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The robotics of place

December 24, 2006

The following is only slightly reworked from three posts I wrote, one after the other, in 1999. These posts together formed the starting point of a topic with the surprising title “The Robotics of Place” (originally in The WELL’s Whole Earth conference).

 

Don’t let the title scare you off. There’s more here than might at first be apparent.

 

There’s much to suggest that the original condition of human beings was nomadic – maybe over a fairly limited range, but seldom entirely sedentary.

 

First farming, then cities, with the investment of time and effort they embody, made moving about with the seasons less appealing. But in modern times we seem to have replaced both nomadism and attachment to place with a sort of serial squatting, staying a few months in one place and a few years in another, but generally without the deep connections that come from spending one’s whole life in the same place and among the same people.

 

But we aren’t likely to ween ourselves from dependence on stationary infrastructure anytime soon, not even with the recently booming popularity of mobile devices, and in that realization is the germ of the thought I hope to develop here: people want the benefits of infrastructure, without being bogged down by it.

 

And, increasingly so as time goes on, infrastructure means not just brick and mortar, but something active.

 

Asimov described a planet sparsely inhabited by people who were heavily dependent on technology, who each had substantial land holdings which were cared for by robots.

 

All very scifi, but the connection between machine and place rings true.

 

Most of us cringe at the idea of a life devoted to looking after a plot of ground, yet the ground needs looking after, particularly in and near cities. How strange is it really to propose that machines will inherit this task, probably sooner rather than later?

 

Here are some examples of familiar technological intrusions on the landscape: roads, bridges, dams, irrigation ditches, water and sewer lines, storm drains, tilled fields, fences, hedgerows, terraces, power lines, rail beds, mines, harvested forests (and those replanted with less than their original diversity), not to mention buildings.

 

We’ve never much hesitated to impose our notions on the world around us, but until recently we did so personally, typically using the biggest time-saving levers we could find. Only we (and a few domesticated allies, like sheepdogs) could provide the element of attentive activity, for lack of which one built environment after another has reverted back to a wild state, generally an impoverished one. We’re good at dreaming up grand designs, and we like having things neat and tidy, but we tire of maintenance, and are more than a little stingy about paying for it.

 

In suggesting that we embrace a robotic approach to land [management], I’m also implying an eventual end to capricious land use, with grand new schemes equating to changes in programming that would result in gradual modifications of the landscape, rather than sudden, gaping scars that take decades to heal.

 

Reposted from Cultibotics.

John Payne .. read more

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