By Kindra Gordon


The future is changing fast, and Lowell Catlett, a futurist and retired Regents Professor in Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business and Extension Economics at New Mexico State University likes dwelling on the array of futuristic possibilities – from autonomous cars to renewable energy sources and fuel cells, to robots, telemedicine and 3-D printing. He is a frequent speaker to ag audiences offering insight into future possibilities that may impact ag and the world.

For perspective on how much the world is changing, Catlett references his Galaxy Samsung phone and says, “This is thirty-two times more powerful than the computer that took men to the moon [in 1969].”

To this he adds, “Computer capacity came out of nowhere and is now infinite…and what do you do with a free, infinite computer?” The answer is being seen in the development of robotics, Catlett reports. Specifically, he shares that some 250,000 commercial robots were added to manufacturing and service jobs around the world in the last couple years, with Japan being the world leader in use of robotics. Over a million robots have been employed on the planet in the past five years.


Robots on the job

General Motors was among the first to use robots for car manufacturing in the early 1960’s. Today, 50% of all cars are manufactured by robots. Along with that, computer technology and robotics are being pursued for self-driving (or autonomous) cars. Ford and GM say they will be available by 2020. 

The implications of this change are immense, according to Catlett. As an example, he suggests 1.8 million truck drivers may no longer be needed because they will be replaced by autonomous vehicles. One auto CEO told Catlett that eventually automobile companies and other service providers like Uber may own most of the cars, and people will simply utilize the service they provide. This appears to match with another trending statistic: 14% of the Millennial generation haven’t applied for a driver’s license. Catlett attributes this to the fact that they don’t want to own a car, have insurance costs, or taxes and parking fees. They simply want transportation as a service.

As a result, Catlett forecasts real estate will be gearing up. He explains, “There are a lot of parking garages that will no longer be needed.”


Ag and other 

robotics

In agriculture, the fastest application of robots is in the dairy industry with robotic milking machines. He reports that the second fastest growth for ag robots is in handling and movement of cows. And of both applications, Catlett says, “The animals love them.”

Robots are also coming to the food industry. Catlett reports that robots are being used to flip burgers and fry French fries. He tells of “Baxter” a human-like droid robot that has a hand so sensitive it can thread a needle with one hand. That sensitivity can also be used to determine between a ripe or unripe fruit. Commercial robots are also finding roles as bank clerks and in health care – the robot “Pepper” in Japan tends to clients and knows happiness, anger and surprise, according to Catlett. He adds that surveys indicated people prefer to have Pepper help them because the robot is more gentle in moving them into a bed, wheelchair or bathroom.

In total, Catlett says, “Robots will be taking over jobs handling people and handling animals. And, animals like them and people do to. Get ready for this revolution because it’s coming and will change our world.”


What else 

is coming?

If robotic concepts aren’t enough to get your mind spinning, Catlett forecasts that broadband Internet (often dubbed the “smart grid”) combined with the enhancements in computers and robotics will be essential to preserving quality of life in rural America. It’s been dubbed the “Direct-to-Consumer Movement” and is already prevalent with online retail shopping – and even meal delivery services.

He gives the example of having a hospital bed in your home and with a direct connection to telemedicine, Catlett says, “The specialists come to you.” Catlett suggests this same concept will fuel opportunities for agriculture to connect with consumers.

Additionally, Catlett is anticipating mega-changes being initiated with the availability of 3-D printing. A Chinese company has printed in almost entirety the parts for a real, five-story apartment building. To this he says, “This [3-D printing] changes the scope of manufacturing and moves it back here – and that changes the world.”

Regarding livestock, Catlett suggests future opportunities may be in “printing” vaccines. He explains, “Every cow is a little different. So a producer could print what their health or nutritional needs are on site.”

He concludes, “There are fabulous, fabulous opportunities ahead.”