When talking with friends or family, the inevitable question comes up about my work on the RASA system: “What does it do?” I usually cringe, because the simple answer of describing what it’s physically capable of usually draws blank looks and more questions than answers. The larger answer, of how it could be used usually leaves people even more confused. People stare at me, imagining me as more mad than scientist. Understandably, in this age of marketers hyping every new technology as the next big thing with underwhelming results, such claims should be met with a large dose of suspicion.
So what does it do? The short answer is it’s a cheap framework with robot boxes that drive around all over the framework. There is no information about any of the equipment that would do any specific job whatsoever, so this can’t be the whole picture. What this is, is the standard equipment upon which a variety of other machines should be built on.
The first half of the big picture has much more to do with the magic of what people can put inside the boxes. What is needed is an open mind and an imagination that can think inside the box. Boxes are used everywhere and are very versatile, so a technology that increases the versatility and usefulness of boxes surely can have a lot of uses.
The second half of the big picture is self-replication. The system is designed so that the boxes can eventually build the framework all by themselves, and further into the future, build each other and repair what goes wrong. I envision the future of automation to be a lot more worry and maintenance free than things are today. Self-replication, more than anything else, has the potential to transform things in ways that people currently have a very hard time even imagining.
This chapter is dedicated to listing and briefly explaining as many diverse uses as I can possibly think of, in order of increasing complexity and cost. This can be seen as a form of development road map, where the easier ways of making money using this system are outlined.
Towards the end of this list will be all the most expensive, futuristic, and complex systems that will take decades of development to achieve. They will also be impressively profitable and beneficial for humanity, though the basic principles of the operation will still resemble the simple systems that are easy to develop. In my mind, this is the shape of things to come.
Part 1: Immediate Uses, General Form
The first wave of usefulness generally fall into one or more categories. Storage, distribution, and manufacturing are the main categories I will discuss, as well as some examples I think are noteworthy.
Storage: The most obvious use for boxes is storage. To me, automated storage is the easiest way to put RASA to work and earn it’s keep. It most resembles existing automated material handling systems, though it would be a far cheaper and simpler alternative. Built from cheap local materials and off the shelf hardware, a basic kit can be erected and assembled over a weekend, and often replace the need for things like ladders, forklifts, or even reduce stock room staff. By having machines bring the storage, feet need not leave the floor, increasing safety. The ability to build right up to the ceiling of a warehouse can also help with storage volume and efficiency. Because the content of the boxes is almost completely irrelevant, size permitting, this is probably the simplest possible variant of RASA.
Small Scale Distribution: Part of the storage function is to bring the contents of boxes to people or machines that need them. There’s no reason to assume this needs to be right next to where the boxes are being stored. This can be as simple as a path to a small distance away where things are needed, to a complex network through a factory or perhaps even between buildings. Having things appear when and where they are needed is incredibly useful. Connecting storage, shipping/receiving areas, and coordinating factory input and output is a very useful task. In a lot of ways this would be like a computer local area network but for physical objects.
Systems like this exist, and this is the mature industry called automated material handling. What sets RASA apart is the focus on the network rather than the focus on the process, as well as the simple modular and standardized systems. Instead of each system being custom built and highly engineered, this will resemble an off-the-shelf networking product that can work for a wide variety of tasks. Some efficiency will be lost by having such general purpose machines, but I believe that a simple and cheap system that can handle a broad variety of tasks will prove it’s worth in the end.
Manufacturing: Closely connected to storage and distribution is manufacturing. When you have stored things moving around a building on their own in an orderly fashion, it makes sense to equip other boxes with machinery that can interact with the content of the boxes and do things with it. I envision machines in the boxes, passing material from one box to another assembly line fashion, each with a tool or tools inside to do things until a product is finished. Alternately, I see cargo boxes moving about, interacting with machinery boxes that will do various things to the cargo as needed, or a combination of both of these examples. With a completely flexible system such as this, maintenance and equipment failure can be easily managed, as any one component can be immediately replaced by a spare, and the process can continue while the affected piece can go off to a maintenance area. Factory shutdowns for mechanical reasons could easily be a thing of the past.
