It is certainly an impressive picture: a four-legged robot trots over a grassy hill and controls a flock of sheep with no one in sight. The seemingly seamless amalgamation of the futuristic and the agrarian is refreshing – even hopeful – at a time when so much progress depends on the destruction of the natural world.
But is it realistic? Could a robot actually do the work of a sheepdog?
The footage comes from New Zealand company Rocos, who announced a partnership this week with Boston Dynamics, the creator of the four-legged spot robot that stars in the video (and many others). Rocos produces software for remote control of robots, and the video shows one possible application: agriculture.
"Equipped with payloads such as heat, lidar, gas and high-resolution camera sensors, Spot navigates in harsh environments to collect data in real time," says a blog post by the company. “In agriculture, farmers can access information such as more accurate and up-to-date yield estimates. This provides access to a new category of automation and a safer and more efficient business. "
It is now clear that the video is a fun teaser rather than a serious claim by Rocos (or Boston Dynamics) that robots will soon replace German shepherds. But it raises an exciting question: if that happened, how well would the robots do? It's not that the danger of biting off more than you can chew has deterred tech companies in the past.
Terrible is the answer of a man who should know: sheep breeder and author James Rebanks, whose 2015 autobiographical book describes life as a shepherd in the English Lake District.
"Nobody who works with sheep needs or wants that."
"The robot may be an amazing tool for many things, but as a German Shepherd it is worthless and undesirable," Rebanks told The Verge. "Nobody who works with sheep needs or wants that – it's a fantasy."
According to Rebanks, robots simply don't have the motor skills or intelligence required for such demanding work, and they are unlikely to be there.
"Moving sheep is not just behind them, it's about doing everything the controller demands and sometimes what needs to be done based on your own intelligence (the dog's) that is beyond the control of the handler" , he says. "Moving a few centimeters to the left or right can turn the sheep, and a large dog can judge their characters and how much to do or not to do."
This relationship between sheep and dog – the dynamics of two intelligent beings – is crucial, according to Rebanks, and is rooted in the evolutionary history of predator and prey.
"The sheep react the way they do because they have evolved with wolves and are hunted."
"Sheep obey because of carefully judged, fine-tuned movements and because of the dog's eye, which intimidates them, and because the dog can ultimately force discipline with its teeth," he says, adding that "this is not a good thing or is often used "But a valid threat." The sheep react the way they do because they have evolved with wolves and are hunted. "
He adds that it is clear in the Rocos video that the sheep don't really obey the robot at all. "If you look closely at how the sheep break and take out the piss, they'd laugh at it in a week," he says. "Sheep have intelligence and will quickly find out and totally disregard them."
Of course, the criticism of the video may seem a little unsportsmanlike, since neither Rocos nor Boston Dynamics sell their goods as a replacement for German shepherds. However, the video represents a specific vision of the agricultural future that is currently incredibly popular. Farm automation is a rapidly growing business, and companies are developing a range of technologies for it, from cricket robot farms to automated hydroponics.
Robots are increasingly used in agriculture, such as this machine from the Dutch company Lely, which pushes cattle feed back towards their stables.
But how far should we mechanize our food, especially if this food is an intelligent being in itself?
Rebanks is extremely skeptical. Agriculture with robots and drones will not make food production more sustainable or environmentally friendly, but exacerbate the current problems with our food supply system.
"The most productive and sustainable (agriculture) in the world is labor-intensive – more people, more contact," he says. However, the urge for robots is "part of a tireless effort to de-qualify, mechanize and simplify agricultural work to drive people out of the fields – exactly the opposite of what our society needs."
To illustrate the problems, he refers to a recent article in The New York Review of Books that describes how COVID-19 exposed the shortcomings of the highly efficient but incredibly fragile American meat industry. "The rush to use technology to create efficiency has destroyed the Midwest," he says. "A battery powered German Shepherd is the least of your worries."
Ultimately, says Rebanks, the German Shepherd is a proven solution to an unusual problem, the "ultimate technology for this job," he says. They are bred, trained and sold by people who respect their work. You don't need fossil fuels to work. and above all, they are "a friend and companion of their shepherds". Who could ask for more?