Will Robots Be the Butchers of the Future?
An army of knife-wielding robots capable of “deep learning” via algorithms and artificial intelligence may one day soon be taking over one of the most gruesome industries in America. That may sound like a horrifying, high-tech Halloween fantasy, but it’s poised to become a reality.
Forget R2-D2, C-3PO, and that lovable pile of gadgets and gears in Short Circuit—no one’s going to want to get cuddly with the bots being deployed by New Zealand–based Scott Technology, which are of a decidedly more dystopian, nightmarish variety.
Armed with vice-grip clamps and blades that mimic everything from a guillotine to Freddy Krueger fingers, the Scott robots are designed to make mincemeat—almost literally—of raw animal carcasses, specifically lamb, pig, and beef. As the company’s CEO, Chris Hopkins, told Business Insider, “Our goal is to have them in all the plants for beef and pork worldwide.”
To that end, which Hopkins optimistically sees occurring over the course of the next 20 years, the company got a big boost when JBS, the world’s biggest meat processing company, bought a controlling share of Scott late last year for $41 million. Owing to higher per capita consumption of lamb in its native New Zealand and neighboring Australia, the technology company has focused on creating robots geared to lamb processing in those two countries. But it’s now working with JBS to bring the machines to lamb plants in the United States, as well as to develop robots that can process beef and pork.
While automation is nothing new to the meatpacking industry, Scott’s robots are truly, er, cutting edge. “Unlike most machines, which use a preprogrammed carcass outline, Scott’s bots look at the shape of each individual carcass and make specific cuts accordingly,” according to Business Insider. “The technology’s algorithms also use deep learning, which means the bots can become smarter over time as they collect data about the carcasses they encounter.”
As unsettling as it can be to watch Scott’s smart bots tear into a splayed carcass, even the most die-hard opponent of job-killing automation in American industry might be hard-pressed to object to more robots in the country’s meatpacking plants. The meat industry had a field day earlier this year touting the release of a federal report that showed the rates of injury and illness had significantly declined over the past decade among the nation’s legion of meat-processing workers—a decline the industry attributes, in part, to greater automation.
But independent occupational safety experts and worker’s rights advocates were quick to point out the report’s rather glaring shortcomings. Specifically, as government investigators themselves noted, recent inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration “suggest that more injuries occur than are reported, although the extent of underreporting is not known, and vulnerable workers such as immigrants and noncitizens may fear for their livelihoods and feel pressured not to report injuries.”
Even so, the “official” rate of injury and illness for America’s meat-processing workers remains higher than that for manufacturing overall. Production lines run at seemingly breakneck speeds—50 hams per minute, say, or 140 chickens a minute—making the work both grueling and dangerous. As NPR recently reported, OSHA now requires plants to report serious injuries within 24 hours. During the first year the new regulation was implemented, the country’s four leading meat companies reported serious injuries at a rate of one every two and a half days. Meanwhile, meat-processing workers are also substantially more likely to suffer from less serious chronic but debilitating injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Of course, given a choice between rampant worker abuse on the one hand or a legion of “smart” blade-running robots dicing up pork shanks on the other, some may simply prefer a future that’s more...vegetarian.