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.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
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’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.
JOBS ON THE LINE
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.”