Robotics startup Boston Dynamics appears to have taken the current crisis as an invitation to insert robots into every industry they can find. A few weeks ago we reported on how their dog-like Spot robots are being used to remotely treat patients in Boston hospitals. More recently, Spots were deployed in public parks in Singapore to encourage residents to maintain social distancing with the obsessive repetitiveness only a robot can manage. This week, though, Spot is turning away from the medical industry to return to its more canine roots, as a sheepdog.
This new innovation in autonomous agriculture comes from a New Zealand robotics company called Rocos who released this demo video as part of a partnership with Boston Dynamics. The idea seems to be that if Spot can handle hospitals, parks, and the big city, why not the New Zealand countryside? As the video demonstrates, Spot robots are becoming incredibly agile and versatile, gaining the ability to explore the semi-wilderness with nimble “paws”. Spot robots have even been programmed to herd sheep, although the sheep seem more disturbed by the diminutive robots than inclined to go where the things drive them. Nevertheless, the potential of a farm patrolling, sheep herding, and data collecting robot dog does seem quite vast.
The question remains, however, does anybody really want a robot sheepdog? James Rebanks, author of the popular autobiography The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, thinks not. “The robot might be an amazing tool for lots of things but it is worthless and unwanted as a sheepdog,” Rebanks proclaimed in an interview with online newspaper The Verge. “No one who works with sheep needs or wants this — it is a fantasy.” He has a point. If you watch the video clip closely you can see that most of the sheep seem to have no intention of going in the direction Spot wants them to. An entire group is breaking off to the left like they do not have a care in the world.
This may be because sheep are not just resources, they are intelligent animals in their own right that are not any more inclined to mistake a robot dog for the real thing than a human would be. As Rebanks put it, “Sheep obey based on carefully judged finely tuned movements, and because of the eye of the dog that intimidates them, and because the dog can ultimately enforce discipline with its teeth… The sheep respond as they do because they evolved with wolves and being hunted.” Sheep never evolved to flee from predatory robots, so they neither fear nor respect Spots.
Even if the robot does not keep the respect of the sheep, it might still have merit in agriculture. The robot may not be the ideal farm tool, but there is no denying that the human population has been, and still is, increasing at an incredible rate. All of those people need food, food that can only be farmed on land that is rapidly being eroded by issues like pollution and urban sprawl. For most of human history civilization has relied on an agricultural surplus so that people can pursue careers other than farming, specializations, like medicine, that have improved the quality of human life. However, with so many people and so few healthy ecosystems, agriculture has to pursue increasingly greater feats of efficient food production. Spot is just another piece of that puzzle, but is it the right piece?
Rebanks argues that from an agricultural perspective trying to minimize human influence on the farming process is a mistake. “The most productive and sustainable [farming] on earth is labour intensive — more people, more contact,” he argues. Getting farther away from where our food comes from and leaving the task up to robots might make it easier for people to stomach further destruction of the environment. From the perspective of the COVID-19 era though, the idea of steering more human time and energy away from fields like medicine and toward farming can be a bit hard to reckon with. What do you think? Does robotics have a place in agriculture, and do sheepdogs have a real challenger for employment in Spot? Let us know in the comments.