The holodeck: Modular Robotics

In the coming weeks I will examine a few technologies that could function like a holodeck. Today I’ll examine the modular robotics.

This is my favourite holodeck replacement because it resembles the original holodeck in Star Trek most closely. Imagine a large room, about 2 stories high. You enter on the first floor, the floor you now stand on is silvery grey, these are robots. Half the room is filled with millions of robots, even smaller then a grain of sand.

The holodeck of Star trek, uses many exotic technologies like forcefields, transporters and replicators to create a realistic fantasy world within a confined space. Though this is great it is also uncertain at best if all the required technologies will ever become a reality. It is way easier to use robotics to do pretty much the same thing, with a little help from holographic projectors maybe.

Modular robotics are like high tech LEGO bricks. Each module is a small computer that has sensors and can connect with other modules. when they interact they essentially become a supercomputer which is able to rearrange itself into complex structures. the modules themselves are responsible for forming into the right objects with the right characteristics (soft or hard, warm or cold, colour, large or small, square or round etc.) while a central computer is responsible for the overall scene that needs to be created (e.g. a house with a bench in front on which a woman sits who is scolding you for being late).

If you walk across a street the scene changes accordingly. What will happen is that on one side of the room object are rapidly constructed and on the other side they are broken down just as fast. The robots get from one side to the other in a way that is not unlike the ocean currents. on ground level the robots move in on direction and underground a torrent of robots moves in the opposite direction effectively keeping you in the middle of the room. far off objects are projected on the walls and/or created with holographic projectors.

Of course the first generations of these blocks aren’t all that great. The modular blocks are not intelligent and need to be assembled by hand to do anything but they will eventually become more powerful and will eventually gain more and more of the functions I described above. When they get a resolution of a centimetre square (about half an inch square) it could get some applications. For instance in the military, allowing for urban warfare training in a large area or an architect showing a house not even build yet. When they get down to one millimetre square (about 1/25 inch square) it will be good enough to have wide scale applications. From designing a production line and training workers to work with that production line to entertainment purposes. When it gets down to the size of sand I think you will have a nearly real virtual reality.

Upkeep is easy, just add a bucket of new modules to replace faulty ones every so often. The faulty ones are detected by the modules around it and kept apart until they can be discarded by the user. Further along the line the faulty ones will be filtered out and repaired or recycled in a special part of the ‘holodeck.’ Which will eliminate upkeep altogether. On the downside: so many robots and computers will require a lot of power. In order to meet the power demand we will need new sustainable sources of power like solar, wind, geothermal or fusion power. Another downside is that it requires a relatively large space.

Love sex marriage

Marcelino Rapayla Jr. 2009 (CC BY)

Marcelino Rapayla Jr. 2009 (CC BY)

There is a danger for human kind. Robots! This might be the plot line to a bad 50’s science fiction film with killer robots. I, however, am talking about the dangers of love. When robots get more and more human-like we will find it easier and easier to fall in love with them.

You might find it impossible to believe we can fall in love with robots but even today we have a small group of people in love with objects. Some bought a sex doll (a life size doll which looks and feels ‘real’ and is anatomically correct) while others are in love with even stranger objects like cars and the Berlin Wall. They are only the (sometimes slightly crazy) forefront of what we’ll eventually all succumb to.

We humans are naturally talented at what psychologists call personification. We attribute animals and inanimate objects with human emotions and behaviour. We feel our pet understands us better then our partner, we scream at our laptop when it isn’t working and we try bribing our car into starting on a cold winters day. And if we can scream at a computer we can easily fall in love with a robot which has actual human traits.

The problem is that robots will be better then potential human partners at seducing someone. They will be a superstimulus for us. A superstimulus is an exaggerated stimulus. An artificial stimulus (for instance by a parasitic species) that is not natural to the species. When humans fall in love we feel it is our perfect match. More realistically it is a close match but not perfect. When the initial love wears off we start to see things that bother us about the other. A robot however will not have these faults and be a perfect love compliment to your own.

A perfect love compliment is different from a ‘perfect lover’ Disney style romantic comedy type of guy/girl. We are not all waiting for the romantic, sweet prince(ss) on a white horse. If you are a bit of a rebel you’ll want a rebel lover, if your a bit dominant you’ll want a lover that is a bit submissive. If you love to travel, you want a traveller. The robot will exactly compliment what you want in your dream man or woman.

You don’t need to program it either. It will learn everything about you via advanced data mining algorithms and find a personality to compliment you. This works better because there usually is a (big) difference between what we think we want and what we actually want. Data mining is a process in which large quantities of data are analysed. It is used for instance on social media to personalize your ads so you are more likely to buy the advertised products or on Amazon to show you products you are more likely to buy.

In science fiction they argue people will eventually prefer the real love of a human above the artificial love of a robot. Their argument is that because you know it is not real it will feel inadequate and cannot be a true substitute for ‘real’ love. Good sentiment but totally false of course. We see it for instance in massive multi online games in which people feel the loss of a digital sword they worked hard for as real as if they actually had that real sword and lost it. We are in the end just animals reacting to stimuli, real or not. Our brain might distinguish between the two on a cognitive level but on an emotional level it cannot.

