How Robots Will Shape 21st Century Cities: Constructing and Using Cities


Last week, I covered a list of 20 items from The Futurist magazine’s Outlook 2010 (Nov-Dec 09 issue that will shape 21st c cities.×84 Now I am adding other trends, ideas, and forecasts beyond their list. The first article outlined three comprehensive topics, The Great Urban Divide, Megacities, and Poly-Centric Region, and the second one focused on water and cities.  This article will cover robotics and cities, which, like water, deserves an entire article.

Extensions of Humans

Marshall McLuhan, renowned for “The media is the message,” also invented the notion of technology as extensions of humans. Every technology extends our bodies or minds. Therefore, the hammer extends our hands, the car extends our legs, and the computer extends our minds.

The robot promises to extend our capacity in continuously surprising ways. Furthermore, robots threaten us because unlike other machines, they act autonomously. Their potential raises significant questions: Will robots someday replace, harm, or even overthrow us?

Sixty years ago, in anticipation of the potential threat, Isaac Asimov created the three laws of robots: 1) They must not harm us. 2) They must obey us, except where they do us harm. 3) They must protect their own existence unless it conflicts with laws 1 or 2. With great foresight, Asimov framed our moral dilemma when robots were still just an idea. Yet his laws have been broken already in the field of military weapons, spurring debate by robot-ethicists. 

These questions become increasingly complex with the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI), also called singularity.  Ray Kurzweil anticipates that we will see robots with human intelligence in the next few decades. The singularity moment is defined by the Turing test. Can a machine engage in natural conversation?

As robots invade every aspect of living and working, its definition evolves. The University of Texas Robotics Research Group defines a robot as: “An automatic device that performs functions normally ascribed to humans or a machine in the form of a human.”  Which begs the question, when is a machine a robot? For example, is a car a robot?

I would make the distinction that a machine becomes a robot when it is able to perform its primary function – such as transportation – without human interaction. For example, the Lexus car that self-parks is operating in that function as a robot car.

I consider robots and cities in three areas: construction, mobility, and daily functions.

1.      Constructing Cities and Buildings

While cars have been built with robots since the 1980s, retooling manufacturing plants and labor practices has taken three decades. Building cities with robots will even more complex. The first step is constructing buildings as prefabricated mass-produced buildings. Making parts or entire modular sections in a shop or factory lend itself to stationary industrial robots, which has been in practice for decades. More interesting are robots that function on site, such as for improving safety.  Or for aiding carpenters. Small caterpillar-like robots climb tall poles and perform checks, thereby protecting workers from dangerous tasks. At some point, I believe that workers will demand robots on-site, just as I imagine that soldiers look to drones as first responders to bomb threats. In the future, robots will build many portions of buildings at construction sites, such as this demonstration model that builds walls. 

2.      Mobility or Where’s My Flying Car?

We have used elevators for over 100 years, and escalators and moving walkways are nothing new. Trains and planes have autopilot functions. Imagine if our cars could be automated at that level, especially without tracks. London Heathrow Airport is building a personal rapid transportation system to open in 2010 with whiz-bang futuristic cabs. The privacy unavailable in public transit or safety problems of private cars is solved with electric zero-carbon system. Completely autonomous vehicles are being tested. Beyond the self-parking Lexus, the next step for these vehicles is sensing devices that monitor speeds and space cars properly, or stop accidents. Automated highway systems or intelligent highways would work with the cars to control traffic.

The Segway promised to revolutionize mobility, a highly over-estimated claim that merely demonstrates the difficulties of transforming transportation. New tech is just the first step; widespread adoption means changing regulations, urban design, and ultimately behaviors. This year, the company teamed with GM to add a Segway car, which promises to raise similar issues. Where do these vehicles belong – with cars, bikes, or pedestrians? It is a beautiful little vehicle that operates more like a golf cart than a car and seemingly would be at home in slower paced districts without congestion to minimize conflicts.

Flying cars already exist, the Moller being the closest to a true example Much like the Segway, they lack a good fit in cities. We have to ask: How do we create order in the air to enable wayfinding and minimize crashes? How do we keep them out of commercial fly zones? Furthermore if you have mechanical failure, you have a crash landing instead of simply a stalled car. The safety and congestion problems of thousands if not millions of personal flying vehicles require far higher technology, training, and attention than we put on automobiles.

Finally, some of the most intriguing mobility devices are in eko-skeleton concepts. Strap them on and traversing a mile becomes a far simpler matter, both faster and easier. Pedestrian distances to conveniences could be revolutionized by these various robots and transform how we use cities.

Here are a number of robots that we may see in coming decades. 

3.      Daily Functions Using Buildings and Cities

You have probably heard of refrigerators that track your food and place grocery orders, or appliances that respond remotely such as digital recordings or coffee machines. Robotic vacuum cleaners (roombas) have been in use for over a decade, and lawn mowing for the past few years.  (Today HuffPo imagines these seemingly tame devices may try to kill us. – a joke or too close for comfort?) Maintenance technology is expanding to street cleaning with the Scarab, a sort of Wall-E for streets. 

Swarming robots the size of a finger nail can carry small solar films and supply power on-demand. They may sense room comfort, provide light, heat, air flow, or convey images from one space to another. Why go visit the boss when you can send a swarm? Furniture also looks to be smart and flexible, such as modular parts that re-assemble for chairs or tables. Smart technology which uses reading sensors, codes objects with rfids and can automate our energy grid or transportation system is related automation on a massive scale. Robots and the Internet of Things will do for cities and buildings what Gameboy did for board games.

Furthermore, how we use buildings and how we assemble and make things can be made easier with robots. Industry is constantly finding new ways to use robots, such as this Gap warehouse. Cleaning, organizing, maintaining a house will become ever more automated. Robot, read me the headlines now.   

Looking Ahead

Robots will immerse our cities with automation and change how we live and work, no doubt, even who we are. For example, I might say I am not a robot, but my arm is, or my eye is. Transhumanism is reshaping how we define machine and human. We will work with robots, and yes, I think even grow attached to them. Some will emulate humans or animals, and others will be strange forms or geometric shapes suited to some particular task. Robot as a term has been useful as a machine of the future; at some point, we will need far more specific descriptions. Building them, maintaining, updating, using, and teaching robotics are specialized career paths. Eventually, Robots 101 will be a basic course.

You can find more robot references on my delicious site (cindyfw).

Next I focus on more technology that will shape 21st century cities: geo-engineering and nanotechnology.

photo credit: Hallucigenia Project, IATSS Research 28.1 (2004) by Shunji Yamanaka, Automotive Transportation Gallery, U of California Library, Berkeley