Robots. They're driving our cars and pledging to crush our soccer teams. Is there no way to placate these fearsome metal usurpers? Now they're even after our dairy cows. But here, the menace is yet more insidious: robots aren't merely milking our cows for us, they're empowering the cows to milk themselves.
Sort of. Basically! The robot in question is not really a robot, but a mechanized walk-through station called the Astronaut A4, designed by the Dutch company Lely. Using the Astronaut, there's virtually no need for humans to get involved in the milking process at all. Cows can stroll up and get milked when they feel like it.
Actually, according to Aaron Saenz at Singularity Hub, Lely is trumpeting cow-comfort and cow-autonomy as the major selling points of this device:
Their press materials repeatedly refer to the importance of cows in the design of the Astronaut A4. "The cow is key." Every aspect of the system has been, reportedly, focused on making cows as happy and healthy as possible. The milking stalls are opt-in only, cows aren't corralled into them. In fact, as you can see in footage of the A3, cows jockey in line to get to the milking station first (probably because they are offered food as a reward). Lely's design for the barn allows the cattle to freely enter or leave at anytime, to graze outside or eat inside as they prefer, and to be milked, cleaned, etc, in the presence of the rest of the herd. Again, I'm not sure if the cow actually cares about all this freedom of choice, but Lely is certainly acting as if it does.
Saenz goes on to note that "the Astronaut A4 certainly seems more animal friendly. Which means that it can be sold not merely as a more efficient but also as a morally superior means of farming. I'm not sure robotics has been able to claim that ground in any other field... In a world where industrial agriculture routinely isolates, mutilates, and chemically modifies livestock, the concept of a robotically fueled farm-topia full of happy cows is definitely appealing."
Sure, sounds like a Hallmark card. Unless you consider how a robot might turn this situation to its advantage. Oh, go on home, human farmer! No need for you to stick around here. Say, Flossie, now that the farmer's gone--well, that sure was a good milking, wasn't it? You think maybe you could do a favor for us robots? See, there are a whole lot of you cows on this farm, and only a few people, and well... have you seen what stampeding hooves can do to a human skull? Hey, no need to answer now--ruminate on it. How's about another delightful milking?