. Dr. Rose and his team believe that insights from the Robot Highways Project will help ensure that the benefits from these emerging technologies are equitably shared by all stakeholders.
Key resources to learn more
- Barrett, H., & Rose, D. C. (2020). Perceptions of the Fourth Agricultural Revolution: What’s In, What’s Out, and What Consequences are Anticipated? Sociologia Ruralis, 1–28.
- Lajoie-O’Malley, A., Bronson, K., van der Burg, S., & Klerkx, L. (2020). The future(s) of digital agriculture and sustainable food systems: An analysis of high-level policy documents. Ecosystem Services, 45, 101183.
- Rose, D. C., Wheeler, R., Winter, M., Lobley, M., & Chivers, C.-A. (2021). Agriculture 4.0: Making it work for people, production, and the planet. Land Use Policy, 100, 1–5.
- Chilvers, J., & Kearnes, M. (2015). Remaking Participation: Science, Environment and Emergent Publics (1st ed.). Routledge.
Our event briefs are provided to help amplify the conversation around the ethical, legal and societal implications of AI, in a short and accessible format. We invite you to watch the video and read the additional resources for more information on this topic.
This brief was prepared by Sarah Marquis, PhD student, with the Canada Research Chair in Science and Society and at the Institute of the Environment. Opinions and errors are those of the authors, and not of the Initiative or the University of Ottawa.