Monday, September 16, 2013

Dear Mr. President, Robots CAN Repair Roads (GOOG)

Yesterday we posted "Obama On Infrastructure: 'A Robot Can't Build A Road'" with links to this rather amazing machine:
The Tiger Stone laying a brick road

FT Alphaville linked to us in this morning's "Further Reading" post - Robots building roads despite the doubters.
And this provoked a comment from an FT Alphaville fan:
Willem de Leeuw | September 16 9:07am | Permalink "Robots building roads despite the doubters."

That's not a robot. Brick road laying machines may be new but tarmac laying machines are not. 
He's right of course, the machine pictured is not a robot. It would more correctly be referred to as a "Semi-autonomous, put-ten-bricklayers-out-of-work automated road building device.

But jeez louise, I know it's not a robot and Alphaville's knows it's not a robot and our readers know it's not a robot and they also know I was using a shorthand way to point up the ahhh, labor saving, aspect.

there is more to the story.

From Motherboard:

Hey President Obama, Robots Can Repair Roads
What's he trying to hide? Oh yeah, a robot. Via the White House
Yesterday, President Obama took to the Sunday talk shows to discuss the future of work. Serving perhaps as a reminder that the Syria debacle isn't the only issue facing America, or perhaps as a "robots are taking our jobs" smokescreen to problems of structural unemployment, Obama joined ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos to talk about how technology is an economic factor that's out of Washington's hands.

According to Brett LoGiurato at Business Insider, Obama referred to these problems as being "beyond Washington," saying that developments like ATMs and the internet have taken people out of the economy through automation. It's an interesting, if obtuse, admission that the current economy places enormous value on corporations with historically low levels of human employment. It makes sense: Humans are costly and unreliable, and thus a business that can do without them is worth more.

It's also a huge problem facing the shrunken economy. Unemployment for the poor has hit Depression era levels, and long-term unemployment is stickier than ever. America's shift away from a manufacturing economy has eliminated a stable source of jobs that fueled America's middle class boom, and continued automation across all sectors will eliminate more jobs in the future.

It's good to see the President acknowledging the issue. He also offered solutions that the government could implement, including developing a smarter workforce and offering incentives to bring manufacturing back to the US, which probably won't happen. But there's one line Obama mentioned that I have to take issue with. As quoted by LoGiurato, emphasis his:
So there's a whole bunch of stuff that’s happening in the marketplace. But if we have policies that make sure that our kids are prepared for higher skilled jobs. If we have policies that make sure that we’re rebuilding our infrastructure, because a robot can’t build a road. And we need, you know, new ports and a smarter electricity grid, if we’re making investments, to make sure that research and development continues to happen here. If we have tax breaks for companies that are investing here in the United States as opposed to overseas, all those things can make the situation better.
Obama is obviously trying to illustrate two points: First, we desperately need to fix our phenomenally shitty infrastructure, and second, Republicans want to accelerate the robo-job-killing of America in order to concentrate more money at the top. The first point is valid, and the second one you can argue amongst yourselves, but both miss the mark. Why? Because robots can build roads, and that's an extremely important distinction to make.

First, the relevant robot info. In 2004, Google received a pretty fascinating patent for a "modular, robotic road repair machine" that is fully automated and could drive and direct itself. How about that mental image: a robot creating a road with a legion of Google self-driving cars following behind.

2001 Wired article looks at robotic road repair's growing use, noting that it could save highway workers' lives. (But would they have jobs?) Oh, and the robots are better at sealing cracks than humans....MORE
So that's the state of the robotic road builders/repairers/whatever guild as of Sept. 16, 2013.