Welcome to the Real Future: Labor Bots and Pothole-Filling Machines

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Labor problems, crumbling infrastructure, and the machines that are going to fix everything or something.

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Two pieces of machine-related news yesterday should focus our attention on what our future is shaping up to be. First, Amazon announced it would purchase Kiva, a robotic systems maker, for $775 million. The Kiva robots work together by the hundreds in warehouses, all controlled by software that guides them along the most efficient routes as they deliver packages from the storehouses to humans lined up around the edge of the buildings.

And, of course, more robots means less people. Nevermind that these jobs were the kind of service gigs that were supposed to replace the manufacturing ones of yesteryear. It turns out real people want decent jobs, health care, and working conditions. Kiva robots, on the other hand, don't care don't care.

They don't even need light. They navigate by a simple grid that's attached to the floor, so they don't need light like humans would nor do they need the same level of climate control. "One marketing trick the company uses is to bring people out to the center of a warehouse and switch out the lights," I wrote back in 2009. "The robots keep working around the people, cruising around in the dark."

This is certainly one of the metaphors for what our future is going to look like: a bewildered human stands in the dark as hundreds of quiet robots route around him doing all the work. And a marketer looks on.

On a similar score, we find Mayor Bloomberg announcing that New York City is trialing a new pothole fixing machine. This thing is called the Python and it allows one person working inside the vehicle to mend potholes with no help from any other laborer. Proponents say that makes workers safer because they don't have to be hanging around on the highway with people whizzing by at 80 miles an hour. And it may be cheaper on a per-pothole basis.

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Of course, it is one of the oft-forgotten realities of America today that we have not paid for the infrastructure we have. Like a car that's gone too long without proper maintenance, things are going to break down more and more often, i.e. there will be more and more potholes. And yet at the same time, we have state and city budgets getting cut left and right, despite a ballooning national debt. It doesn't take any fancy policy wonkery to figure out that our infrastructure -- roads, water-handling systems, sewers, etc -- are going to fall into disrepair. And so you get people inventing machines that may be efficient enough to bail us out of the problem.

Perhaps the Python will work as advertised and we'll be able to stretch more money over the same number of highway and road surfaces. That still means that a job that required (and paid) four people now needs one.

Welcome to the future, where we are just hanging on.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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