Robotics: Part Two
Originally drafted in 2000.
All aspects of manufacturing will become considerably more automated as robotic technology grows more capable. The advances in robotics will come through good, old-fashioned artificial intelligence that began advancing decades ago. These advances include the expert-systems technology, neural-network technology, and other, newer artificial-intelligence technologies not yet invented., Ccomputer smarts is central to the advance of human civilization.
The massively-parallel computer named Watson, engineered by IBM scientists, is but one example of an expert-system that will put huge amounts of data in an easily understandable form for humans. If Moore's Law holds until 2017, the size and complexity of a sizable computer like Watson will be available in one tower case. Programming this small and mighty supercomputer and entering the appropriate data is another matter! In all probability, the expertise will be available in multiple terabyte chip- sets. Well before 2020, anyone who wants every scrap of medical knowledge-- or knowledge from any field-- will have it for a reasonable, and declining, price.
Much less sophisticated computer intelligence will be required for the kinds of tasks that complex robotics will be able to do now ... or in the near future. Swapping them from one major task to another will be a matter of plugging in a pre-programmed chip-set, most likely with some mechanical, electrical, and computer technicians doing some fine tuning. --Consider the differences in performing intricate or experimental surgery and supervising the manufacture of heavy machinery.
— (Articles appeared in early 2012, on physicians using robotic assistants caused harm--even death--to some patients using robots. We should keep in mind is that this technology is barely a dozen years old. Refinements will let a skilled surgeon with a fast Internet connection perform or oversee procedures in small hospitals anywhere.)
Buying cheap but well-made shirts, blouses, dresses or other articles of clothing presently manufactured under severe labor conditions somewhere thousands of kilometers away need no longer be on the conscience of consumers. For example, a shirt now made abroad for, let's say, a unit cost of 1.0, will be able to be manufactured, locally, for the costs of the material, plus the cost of the robotics amortized over some N years: well under the 1.0 unit cost. Clothes will be custom manufactured to fit each person; the customization will add only minimally per article of clothing. Mechanizing the kinds of fabric-handling, placement, and sewing will probably require several iterations over time. Human labor is not likely to be entirely displaced in one fell swoop. But when the systems work together flawlessly, the result will be flawlessly manufactured garments. Sweat- shop labor--and this includes child labor-- will have been abolished. For the society to make anything of its former workers retaining them, educating them, is the most useful path to follow.
Most apparel will be made from local material in factories that may well be nearby. A good chunk of change in the cost of this hypothetical shirt goes to distribution; this is certain to increase as the cost of energy increases. Small to medium-sized garment factories could be built in multiple locales. Distribution from factories to retail or on-line- stores would be more cost effective as well as benefit local economies.
Similar robotic-aided-manufacturing will facilitate the manufacture of tires, steel and other metals fabrication, and consumer electronics. Think about having your 70-inch high-def and 3-D television set manufactured in your country-of-origin--even if you live in India or China. Moore's Law obviously has limiting factors, but at least in these areas of the work force (or sweat-force), the future looks bright. Shipping both materials to and manufactured good back from distant plants will no longer be required since the costs of local manufacture will not figure into the economic equation. There is no telling who will create the next spark that will lead to a new generation of goods or procedures.
Robots for Increased computer-aided-manufacturing.
Automotive plants using fully automated technology will be able to cut most of the cost of labor and also eliminate unavoidable human error. Vehicles will be constructed with an eye toward 100% recyclablity. So, after you've owned your new Zippy-Do hybrid sports van for it's 15-year bumper-to-bumper warranty, everything will be recycled.
Computer-aided-manufacturing will allow everything to be designed and tested in virtual-space; when the design is finished, the specs will automatically program the robots that will do the fabrication. For both foreign-owned and domestic car, truck, motorcycle, tractor, and even large earth-moving machinery, robots will earn their keep.
Robotic Assistants in Agriculture and Factories.
Where robotics will shine prominently will be on farms and factories. A robotic strawberry picker will have the intelligence to delicately pick only the ripest berries as it crawls delicately over the fields, and do so many times faster than the best skilled farm laborer. The robot can give the plants a second or third attention as the fruit ripens. Moreover, the same basic robot will be used to pick practically any other similar-sized fruit or vegetable; only a hardware interface will need to be swapped out. The unit cost will plummet over a few years with the large corporate farms being the likely early-adopters.
Further, consider that ag robots could easily be shared among several neighboring farms—as needed—and then trucked to farms hundreds of kilometers apart. Each bot would be busy around the clock, modulo stops for repairs or other reasons. My hunch is that robots used by co-ops will be more of a benefit to saving the family farm than all the tax benefits put together.