The other thing this system can do is free some manufacturing systems of the constraints of locality. An assembly line need not be a line anymore. A half finished product can zip off the assembly line, down the tracks to another building where something else can be done, and then be driven back to where it left off in the assembly line. In some instances ultimate flexibility can be very rewarding.
I don’t see this as a cure-all for all forms of industry. Obviously it would take a long time, if ever, that all forms of manufacturing would benefit. Examples of not easily adapted systems would be heavy industry, some kinds of chemical plants, and such. However as more and more industrial systems get a RASA counterparts, and the capabilities grow, I could see these barriers slowly fade away. I think it’s most important to start small and focus most on what is easily done and watch the system grow from there. Here are some ideas bouncing around my head…
Part 2: Examples of Immediate Uses
Small Business Storage and Distribution: To me, this truly is the first low hanging fruit RASA has to offer that has a good chance of making a great deal of money. In my research, I’ve noticed an almost complete lack of automated material handling in the small business side of the economy. This seems like a good match for RASA, as the aim is to use locally sourced materials and off the source hardware. Small business can afford RASA. The list of technologies that are needed to from a first prototype to a useful technology is not very long or expensive by today’s standards, and be built almost entirely from hobby electronics shops and the local hardware store. In kit form, as an open source technology, a reliable form of this technology can transform any business that has need for a warehouse or large stock room. This is especially so for companies such as auto parts distributors, that have a large variety of unique parts that need to be sorted, stored, found and delivered to the front desk in an efficient and orderly manner. Coupled with inventory management software, any space can be converted cheaply into a building sized vending machine for anything that would fit in a box.
Greenhouse Automation: Having bins going around carrying plants in a greenhouses an interesting idea, and this has been already tried in various forms with success. With a completely standardized physical networking system, much more can be done with less cost. The system that moves plants around could also move machines around that distribute fertilizer or insecticide. The plants themselves can be moved to different locations easily, to take advantage of different growing conditions in various greenhouses, or alternately, by moving different environmental machinery to where it is needed. For harvesting or seeding, plants can be moved to specific machinery, or the machinery itself can be moved around where needed, and of course, the final products and waste can move around. With total freedom of movement and configuration of equipment, plants, and supplies, much can be done that would be very difficult for traditional greenhouses, even automated ones. Switching crops and growing cycles could be very difficult for a custom built system, but much easier for a system as flexible as RASA. To my point of view, automation with a high degree of standardization and extreme degree of versatility would offer clear benefits over other custom built systems or pure manual labour.
Non-Linear Hybrid Manufacturing: Not everything can be done by machine. In some cases, even doing things in an orderly fashion can be a challenge. Since RASA excels at flexibility, this can help many kinds of industries. Imagine a manufacturing process where some things need to be done by people, some by machines, and the exact things that need doing can vary greatly from time to time. When you have people sitting at work stations, keeping people busy can be a challenge. With an open ended distribution system, a box containing something to be worked on can arrive on a desk, and depending on what it is, appropriate work can be done by the person, and then the item is off again to the next station or machine. This can also be used as another way to keep factory workers happy, because switching tasks kills the monotony. A good example of a business like this could be a garment factory. Some things can be done by machine, while people are needed for others, and the variety of things that can be produced by the factory is often varied and changes weekly. Such a distribution system could even link separate buildings, allowing for separation of tasks. One of the major benefits RASA can offer is making the location of workers and machinery a lot less relevant. In the far future, it could transform manufacturing to the point where the exact location of workers and machinery may not even need to be known, much in the way telecommuting and call centres work today.
Part 3: Medium Term Usefulness by Increasing the Degrees of Self Replication
So far we have been talking about very basic systems, not so much different from existing forms of automated material handling used today. I’m sure that most, if not all of what I discussed, has been envisioned by experts in various fields, and probably most of it is already in operation somewhere. I’m less sure about universal standards, but in one form or another this technology exists. So far, we have only been thinking inside the box. Enabling self replication allows for truly “out of the box” thinking when it comes to what to expect from automation. This is where I intend on helping robots go where no robot has gone before.
