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Dairy Strong Blog: Researcher says robots should help farmers, not replace them

Contributed by Mary Hookham Published on 06 July 2020

Dr. Kate Darling thrives on any chance she can get to study the interaction between humans and robots. Her specialty is robot ethics and how they apply in social and professional settings.

“We want to look for technologies that help people do a better job instead of just replacing humans,” said Darling, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. “It’s important that these technologies help farmers free up their time to complete other tasks that will always require human abilities.”

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Darling spoke to hundreds of dairy farmers and agribusiness professionals on Jan. 22 at the Dairy Business Association’s annual Dairy Strong conference in Madison, Wisconsin.

Robotic milkers are an option on farms around the world, but Darling thinks more studies need to be done in order to know how best to utilize other robotic technologies. Animal intelligence, rather than human intelligence, more closely imitates robotics, she said.

“Animal skill sets are different from ours,” she said. “In some cases, we might want replacements to animals. The same way we relate to animals, we will learn to relate to robots.”

Daphne Holterman, a dairy farmer from Watertown, Wisconsin, believes robots can play an important role on farms by eliminating human error and providing consistency across the board.

“I think I would want to implement this kind of technology knowing it’s going to be better for the cows,” Holterman said. “We wouldn’t do it just to save costs, although that might be another benefit, but it would be driven by the fact that robotics would help our cows be cows. We have to think about how robotics can help us do that so she’s comfortable doing her thing, but we provide all the support.”

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People tend to treat robots as though they are alive even though they’re not, of course, Darling said. Humans have an inherent tendency to project human feelings, thoughts and traits onto animals, objects and even childhood toys, she said. That’s a concept Holterman is interested in.

“As humans, we can apply our thoughts and prejudices to the cow, but we need to know if that’s really what’s happening, so to know what the cows think would be interesting,” Holterman said. “I’d like to know how the cow interaction plays into making the robots successful. Cows might reach their potential faster and on a more consistent basis if we use robots.”

As humans project their own feelings and thoughts onto robots, they become emotionally attached to the robots, Darling said. Naming robots can make them more widely accepted in the workplace and make employees feel connected to them.

Darling referenced a study in which a company created a robot that imitated a dog. The dog ran around the office, had its own place to sleep and generally interacted with the employees as any dog would in a home setting. As a social experiment, the robot creators kicked the robot to gauge people’s reactions, which were mostly negative.

“Robots are very physical creatures that move in a way that seems autonomous to us and trick our brains,” Darling said. “They don’t have emotions, but humans feel emotions for the robots.”

Brooke Trustem, whose family owns a dairy farm near Evansville, Wisconsin, views this experiment as a lesson in how the public perceives animal welfare.

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“I think it’ll allow us to really think about how consumers see animal welfare,” Trustem said. “Even just kicking a robot – that people were offended by that just really puts it in perspective how we have to be careful and watch how people perceive things.”  end mark

Watch a short interview with Katie Darling.

The Dairy Strong Bloggers series is brought to you on behalf of the Dairy Strong virtual conference, Jan. 19-21, 2021. This event focuses on cutting-edge technology, cultural trends and the future of the dairy community. Learn more and register at the Dairy Strong website.

PHOTO: Katie Darling explained the human-robotic interaction at the 2020 Dairy Strong Conference. Photo provided by Dairy Strong.

Mary Hookham is an ag journalist and photographer. Email Mary Hookham.

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