Friday, April 16, 2010
Robotics vs Automation
(I have read this a few times but the haze of my cold medicine might have the better of me)
I love getting comments on this blog. The RPG community is just as alive as ever, despite the competition with video games.
In a recent comment about this Cyberpunk theme, it was brought up that I have not theorized a place for robots. And that is true, like moon bases and flying cars I think that some cannon elements of science fiction are just unlikely. I drive in a lot of heavy traffic, but I thank good fortune that the flying car is not part of the mess of the daily commute. With Metro trains smashing into each other, buses running over people and the daily multi-car pileups.. I shudder to think of a world where anyone with the cash to buy one can take a flying car to work each day!
What does that have to do with Robots? Didn't ATMs replace most face-to-face bank transactions? Don't they send robots to Mars, or under the ocean? What about the Predator or other military robots?
At the extreme risk of committing Nerd Fail.. those are not robots. An ATM is an example of automation just as the bank web page to manage your account is an example of software. The Mars rovers, Predators or even autonomous submarines are examples of remotely operated vehicles. I consider a "Robot" to be an independent artificially intelligent device which can interact with the environment in some way. We might achieve semi autonomous vehicles, and many UAVs can land automatically just like the new vehicles which can parallel park on their own. Such features are not really examples of artificial intelligence, and the greater discussions of morality and the true nature of humanity can not be played out with the level of robotic technology I think we will have in 20 years.
I think that in 20 years we will see many advances in automation and software. Information will be more mobile and automatic. We will give up a lot of privacy and liberty but will gain a life of almost "Jetson" level of automation. As each person is tracked everywhere they go, what they buy, who they interact with and what their tastes are focused advertising can target the individual's needs and tastes.
The current fast food restaurant could be replaced with what would amount to a giant vending machine where the only people running the place are loading food items to be cooked and repairing the automated appliances to cook and vend the food.
GPS navigation and safety devices in cars will finally make cars and trucks that drive themselves on the highway possible and common. Once at highway speed the vehicles on the highway will network together to avoid hazards and make driving on a highway more efficient.
What the iPhone did for personal communications and personal electronic devices, new technologies will be integrated in clothing, buildings and vehicles and a mesh of devices will always be nearby providing information and entertainment to their users.
The issue is to consider what people would realistically buy. Spending several thousand dollars on a servant-robot is just not what mainstream people are looking to do. People are more than willing to spend several thousand dollars a year on personal electronics, internet-aware devices and countless hours using web services (time == money).
It is very easy to forget that money drives technology. In a "Nerd Utopia" where technology is developed and funded for the sake of curiosity, fully artificially intelligent robots would currently exist (as would our Moon Apartments and orbiting office parks imagined in the 1950s). But progress expands the world where there is interest and funding and so far humanoid robot workers are just not in demand. Everyone I know with a Roomba has given up on the darn thing as it is stuck under the couch or dead because it got lost and couldn't get back to the recharging station. My daughter has a whole toybox of robot dogs and other items we allowed to starve to death by not replacing the batteries.
As the population of the Earth increases it is more likely there will be more people than jobs for quite some time, and corporate or military desires to have endless workforces to exploit and abuse are tempered by the fact that replacing people with "robots" is unnecessary as long as there are people who want to feed their families. The investment in buying and maintaining a robot is far greater than building a new factory in a country where labor laws can be stretched. The desire to keep soldiers from unnecessary harm is great enough to justify building spy satellites, unmanned vehicles and even stepping back to drop a nuclear bomb -- but not to totally replace the "man in the loop". Before humanity gets to face the questions Asimov brings up it is more likely we will murder each other over scarce resources and an unstable environment, overpopulation and pollution are a far greater threat than run-away technology or the other themes Science Fiction connects with robotics.
Was that Nerd Fail? Offend anyone? Any Robot-lovers out there who can't wait to buy their own Cylon? Well you have my apologies...
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