When increasing the degrees of autonomy and self replication, this is where RASA diverges most from what is commonly known and understood. Enabling a system to build even small parts of itself anew changes everything. I see the first steps as automating the erection and distribution of the framework. The framework is the most massive part of the RASA system, so it makes sense to have it made as cheaply and simply as possible. That means that it’s also the simplest and cheapest part of the system to achieve self-replication. Self erecting frameworks will be the first steps in truly self replicating automated systems entering useful economic service.
Self-Installing Frameworks in Industry: Probably the simplest and most obvious labour saving could come from all the systems mentioned above being able to build themselves. A somewhat difficult construction job that could involve ladders and man hours could instead involve watching machines go about building structures themselves. The kind of equipment to do this kind of work is considerably more complex than the basic box framework but not by much. The framework just needs to be modular, and machines inside the boxes just need to be able to snap segments into place like Lego, and then go to a distribution centre to load more. That’s simplifying things a bit, but that’s the basics. As far as complex machinery goes, it’s not that bad.
In addition to helping “standard” applications deploy, modify and repair themselves easier, it’s possible that entirely new businesses and methods may come to pass simply from this first small step in self-replication is achieved. As more degrees of autonomy are gained, the possible uses become more and more fantastic compared to what exists today.
Self-Installing Ancillary Framework Services: Why stop at the framework structure itself? Technically the specifications require almost all the complexity to reside inside the boxes, reality may require a hybrid system. While the basic framework consists of just posts and beams, any decent application will require more gear tacked on. Everything from charging stations, cargo attachment accessories, wiring, communications, loading/unloading gear and other special things that we could only speculate at. All of these could be mechanically attached to the system by a special machine in one of the mobile boxes. Everything is built “plug and play” style these days, it’s not a great stretch of imagination to visualize a simple machine doing the plugging. Uses can range from just making the framework better and offer support to the uses it’s needed, to giving it completely new and often unimaginable properties.
Resource and Raw Material Acquisition: While it’s one thing to feed raw materials into a factory and have finished goods come out, how about systems that go out and get their own raw materials? With enough automation, automated harvesting, automated mining, solar panels, all sorts of processes can be done with this system as it matures.
Hosting Self Manufacturing Systems: Once the systems and factories get complex enough, it’s possible to reach a point where one can have all the factories that build the components also be solely made up of those same parts. This is the pinnacle of a system that builds and maintains itself with almost no hands on help from people. This goal is of obvious use, especially a system that is somewhat self sufficient in gathering resources too. While very far in the future, I see these as the inevitable conclusion of development in automation, no matter what course we take to get there.
Ubiquity: Eventually, it will seem like this technology will be everywhere. There won’t be just one standard, there will be many complementary standards, of different sizes, structures, and sets of usefulness. Like micro circuits today, it will be hard to look in a given direction without seeing something that uses them. Having every home, business, farm, factory, port and mine connected to each other using this system will transform life as we know it in the same way that we can’t imagine going back to a life before the Internet. With the system everywhere it’s possible for materials to go from mine to factory to port to city to home without ever seeing human hands. Naturally transportation would be revolutionized, with a fully automated package delivery system to anywhere needed. With a system like this, I think even I’m only in the beginning stages of understanding the diverse uses that this will have.
Part 4: Specific Examples of Medium Term Uses
Automated Scaffolding Systems for Construction: Just about every construction project over a certain size needs scaffolding. It’s a dirty, gruelling, and often deadly job, that is impossible to do for anyone with even the slightest fear of heights. Having the entire structure assembled by machines while people stand away at a safe distance removes risk from one of the most dangerous construction professions. The same goes for dis-assembly. But it doesn’t have to end just at assembly. Likely the system would benefit from having the boxes be roughly man or room size. This means they would double as a makeshift elevator system, shuttling workers wherever they need to be in the structure, instead of forcing them to climb awkward and very high ladders. With a bit of research and development, this could be a major transformation for a very old industry.
