Just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, there’s a building under construction the size of one and a half football fields. When it’s completed, 80 Acres Farms will be a fully automated indoor farm, manned by two-story-tall robots hauling and adjusting crops under artificial lights. And, as NPR reports, there will be almost no humans working there.
Indoor, automated farming companies—growing leafy greens like bok choy, cilantro, parsley, kale, spinach, basil, and more—are starting to take off across the country, including California’s Iron Ox and a handful of farms in post-industrial areas of the garden state, New Jersey. Automated agriculture has been around for almost two decades now, since John Deere unveiled AutoTrac, a GPS-based tractor guidance system, but now, companies like Harvest Croo Robotics are using a combination of artificial intelligence, machine vision, and big data to design specialized machines for harvesting crops like strawberries, apples, and grapes. Grocery store chains like Whole Foods and Kroger are already selling some produce grown and harvested by robots.
Farming isn’t the only industry facing job loss from automation. Waymo, a self-driving technology company owned by Google’s parent corporation, Alphabet, has rolled out fleets of autonomous 18-wheelers in California, Georgia, and Arizona. In January, the company announced plans to expand into New Mexico and freight-heavy Texas. And Amazon is aggressively researching how to automate its warehouses.
Between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. lost 5.6 million manufacturing jobs, 85 percent of which were made redundant by automation. Today, 25 percent of working Americans are at “high risk” of losing their jobs to automation, according to a Brookings Institute study, since up to 70 percent of the work they do could be done by machines. But as artificial intelligence becomes more common and effective, automation will start to supplant receptionists, couriers, market research analysts, proofreaders, cashiers, office clerks, and retail salespeople—putting another 36 percent, more than half of all working Americans, at “medium risk.” The job losses would easily be in the hundreds of millions.
When McDonald’s began experimenting with automated kiosks for customers to use to place their orders, the company’s former CEO Ed Rensi blamed it on movements to raise the minimum wage. In a 2016 post for Forbes, he crowed, “I told you so. In 2013, when the Fight for $15 was still in its growth stage, I and others warned that union demands for a much higher minimum wage would force businesses with small profit margins to replace full-service employees with costly investments in self-service alternatives.” Despite Rensi’s self-congratulatory statements, there’s no empirical evidence that raising the minimum wage leads to job loss. But to carry Rensi’s argument to its obvious conclusion, automation is also cheaper than paying employees the current minimum wage also, making it all the more appealing to companies like McDonald’s—which has consistently made between $21 and $28 billion in revenue each year since 2006.
The question of how to deal with the fallout from automating jobs out of existence is hotly contested. Donald Trump often crows about the decline in manufacturing jobs, but he never mentions automation and instead blames the losses on free trade agreements and policies that let companies move their production abroad. Others, like presidential candidate Andrew Yang, propose safety-net solutions. Yang cites automation as the reason for his universal basic income program. To soften the blow of losing work to machines, Yang has proposed a $1,000 monthly stipend to every person in the country. But $12,000 a year is no replacement for a permanent job.