Part One

Robotics: the Next Billion-Dollar Idea.

I drafted the first of these essays in the late 1990's and updated all three over the next several years. My last update to this (Part One) came in August, 2008. Robotics kept advancing faster than I could proffer these ideas. ---And note that everything here is still unpolished, even after the many years since my early drafts.-- Still, it is time to publish this. Clearly, an essay like this one-of-three might never be finished. Thus, expect updates every so often.

Gary Kline
August, 2010
{Update #3, May, 2012}

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there was a grand hope for the future of the young United States. The dreams of the Jeffersonian Idealists and the Transcendentalists was that their generation would labor hard on their farms and skilled crafts to leave a prosperous future for the coming generations.

That their children would be increasingly well educated and moderately well off and have things quite a bit easier.

In May, 1780, John Adams wrote the following in a letter to his wife Abigail,

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.     [1]

It was also thought that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as the majority of the following generations would, for the most part, be scholars: doctors, legislators, academics, philosophers, and other nature of intellectuals. The thought was that in the foreseeable future--or at least the imagined future--the Republic would be governed by politicians who were philosopher-intellectuals.

Looking back two centuries, the reverie of early Americans things was all comforting way of thinking about a distant and wonderful future but at least one thing these early dreamers didn't consider was: Who would do all of the heavy-lifting? Not only on the farm, but otherwise, in the burgeoning factories of the Industrial Revolution. This depended largely on great numbers of the poorer classes. Slavery was seen as an evil by most of these idealists, but someone would be required to do the grunt work. The labor force then consisted of slaves, indentured servants, and the average people who were largely unskilled and under-educated. My guess is that in the reverie of these idealists, they left these kinds of questions in some murky background: “to be decided later.”

Recent Historical Costs.

For the past several decades, global corporations have been sending labor abroad to whatever locale has an overpopulated and hungry workforce to do relatively unskilled tasks at lowest costs. Of course it does cost local jobs, and, to some extent, weakens the US. economy. It also makes most of the society into consumers; these days, consumptions drives the economy. One way of looking at this “outsourcing” might be to acknowledge that it changes things. It forces the local work force into new areas--often, into jobs that pay less. It has also fattened both the corporations' bottom lines and the corporate execs' bank accounts. One side affect of trying to maximize profits in this way has been the increase in the cost of trans-national shipping for the end products manufactured abroad.

A Re-balancing Concept.

The most likely new billion-dollar concept that may well re-balance things is a series of more intelligent, easily programmable robots. This robotics revolution has been underway for quite awhile. Factory robots were first used in the 1960's; massive robots (used for arc welding) were not used in the automotive sector until the 1980's. These spot-welding behemoths create uniform and solid welds and save difficult labor. The kind of robots I will consider in these essays investigate a different class of intelligent machine.

An earlier multi-billion-dollar idea involved the creation and evolution of the micro-processor--or a central processing unit integrated on one chip of silicon. The small, single-person-use computer began in the 1970's. This kind of technology continues to evolve at an exponential rate. From no hard drives and only small capacity floppy drives or low capacity and very expensive hard drives (5MB) to multi-terabyte drives at this writing. Solid-state devices are already here and within a few years, well before 2020, entire computers or dedicated microprocessor device that require extremely little power will be available to work reliably. Well burned-in dedicated equipment will run for years between failure.

Today, dedicated microprocessors are everywhere from the automobile engine to kitchen appliances, helping make these devices work more efficiently, reliably, and more safely. Omni-purpose robots like R2D2 are many decades off, if they indeed do happen. I think they will remain little more than comic-relief animation in science fiction tales for a long time.

A more likely path than human-like robotics is not one do-everything multimillion-dollar machine, but many smaller robots dedicated to a single task or a few related task-sets. Robots currently are available for cutting the lawn, vacuuming carpets, and cleaning uncarpeted floors. This is the start of the revolution.

New outdoors-type bots might snow-blow your driveway, trim hedges to your exacts specs, and manicure your yard. Your personal gardener. I should make it clear that for intricate hedge-trimming and lawn care, we may be about twenty years from such mechanization; moreover, the earliest machines will indeed require some programming. But reprogramming will be much easier. (These robotics would serve for the well-to-do people who want nice lawns but who aren't interested in lots of yard work.)

Gardening, of course, is something in its own category. In fact, any number of physical tasks that can be considered a hobby or recreational -- from building one's own automobile to preparing a 7-course from-scratch meal -- will remain unchanged. (Although, again, hand-held, micro-processor-controlled tools will probably make even DIY tasks more enjoyable.)

In the kitchen, clever coffee brewers are already grinding beans and brewing coffee. Some decades future-ward, sophisticated robots will be able to cook and serve many types of meals from scratch from an always-full refrigerator. Refrigerators that know what foods and pantry items you need have been discussed for several years. When perfected, these will order foodstuffs and other household supplies at the best price that includes free delivery. Your only job would be to meet the delivery person at the door and put the packages away. The delivery van might well be controlled by a computerized system whose knowledge of the streets could save time, fuel, and stress.

