2007 June 21 Thursday
Immigration Opponents Speed Robotics Technology

Hey there immigration restrictionists, your opposition to importation of a large and growing low skilled labor force has spurred growers associations to fund development of fruit picking robots.

As if the debate over immigration and guest worker programs wasn't complicated enough, now a couple of robots are rolling into the middle of it. Vision Robotics, a San Diego company, is working on a pair of robots that would trundle through orchards plucking oranges, apples or other fruit from the trees. In a few years, troops of these machines could perform the tedious and labor-intensive task of fruit picking that currently employs thousands of migrant workers each season.

The robotic work has been funded entirely by agricultural associations, and pushed forward by the uncertainty surrounding the migrant labor force. Farmers are "very, very nervous about the availability and cost of labor in the near future," says Vision Robotics CEO Derek Morikawa.

If we can defeat the Imperial Senate's immigration amnesty bill and deport all the illegal aliens we will see a boon in investments in robotic technology to automate manual labor. This will raise living standards and improve the quality of products and services. The Imperial Senators are effectively Luddites who prefer a large human servant class to robots.

Thanks to Ivan Kirigin for cherry picking this story for me.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2007 June 21 11:32 PM  Immigration Economics

John S Bolton said at June 22, 2007 2:13 AM:

This reminds me of the following quote
where an economist actually admits that mass-immigration restriction
regarding the unskilled,
induces labor-saving innovation,
and tries to make this sound like a negative.
copied from Econlog:

May 31, 2007
Let's Increase Poverty
Arnold Kling

Lant Pritchett writes[...]

And because unskilled labor is the primary asset of the poor world, it is hard to even imagine a policy more directly inimical to a poverty reduction agenda or to “pro-poor growth” than one limiting the demand for unskilled labor (and inducing labor-saving innovations).

Ivan said at June 22, 2007 4:38 AM:

John, that's because many people would like to see the poor grow out of poverty. Pro poor growth policies would then be a good thing to them. While I understand the stated costs of crime and government services this blog attributes to unskilled and different cultured immigrants, one thing this blog never does is note that the immigrants are generally much, much better off.

As for the robotics of the story, there is a huge difference between a simulation and a real system. In the robotics community we have a great saying: "simulation is doomed to succeed".

That said, there has been great progress in computer vision and dexterous manipulation. Certain harvesting is easier than other, but I see no reason a fruit harvesting robot couldn't be designed today -- all the parts are there.

Unfortunately, some things are expensive, or aren't rugged enough for a fairly harsh environment. The thing about fruit picking is that is a semi-hard AI problem. It is probably on par with automated driving in a city in good weather. This means that once one semi-hard problem is solved in an affordable fashion, you'll find MANY jobs replaceable.

Hopefully automated education, being pure software and easier than robotics though higher level AI, makes it before the next wave of robots.

Hal K said at June 22, 2007 8:09 AM:

"The thing about fruit picking is that is a semi-hard AI problem. It is probably on par with automated driving in a city in good weather."

This doesn't sound right to me. It is not that I don't think automated fruit picking could be a difficult problem, but rather that automated driving would have to be an extremely difficult problem due to safety considerations and the fact that it would be a much less controlled environment.

dchamil said at June 22, 2007 8:34 AM:

Doggone, the next thing you know, the Mexicans will be using robots to backpack drugs across the border!

Mensarefugee said at June 22, 2007 11:28 AM:

This will do wonders for our quality of food vis a vis current mechanized agriculture.

In "The End of Food", Thomas Pawlick relates how the prime reasons for Tomatoes being hard and tasteless was because of the pressure to breed tomatoes for toughness rather than taste or nutrition. Under mechanized agriculture - the harvester scoops up the entire plant and shakes the tomatoes free. Obviously only thick skinned tomatoes survive the fall.

We could roll back the clock to healthier, tastier more aesthetic food. The question of illegal vs legal be damned.

Ivan said at June 22, 2007 11:57 AM:

Hal K,
Think of the bending in the skin of the fruit, as a branch strains under the weight of a pulling robot arm, while the wind blows the tree, and the lighting through the leaves is constantly changing.

Where manipulation is hard for a fruit picking robot, perception is hard for automated driving. It is hard to robustly find every pedestrian, vehicle, traffic sign, and lane line in a road in all weather and lighting conditions.

My comment about difficulty if fairly hard to quantify. But I work in robotics. I know both problems are pretty hard and both problems are about to be solved.

"Under mechanized agriculture - the harvester scoops up the entire plant and shakes the tomatoes free. Obviously only thick skinned tomatoes survive the fall."

This should get better as the robots get better. Also, add automated driving and automated pallet picking and loading. Combined you have a fully automated food distribution system. As pickers get more dexterous, they will be able to squeeze (or have some other less invasive test) for ripeness before picking.

The super-markets aren't stupid. They know people like better tomatoes. Better automation will make our tomatoes better, not worse.

