Anyway, a lot has been happening in the wonderful world of robots lately, much of it in China. In the Chinese city of Dongguan, a cell phone parts manufacturer called Changying Precision Technology Company recently scaled its human workforce down to sixty. It used to have a solid 650 people employed. Since they dumped all those useless humans, productivity at their factory has gone up 162%. Let’s run this by you one more time. CPTC cut its human labor force by 90% and experienced a 162% increase in productivity. Hmm, I wonder if this will catch on…
The company uses giant programmed robotic arms to assemble the parts, along with automated trucks to transport the materials. Getting rid of feeble human laborers has caused defects in the delicate, intricate parts that will later be used in cell phones to drop from 25% to 5%. The remaining humans in the factory just monitor the production line and a central computer system–basically cheering the robots on from the sidelines.
Elsewhere in China, students at a military engineering university (that doesn’t sound menacing at all) in the city of Zhengzou are being trained to control robots with their minds. The controller wears a cap that’s covered in electrodes and is hooked up to a computer. It reads infinitesimal changes in the electrical impulses of the brain… you know, brain waves. The computer interprets the changes in brain waves and feeds those changes into a robot as commands.
So far, the brain-computer interface, known as an electroencephalograph, can send simple commands, like turning a robot’s head, telling it which direction to move in, and making it bend down to pick up objects. Researchers say the technology is only about 70% effective, even with the modest commands it is designed to give at this stage. Still, it is easy to imagine it becoming exponentially more sophisticated in five or ten years, and probably ubiquitous in fifteen. Technology moves fast–ten years ago no one had heard of an iPhone or Android, and now we can’t imagine life without them.
Back in the States, it was recently announced that the first autonomous trucks were cleared for use on American roads. The Inspiration Truck, manufactured by Daimler, is specially designed to navigate roads with regular cars and trucks. So far, it is only cleared on long, straight Nevada highways. The technology will evolve, as it always does and soon we’ll see it driving on more and more roads.
There are several benefits to an autonomous big rig, including increased safety and lower fuel costs. Human drivers can make mistakes, and long-distance commercial truck drivers are known for falling asleep at the wheel during long drives. Human drivers also use more fuel than an autonomous driving system would, since the Inspiration will accelerate and decelerate much more gently. The trucks won’t be totally driverless just yet though–Inspiration Trucks will have human drivers on hand in case a situation that you can’t plan for pops up. So, basically cheerleaders.
Finally, researchers in Cambridge and Zurich have created a robotic arm that builds little block structures with motors for movement. Robotic arms have been used to build things for a long time, so this isn’t really news. The difference is that this machine, assembling structures out of many little motorized blocks, can evaluate how well the structures function, and make changes to improve the next block structures it makes.
Most robotic arms are very limited–they rely on strict programming to carry out repetitive functions. This arm can learn from what it creates in real time, and use that learning to make better objects. Doesn’t seem like too big a gap between this and Skynet becoming self-aware, does it?
Oh well, I for one welcome our new robot overlords… assuming that we have Keanu Reeves around to kick their metal asses.