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

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


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.


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.