Saved by robot cockroaches?
I just read an article that starts with the movie WALL-E. (The story of a robot designed to clean up the world by compacting rubbish into blocks and building structures out of the blocks to minimize the amount of land they take up.) Being a movie, the robot falls in love and saves the world! But it’s a great movie that shows an understanding of robots’ real potential.
So, imagine that in twenty years we have our production of plastic rubbish mostly under control. We would limit our use of everyday plastics to those easily recycled, using enzymes to break them down into the hydrocarbons we need to make more stuff. We would finally have more efficient recycling streams. And all this would have to happen not just for plastics but for paper, organic matter, electronics, everything.
Today only a tiny fraction of the waste we produce is handled constructively, but change is happening: industrial machines are designed to split out construction waste for re-use, disassemble iPhones, and sort in recycling plants.
If we just stop making the situation worse today – that won’t be enough. Too many people say we have already done too much damage; it’s too late for Earth to recover. So, after we stop (literally) trashing the planet, how do we deal with all those hundreds of thousands of acres of landfill across the world? Or the Texas-sized garbage patch floating in the ocean?
To me, the answer is autonomous robots. Not some magic-bullet-solves-everything thanks to giant super-intelligent humanoid robots, but a swarm of mostly small robots with dexterity and a specific expertise, but relatively small intelligence. I imagine hundreds of robot rats (looking more like cockroaches), scurrying up landfills with mini-sensors and dextrous arms, identifying types of material, and delivering the sorted rubbish to larger carrier robots that take the sorted materials back to the recycling plants. Some robots will be bigger and stronger to carry old appliances. Some will have specialist sensors to identify dangerous materials. And all will have a basic ability to communicate with each other.
The idea of a diverse community of machines with different skills and of different generations – is one of several things WALL-E gets right. Another is the idea that robots don’t need to squander one energy. Apart from solar power, there are other possibilities. Refueling robots (these service stations are able move to where they’re needed) could also be powered by digesting some of the biological matter in the landfill. The world is not at death’s door. So says WALL-E. And me!
Gatineau / Le Plateau