02.14.13

Robot series 4: An engineering problem

Posted in Society at 15:50 by RjZ

It may be easy to sort through a database to find the things you want or need to complete a project, but the logistics of bringing it all together isn’t trivial. We already enjoy world-wide, point to point, next-day shipment. Automated warehouses are the next critical step in moving things around easily and cheaply. Companies like Amazon have giant warehouses with thousands and thousands of different products. Getting to them can be like finding the needle in a haystack, but an automated forklift with keen, 3D capable vision, can scan kilometers of shelves, select the right products, and package them in a custom box for shipping.

But why find or ship anything when you can make it at home? 3D printers have been around for more than two decades, and now they’re going mainstream. Just don’t think of them as printers; think of them as Star Trek replicators. Today, they print with plastic or metal, but the technology is being adapted to print with nearly every conceivable material from textiles to food. 3D data capture technology will turn printers into 3D copiers. Need a spare widget? Snap a 3D picture and print yourself one. What effects will these developments have on society? Nearly all these developments aren’t the stuff of sci-fi. They’re more or less around right now.

Artificial Intelligence has been promised for decades and while we’ve seen the brute force mental achievement of Deep Blue, the chess computer that beat human masters, or the vast, encyclopedic knowledge of Jeopardy winning Watson and its ability to understand natural language questions, AI remains a tough problem.

We’ve been promised nano machines that will revolutionize everything from materials to health care (or turn everything into grey goo) and we’ve been expecting quantum and integrated optical computers which should be powerful enough to finally make artificial intelligence a reality, well, maybe.

Edison wasn't the only one to invent the lightbulb. It was inevitable.

Unfortunately, few developments have come from all these ideas even after so much effort. It’s been no waste of time, but these problems are extremely difficult. Robots and 3D vision aren’t like that. They aren’t a matter of invention and discovery, they are a matter of engineering. Where discovery resists time-tables and prediction, often occurring in fits, starts, or flashes of insight; engineering comes from mental effort, trial and error, and ingenuity. Business can be built on engineering because it’s reliable. Engineering results can be forecasted with some success. It isn’t easy to create brand new things from unrelated parts, but the goal is often in sight.

Many “inventions” in the past were really just innovations of engineering. The light bulb was nearly simultaneously invented by Joseph Swan, Hiram Stevens Maxim, and Thomas Edison. The radio, telephone, television, and dozens of other inventions have all been developed by multiple people nearly simultaneously. Each of these came into being because everything necessary to produce them had finally been discovered, and was essentially waiting for incredible engineers to put them all together. They were, so to speak, inevitable.

The promise of robotics, 3D machine vision and printing are inevitable too. How will they change the way we live? The impact of inexpensive automation, automated warehouses, 3D copiers, and safe robot assistants will be broader than just a few more gadgets. They will change economics, political power, and even how we value ourselves. Even if the Singularity doesn’t come in our lifetimes, everything we need for sweeping change is already out there, just waiting for some clever folks to put the pieces it together. No invention required.

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