A robot sheepdog? ‘Nobody wants this,’ says one shepherd

It’s certainly an arresting image: a four-legged robotic trots throughout a grassy hillside, steering a herd of sheep without a human in sight. The apparently seamless blend of the futuristic and the agrarian feels rejuvenating– even confident– at a time when a lot progress trusts the destruction of the natural world.

However is it sensible? Could a robotic in fact take on the task of a sheepdog?

The video originates from New Zealand company Rocos, which announced a collaboration today with Boston Characteristics, maker of the four-legged Spot robot that stars in the video (and lots of others). Rocos makes software to control robotics remotely, and the video shows one potential use-case: farming.

” Equipped with payloads like heat, LIDAR, gas and high resolution video camera sensing units, Area browses rugged environments to capture data in real time,” states the business in a blog site post.

Now, it’s clear that the video is mainly a fun teaser rather than a serious claim by Rocos (or Boston Dynamics) that robots will quickly be replacing sheepdogs. However it does welcome a tantalizing question: if that did happen, how well would the robots fare? It’s not like the threat of biting off more than you can chew has actually discouraged tech companies in the past.

Awful, is the response of a man who need to understand: sheep farmer and author James Rebanks, whose 2015 autobiographical book explains life as a shepherd in England’s Lake District.

” The robotic may be an amazing tool for great deals of things but it is useless and undesirable as a sheepdog,” Rebanks informed The Verge “Nobody who deals with sheep needs or wants this– it is a dream.”

Rebanks says robotics merely do not have the motor skills or the intelligence required for such demanding work, and they likely won’t for a very long time to come.

” Moving sheep isn’t simply being behind them, it has to do with doing whatever the controller asks, and in some cases what needs doing based upon [the dog’s] own intelligence beyond the handlers manage,” he states. “A shift to the left or right of a few inches can turn the sheep, and an excellent pet dog can evaluate their characters and how much to do or not do.”

This relationship between sheep and pet dog– the dynamic of 2 smart beings– is essential, says Rebanks, and it’s rooted in the evolutionary history of predator and victim.

” Sheep obey based upon carefully judged carefully tuned movements, and since of the eye of the canine that frightens them, and because the pet dog can ultimately impose discipline with its teeth,” he says, adding that this “isn’t a good thing or needed typically” but a valid danger. “The sheep react as they do since they evolved with wolves and being hunted.”

He adds that, in the Rocos video, it’s clear that the sheep aren’t really complying with the robotic at all. “If you see carefully the sheep are breaking and taking the piss out of it– within a week they would be laughing at it,” he states. “Sheep have intelligence and will quickly work it out and completely disrespect it.”

Farm automation is a fast-growing company, and business are developing a range of technologies for it, from robotic cricket farms to automated hydroponics

Robots are ending up being increasingly typical in agriculture, similar to this machine made by Dutch company Lely, which presses cattle feed back toward their pens.
Picture: Lely

However how far should we be mechanizing our food, especially if that food is a smart being in its own right?

Rebanks is skeptical to the extreme. Farming by robots and drones will not make food production more sustainable or eco-friendly, he says, but it will rather exacerbate present problems with our food supply system.

” The most efficient and sustainable [agriculture] on earth is labour intensive– more people, more contact,” he says. But the push for robots is “part of a ruthless drive to de-skill, mechanize and simplify farm work to take individuals out of the fields– the exact reverse of what our society needs.”

“The rush to accept efficiency creating technologies has actually trashed the Midwest,” he states.

At the end of the day, states Rebanks, the sheepdog is a tested solution to an uncommon problem, the “supreme technology for this job,” he states. They’re bred, trained, and offered by individuals who appreciate their work; they don’t require nonrenewable fuel sources to run; and, importantly, they are “a buddy and buddy to their shepherds.” Who could request more?

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