When you hear the word, robot, what springs to mind? It’s often some movie robot with a semi humanoid appearance or it could be one of the movie androids that look just like a human, the Terminator or Data from Star Trek, but in reality, robots don’t need any humanoid appearance, no arms and legs or verbal communication, a robot is just a complex machine, performing certain tasks, repetitively and precisely, without a break, a vacation or health benefits.
Robots have been on my mind a lot lately because I’ve come across all kinds of fascinating stories about the new jobs they’re performing, jobs you might think require a human, but in reality, require no such thing, they just need someone or something to follow a simple set of rules. If this, then that, no higher level skills involved. It’s amazing how many seemingly complex tasks can be simplified into a series of logical and very simple decisions, if you’re a programmer you already know this, but for a lot of folks, it can come as a shock.
The other day, I wrote elsewhere about a couple of big mines in Australia, buying a number of those enormous dump trucks, you know, the big ones, 2 stories tall, 500 tons loaded, REALLY big trucks, $6 million each, but as big as they are, all they do is wait for a load of ore to be shoveled into the bed then drive a known route, dump it, get another load, dump it, and they do this 24 hours a day. The drivers are well paid, comfortably into six figures, and you need at least three drivers to cover three shifts, plus vacations and benefits, if you add up the cost, how long does it take to pay for one of those trucks if you don’t need a driver? Well, they don’t need a driver. The new trucks are robots. I’ll bet you didn’t think of a dump truck when you heard the word “robot.”
Most of you know about Google’s autonomous cars, they can do far more complex tasks than those dump trucks, the cars drive through city traffic from any point to anywhere else. Accident free except for when a human took control, think about that.
Drones, those robot planes and helicopters, are being used by everyone these days, the military loves them and the Navy’s X-47B, a stealth, jet fighter sized drone is almost ready for its first test where it will take off from and land on an aircraft carrier early next year, much to the dismay of fighter pilots everywhere. If a drone with a fighter plane’s capabilities but no need to carry, sustain and protect a pilot, no need to restrict its maneuvering because of how many G’s a pilot can withstand, think of the possibilities, unmanned super fighters and attack aircraft.
Robots can drive anything … and probably will
Round out the transportation field and how many vehicle operators can be replaced by robots? Over the road truck drivers? Just think, no limit to the hours driven on any single day and no need to sleep. Engineers on trains? Airports already have those robot shuttle trains carrying passengers to remote terminals, why do they still have engineers on the big freight trains? Trains run on rails, you don’t even need to steer. The caboose disappeared years ago. What does an engineer do these days? Cargo ship captains and crews? Crews are already dramatically shrinking. Airline pilots? If passengers knew how much of their flight is already controlled by software, they would be shocked. Once in the air, planes fly themselves, a 747 can land itself. The pilot and copilot today may make the passengers feel better, but once passengers get over the creepy feeling of knowing their pilot is really a computer and not some square jawed fellow with thousands of hours in the air, flying may become even safer than it already is. Add to that list, bus drivers, taxi drivers, delivery truck drivers; if all the driver, engineer, captain or pilot does is move a big cargo carrying vehicle from one place to another, robots are pretty much a certainty. Never tired, always vigilant, never gets lost, an all knowing expert under every circumstance, how can a human compete?
When the truck, train, plane or cargo ship arrives at its destination, the unloading and reloading can be highly automated. All of those standardized cargo containers are perfect for robots to pick, stack and transfer, continuing the delivery until it gets to the end of the trip, wherever that may be. Some international ports are already well along in this process. Even commercial airliners could land, pull up to the terminal and discharge passengers without human intervention. Remote control from a central location could start any of these processes until it could be fully automated.
The machine is the robot
Another point to keep in mind is that this idea of a separate robot doing the driving is wrong, the only reason we think of that function as separate is because it always has been, there was a vehicle and a driver, we had the brain, the vehicle was the muscle. The interface was the seat and steering wheel. With a robot, the control system is integral to the vehicle itself, it’s not a truck with a robot driver, it’s a robot truck. The whole vehicle is the robot. You don’t have a robot train engineer, you have a very long, segmented, articulated, robot train. Humans aren’t a body and a brain, our brains are integral to the system, we’re human beings. Same idea. Forget the humanoid form, a robot is any self controlled machine, no matter the shape or function, no matter how big or small.
Motorcycles are different
Interestingly enough, there seems to be one curiosity among motor vehicles far less likely to be roboticized, and that’s the motorcycle. The main reason for a motorcycle in most countries of the world isn’t some utilitarian function, it’s for the sheer pleasure of riding, the excitement, the development of skills; what do you gain if you turn it into a robot? Nothing. There’s no economic incentive to remove the rider from the motorcycle so it can do its job more efficiently. If you remove the rider, what’s left?
Of course, Lit Motors is building a gyro stabilized, fully enclosed two seater and once the balance factor is handled, everything you can do with a car can be applied to the bike, too. As an engineering exercise you can have that robot motorcycle after all, you could even teach it to robotically split lanes between the robot cars and trucks. Maybe robot motorcycle races would gain a following, hmm, …
In a way, it may provide some comfort to the riders here, knowing you’re not on the way out immediately, soon to be replaced by sensors and servo motors, but it also provides perspective, emphasizing the non utilitarian, purely human appeal that motorcycles provide. Other vehicles have that appeal, too, but motorcycles have little else. In a world where everything is reduced to utilitarian function, it’s nice to know something exists for its own sake, to provide a pleasurable experience.
Now, think about what you do every day. How many “If/Then/Else” decision trees would it take to remove a lot of those tasks from your hands and allow a machine with the proper algorithm to do what you do, … only better? Something to think about and a strong incentive to learn a lot of new skills, wouldn’t you say?