As I write this, my wife and I are in the process of building our next house. I’ve never built a house before. I think the biggest structure I’ve actually built was a doghouse, and I struggled to assemble a pre-fab shed so, yes, I’m probably crazy. We’ve needed a lot of help from incredibly generous (and knowledgeable) family and friends. But I found myself asking, “Why aren’t there robots I can rent that would do all this for me?” Doesn’t every hapless DIY-er ask this question?
Whatever happened to those predictions that we’d have robot servants to perform all the menial tasks of life for us? Were futurists and science fiction writers just way too optimistic about the timeline required to develop such technology? Or were they flat out wrong, and there are too many hurdles to overcome to be worth it?
Let’s look at the processes involved in building my house. A properly programmed human-size robot should be able to select the correct lumber for a given wall and transport it to the site. With an extra accessory or two, it ought to be able to measure any cuts necessary and chop the wood into the required lengths. It might need to be a little bigger to include the laser measure and saw blade, though. Then it could probably place each piece in the proper configuration and pop a few nails in to hold it in place. Hmmm, I guess we’d better give the robot a built-in level and nailer, too. Gee, suddenly the robot’s getting a bit heavy for that plywood floor and kind of bulky to squeeze under those temporary braces keeping the newly-framed wall from falling over. Maybe there’s a reason cars built by automation require gigantic factories.
OK, let’s try again. We’ll give the robot hands like humans have, to let it just grasp the tools it needs each time, like we do. Never mind that our hands require nearly thirty different bones and 2500 nerve endings per square centimeter to provide the dexterity and bio-feedback needed to handle tools and other things. Let’s say we’ve solved that, and now we tell the robot to hammer a nail into something. For our new house my wife and I chose an exterior cladding that’s a kind of thick panelling with a dense outer coating to do the job of ten-test and siding all in one. A clever idea in theory but Boy, does it like to repel nails! You see, it takes a bit of extra effort to pierce the coating and the stuff bounces like crazy—try driving a nail into that. No, wait—that’s not difficult enough—make it a fancy round-headed nail. Got the picture yet? Every time the hammer hits the nail, the position of the nail changes a little and the angle of attack of the hammer stroke has to adjust to compensate, perhaps with a slight turn of the hammer face and a stroke that’s more of a push than a swing. Or a bit more left force than right, with just a touch of body English. Get it wrong and the nail goes Ping! and flies off into the fourth dimension, never to be seen again.
There are countless tasks in house-building that require mental and physical versatility like that, from compensating for warped boards, to judging how far you can tolerate something that’s just slightly off-level or off-square (OK, ‘slightly’ might be an understatement). Not to mention adaptation to the on-site environment—windy or wet, flat or rough, and full of sawdust. Robotics experts will tell you that there are huge numbers of micro-decisions involved in some of the most routine tasks, and we completely take for granted the extraordinary abilities of our brains and bodies to handle them.
I can’t really predict if we’ll ever produce robots with that kind of sophistication, but I do know that jobs like house construction will be out of the question until we change the arcane conventions of the field. Like language that includes studs, cripples, and scabs (oh my!). The fact that “dressed lumber” means a 2 x 4 is actually 1 ½ inches x 3 ½ inches, and an 8-foot stud is only 92 5/8 inches long instead of 96. And speaking of inches, the imperial system of measurement has got to go. Have you ever tried to use a calculator for an equation involving measurements like 27 13/16ths?
Any logic-based robot brain could be forgiven for quickly going insane.