And so, when everybody has a robot lover we will stop reproducing and eventually die out. Extremely happy, but still. Only thing that could save us is via artificial insemination one way or another. The thing we luckily have going for us is that humans, as any other species, has a natural instinct to reproduce offspring.

Robot workforce: The end of money

By Vmenkov (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

As robots become more complex they will replace more and more jobs. In these articles I will examine the implications of increasing unemployment. We are halfway now with our third story.

When (nearly) all of our jobs have been replaced by robots and computers we will find that our current economic system is obsolete. The trouble with nobody having work is that nobody gets paid. When nobody gets paid nobody has any money to spend to keep the economy running.

Well we could think about doing away with money altogether but we will find it is impractical.  The problem we have without money is that not all goods will be readily available. We only have one Earth, space will therefore still be at a premium, we just can’t all live in a villa. Other goods are limited by the available resources. The government could decide to issue certain premium goods each month in an extreme communistic fashion. This, however, would limit our freedom so much that most will find it an unacceptable proposition.And even if we were able to find a way with doing away with money we would find that trading is engrained in our core being. We have been trading for millennia maybe even for millions of years, it is part of our DNA. This means that we would be uneasy without any form of money or trade.

Best way to go therefore is a midway. Governments issue an amount of credits per person which you can spend as you wish. If you want more space you buy a bigger house but it means you cannot spend the money on the latest gadget. This allows the government to preserve the individual freedom while also controlling the space and resources available so shortages won’t arise. As a society we would all basically become upper middle class people, not just in the countries which have the power today but in the entire world. Poverty could actually be abolished.

On an intergovernmental level money could be abolished altogether. Governments can tackle any project they want provided they can get the necessary resources for the project. This will open grand new possibilities which I will examine in a later story.

This might seem like a communist idea but the difference between a true communist government and this neo communism is that it can have a multi party government. Each party with different agenda’s. The production in mining, agriculture, industry and services will be higher than ever because machines do not care if they get paid or not, how long they work and under what circumstances and just produce things as it is needed. (with technologies as 3D printing factories might even be able to switch instantly between products). Even the capitalist ideal of a true 24/7 economy will become a reality in this society.

This transition won’t come easy though. There are a lot of forces acting against it. 90% (this is a wild guess) of the world would become (a lot) richer. Trouble is the richest 10% will become (a lot) poorer. And let those 10% be the people who have a lot of power. They are politicians, CEO’s and other influential people. It would also require a new level of intergovernmental cooperation to distribute resources equally. One country might have a lot of coal while another has a lot of iron ore and a third has, basically, nothing. If the governments with natural resources do not share with governments without natural resources a new kind of poverty could be born. Some countries, like the Netherlands where I live, do not have many natural resources but can rely on urban mining (fancy word for recycling) to still participate in the global new economy if needed. Mostly countries without natural resources and which are poor today (which means they don’t have a lot of stuff to recycle which will be of value) would be left out.

Robot workforce: The robots are coming

As robots become more complex they will replace more and more jobs. In the coming months I will examine the implications of increasing unemployment. Today the first of five articles.

As computers get smaller and more powerful and robots get more sophisticated more and more jobs will be replaced by technology. Eventually there won’t be enough jobs left to keep the entire population working. We have seen a steady increase in automation for years and it is likely that it will continue into the future. Jobs like the telephone operator are a thing of the past. Nowadays we see bank tellers being replaced by ATM’s and internet banking; factory workers are being replaced with an ever increasing automated production line and the first automated vehicles are on the road today threatening to put every professional driver out of work eventually.

We won’t have much of a problem for years to come seen as the increase in technology will create jobs we haven’t even thought of today. The workers which are unnecessary in one field will find work in another. Eventually, however, there just won’t be enough jobs any more to go round. An ever increasing number of people will never have a job in their life. The single reason we still have to work today in production plants is because robots cannot replace us yet. We are more nimble than a robot and thus can complete tasks way beyond a robots dexterity. Robots however are getting more nimble all the time.

In the services industry we still are ahead in thinking creatively and in understanding one another. But with a computer winning Jeopardy it is only a matter of time before they will beat us in that department as well. You can even see it happening as automated costumer services are starting to replace human interaction for larger companies. Some websites allow you to ask the computer a question which it will try to answer as best it can.

You might feel irreplaceable right now and think this is a long way off.  You might reason that a computer is a long way off from a human and cannot do what humans can. The trouble is that they don’t need to. A computer only needs to be good at the task that it is designed to do. It doesn’t need to be good at darts if we want it to do the weather forecasting.

Of course the first to suffer here will be the least educated workers. Their work is usually easiest to replace. But eventually more and more highly educated workers will find themselves obsolete. Even the boardrooms of the major corporations will not be filled with humans eventually. Everyone will be laid off from a cost and efficiency perspective.

You might think about becoming a scientist or a programmer in the hope of not being replaced. However when  artificial intelligence become sophisticated enough they can start designing themselves and at a pace that will be far to fast for humans to keep up. Some will say that computers cannot be creative and thus cannot design themselves. However creativity in the end is just a algorithm in our heads. In a recent competition programmers designed a program to let the computer make a painting like the Victory Boogie Woogie by Mondriaan. It ain’t much yet but it’s a first step towards true creativity.