A major robotic disruption appears set to hit the tea industry, putting at stake the livelihoods of millions of mostly low-wage workers around the world, according to the CEO of a global beverage business.
At Sri Lankan tea company Dilmah, tea picking — a fundamental step in the production process — has been handled largely by humans, said Dilhan Fernando, the firm's chief executive.
But artificial intelligence could very soon reach a level of expertise to supersede existing workers, according to Fernando.
"I have no doubt that within a few years, particularly after seeing Sophia this morning ... we will see robots or drones picking tea," Fernando said, referring to the humanoid robot developed by Hong Kong-based firm Hanson Robotics.
How soon AI solutions can be broadly adopted in the industry depends on the rate at which engineers can solve several existing challenges.
"With tea, to pick the two leaves and bud, you need to be able to understand the different colors [and] gradations. That, a robot can do. But it's also [about traveling] across certain undulating terrain, so it's a little difficult even for a drone," Fernando said.