Leaf lettuce Purestock/ThinkstockPhotos

The boss is an algorithm

Katie Morich takes orders from a computer at indoor farm.

by Aki Ito 

Each morning when she gets to work at Bowery Farming Inc., Katie Morich changes into a clean uniform, puts on a hairnet and cleans her hands with sanitizer. Then she consults a computer monitor displaying all the tasks she needs to accomplish that day. The to-do list’s author isn’t human; it’s a piece of proprietary software that uses reams of data collected at the indoor farm to make important decisions: how much to water each plant, the intensity of light required, when to harvest and so forth. In short, Morich and her fellow human farmers do what the computer tells them to do. 

Morich, 25, doesn’t mind taking orders from a computer. “I guess I do kind of report to the Bowery Operating System,” she laughs, referring to the software her employer developed to run the so-called vertical farm in a New Jersey industrial park. Bowery says the machines are constantly learning how to grow crops more effectively and are more than a match for the intuition of a seasoned farmer. “We don’t really have to double-guess ourselves,” says Morich, who is the subject of the latest episode of Bloomberg’s mini-documentary series Next Jobs, which profiles people in careers that didn’t exist a generation ago.

Bowery is part of an emerging industry promising to bring new efficiencies to the millennia-old science of agriculture, focusing for now on greens such as lettuce, arugula and kale. The startup, based in New York and backed by leading Silicon Valley investors, including Alphabet Inc.’s venture arm, says automation, space-saving, vertically stacked crops and a year-round growing season make its operations 100-plus times more productive per square foot than traditional farms. 

Morich and Bowery declined to disclose her salary, but the company says she earns more than the median $23,380 annual salary pulled down by a traditional American farm worker. This is how economists hope technology will help the economy: by raising workers’ productivity and bolstering their wages over time. It’s also worth noting that Morich’s job is far safer and less strenuous than tending the acreage of a conventional farm.

Of course, artificial intelligence also has the potential to kill jobs, and Morich’s role, however new, is not immune. Bowery hasn’t yet figured out how to automate everything that needs to get done in the farm, but since she was hired less than two years ago, the company has made progress: Such processes as seeding, once done by hand, are now completed by machines. Morich says she doesn’t worry about job security, but economist Erik Brynjolfsson is more skeptical. “If a task doesn’t draw on human creativity or other human strengths like interpersonal skills, then it’s a candidate for automation,” says Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.” “This could be profitable in the short and medium term,” he says, but as robots become more mobile and dexterous, “I would not count on having a job like that in 10 or 15 years.”

Nor should the rest of us. Machines and automated software may displace 75 million workers by 2022, the World Economic Forum forecast in a report this week. “Technology has always been destroying jobs, and it has always been creating jobs,” says Brynjolfsson. “The answer is not to freeze in any particular set of jobs or skills. It’s to be flexible and be ready for the new jobs, many of which haven’t been invented yet.”

Morich, for one, isn’t standing still: In May, she was promoted to lead a team of farmers, which left her confronting a whole new set of challenges. She’s been working long hours ahead of the opening of Bowery’s second facility. Once things settle down, she plans to read “Managing For Dummies.”

To contact the author of this story: Aki Ito in San Francisco at [email protected]

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P 

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