Man vs machine: What can agriculture teach us about AI and the future of work?

  • 27.09.2023
  • article
  • Labour and Livelihoods
  • Lifestyle
  • Social and Cultural
  • Josh Heyneke

Since closing our egg business, I’ve had to look for work off the farm. It’s very common for farmers to have an off-site job to support the farm business. In our case, we’ve decided to step back entirely from commercial agriculture, for now, in order to regenerate ourselves after what has been an intense seven-year period of work on the farm. You could say I’m on a ‘sabbatical’, but instead of taking time off, I’ve found manual jobs locally to keep the money coming in – while still allowing me the time and space to step back and explore new ideas.

This summer I started brush cutting Himalayan balsam for the National Park. As an invasive weed, it outcompetes native plants for both sunlight and pollinators, quickly taking over large areas of land. Then in the winter, it dies back leaving nothing but mud in its place. As a result, riverbanks deteriorate and valuable soil is lost. It’s physical, noisy work but it’s meaningful – and for eight hours a day, I get to let my mind wander, without any other distractions – no social media, no phone calls.

As I traverse through local farmyards in search of balsam in the Welsh countryside, I can’t help but draw a parallel between what has happened to agriculture, and what is about to happen to white collar city jobs. If you’re not familiar with the classic farmyard, some really do look like the perfect set for a post-apocalyptic film – piles of stuff which has never been thrown out as it might one day be useful, and old obsolete machinery with trees and shrubs growing through it. You’re lucky if you see a person, and unlucky if you come across a pack of dogs. The people you do see, have years of hard work written all over their faces, but they are generally happy to see you – there are far fewer people in the countryside, compared to urban spaces.

The thing is, I’m doing the work that big machines cannot – getting into all those awkward (but often beautiful) spaces. The Himalayan balsam spreads millions of tiny seeds that reach every nook and cranny of hedges and wild scrubby areas, which means that humans (often in combination with a handheld machine) are the most practical way to tackle the job. In large open areas they use robot mowers, modern machines that can traverse uneven and sometimes very steep ground, chopping up everything in sight, covering much more ground with a fraction of the manpower.

Himalayan balsam in Pemrokeshire
Himalayan balsam in Pembrokeshire


Perhaps you’re starting to see where I’m going with this. Machines replaced humans in the countryside a long time ago. Once upon a time, there were perhaps a hundred people living in villages where there are now as few as 10. In the early 19th century, hay and grain would have still been hand cut by an army of people using scythes. Life before mechanised agriculture was not easy, but the countryside was much more populated, rich with culture and a sense of community. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, we started using more advanced equipment that could be pulled by horses, and of course today we have individual tractors that can do the work of hundreds of horses (627 horsepower is apparently the highest as of 2023). Our ancestors could not even begin to imagine it – one person and a machine doing the work of around 600 horses. Life as a peasant farmer, before mechanisation, would have been extremely hard. Food back then was not the cheap and abundant commodity that it is today.

There is a theory that the tractor was responsible for the rise of the middle class – as mechanisation freed up the workforce to get jobs in offices and factories. By moving the workforce off the fields and into higher education, there is no doubt that society has achieved incredible things with huge advancements across all areas of the economy, and a dramatic improvement in living standards for most people – but at what cost? As they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

I’m sure that farmers would have been delighted with each technological leap. The only problem is, with each leap we make, there seems to be some level of sociological depreciation – as this continuous progress becomes a sort of arms race, leaving only those with the most access to capital able to keep up with the change. The bigger the machinery you have, the fewer people you need, the more you can produce, and the cheaper you can produce it. If your neighbour upgrades their tractor and you do not, you will eventually fall behind. The process continues and old machinery becomes obsolete and eventually gets put to sleep on the yard, where the trees will grow through it, leaving behind only the ghost of its embodied energy (and perhaps a few useful spare parts).

Could this sociological depreciation be the reason why farming has become so lonely, with fewer, larger farms and ever-increasing levels of debt? Food production is arguably the most important and meaningful work that someone could do, and yet the agriculture sector has one of the highest suicide rates. It’s no wonder that many farmers do not want their kids to take over the family farm, encouraging them to go to university and get a ‘real job’. After all, they only want what’s best for their children.

Obsolete machinery in rural Wales
Obsolete machinery in rural Wales


Now consider the fact that ChatGPT 4.5 has a verbal IQ of 155 and can already pass the US Medical Licensing exam and the US Bar exam, putting it in the top 99.9 percentile of the general population. ChatGPT 3 (the first publicly available version) was only launched on 30th November 2022! The technology is progressing at such a rapid rate that thought leaders and policymakers are becoming deeply concerned about what this might mean for the future of our economy. Many people still do not realise how powerful today’s AI technology is. It is much more than a chat interface that can answer questions. Explaining AI to a person in 2023 is like explaining a 627-horsepower tractor to a peasant farmer from the 1800s. This technology is likely going to change the modern workplace much, much, faster than the tractor did, and just like agriculture, we’ll still need people to do these jobs, but we’ll need far fewer of them.

Of course, there will no doubt be enormous benefits that come with AI. Giant leaps will be made, as in the Industrial Revolution – from clean energy to medicine to education, AI will likely help us solve many of the world’s most technologically challenging problems at scale. However, if we are not careful, AI could quickly lead a race to the bottom – where everything becomes commoditised and we as humans increasingly lose purpose in the modern economy. Large swaths of the middle class workforce could become redundant in a matter of years, not decades, as business owners are forced to stay competitive by adopting AI technologies that will dramatically decrease labour costs while increasing their productivity. This is not a theoretical discussion, it’s already started happening in some sectors of the economy. Some have suggested the need for universal basic income to counteract the job losses.

So now that AI has been unleashed and is just about ready to ‘free’ us up from the drudgery of city work, where shall we tell our kids to go next? Back to the countryside? I am of the opinion that we need more people working in the countryside, to play our role as humans in the ecosystem. We’ve managed to make food much more affordable by mechanising, but in doing so, it’s become ecologically expensive. I believe that we cannot tackle this problem without people, and that the ecological damage we’ve done is not so much because of the introduction of machines, but rather the exclusion of people. We often think of people and nature as two separate things, when in fact, humans can and should play an integral part of our ecosystems. Truly regenerative farm systems need human interaction and humans need interaction with nature to thrive.

The truth is that machines permanently changed the economics of the countryside in ways that excluded people, and it’s about to do the same to the rest of the economy. We will need to figure out a way to harmonise this and bring people back into the mix, combining the power of machines with the magic of humans in a way that enables us – and future generations – to find meaning and live with purpose.

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