Telerobotics in the US, Circa 2009: Why it Matters

Robert S. Nelson
President and CEO
Page 5, Inc.

The phenomenon of social networking and its applicability to problem solving provides a glimpse into man's innate drive toward improving standards of living for the masses. Enormous untapped potential exists for the collective intelligence and diversity of the worlds population to attack global issues on every front.

Here we will argue that it is the physical shortcomings of American buildings, transportation, telecommunication and utility systems that is impeding personal growth in the US and delaying our transition to sustainable economic development.

Page 5, Inc. is dedicated to marketing innovative telerobotic and manufacturing technology that can be modified by anyone to the benefit of all—the so-called "open platform" approach. Our efforts are aimed at sparking the creation of myriad educational and entrepreneurial opportunities as the core technologies are tailored toward retooling the mechanisms that support mankind.

A period of "Infrastructure Renaissance" is nearly upon us, an era that will see the unveiling of a revolutionary fabric of society that is modular, reconfigurable and exponentially scalable. Architectural, manufacturing, transportation, utility and communication subsystems will be intimately interwoven to provide optimal movement of people, goods and services within tomorrow's ultra-efficient communities.

Millions of jobs will need to be filled with unprecedented urgency as new paradigms in education, security and freedom are created, tested and spread across the globe. As worldwide threats begin to subside, a newfound currency of humanistic interaction guided by informed value judgments will begin to flourish as it displaces materialism and greed.

It's good to be the king-or so the saying goes.

Kings of yore generally enjoyed a daily travel radius of perhaps 10 to 30 miles; more if they were popular, less if constantly watching their back. Entertainment options were, for the most part, few and far between. Nearly all the king's subjects, including women and children, performed manual labor to subsist while supporting the elite. Add in the fact that air conditioning, telecommunications and antibiotics did not exist, and we find that the king's life was generally far less comfortable and statistically survivable than it is today for the average American.

The persistent belief that polarization of wealth causes a decline in the standard of living for the majority is simplistic at best. The observation appears true enough when the benchmarks are superficial stereotypes, such as ownership of a house and one or two cars. But what is really important are the services these physical possessions provide; flexible transportation, shelter and privacy.

Using public transportation and living in relatively compact spaces many city dwellers consume as little as one-quarter the energy as that needed by their suburban counterparts. Presaged by the collapse of the housing market, more and more people will be foregoing cars and yards in order to send their kids to college. For many, these lifestyle changes signify compromises to their accustomed standard of living that are difficult to accept.

On the flip side, well-designed cities offer unmatched diversity in social venues, abundant access to green spaces and environmentally-conscious forms of transit that are reliable and time-effective. Recent reports on global demographics show that sometime in 2007 or '08 cities became home to over half the worlds population. The migration to medium and high-density housing will inevitably continue as the standard of living and productivity of the residents continually improves.

Americans Demand Change

Whether in recession or the beginning stages of a depression, job losses and home foreclosures are spiking sharply. These problems and attendant issues related to infrastructure, education, social programs and health care are compounded by climate change, adversarial international relations and warfare technology's constant shrinking of the planet.

Action plans crafted by governments to address these issues tend to be politically correct in their wording, but often lack details on how and when investments will yield returns. Many leaders of the free world take it on faith that democracy, capitalism and the ability of markets to outperform prescriptive strategies are capable of bootstrapping nations above any economic downturn. What America needs now is a full-blown business plan that goes far beyond reshuffling government spending, changing the tax code and tightening of financial regulations.

With sufficient innovation, several underutilized technologies can be brought together to help create and deliver the nation's goods and services far more effectively than incumbent methods. In isolation, the payback periods for these technologies has so far precluded runaway investment. But their coordinated implementation paints a very different picture, one meeting the call for change head-on through a radical departure from the status quo. To be clear, we are talking about investing in advanced infrastructure. To be doubly clear, Page 5, Inc. is petitioning the support of academia, industry, government and the general populace to help flesh out the vision outlined here and elaborated throughout our website.

