Where are the Robots Indeed?

I was thinking the other day, when work by human workers at Fukushima had to halt completely due to radiation levels, why the hell no robots were being used to continue work onsite. Seems I wasn’t the only one to think of this, and now even BoingBoing had picked up on it.

I want to recall my recent post about robotics for a moment. If you look at the article above, the point is made that Japanese robotics research has lately involved building robots that do things like run marathons, play the saxophone–

–and I’ll confess I’m not in principle against things like this.

(It’s not fundamentally the most interesting problem, and frankly, the robot would impress me more if it also had embouchre control, and if there was even a single articulation. This robot is just moving its fingers, which isn’t “playing John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”. Still, it might be a step along the way to building a robot with certain kind of coordination and controllability and so on.)

But I am disturbed by the fact that, in a country with arguably the most advanced robotics industry on Earth, that the majority of the work being done is by people who are required to be inside the plant in person. I’m disturbed that instead of supplementing with remote-controlled robots the skeleton crew they’ve deployed (which after all is far fewer people that normally are needed to run the facility in good condition–let alone in the mess it’s in now) they’ve had to send in more people. As one commenter on the BoingBoing thread points out, the real problem has been a lack of incentive to build robots that can handle these conditions–because after all radiation messes up electronic devices as well as people, and more quickly at that. Machines can be designed to deal with radiation, but they won’t be unless there’s a market.

In the very same article I linked above, the first link, Kim Seungho argues that it’s denial among plant operators that has stopped the nuclear industry for having large-scale robotics applications developed for situations like the current one.

Maybe… but I also wonder whether the sense that publicity gives us might be correct? It seems to me there’s an endless parade of researchers who are essentially working to perfect the “art” of building robots that are indistinguishable from humans–an “art” that is, after all, essentially useless unless one is planning to make money by automating the sex trade, or building robots to replace humans at the one thing you’d need real AI to actually replace humans in (the entertainment business).

There’s an interesting and pretty balanced piece in Slate on the whole situation that also mentions the bloody silliness of no robots being at the ready for this crisis, while pointing out some of the good news about what’s going on, as well as some of the more obvious lessons to be learned, and to be learned in a hurry.

2 thoughts on “Where are the Robots Indeed?

  1. Probably because the (expected – that is the a priori) cost of using a human being was cheaper than building a robot. One of my pet theories is that up to about ten years ago, humans were the cheapest general purpose flexible machines. (Not anymore though, for more and more tasks)

    BTW, Power’s “Declare” was good, but dry. Stross “Cabinet” was designed to be more humorous, and it shows.

  2. I ran across this article in the Washington Post this morning (or evening, depending on your time zone).


    It’s basically another showcase that humans (governments in particular) are not very good at estimating the distribution of low-probability events and thus setting expected costs and benefits. (along with Asian financial crisis, US subprime mortgates, PIGS government deficits, War in Iraq … )

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