Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Future expected, future forgotten: ubiquitous robotics

I was chatting with a colleague recently about the impact of robotics on infrastructure repair costs. Many older cities, most catastrophically New Orleans, have deferred infrastructure maintenance. In most cases this doesn't result in the annihilation of the city, but it does produce collapsing roadways in Montreal.

There's an upside to deferring infrastructure maintenance, assuming one is willing to risk a few motorists or, in the case of New Orleans, much of the city. The cost may shrink. Modern robotics is making a lot of everyday tasks, such as replacing gas mains, far cheaper. Roads are no longer torn up, instead robotic tunnelers wend their way beneath the asphalt.

Which makes me think about how the future arrives. Sometimes it arrives with great fanfare and long anticipation. Other times, though, it builds off to the side, sleepily and beneath our attention, and merges to take us unawares. I think robotics may be like that. They've been getting smarter and better in the deep ocean, on the battlefield, flying simulators with organic components, vacuuming, mowing ... Incrementally improving.

Japan is highly incented to lead in robotics. Korea is likely to take the same track. It seems inevitable that within 10-20 years most of us will own, and become dependent upon, many increasingly sophisticated robots. A future so long predicted that we've almost forgotten about it, will abruptly be upon us.

The implications for immigration, and for much of the work done by non-knowledge workers, will be substantial. (American knowledge workers, of course, are already doomed by globalization.)

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