Automated Building Construction: Why stop at just scaffolding? Much has been made of automated construction in various forms. Most of construction is a matter of getting the right tools and materials to and from the right places. Instead of thinking of robots building a building the way people build, we have robots that don’t resemble people at all, so building methods and practices need to be vastly different. A lot is hard to imagine at this point, but a few ideas come to mind. The framework the RASA boxes ride around in is structural. Depending on the sizes of the box system, space can be made for people, like in the scaffolding system above. It’s not unimaginable to imagine machines adding floors, walls, ceilings, external cladding, and internal services to a scaffolding system, all on the grid system. This is one variant, there are many other ways to build things. I wonder which would prove the simplest and most effective in the future.
Automated Mining: Getting raw materials out of the ground is a huge industry, using huge and very expensive machinery. Excavating is huge business, whether it be the tunnel style mine or the strip mine. I don’t claim that the RASA system is good for mining compared to the mega machinery that exists today, but I do have some ideas. Imagine a RASA framework extended across a large open area of land. Some portions supported firmly by earth, and some portions held up by their neighbours, depending on the contours of the land. And then, an army of machines, some to build and maintain the scaffolding, and others to excavate downwards or sideways and move earth to other locations. As space opens up, framework can be extended. Instead of mega machines, a smaller swarm army of modular machines take the place, unmanned, each doing very simple, repetitive work that needs absolutely no on site manpower. The beauty of this that it can be scalable for small digs all the way up to massive mega projects. It’s just an idea from my over active imagination, but maybe it’s a viable alternative in some cases. Who knows what the future will bring?
True Lights-Out Manufacturing: There is a lot of talk of that these days, but the amount of factories that can truly turn off the lights to save money because no workers aren’t needed is pretty small. Things wear out, things break. For that, usually people are needed. The versatility of RASA makes this a much easier thing to automate, as absolutely any component of the system can be quickly replaced by another. At the very least, in an assembly-line scenario, problem machinery can be instantly swapped out by a spare, and the repair can be done by people at a different location. Once systems begin to do things such as harvest their own raw materials and manufacture and store their own parts, even a lot of the maintenance can be done automatically. Also at this stage, it would be easy for a system to increase it’s own productivity according to demand by making a new line for itself, or retooling itself for different products. I believe that a kind of manufacturing is right around the corner that will put to shame all the kinds of production that have come before.
City Wide to World Wide Automated Distribution: Container ships are amazing modular systems, where shipping containers can go from nation to nation, and warehouse to warehouse, hopping from ship to transport truck with little effort. It’s a very effective, modular, and somewhat automated process. Imagine a similar system (of varying sizes) that goes door to door, business to business, and even room to room, that links up and works with the shipping container system at the port level, or also interfaces with aircraft cargo holds. RASA conduits, below or above ground, hidden or in plain view, can network a city and provide virtually free automated shipping from point to point. In some ways it would be expensive to retrofit a city, but allowing for self-construction coupled with future architecture incorporating RASA the same way they now incorporate heating and cooling, it wouldn’t be so hard in the long run. Postal workers, delivery men, and lorry drivers would eventually lose most of their jobs, but having virtually free delivery of anything door to door across the planet would likely be of as much value as the invention of the Internet. This kind of change is not to be underestimated. It may seem futuristic and pie in the sky technology, but it doesn’t require that hard of a push to get rolling, as the system is designed to have the framework be as inexpensive as possible. For the price of shutting down a postal office, a smaller town may easily make RASA a door to door reality in short order. I know this is a radical way of thinking, but I will leave it out here as food for thought, as one of the more radical middle-term ideas enabled by RASA.
Part 5: Uses and Forms Envisioned in the Distant Future
If you think the medium term applications are rather fantastical, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Having machines do our every bidding has been a staple of science fiction since the beginning of the genre. The prospect of actually achieving such a future can be equal parts exciting and terrifying. We are quickly approaching that point in our development, and its nigh time we explored the ramifications of our development in fine detail, because they will become daily issues for our decedents. While I leave the sociological issues like who controls the means of production to another discussion, I will outline a handful of highly advanced forms RASA will take, and some of the implications for humanity.
Consolidation: Artificial Mechanical Life. I’ m not talking about machines that think an act like us. I’m not even necessarily talking about an animal level intelligence. What I foresee is the RASA system enabling machines that fulfil all the same definitions of life that something like a single-celled organism would also fulfil. That is, being able to function in an environment, gather resources, expel waste, and reproduce itself independently. On the face of it, it it seems drastic and unbelievable, but I think this reality will creep in slowly, and I don’t even think people will quite notice the exact point at which these systems become alive, because it will be a chaotic, slow, incremental process.