Meat-packing, Livestock, and Like Production.
Until science and technology has developed the means to produce meat from its DNA blueprints, meat-packing will remain among the most dangerous of assembly-line jobs. Robots will excel here, especially well, not only sensing any infectious agents, toxin or adulterant instantaneously, but carving every last milligram of meat from the carcass. Humans would be spared countless injuries and physical repetitive stress and instead, many will be trained (or re-trained) to service the technology.
Robotic assistants will be useful when implanted in the human body. These types of devices are usually not considered robotics in the usual sense since their use is narrowly focused. In the near future, such devices will be used to monitor various aspects of our health, and to enhance certain functioning such as increasing our brain power.
Among the expanded professions will be, obviously, electrical and mechanical engineers, scientists, designers, technicians and assistant technicians that will be required. The concluding part of this series will investigate the future of intelligent technologies that will be integrated into human beings. Some of these will consist of implantable “hardware”; the rest will be our own very rapid self-evolution.
Flying-wing craft, entirely solar-power and flying several kilometers up already exist to assist in communications forwarding and other network assist. This kind of technology, enhanced thousands of times will increase the security of the entire North American Continent; its seashores and boarders. Cameras with tera-pixel capability that support standard optical, infra-red, and very high definition radar will be able to distinguish things down to the one millimeter size, and make infiltration by terrorists of whatever flavor that much more difficult.
Standard artificial intelligence systems will be able to filter out most of the false alarms. It will be up to human intelligence to check out the rest. Underseas, a similar technology could detect both tsunamis and storm- generated waves. Robots, crawling over any and every kind of terrain in any weather, will assist the airborne surveillance craft as necessary.
Obviously, the kinds of automated aircraft or other robot devices that will help keep us “safe” can be used to spy on us, whether the agency is government corporate, or some other private entity. A person could hire a robotic PI to get the goods on cheating spouses. This service is currently available, but automation would make it infinitely more efficient. Looking further into the realm of gathering private or strictly personal intelligence, it is a sure bet that future private investigators will be shrunk to fit into the clothing or cell phones or a not-yet-invented bot. This will catch cheating spouses in flagrante delicto. Obviously, the same technology could be used to catch individuals who were committing theft of secrets-- along with high-definition audio and video documentation.
What I have to offer next may find broad disagreement among the more reactive citizens, but I think that within this century, with robots spreading all nature of factories into local communities, and certainly by many other, as-yet-undiscovered means, poverty will decrease significantly around the globe. It is economics far more than dogma that disposes people to acts of terror. That terror may cause these people's own instantaneous death--or not. In any case, with jobs, a good education, and a greatly improved level of cognition, there will be less need for or concern about national, inter-regional, and international security.
Building and buying most things locally using robotic technology will put people out of work; it will have costs in dislocation and retraining. New and unimagined new fields will be created.
Of course the shareholders and top execs will, unavoidably, be winners when low-cost robot labor invades the manufacturing sector. But the lower cost will, by virtue of the laissez-faire capitalist model, be passed on. Costs will decline fairly sharply; profits will remain the same or increase. For all but the greediest corporation, life will be good. The greedy will eventually destroy themselves.
If the Japanese mega-corporations hold to their schedules, within twenty years, personal robots will exist to care for the elderly who cannot fully care for themselves. Their mileposts seem a bit too optimistic to me. Huge companies frequently promise more than they know they can deliver; but we'll see. My hunch is that there are some young mechanical, electrical, and computer engineers who will graduate from, let's say, MIT, in 2015, and develop the first generation of personal robots to do practical, but potentially undesirable or boring tasks: perhaps cleaning a filthy bathroom, dusting venetian blinds, drapes, and other materials and surfaces, and clean small cobwebs from otherwise unseen corners. These people will be the first of the new wave of 21st century multi- billionaires.
In case you are wondering what us mere mortals will do with our days and decades, bear in mind that machines (including robotics) will break down! There will be robotics joined with expert-systems computers that may be able to perform some ad hoc work-arounds, but in the end human intelligence will be the best solution. This means that at least two years of post-secondary education and training will be a critical link in the necessary productivity that the coming years will demand. High school may add grades 13 and 14 to its schedules, the three-month summers-off may be lessened, or the additional training will be integrated into the standard models of schooling. However educations evolves, in the coming decades, our educational institutions will help ensure that students with the appropriate education will be readily employable when they complete their schooling.