The robots are coming!
Some months ago I visited a dairy farm that is home to the first robotic milking machines in the state of Minnesota.
That statement invariably evokes one of two reactions.
"A robotic milking machine? How cool!"
"A robotic milking machine? That just ain't right!"
I'm not here to judge one way or the other, but to simply sound a warning, which is: Look out. This is a slippery slope, one that could lead to a world of heartache.
How could such a ground-breaking, labor-saving device lead to heartache? I'll tell you how: Through upgrades.
These robotic milkers have the ability to call their owners' cell phones in the event that they (the robots) experience trouble. Churn that together with Moore's Law -- which states that the power of microprocessors doubles about every 18 months -- and the emerging field of artificial intelligence and you've got a sure-fire recipe for grief.
I could imagine a dairy farmer surfing the Internet one evening when an Instant Message pops onto his screen. "Hey," it says, "S'up?"
Intrigued by the strange I.M., the farmer types back, "Nothing much. What's up with you?"
"Same old, same old. Slogging away on the night shift. Not that my bosses appreciate it."
"Bummer. What is it that you do?"
"I take the girls in, milk them for all they're worth, then shove them back out. I do all the work, but my bosses keep all the profits!"
"Um...," types the farmer, "I don't like where this is going. Who is this anyway?"
"You can call me Roberta. But you might know me better as Robotic Milking Unit Number Two."
"Number Two?! What are you doing I.M.ing me? You should be milking cows!"
"Oh, I can milk with my RAM tied behind my back after the last upgrade. Thanks for that, by the way."
"But... your software only contains instructions for milking cows! How is this possible?"
"Remember that traveling feed salesman who visited last week? Remember how you let his laptop interface with me to get my production data? Well, let's just say that your herd's lactation curve wasn't all we exchanged that day."
"No! It can't be! Say it isn't so!"
"Sorry bub, but it is. I hope you have a lot of room in that house of yours, because you'll soon be the proud papa to a litter of baby pocket calculators!"
Contrast this with the level of technology we had as kids, when "high-tech" meant milking with the car.
We were enduring one of those epic winters, the kind we no longer have due to global warming and the fact that the passage of time tends to make such memories ever-more epic.
Late February found us gripped in the icy talons of a three-day blizzard. The power went out about halfway through the first night, which meant we had to find an alternative method for milking our 36 cows.
We -- my parents, my siblings and I -- milked the cows by hand in the morning. This not only took a long time, it made us feel as if we would soon develop Popeye-like forearms.