Honeybees, which are of the greatest commercial interest, pollinate about a third of what we eat, including fruits, nuts and vegetables. Thirty-one percent of US bee colonies were lost in the winter of 2013 alone. Then, as the future of the honeybees seems dire indeed, the cavalry of the robots rushes to the rescue of the flowering plants and trees. Although they are not yet deployed into the waiting blossoms, they already have a name: robobees.
The current leader in robobees technology is a team at Harvard University. In May 2013, their School of Engineering and Applied Sciences announced that an experimental prototype of the robobee made its first controlled flight. Half the size of a paperclip, weighing less than a tenth of a gram, it powered upward, hovered on its delicate flapping wings, and flew away.
Writing in the Scientific American, the team leaders said, “In 2009 the three of us began to seriously consider what it would take to create a robotic bee colony. We wondered if mechanical bees could replicate not just an individual’s behavior but the unique behavior that emerges out of interactions among thousands of bees. We have now created the first RoboBees—flying bee-size robots—and are working on methods to make thousands of them cooperate like a real hive.”
A major engineering breakthrough was finding a way to power the high speed flapping of the 3 cm wings. The solution was piezoelectric effect actuators. Electric fields applied to tiny ceramic strips cause them to flap the bee’s wings at 120 times per second.
Read more at the Winter of the Genomes website. It can be ordered on Amazon.
Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are two prominent public figures who have rattled public consciousness about artificial intelligence. Hawking, a celebrated physicist noted for his pronouncements about black holes, warned that AI could end mankind. Musk, a non-stop entrepreneur who founded SpaceX and Tesla, declared AI to be the most serious threat to the survival of the human race.
Neither of these prolific thinkers seems to have addressed from where or from whom the AI-controlled creations will get emotion, imagination, values, conscience, and even the attributes of psychotics and demagogues. My new book, Winter of the Genomes, on Amazon, presents a more reasoned and optimistic view of the emerging Smart AI.
Suppose you lived a distant time from now, and you overheard the following exchange between a woman and a robot:
She: “I am the smartest. I went to the university. I am connected. I am the key to success around here.”
Robot: “Yes, but you and your kind need to eat and drink, to consume things like clothes, and to occupy large air conditioned spaces. You are too demanding and too expensive to continue living here.”
It will be a long time before robots will be able to make a value judgment like this, but this comparison is increasingly going to happen. Robots do not feel better if something or someone is doing their work for them. They just exist for the moment with no memory of the past or vision of the future. Since robots work much more cheaply and efficiently than humans, we will hardly resist assigning them to more and more of our daily tasks from vacuuming the floors to walking the dog.
The whole thing crystallized in my mind when I was in a remote village in Myanmar, or Burma, of all places. Through an interpreter, I asked a schoolteacher what she thought of robots (I never miss an opportunity to do book research!). She said, according to my notes, “The machines will take over a few things, then more things, until all you have to do is watch television. After many years, people will lose arms and legs for lack of use. You will turn into potatoes.” That’s the wisdom of a simple, village woman. It’s worth thinking about.
From the new book just published, Winter of the Genomes.
Could robots be the fourth great socioeconomic revolution in modern American Life? First, automobiles replaced horses, enabling suburbia. Then along came television which brought the world into our living room. What sneaked up later was television's child, the video camera, which became the all-seeing eye, following us everywhere. Then there were smartphones which serve as our portal to the Web and to our friends.
If we combine the mechanical genius of the automobile with the sentience of television and the connectedness provided by the smartphone, we find ourselves among the robots. They can be alive enough so we can love them, and they can revolutionize our economy.
Like cars, television and smartphones, mass adoption of robots will depend on mass production to reduce their cost, and people-oriented packaging so that they can be be as attractive and simple to operate as smartphones.
See more in my new book, Winter of the Genomes which can be purchased at Amazon.
Larry Kilham is a Sloan School of Management graduate from MIT, received three patents, and has founded two high-tech companies. Many of his product designs required innovative use of computers, and as early as the 1960s he was researching artificial intelligence (AI).