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The rise of the raspberry-picking robots

They will eventually provide farmers with a cheaper, faster, and more reliable alternative to human workers.

Hey, have a spare minute or so to kill? Why not watch this £700,000 robot consider picking a raspberry, consider some more about picking it, and finally, eventually actually pick the raspberry? If you’re currently thinking that you could have done the same thing in much less time, you’d be right… for now. The raspberry-picking robots creators say that once they’ve finished improving their machine, it will be able to pick 10,000 more raspberries per day than a human worker. It’ll also be cheaper to hire and won’t want any off time off.

That could be good news for the UK’s raspberry growers. At the moment half of all their costs go on labour. If robots are cheaper, that mean more profits for them. It might even make it profitable for them to lower their prices (in a bid to sell more fruit than other raspberry businesses) which will in turn make raspberries more affordable for shoppers.

But what about the human raspberry pickers the robot will be replacing? Not only will they lose their jobs, they’re unlikely to be able switch to other types of harvesting, because a robot that’s mastered raspberries would be adept at other picking tasks too. (Raspberry-picking is unusually hard to autonomise because the fruit is so squishable that it’s difficult for a machine to figure out how not to crush them.)

However, some analysts think that, in the UK at least, the robot’s impact on human livelihoods won’t actually be all that big. The reason? There aren’t currently many fruit pickers to replace:  farmers have been complaining about a huge shortage of workers for years. Most think Brexit is to blame. A lot of fruit pickers are seasonal workers from EU countries like Poland and Romania, who have been turned off the UK by it’s anti-migrant (and particularly anti-EU and anti-Eastern-Europe) rhetoric and also by the fact that Britain’s economy and currency isn’t as strong as it used to be. Most can get now get better money and work opportunities elsewhere.

The robots may therefore been seen as a good thing by both farmers and Brits who want fruit on their supermarket shelves but also want to reduce low-skilled migration. Unless, of course, said Brits want the fruit picking jobs for themselves or their compatriots. Luckily, it seems they don’t. Plus, because robots break down and need to be maintained and programmed and stuff, their arrival of UK farms will also create a bunch of high-skilled job openings for mechanics and technicians. Until a robot-fixing robot is created, at least.

Read our explainer on: technology.

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