Archive | July 2018

Robots Need Power

I’m seeing a lot of articles predicting a future determined by Robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI). I grew up watching animated cartoons and live action shows featuring both metal robots and human-looking androids. Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy featured a robot intended to replace the inventor’s dead son, and in The Living Doll, Julie Newmar played Rhoda the Robot for laughs and sex appeal. Since this was fiction, both robots had lots of unexpected personality, and we related to them as sympathetic characters. But at the same time, children’s TV shows often used robots as villains because a hero could destroy scads of them without coming off as a callous killer, or running afoul of the TV codes against violence.

I later read Asimov’s stories about robots programmed to obey three embedded laws to ensure human superiority. In other science fiction stories, robots were often a threat, often superior to, and sometimes hostile to humans. Think of the giant robot, Gort, in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

And now we are being warned that robots are going to take away our jobs. We are also being warned that computer systems using AI are going to manage our lives. I’ve been skeptical of both of these ideas, but there is no doubt that each is happening in the short term, though in limited ways. Robots are used in manufacturing, in check out lines and may even drive us around in cars. AI seems poised to permeate internet marketing and inventory operations, even to monitor our every shopping whim.

But unlike Commander Data, these systems require electricity. Right now we create most electricity by burning fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas, and some by splitting atoms in nuclear power plants. We generate a negligible amount of power with wind and solar, but not enough for industrial robots or AI server farms.

And there’s the rub. Almost everything we do to generate power creates more of the greenhouse gases that drive man-made climate change. Are the oligarchs going to cut back on electricity to combat climate change? Not willingly, I suspect.

To make up for dwindling conventional oil reserves, we have increasingly turned to the mining of tar sands, hydraulic fracturing , and ‘clean’ coal. Hanford, Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have damaged any public feeling that reactors are safe, but more importantly, less famous reactors around the US have frightened away investors by being persistently unprofitable.

Yet, a smattering of recent OpEd pieces advise the US to retool and try again with nukes. A Yale Environment 360 article reframes the well-known nuclear disasters as acceptable risks compared to those associated with extracting or mining fossil fuels. Wired Magazine predicts that Next Gen nuclear designs – many using molten salt – will be inherently safer than the ones that failed so famously.

I’m not happy about it, but given the dismal reports from the oil markets, I do expect that the US will turn to nuclear power again in the near future.