In my latest novel, Silver Rivers, archeologist Glen Trudeau and his wife Cheryl "Bud" Thompson are asked by the government of the Peoples Republic of China to lead a team to explore the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, because of Bud's expertise using remotely controlled submersibles in marine archeology. The problem the PRC had was that illegal pot hunters had broken in and attempted to despoil the tomb. Authorities knew this because mercury contamination had caused sickness among villagers who had been hired by the tomb raiders to go into the site. Three deaths had already occurred, along with uncounted instances of mercury poisoning.
In the novel, Bud's friends Red McKenna and Doc Manchek provide a miniature robotic airship to autonomously explore the massive underground mausoleum. The robot provides a three-dimensional virtual reality representation of the tomb's contents for the archeologists to explore at will without having to enter the toxic enviroment, themselves.
"But, that's just science fiction," you say.
"Not so," I reply.
I lost interest in classical science fiction years ago, when I realized that the pace of development had caught up with and passed the ability of fiction writers to imagine some advanced science-based technology of the future. What people are doing with science and technology now, is more fascinating than what we could think up to project into the future.
For example, way back in September 2009, the Associated Press filed a story about Bruno Giordano (No, not Giordano Bruno, the astronomer who ran afoul of the Inquisition along with Gallileo Gallilei). This guy is Public Prosecutor for the City of Paola, in Calabria, Italy. Following a tipoff from a Mafia turncoat, Giordano dispatched a robotic sub to explore a shipwreck said to contain toxic waste collected from all over Europe. Apparently, the fact that Italy doesn't have an approved toxic-waste dumpsite - waste has to be transshipped to Germany for disposal - created an opportunity for organized criminals to collect the waste aboard seagoing ships, which they scuttled off the coast of Calabria at the toe of the Italian "boot."
It seems the ring has been active for a decade. As late as November 2011, the problem was still under investigation by local, Italian federal, and EU environmental authorities, who were pointing fingers at each other trying to place blame. So much for the effectiveness of the European Union!
Politics aside, this is a practical example of the last of the three Ds of robotics that I started talking about last month. I've already talked about "dull" and "dangerous." The third is "dirty." Jobs that are too dirty even for Mike Rowe fall to robots. Chemical waste, radioactive bits of nuclear powerplants, and stuff left over from nuclear medicine are things you shouldn't expose people to, even if you can find people stupid enough to do it. As said by Bennett Brumson, Contributing Editor for Robotics Online: "Reducing liability by removing people from hazardous chemicals is a concept that companies can easily quantify to justify investing in robotics."
C.G. Masi has been blogging about technology and society since 2006. In a career spanning more than a quarter century, he has written more than 400 articles for scholarly and technical journals, and six novels dealing with automation's place in technically advanced society. For more information, visit www.cgmasi.com.