The importance of robotics to the achievement of sustainability

28 September 2011

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In a mid-August post bearing the same title, on my primary blog, I stated:

I firmly believe that (short of convincing the vast majority of people to return to subsistence farming, something which could only be accomplished through intense coercion) robotics is vitally important to achieving sustainability.

Realizing others’ mileage might vary, I took that post to a conferencing system I’ve been on for over twenty years and asked whether the notion seemed counterintuitive to anyone there. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it did. In fact, I was probably the only participant in the conversation for whom the idea wasn’t at least a bit odd.


Understand that we’re not talking about your standard social network fare, here. The other participants in the conversation are, to a person, all intelligent and (otherwise) well informed.


Seeing that the conversation had pretty well run its course, I concluded with the following:

It’s unfortunate that so much of robotics is weapons research, and even more unfortunate that the associations most people have with robots and robotics is of clunky machines that are unintentionally dangerous. The clunkiness is a passing phase, and already an anachronism in many cases, but I can see why some prefer to avoid the word “robot”, talking instead about intelligent or adaptive machines. In Japan they speak of RTs, Robotic Technologies, which makes for a nice refocusing in my humble opinion. Robotic technologies find there way into all sorts of objects not usually considered robots. A more general restatement of the proposition I laid out [here] would be that robotic technologies are essential to the achievement of sustainability. This might be an easier sell, however I really do mean robots, complete with interchangeable manipulators on the ends of arms with at least a few degrees of freedom, and operation that is sufficiently autonomous to break the 1-to-1 correspondence between machine and operator, with the machines conceivably running 24/7 during the busiest season (and maybe drawing some power from the grid to keep them running through the night). It’s my belief that the use of such machines is the only way we’ll ever manage to bring best practices to the vast majority of land in production, and that the best that is possible without them will prove unsustainable in the long run.

That this point of view was at least initially counterintuitive for the unusually astute social environment in which I posed it means to me that there’s still a great deal of work to be done to repair the perceptual damage done by the preponderance of robot portrayals in fiction and to jumpstart creative imagination for how autonomous machinery might help us surmount the difficult challenges before us.

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John Payne

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