Why robots are the promise of a better future than you think


Robots might seem to threaten our jobs and our livelihoods, but they are in fact tools that can improve our performance and set us free from demeaning or dangerous tasks. In the environmental field, they are already proving very helpful in understanding and protecting ecosystems, as well as intervening after disasters.


Robots are a science-fiction fantasy, a foil for all our modern fears. They are machines that we suspect will be more powerful than us one day. They will override us and take control of our world and our lives, making the world a worse place for humans to live. On a regular basis, reports and projections feed the fear. Most recently, a report by Roland Berger estimated that three million French employees will see their jobs threatened by 2025 – seeming to support the idea that robots will eventually replace us. But don’t forget that robots are tools designed by people to take on tasks which are heavy, difficult or even impossible for humans.

Don’t forget that robots will one day set us free from the demeaningwork that no one wants to do – and yet somebody has to do.

Robots are machines, and as such they can do things no living being can. They are adjuvants and allies. In the fight against climate change and its consequences and in  research to deepen our comprehension of our environment to protect it more efficiently, they can be most valuable. Here are a few examples.

Understanding ecosystems

Robots are precious in improving our understanding of ecosystems, particularly the marine environment, which can be challenging for humans to access. Ecomagination lists two initiatives, RoboJelly and Robotic Fish, two biomimicry projects to map the ocean, monitor water quality and pollution and gather all sorts of data. Spotted by How Stuff Works, the Roboctopus project currently being developed by researchers from Greece, Italy, Israel, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom has soft robotic tentacles to ‘dance its way into delicate environments without disrupting or damaging the surroundings,’ in order to ‘allow scientists to better hunt for signs of climate change in narrow ocean floor cracks and amid fragile coral.’ At European level, the Sunrise project is developing an ‘underwater internet of things,’ using ‘robots to work in groups, interacting together and passing back information to us on life underwater.’

Protecting the environment

After understanding comes protecting. As far as marine ecosystems are concerned, there are many things robots can do. Ecomagination lists a few: solar- and wave-powered Wave Gliders gather information about hurricanes, collecting information ‘about surface air temperature, wind chill, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, ocean temperature and water salinity';

Coralbots are underwater swarming robots that can repair damaged coral reefs and replace human divers in hard-to-access areas.

But the oceans are not the only place where they can be used. How Stuff Works reports that in Germany robot “pigs” “truck through human waste, using harnessed solar energy to help dry an estimated 60 million tons of sewage a year in Germany alone”. Triton Logging’s Sawfish harvest submerged trees in man-made lakes. There is also the Planet Labs project, which deploys micro-satellites that monitor deforestation to help identify and act on the causes.

Helping in natural and man-caused catastrophes

Robots can also prove handy after a catastrophe, when prevention is no longer an option. Think Progress details how they could be used in a series of hazards. Robot fire-fighters could navigate wreckage and debris to pour water on a fire, detect human fire-fighters and even haul them out of harm’s way, or cut trees very quickly to stop the fire in its tracks.

They [ robots] could also intervene in oil spills, to spread oil-degrading bacteria and avoid the need for polluting chemicals, as well as repelling marine wildlife to keep it clear of the contamination.

Robots can also come in handy in search and rescue after a natural disaster. Think Progress lists a few examples: a ‘snake-like bot (that) can wriggle into the tiniest crevasses to find buried survivors,’ ‘another one that ‘carries people,’ can open doors, detect when piles of rubble might collapse, etc. The ultimate intervention of robots in the environment is something called geoengineering: if efforts to mitigate climate change fail, researchers John Latham and Stephen Salter have a plan to ‘blast giant mirrors into orbit, paint more roofs white or create more cloud cover, which serves as a natural solar radiation reflector,’ in order to reflect more solar radiation and decrease the heat. Of course, the project’s side effects are unknown and possibly catastrophic, as it will interfere with the atmosphere and the Earth’s weather patterns. This extreme example highlights the role robots can play in protecting our environment, but also shows that it would be a mistake to use them as an excuse to ignore the consequences of our actions on our ecosystems. As the saying goes, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’

Photo © Esteban De Armas

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