Friday, 25 September 2015

Robotic technology: a means to a better, more human world

Much of the western world has operated in a way to saddle itself with large numbers of unemployed people with no prospect of job security or of doing anything that seems really worthwhile. Making money and making sure you enjoy yourself, if possible not at other people's expense, seems to be the ethos of a spiritually arid age.

Whatever our spiritual beliefs or indifference to these it cannot be denied that meaningful work is essential to the well being and balance of most people. It is an important role of a government to steer the country it governs towards an economic structure which generates meaningful jobs and careers. This means encouraging industries and enterprises, state or private, which create value-added products and services i.e. products and services which bring in the money needed to finance social services and investment for the future, and above all, to provide people with lifelong, meaningful employment, either with one organization or a variety of employers, ensuring that adequate training is available.

Here are some schemes which could employ a huge number of people, paying them good wages to do useful work. All are based on robotics, a rapidly advancing discipline as the supernaturally sophisticated mechanisms of biological organisms are copied and adapted. Similar high value-added schemes requiring, or not requiring, robot technology, could, I am sure, be developed but these would be a start.

  • Robot ships to clear up the oceans. This could provide a great opportunity to generate both IT and heavy engineering work, bringing back to life many a derelict shipyard (e.g. like those on the UK’s northern coast – Tyneside etc.) and creating entirely new ones. This could not only provide worthwhile employment and stimulate local economies but solve the burgeoning problem of microscopic, non-digestible plastic particles entering the marine food chain, including sea birds.

  • Roads and pavements, millions of miles of them world-wide, need ripping up and replacing with smooth, high quality surfaces. Consider the market for a machine that stops over a crumbling section of motorway or clearway, say, pulverises the existing material and replaces it with a smooth, tough, durable surface within an hour. The market would be mind boggling and  a boost to the manufacturing industry.

  • Laying of new roads and railways. Again, a robotic machine that could lay down strips of finished road by the mile would have a vast market worldwide. Imagine the sales potential of China and India alone as well as  the investment and employment opportunities for western economies.

  • Footpaths and small roads over mountains, rough terrain and marshland are especially useful in rural and tourist areas. Teams of skilled individuals equipped with robot-based systems could lay these down more efficiently than at present. The market would be enormous in the developing world, allowing small remote communities to share in the growing prosperity of the wider world as well as allowing medical aid to reach them more quickly. Hopefully, food aid would be less in demand as the communities prospered.

  • High tension overhead power cables need repairing rapidly so any robotic help could reduce the down-time. As completely new national grids are installed there will also be a big market for technological assistance in doing this rapidly. Again there would be a boost to employment as new infrastructure is manufactured, installed and maintained.

  • Robotic repair systems for use on sewage pipes, drains, water supply lines, gas pipes and buried cable conduits, especially in metropolitan areas, are already being used but there is no doubt plenty of scope for innovation. More employment opportunities.

  • Caring for our fellow human beings when their physical or mental faculties require this is primarily a personal task, requiring great kindness, skill and dedication by gifted individuals. If robotic devices could be developed to help the carers at a practical level (e.g. fastening buttons or handling soiled clothing) this would allow them to spend more time on personal interaction and transform the nature of care work.

If I can think up a list like this imagine what a dedicated think tank could come up with. So I am asking readers to pressurise their MPs, senators, congressmen, local government officials, aid agencies and church leaders to move in this direction. Or plant ideas in the minds of existing and potential entrepreneurs, or, even better, start up your own company to develop and launch such technology.

This could be a way to help the developing nations while saving the developed ones from their past sins and improving the quality of life  of its own citizens.


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Friday, 18 September 2015

Sperm whales, global warming and fish population

Sperm whales, featured in the novel Moby Dick,  are at the top of the marine food chain, above that of the giant squid and the colossal squid. It used to be thought that they were a threat to the available fish stocks but in fact they seem to be beneficial and it shows just how complex and full of surprises the biosphere can be.

Sperm whale clicks carry for 6 miles and are as loud as a jumbo jet (230db)

 Although sperm whales eat a lot of marine fauna their main diet is squid, which contain a lot of iron (Fe). They dive to as much as 3 km for 30-90 minutes, spending about 8 minutes resting  near the surface, where they excrete over 80% of the Fe they have ingested from the squid prey. The iron enters the ocean as Fe salts. 

This is the key to the replenishment of fish stocks because the Fe salts are highly nutritious to the phytoplankton, which is the foundation of the whole ocean food chain in the same way that ordinary green plants are the base of the land food chain. Not only does this allow the fish population to grow but, considering just the Southern Ocean, which contains 12,000 sperm whales, the phytoplankton remove 440,000 tons of carbon per year from the atmosphere.  This compares with about 176,000 tons (p.a.) breathed into the air by the sperm whales, giving a net carbon removal of 266,000 tons p.a. by the sperm whales in the Southern Ocean. Scaling up (assuming such a scaling up is valid) from 12,000 to a total of about 360,000 globally this means that in all sperm whales remove (360,000/12,000) x 266,000 =  30 x 266,000 = 7.98 million tons of carbon p.a. 

Phytoplankton,  at the bottom of the food chain, intercepts energy from the sun and converts it into plant tissue for mobile grazing sea creatures, so the sperm whale predation chain significantly increases  the number of  fish available  for food. This is despite the large consumption of sea life by the sperm whales since, as stated above, fish are only a small part of the whale's diet.

Before the Industrial Revolution there are estimated to have been 2 million sperm whales and their 6-fold decline must have had a significant effect on global warming as well as in reducing the phytoplankton biomass on which all sea life depends. So there appears to be good reason to restore the populations of these sea mammals.

 Being at the top of the chain they are highly susceptible to poisoning both by metal and plastic. (In my novel, 2077:Knights of Peace, an incidental theme is the deployment of robot plastic scavenging ships worldwide.) 

See also

John Sears