After preparing a meal, your food service bot would serve it; then clean up, fill your dishwasher, and turn on for an efficient, water-saving rinse in cold water. Only when the dishwasher is full, would it run through its entire cleaning cycle. Perhaps only for reasons of tradition will cupboards be necessary in the home of the future.

The demands of the consumer will dictate what robotic-type machines are developed from the present simplistic state to the more fully capable state. Right now, the vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers demand at least some training. Advanced iterations in years to come of such household appliances will similarly be more intelligent.

1. Commercial and Institutional interests first.

Physically manufacturing all these different robots will very probably require a skilled workforce initially. In time, factory robots will be used to perform the drudge-work tasks leaving the more complex system integration to human intelligence.

If the past is a worthwhile indicator, most of the advances in robotic technology will begin by serving commercial and institutional sectors first. (In a comparable manner, early computers were used primarily by large data centers and universities.)

a) Hospitality industry.

House-cleaning robotic workers will shine in the hospitality industry. A small number of robots will suffice to clean, change sheets and bedspreads of hundreds of rooms very rapidly, efficiently, and uniformly. Part of the mechanics to change beds with fresh linen and blankets is already underway. [2] (If Enrico Berruti's self-making bed proves out, we are that much closer to eliminating this kind of back-breaking work.) [3] The rooms will not only be clean and tidy, but disinfected as well. This will eliminate the viruses and bacteria that cause so much illness for travelers.

In hotel kitchens of a certain size as well as in larger, highly-rated restaurants, cooperating robots with expert-knowledge systems will prepare the recipes of scores of renowned chefs. Other robots will clean and track the dishes and silverware and keep the facilities immaculate. Semi-skilled human assistants will probably be there to make certain that every meal is done to perfection.

The same origami that applies to making beds with clean linen and blankets will be applied to the folding of cloth napkins for dining at fine restaurants. A small, simple-purpose bot will be able to fold dozens of cloth napkins in a few minutes to help dress up the dining table.

The wait staff will likely remain human, tho possibly with robot assistants, and, due to the quality of the food and enhanced service, their tips could increase, their wages and benefits might be significantly improved.

Using the computer revolution as a model, I don't think it will take too many years before food-preparation robots move from the restaurant to the home. Using locally grown foods rather than meats and produce trans-shipped tens of thousand of kilometers, people could have delicious meals year around. The savings in fuels used in transport is already an incentive.

b) Schools.

Educational institutions ranging from primary, middle and high schools to Colleges and Universities will be able to use commercial-sized robots to clean floors, wash windows, mow lawns, and assist in the cafeteria. These robots will do the kinds of job that few people want to do. Additionally, their machine efficiency will help them do a consistent and more thorough job than most people are capable of.

c) Hospitals

Human beings will remain essential for a large part of the work done in hospitals, including nursing tasks and other medical care. But variants of the cleaning, bed-changing, cooking, and meal-delivery bots used in the hospitality industry will fit into the health care system. Patients will be able to select their meals only minutes before they are served.

Expert system robots will eventually be able to perform routine surgery. As the cost of remote surgical robots drops, a first rate surgeon in Boston, New York, Seattle, or Mumbai, will be able to perform intricate surgery in small hospitals anywhere. Routine operations could be done while a small staff would oversee the procedure. Think of the IBM-programmed "Watson" computer with advanced mechanical and optics. This is where surgical nurses and nurse-practioners would shine.

d) Automotive Buses and other Transport.

By now, it's old news that robotic-driven cars and trucks are reality. As proof, the 132-mile driverless vehicle race in the desert between Barstow, California, and Primm, Nevada, sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It may be many more years before such transport does not require people who can drive at all. Nevada became the first state to allow robot-controlled vehicles to operate. But a driver must be at the steering wheel. I think robot-controlled driving will prove entirely successful and that other forward-looking state--or areas within--will adopt Nevada's lead sooner rather than later.

It is logical to assume that public transport (including buses, trolleys, ferries, light-rail, and probably more) will have computer-assisted driving and navigation within the foreseeable future. Human beings may be needed in the most congested and intricate routes. Or maybe not! The CAD bots will allow buses and watercraft to be better steering, starting, stopping, and pausing. Human intelligence may be needed for the types of emergency situations that arise, but the automation will make drivers' job that much easier.

From agriculture robots, lets look at a factory that manufactures specialized--and traditionally very expensive--carpets and rugs. Anyone knowledgeable about Persian carpets knows that before the introduction of mechanization, the traditional carpets were crafted by very young girls whose small hands could tie the finer "Persian" knots.

Robots with more accurate much smaller mechanics will be able to tie threads that are from a great many times as the finest hand-crafted rugs of today. The threads will be made of the extremely strong and soft silk made by synthesized Golden Orb Weaver spider silk. This thread has 140% times more tensile strength than steel while maintaining an ultra-softness. [4] This, and similar types of manufacturing will be available in the near future.

In Part Two of this essay, we'll look into different kinds of manufacturing and consider what types of intelligent systems will make up the brains of the next multi-billion-dollar industry.


(I first heard of Adam's concept in an early-American history class at Ohio State University in 1967; it took another 43 years before I tracked down the professor's source.)