The Mega Foundation

Robots and Politics

March 7, 2005

Kudos for the Bush Administration
    As someone who has been strongly opposed to the Neocon plan for global hegemony, and the Bush Administration, it's incumbent upon me to present the other side of the story whenever I see it. About six weeks  ago, I ran across an article in the Malaysian newspaper, The Star", quoting the Iraqi arch-terrorist, Abu Muzab al-Zarqawi, saying, "We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology,'' the speaker said. "'Anyone who tries to help set up this system is part of it' _ a clear warning to both candidates and those who choose to vote. He said democracy was based on un-Islamic beliefs and behaviors such as freedom of religion, rule of the people, freedom of expression, separation of religion and state, forming political parties and majority rule."
    I pay especially close attention to articles like this that appear in Asian newspapers because I presume that they're independent.
   Under no circumstances would I suppose that politicians and politics in other countries than the U. S. are nobler or better than our own.
    Another development that Asiatic newspapers seem to deem important, and one that they credit to the Bush Administration are the democratic awakenings in the Middle East. The stirrings toward rapprochement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the partial withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon in a spirit of Arab fraternity are considered to be a consequence of President Bush' endorsement of democracy in his inaugural address. 
    I'll be delighted to be wrong about President Bush and the Neocons, and I now see the Iraqi insurgency as inimical to the principles in which I believe.
Concerns for the United States
    In reprinting last night's article, "America No. 1?", I don't mean to endorse its claims. I probably know less about them than you do. One of the questions that springs to mind is, what about illiterate illegal immigrant? Do they skew these results? It's hard to believe that a fifth of all U. S. citizens thinks that the sun revolves around the Earth. It's hard to believe that another sixth of us believes the Earth revolves around the sun every day. Who are these people?
Foreign Student Enrollment
    More worrisome to me is the 28% drop in foreign grad student applications last year, with a 56% decline in Chinese applicants, a 51% drop in Indian submissions and a 28% decrease in South Korean students. It's my impression that the U. S. is focused inward upon sports and entertainment. Surely most red-blooded U. S. high school student don't want to be scientists or an engineers. They want to be singers or actors because that's what the girls go for. What girl wants a computer geek or an engineering nerd for a boy friend? So the U. S. has become dependent upon foreign scholars for a large share of its technical talent. Further, the U. S. has been able to attract the cream of the world's illuminati to staff its R&D programs. Now, through a combination of tightened immigration policies, perceived intolerance, and the fact that outsourcing is offering opportunities back home, the flow of talent into the U. S. is (apparently) attenuating. Bill Gates and Craig Barrett (Intel's outgoing CEO) have just teed off again regarding U. S. science education. 
    Of course, the first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have the problem.
Our Foreign Trade Deficit
    Another worrisome statistic that Warren Buffett has just assailed in his annual message to the shareholders of Berkshire-Hathaway is the fact that the U. S. trade deficit is running above $600 billion a year. So what does that mean? It means that the United States government is selling off part the United States to pay for the national debt... e. g., to pay the costs of bringing democracy to Iraq. How much is it selling off? Well, in 1992, some of the best farm land in the United States, owned by my wife's family near Rochelle, Illinois, was selling for $2,000 an acre. By now, inflation might have boosted the price of this premium farmland to $3,000 an acre, but if I assume that run-of-the-mill farmland costs $2,000 an acre, then the $600+ billion that we shipped out of the U. S. last year would buy 300 million acres, or not quite 500,000 square miles of U. S. farmland. There's only 3,000,000 square miles of land in the U. S., so not-quite-500,000 square miles is about 15% of our land could have been purchased last year by foreigners. Or that $600+ billion might buy Nebraska or South Dakota, or maybe, both of them. As for you,  personally, who owns your mortgage? Just because your mortgage company  has a U. S.-sounding name doesn't mean it's a U. S. company. This trade deficit has been running for decades, albeit at nothing like the current rate, and this is what it means.
    In deference to the truth, not all of this foreign trade deficit is the result of foreign investors and foreign central banks buying our Treasury bonds. Part of it is our greater appetite for foreign merchandise than the rest of the world has for U. S. goods and services. And of course, most of our manufacturing, and more and more of our service industry is being outsourced.
    Another concern is the fact that "Fourteen of the 20 largest commercial banks in the world today are European."
Does the U. S. Torture Its Prisoners?
    Then there's the worldwide perception that the U. S. is sponsoring torture. True or not, it must be doing terrible things to our reputation, not to mention inviting the torture of U. S. nationals captured now and in the future.
The Greenhouse Effect
    But I'd better not get started. There's climate change, with all that methane- bearing sea ice waiting to melt, and all those methane-and-ammonia-steeped peat bogs warming up. I've just finished a science fiction book ("The Light of Other Days") by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. In the book, they bring in, as an incidental part of the backdrop for their story, the climate traumas that were so badly underestimated in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In their book, the British Isles are buried under ice and snow because the Gulf Stream has  shut down. However, one of the frightening thoughts that arises is that of whether or not we've already passed the "tipping point"... the point of no return, of a runaway greenhouse effect. It has happened on Venus..
    But enough good cheer for one night.

