Wednesday Quickies: The Robots are Coming

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, so there’s some catch-up to do.

Let’s start with the unambiguously exciting news: Comet Siding Spring flew past Mars about a week ago. It just so happens that there are a whole bunch of robots on Mars, so we were able to get pictures of the comet’s passage. This is amazing news because Siding Spring is an Oort Cloud comet, which normally hangs out on the edge of space and only very rarely falls back close to the Sun. Here’s a photo:

Comet Siding Spring, passing Mars. From space.com.

Back on Earth, Wired has just posted an article about this thing. Wired bills it as a “flying car”, but since that’s commonly understood to be a VTOL kind of thing that is constantly aloft, like what The Jetsons drive, I’d be more inclined to call it a “driving plane”. Either way, though, I hate it. There are very good reasons why we don’t have flying cars today and why we probably never will. Planes are far more dangerous and more difficult to operate than cars, and a slight fender-bender on the ground could make a driving plane a deathtrap in the air.

But even if flying cars were proved viable, they would still be a social and environmental nightmare. If people start using personal planes in lieu of cars, the carbon emissions will be massive. And the thing in the Wired article is expected to eventually cost somewhere between a supercar and a small plane. That means that it will be the rich flying these things, possibly just using them as a way of bypassing all the congestion and problems of the surface road network. Since the rich have the most power to have funds allocated to their preferred infrastructure, that will be bad news for anybody without a personal plane. Aviation is currently the last form of transportation that is normally done relatively efficiently, with large airliners carrying many people. That’s a good thing, because aviation is also the most environmentally destructive form of transportation. We should be wary of allowing the creeping individualisation which has affected land transportation in the last century to extend into the skies.

As usual, automation is increasingly in the news. Ford is proposing to add auto-braking to its new cars as early as next year. Once people get comfortable with that, full automation will seem a lot more acceptable. Auto-breaking is great news for me as a cyclist that doesn’t want to get run over, but if you’re a trucker you might be pretty worried about the next story: Mercedes is working on a next-generation truck which will have fully automated highway driving. For the moment a human driver is still needed for cities, but it’s only a matter of time before the robots figure that one out, too. Google’s car can already do it, after all. No wonder Elon Musk is worried about the robots taking over.

If that’s depressing, then you can look at this new OK Go video, which makes ingenious use of at least two kinds of automoation: camera drones and weird…Japanese…robotic…trike…things. It’s delightful.

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