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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.
Fernando's prediction, if correct, could have severe consequences for the livelihoods of a massive population. Worldwide, an estimated 13 million people are involved in tea production, with the majority of planters being smallholder farmers, according to sustainable development agency Solidaridad.
And those growers largely come from less-wealthy countries: Developing nations — such as top growers China, India, Kenya and Sri Lanka — overwhelmingly account for the world's major producers, according to data from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.
Admitting that technology could pose a real problem to tea workers, the CEO said he did not "have the solutions right now," but believes they will be around the corner.
Dilmah's founder also runs a charitable foundation focusing on providing opportunities in different trades for younger people in the tea industry, Fernando said.
"It's not particularly good at the moment for us where business is concerned. But it's a right that they have, and we have to understand that there are social issues that we have to address," he added.
The $39.3 billion tea beverage market is expected to continue expanding and hit $44.3 billion by 2021, according to Germany-based statistics company Statista.
Last year, there emerged reports of poor sanitation, malnutrition and child labor being rife in India's Assam state, the world's largest tea region. Three of Britain's top tea brands, Twinings, Taylors of Harrogate and Fortnum & Mason, reportedly suspended business last year with the supplier embroiled in the controversy.