Ecobots and way-out fantasising

Robotics for Sustainability | The Signtific Lab | Massively Multiplayer Thought Experiments. This is a nice video on possible ecobots. Some rang true to earlier brainstorming I’ve had, and others like the road-repair bots were a little off. Robots that crafted up bitumen from environmental debris and rubbish were a bit far-fetched, mainly because the energy to process stuff at those temperatures seems to require a Plasma arc. However, there could be a wave of rubbish collection ecobots that collect the waste and feed it to a council truck that then takes it to the local Plasma arc recycler. The rubbish goes in and comes out as gravel and slag bitumen that the road-repair bots could then really use.

I love this stuff. I love the spirit of brainstorming what just might be possible a decade from now. AI grows, and robotic ‘insect intelligence’ begins to mimic the split-second reactions of animals and humans. Make no mistake, the majority of this blog is about practical, real world solutions to environmental problems that we already have today.

But I love thinking about the possibilities of armies of ecobots quietly, ever so patiently, and cheaply marching through the Australian outback killing pest. They might even harvest our plague species.  Imagine little and not-so-little hunter bots taking out cane-toads, feral foxes, cats and dogs, and even pigs and camels? The bots could cut them up and bring them home to ‘base-camp’ which might or might not involve people. What it will involve is a giant bio-digester tanker that composts the road-kill and brews up methane and fertiliser. The methane helps run the hybrid solar / methane attack bots, and the fertiliser is sold to outback farms. Once a region is ‘cleaned up’ the road-train moves on to find more prey. As long as it doesn’t get its programming confused and mistake us as the prey, everything’s OK so far right?

(Note how I deliberately avoided calling the hunter-eco-bots “HK’s” to avoid Terminator terminology. 😉

Oceans could have giant floating nuclear or solar powered ecobot ships that are really enormous oil tankers floating around collecting plastic. Nano-tentacles drift for kilometres, avoiding sea creatures but hunting out and snaring the plastics, some of which are now microscopic and replacing plankton at the base of the food chain. The plastic is brought on board and then gasified in a plasma arc. I’m not sure if the following will ever be feasible given space restrictions: but imagine they can refine the syngas into jet or helicopter fuel.

We build the ship as large as an aircraft carrier, so that on rare occasions emergency helicopters on search and rescue missions can land and take on fuel! Maybe the ship won’t really even be automated, and people will start to simply live out on the oceans, but not really even going anywhere, just drifting following the rubbish in the oceanic gyres of plastic.

What eco-bots are you interested in? Insect hunters? Tree-cutting gatherers for grafting out and replanting new saplings? Monitors that just report on the environment and plague species, climate and toxicology? Nano-bots that with vacuum sealed interiors are lighter than air, and can float up into the atmosphere and shield us from a tiny fraction of incoming sunlight to slow climate change? Bots that aerate the soil on farms? Heck, why not bots that do all our farming for us, by ‘hand’ and with great care?  This might enable a move away from monoculture farming which was originally designed for the convenience of modern harvesters, and towards permaculture poly-cropping that is far more resistant to pests, efficient with water and sunlight and fertiliser and builds soil. Why not? One of the only reasons we don’t all live off permaculture foods is that it requires such a ‘hands on’ approach, and the western world is so stratified and specialised that only a few percent of us are actually involved in our food production. But if robots ever arrive as fully as sci-fi has visualised for the last 60 years, then they would not only aerate the soil, but be ideal planters, weeders, composters, indeed all the fastidious tasks of an expert permaculture gardener that require care by ‘hand’.  For that matter, what about ecobots that clean sewers and recycle our sewerage, depositing it exactly where it is needed to maximise phosphorus retention in this new industrial-strength permaculture agrisystem?

Or is it ubiquitous robot cars that drive you to your destination, drop you there, and go and find a good car-park right next to the battery-charger? Maybe this would even change the model of ‘car ownership’ and you’d just belong to a club, and hire super-cheap cars on a per-trip basis. Because you’re not paying for the labour of the cab-driver. Or the labour of the pest-hunters or ocean cleaners… or road builders… or cooks?

What if in solving our ecological crisis we create the worst unemployment crisis in history, because it suddenly became cheaper to buy and own and maintain robots than it does now to run an average family car, which is of course also much cheaper than paying someone’s salaries year in year out!

Which leads to one of my favourite online essays: Robotic Nation, but Marshall Brain. This reminds me of the fear open source software created amongst some computer users that there wouldn’t be any controls, or it would undercut microsoft and apple so much that really professional, creative software wouldn’t get written any more.

Robot nation! I say bring it on…!

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