Intel's Ronler Acres Plant

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Friday, August 25, 2017

Life

Grandpa Jack passed away last night while his daughter was en route to visit him one more time before the school year started. Last we heard he had maybe six months to live. Hmmph. That's the thing about estimates, especially on something like this.

So all my list of (chickenshit) chores suddenly got a bunch more stuff added, which pushed my reading on the ol' motivation meter off of the 'that'll keep' up to, 'hmm, there's a bunch of stuff that needs doing', so I got up (figuratively speaking) and started taking care of business.

A few minutes (hours?) later I've done all that can reasonable be expected, and it's time to take a break. I mean, shoot, beer thirty was a couple of hours ago. I'm sitting outside, drinking Palomas, feeling the pleasant breeze and watching it blow out my match. Looking around I notice a bird up in the top of a tree and I got to thinking about life and brains (BRAINS cries the zombie) and artificial intelligence.

So life. Our existence is predicated on the existence of the biosphere. Should I say 'our biosphere'? I mean, we know of no other. All life that we know of exists in this very thin layer of atmosphere and water that lies on the surface of our planet. Yes, mountains are high and rivers are deep (pause while I go find the song), but compared to the volume and mass of the Earth, our layer of existence is nothing.

I like to think of birds as sophisticated automatons. I mean, we could probably build a mechanical bird that could fly and navigate. We have drones and R/C model aircraft that look like birds. We are pretty near there. But how about building a mechanical bird that could forage over the landscape and so fuel itself?Okay, there was the fly eating office robot. But how about self repair, or the really big issue, reproduction?

When we first started making industrial machinery, everything was designed to last forever. Yes, there was maintenance to be performed, oil to be changed, bearings to be replaced, but it you followed instructions your machine would last forever.  Now the economics of manufacturing have changed. Diagnosis and repair are rare skills embodied by only a few people of exceptional abilities (a little self promotion never hurts, I'm told). Put those together, along with the large number of Asians who are willing and able to follow directions for a few kopecks a day means that is cheaper to build new ones than repair old ones.

Which should be our model going into the future? Dutiful maintenance of big, solid machines? Or continual replacement of chickenshit consumer goods? My opinion (and yours) don't matter. There are proponents of both approaches. They will either succeed or fail. They both may survive, or one or the other, or even both may fail. Keep a record, write it down. Maybe that information will prove useful to someone the next time this situation arises.

NASA humanoid robot
The point I am trying to make (I'm taking a shortcut here, the whole explanation exceeds my attention span) is that going into space, we really need to be designing our robotic children. People do really well on the surface of the Earth, but the surface of the Earth is an infinitesimal portion of the universe. If we are going to explore outer space, we really need bodies that survive without air, withstand more than 3 gees, and aren't bothered by temperatures that approach absolute zero or exceed the boiling point of lead.

The answer of course is mechanical men. Robots do not need to look like people, they can look like anything, like a refrigerator or a tractor. But people are the end result of a zillion years of evolution. We have an extensive array of capabilities. We might have abilities that no one has thought to catalog. Shoot, we might have abilities that no one has even noticed. Building a robot that has all of the abilities of a human would be a good exercise. We might not want to send people-like robots into outer space, but knowing how to build a machine that could emulate a person would be worthwhile goal.

Reproduction though, that's going to be a tough nut to crack. To emulate animal reproductive processes we would essentially need to design our own cell that could grow into a creature that could survive in outer space. We might be able to do that in another thousand years.

Another approach would be to give our robot children the knowledge of how to mine the materials, process them and build the machines that could make more robots. Biology is suitable for the biosphere, but not for outer space.

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