Once automated manufacturing, repair, and resource gathering and transportation all get advanced to a certain point, there will probably come a time when it’s possible to put all these varied assembly lines and systems under one roof, or at least in the same area. Generations of development cycles will refine a lot of systems to high levels of interdependence and interoperability. Eventually it should be possible to take only certain key core systems of the automated economy, place them in a new location with adequate resources available to them, and have the system build whatever is needed from this seed. Naturally such a system could make more copies of itself, as self maintenance and growth can also be tasked to reproduction. It may even be possible to put a RASA civilization seed in a remote location, leave it to it’s devices, and return in time to a fully functioning city awaiting habitation. The entire material economy of civilization can in theory be contained within the mechanical and computerized automatic systems, given sufficient complexity. While hard to imagine in some ways, it becomes easy to imagine if one realizes that this system exists today. We have an economic system that is repeatable and reproducible, and it’s also completely automated if you consider the use of meat based humanoid machines. The only complex task we have challenging us is removing humanity from the hardest toil of the system. Given the Industrial Revolution we have already come a long way in that regard, it is reasonable to expect that trend to continue to it’s logical conclusion.
Giga-Projects: As a species, we’ve done pretty well when it comes to work of massive scale. Huge dams, bridges, skyscrapers, and road systems cover much of the world. When we can have access to a virtually unlimited supply of self-replicating mechanical workers, the work we can do will put all past projects to shame. We will be able to move mountains. We have the ability to truly reshape our world in a way that’s hard to imagine now. Imagine bringing water to the most barren deserts. Reshaping continents and waterways. Even huge projects such as building a space fountain to the stars becomes a realistic dream. (Notice I did not use the term “space elevator”, because it much more based on science that has yet to be discovered, such as unobtainium. A space fountain is at least in theory build-able only with materials available today, just a lot of them. But I digress…)
Truly Exploring and Colonizing the Solar System: If the RASA system becomes advanced enough that putting a seed somewhere can result in the construction of civilization, there is no reason to think that the seed needs to be on this world. The moon, deep space, or another planet are all realistic options at this point of development. Having an army of machines on Mars slowly transforming it into a second Earth won’t be a pipe dream but a matter of logistics and planning. Mining the asteroid belt, massive space solar energy collection, and deep space habitats all become realistic in a way they never were before. People were never made to work in vacuum, but machines can be. We should put them to work for us. The current age of the robotic rover will be a very quaint anachronism in short order, I think.
Real, Honest to Goodness Freedom From Work: We won’t fight for our daily bread anymore, we won’t need to. With these kinds of developments, it’s obvious that production can so easily outstrip population that nobody will ever need to worry much about issues such as paying for virtually anything that can be done by machine. I’m not saying that money and capitalism and wealth will completely vanish, but I do see a future where things we fight for so hard today will come as easily as water from a kitchen tap for our descendants. This will depend just as much on how smart and kind we are with each other in the future as much as how good our science and technology will be, but I think the cornucopia of material wealth to be had will make a lot of the decisions much easier to make.
Part 6: Conclusion
I’ve drawn a straight line across time and space, from simple machines easily built now, to some of Mankind’s largest hopes and dreams. It’s grandiose, audacious, presumptuous, and in my maybe humble opinion, somehow inevitable. I’ve glossed over so many important devilish details, that perhaps we may never make it all the way there, but indeed, this is the dream I hold for the world’s children. We have seen how a simple idea such as placing a steam engine on metal rails catapulted a feudal agrarian civilization into what we have now. We have already witnessed how discovering how electricity runs down wires has lead to the birth of the Internet, the planet’s new nervous system. How far can a simple idea of an automated box that runs on sets of rails that go off in three dimensions take us? I don’t know how far it will go in reality, but at least within my imagination, it can take us to heights that I myself can barely imagine. After reading this, I hope you, the reader, can also share in this vision I have for a better future.