People continue to ignore my dire, and completely rational, warnings about robots taking over the world. Even worse is the fact that scientists completely ignore my aforementioned dire warnings and keep making advances in the very technologies that will allow said future overlords to become … well, our overlords. I understand the basic underlying tenet that all knowledge is useful and it only becomes good or evil in the hands of its user. But, if we admit that we must also admit that certain technologies have very defined uses. For example, guns. Guns are built to kill things. Mostly people, but game for food is also on the list. You would not purchase a gun to, for example, fix your TV. It would be the wrong tool for the wrong job. By the same token you would not try to bring down a rampaging elephant with a socket wrench. Again, wrong tool for the wrong job.
But what does any of that have to do with the rise of our robot overlords?
Since you ask, I’ll answer.
Robots have long been built for specific tasks. Put the door on the Chevy. Weld the bathysphere to its struts. Things like that. Lately science, clearly on a tequila bender, has decided to see what would happen if robots could learn to think for themselves.
Now science has been dabbling in the fields of the Lord for a while, building “thinking” computers. But machines that can play chess or do well on Jeopardy are limited in scope. No one is going to quake in fear over a machine that can use quincunx correctly in a question.
But what about robots that can comprehend architecture, know how to fly and are comfortable utilizing the latest construction techniques? Because what could possibly go wrong with flying, thinking, slave bots that have giant slabs of concrete they can drop on us at will?
According to Robert Krulwich, who is clearly avoiding becoming a mind washed pawn of the technorati, just the end of human usefulness.
Uh Oh. Construction workers please note: Somebody just built a 20-foot tower using flying robots. No people involved.
The demo took place in a warehouse-like art gallery called FRAC, just outside Paris.
As humans (none of them, I presume, in the construction trades) applauded and gaped, four helicopterish thingies swooped through the air, somehow avoiding each other, and one by one, settled on some “brick dispensers.” Using small plungers they then plucked one brick at a time, carried each to the “building site” and slowly created a wall. It took a few days, but what emerged is a twisting, undulating tower, designed by Swiss architects Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler.
As best I can tell, though the air was buzzing with brick-bearing bots, there were no unhappy accidents (the bricks weren’t heavy anyway, they were polystyrene foam). Whenever a robot’s batteries ran low, it would automatically plug itself into a charger, while other bots took its place.
“This,” said roboticist Raffaello D’Andrea, is the “first installation to be built by flying machines.” The whole scene was pretty surreal. Here’s what it looked like.
Humans, of course, helped. Erico Guizo, reporting for the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’ blog, Spectrum says:
The ceiling of the room where the assembly is taking place was equipped with a motion-capture system. A computer uses the vision data to keep track of the quadcopters and tell them where to go — the same approach used at ETH’s Flying Machine Arena
If you want to know how the robots avoided collisions, how the bricks got glued together, how the design was transmitted to the bots, details can be found here, but what got to me is how astonishing, beautiful technologies keep arriving with the promise of doing things differently, and increasingly, without us.
Maybe (probably?) robots will create new job opportunities in computing, repair, policing and who knows what else, and of course it will be years, maybe generations before they can do what high-rise construction workers do. Still, something I would have called outlandish just ten years ago, (maybe even 10 minutes ago) is suddenly, demonstrably possible.
Don’t Stop. It Gets Crazier
And, of course, as soon as I got interested in “brick swarming”, (as this technology is called by architects), something even more outlandish and even more beautiful popped up.
Yoon H. Kim and Yang-Kyu Han, two architects in Seoul, Korea have proposed a high-rise construction project to be built by “bees”. Not ordinary bees. That would be too tame. They think they could do it with robot bees, like this guy:
How would this work? Writing in eVolo, an architecture magazine, Danielle Del Sol says, “These bees aren’t interested in honey: these workers will actually build a structure. Each robot is capable of using cartridges filled with agents that enable them to construct literal physical material, which the designers dub “augmented synthetic material.”
I have no idea what that means. Maybe a cloud of bees will swarm into the sky and squirt a building into being. That can’t be. More likely, these bees will create subtle textures on a building’s surface that regulate heat, transmit information. They will build these systems in small dabs, requiring hundreds of thousands of construction bees. This sounds like crazy-talk, but then I saw the Korean version of what a construction site would look like and I thought, “Oh my god!”
Imagine walking down a street and seeing something like this on a city lot, or looking out from your high rise window into a cloud of swarming bots, what a sight!
Flying robotic construction clouds are increasingly being discussed in academia, so who knows, maybe one day all of us will have the “benefit” of high tech helpers and this blog will be typed by flying fingerbots, sent to a keyboard by pulses from my brain.
I’m OK with that, but my fingers, I don’t think they’ll be happy. What are they supposed to do when I’m writing in my head? For years and years, they’ve had all this exercise, writing, erasing, writing, erasing. The day they invent a thumbot will be a sad, sad day for my thumb.
I’m just sayin.
What’s scary is how quickly humans embrace their destiny. They’re like the Vichy in WWII who thought Nazis were a good idea. It’s just “Oh, okay, we’re doomed, they’re too powerful, we may as well make wine.”
We can and must stop the techno-terror from spreading. We’ve all seen what happens in the Terminator movies.
Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Friday morning around 9:10!