The Rise of the Robots
Robotic Vacuum Sweepers
    In a lighter vein, iRobot has greatly improved their Roomba automatic vacuum system. They're doubled the suction, tripled the size of the dirt reservoir, increased the battery life, and modified the $250 Roomba Discovery so that it returns to its charging station and recharges when its battery is running low. In addition, acoustic sensors have been added to keep it working in one spot until all the dirt at that spot has been scarfed up. iRobot has sold more than a million vacuum cleaners and may go public later this year. iRobot is also developing a different kind of (mystery) automatic household machine to be introduced later this year.
    Here's a summary article.
    Hitachi has a trial-balloon robotic vacuum cleaner.
    Matsushita is dipping its toe into the water.
    Friendly Robotics, along with several other small companies, now has a robotic vacuum cleaner. Hoover is marketing Friendly Robotics' vacuum cleaner under the Hoover brand in the United States.
    Karcher has brought out a robotic vacuum: the Karcher RC 3000.
    The Cleanmate QQ-2 robotic vacuum, due out this spring, sounds like a winner.
    Applica's $99 Zoombot doesn't sound like a winner.
    Electrolux $1,800 ZA2 Trilobite does. The Trilobite is the Rolls Royce of robotic vacuums, mapping the room with ultrasonic sensors before efficiently sweeping it.
    Here's Dyson's entry.
    Here's a sleek British robosweeper of unknown vintage.
    Not to be outdone, The Sharper Image is offering their $199.95 e*Vac. .    
    Then there's the $200 Intelli Vac Robotic Vacuum.
    Wany Robotics is promising 5 third-generation robotic vacuum cleaners with "revolutionary applications".
    How about a KoolVac?
    Clearly, this is a time of technological and marketing fermentation for automatic vacuum sweepers, and soon, floor moppers, and kindred automatic devices. It's reminiscent of the period between Tandy's announcement of the TRS-80 and Commodore's introduction of the Commodore PET 2001 in March, 1977, and IBM's release of the first IBM PC in 1981. In between, there was a welter of personal computer products, including such companies as Texas Instruments (the TI-99A). But it's intriguing to me to see this broil of activity in robotic vacuum sweepers. 

    Friendly Robotics' Robomower now comes in a large-lawn (RL 1000) version selling for $850, capable of mowing lawns up to 16,000 square feet.
    Fuel cells, when they're finally cheap and robust, will probably enable heavy duty automatic mowers and kindred equipment.
    Carnegie Mellon has produced an industrial-strength robotic lawn mower that uses GPS (differential GPS?) to determine the lawn mower's location. Clearly, automatic appliances like this that know where they are will be the wave of the future. All that's needed now is to bring down their costs.

    At some point, these household automatic machines--"robots" in a very-simple-minded sense only--are going to "go over a waterfall" when big, established, appliance companies get into the game. How soon that will be is anyone's guess, but perhaps, between now and 2010. Once that happens, progress will be rapid (not that it isn't rapid now). The advent of The Cell, and of multi-core microprocessors will eventually affect these devices, but costs will have to drop first.
    Security robots and limited-function kitchen robots may be in the offing between now and 2010. Companion robots for the elderly and the handicapped are under development in Japan.
    Further price drops in computing power will fuel improvements in these simple "robots". Visually guided robots may not appear before 2010, although video cameras are cheap enough to enable this.
    Mobile robots with arms and manipulators should appear in their most primitive forms pretty soon. Robots like Honda's "Asimo" are setting the stage for anthropomorphic robots. One type of robot that we might see would be a human look-alike that would be remotely operated. One application for this might be remote attendance in a distant city (Hertz Rent-a-Robot), teleoperated over the Internet, with video and audio piped back to an operator, and a cart-like robot, or eventually, a human look-alike android, actually sitting in the briefing at the Pentagon, or attending the awards ceremony. (Of course, videoconferencing might accomplish most of the same thing.)
    The developmental schedule for robotics will probably depend at least partially upon marketing, and upon public acceptance. (I could envision a robotic cart that circulates at social functions carrying drinks and canapés. It would be more a conversation piece for early-adopter technophiles than anything meaningful.)



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