Hal K said at June 22, 2007 1:01 PM:


Although this is not my field, I have been skeptical about claims of advances in automated driving technology for a while. I would suggest that there is no comparison between the problem of keeping a piece of fruit intact and keeping pedestrians (and passengers) safe. (In fact, we could say it is an apples and oranges comparison.)

Randall Parker said at June 22, 2007 7:39 PM:


Sure, those who make it here benefit, though at our expense.

But you are missing the effect on the total world economy. The rate at which per capita GDP goes up as a function of IQ very very strongly suggests that putting low IQ people around high IQ people reduces the output of high IQ people more than it increaes the output of low IQ people.

This has important consequences. The speed of technological advance will probably be faster if the smarties are concentrated into countries separate from the dummies. The eventual uplift of all the dummies who do not immigrate (i.e. the majority of the world's population) will happen sooner if we do not allow immigration of dummies.

If you are interested to know, I can explain why the per capita GDP growth rates are higher in higher IQ countries and why the lower IQ countries continue to lag in per capita GDP growth and why the gap between the smarties and dummies is getting wider.

Ivan said at June 22, 2007 8:05 PM:

"If you are interested to know, I can explain why the per capita GDP growth rates are higher in higher IQ countries and why the lower IQ countries continue to lag in per capita GDP growth and why the gap between the smarties and dummies is getting wider."


But you need to account for a decreased IQ in the per capita GDP growth.
Assume lower IQ immigration did nothing for higher IQ natives. Also assume higher IQ people are more productive.
This alone would mean that per capita GDP growth rates would decrease.

What you need to show is that the productivity of the higher IQ people is lower because of lower IQ immigration. I don't think that is true.

Migrant farm labor or robot farm labor -- why would my productivity be affected?

I suppose peers in public education matter.
But that leads me to the same conclusion as complaints about the fiscal costs of immigration.

I blame our system of obligatory public schooling rather than immigrant students.
I blame our welfare system rather than immigrants on the rolls.
I blame laws against drugs, guns, gambling, and prostitution for distracting our law enforcement from more serious crimes, rather than immigrants with a higher propensity to be criminals.

Certainly on that last point I wouldn't excuse violent criminals, immigrants or not. Unfortunately, the percentage of people in jail for non-violent crimes of mutually consenting adults is very high and increasing. On a related note, illegal immigrants aren't legally allowed to work in the US. I'm sure there are many loopholes, but I'd love to see a study that characterizes the effect of such restrictions on poverty, welfare, and incarceration rates.

Intuitively, people need less support and are less likely to run into the law if it is easier for them to find jobs.

I suppose I've said these points on this blog a few times in the past...

Last question: what do you think about high-skilled immigration? Considering your views that IQ is so important, shouldn't we be importing an unlimited number of high IQ people?

Working at a tech firm, I would love it. Many of the most competent people are immigrants.

Randall Parker said at June 22, 2007 10:09 PM:


When a society has a higher level of average IQ the following factors contribute to faster economic growth:

1) Smart people are less diluted. A town with, say, 100,000 people has more smart people and therefore critical masses of, say, partners to start up a high tech firm or a manufacturing plant are more likely to happen.

2) In a society with a low average IQ a much larger fraction of all smart people must spend their time serving the dummies and supervising them rather than collaborating on the endeavors of smart people. People serving as prosecutors, defense attorneys, doctors, detectives, and other service providers and the like are not developing new products or produdction lines. A larger fraction of all smart people must supervise public works projects used by dumb masses (e.g. construction engineers for bridges and highways) rather than develop new designs and new manufacturing processes.

3) Dummies commit more crimes. People in lower IQ societies have to invest more time and assets on protecting themselves and their property. Africa is terrible on this score. Ditto Haiti. With sufficiently high levels of crime capital accumulation becomes impossible.

4) Dumb people make dumb voters and dumb street activists. So worse governments get elected and at the extreme dictators take power and civil wars break out.

John S Bolton said at June 22, 2007 10:33 PM:

Migrant vs. Robot: national average productivity rises when capital replaces human labor within the national boundaries
or, are you trying to estimate effects on the global utility?
If so, global productivity can rise if some countries have reason to substitute capital for labor, and especially
if they do this through labor-saving innovations,
not just by eliminating 'full-staff' services in favor of more self-service.
In either case, the American decision has to be based on whether we betray the net taxpayers of our citizenry,
or any other citizens here who have the level of aggression raised on them,
through sufferance of immigration on to net public subsidy.
Pritchett still amazes me for the brazenness of his admission that restriction of immigration of the 'unskilled'
[as in, I would substitute, permanently or lastingly unskilled, low-literate, etc.]
'induces labor-saving innovation'.
From that premiss follows a world-shaking dilemna:
[1]are we loyal to the continuity of the advancement of civilization, or
[2]to the chances for maximizing reproduction in the poor countries for some length of time?
It may well be doubted that there is a way between the horns of this dilemna.
The survival of what we all, except outright nihilists, must value, hangs on the decision.

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