Futuristic Vision, Existing Technology

Foundering prosperity can be offset and even reversed through technology that enables step-changes in worker productivity. Inventions such as the printing press, the steam engine, the light bulb and the telephone gave rise to entire industries as they revolutionized travel, manufacturing, communication and education. When competing in the global economy, big gains in American productivity must go hand in hand with vastly improved efficiency in how and where we perform our work as well as how we attend to daily activities of living.

Convergence and ubiquitous implementation of video-based telecommunications ("videocom"), telerobotics and self-configuring systems promises to multiply personal and enterprise productivity while slashing per capita energy use. Countries committed to rapidly improving their standards of living are already integrating three key elements within their infrastructure projects:

  • Videocom service to nearly all end users.
  • Energy-efficient forms of residential, commercial and industrial architecture.
  • Advanced transportation systems.

The design, manufacturing and roll-out strategy for next generation infrastructure will be based on self-configuring systems endowed with telerobotic capabilities (explained below in greater detail). Examples of innovative services and lifestyle conveniences available to those choosing to live and work within these alternative residential and commercial communities include:

  • Commodity-pricing for everyday immersive experiences in televisitation, teletourism and interactive edutainment delivered through high-definition 3-D videocom.
  • Reduced work-related travel, increased automation of domestic chores and home delivery of quality guaranteed products and groceries.
  • New job opportunities that enable individuals to contribute to society past retirement in age-appropriate ways.
  • Flexible use of living and work space and lifelong residency in one's location of choice.
  • Home delivery of affordable health care services with dramatically improved outcomes compared to today.

Challenges to Attaining the Vision

The scenario outlined above is easy enough to conjure up in light of existing technology. For example, high-resolution 3-D virtual reality systems are available now, cars capable of riding on rails in addition to roads have been demonstrated and the international space station employs telerobotics in its construction.

But the devil is in the details when promoting change that promises fulfilling and environmentally responsible lifestyle options without sacrificing convenience, security or return-on-investment. The challenge is to convincingly portray advances in infrastructure that appear more revolutionary than evolutionary, while predicting market forces and the role of government capable of driving the transition between old and new.

America is already financially hamstrung by maintaining the hardscape of society that has been cast in concrete and steel over the past 100 years. In order to justify changing course, enhanced worker productivity and life-cycle costs for new construction must eclipse expenses to maintain systems rapidly approaching obsolescence.

Adding to the difficulties in attaining functionally (as opposed to materially) improved standards of living are:

  • Extended periods of capital investment before benefit/cost ratios of networked systems, such as telecommunications and transportation, hit the "knee-in-the-curve" or point of skyrocketing payoff.
  • Consumer entrenchment in antiquated or self-centered value systems and difficulties envisioning unconventional alternatives without realistic demonstrations or firsthand experience.
  • Institutional inertia of special interest groups (for example, carpenters' resistance to learning how to build concrete homes) and regulatory systems that slow or stifle innovation.
  • Government policies that inadequately address sustainability in economic growth and/or favor public and special interest wants, rather than needs.
  • Trade policies that allow import of goods at costs suggesting the use of coerced or exploited labor and/or environmentally-irresponsible manufacturing methods or sourcing of materials.

In summary, America's buildings, transportation networks, energy production facilities and waste treatment plants appear and operate much as they have for more than half a century. The hardscape of society, comprised of billions of tons of material investment, owned by millions of individuals and governed by thousands of laws and special interests has proven highly resistant to change.

Resynthesizing the Mechanism of Society

Infrastructure in the US can be loosely characterized by the engineering jargon "islands of automation", a term describing many factories that are equipped with highly automated work cells (the islands) connected by inefficient methods of moving parts and materials between the islands. The analogy is, of course, the buildings that make up societal infrastructure being linked by street transportation for moving people and materials between residential and work spaces. More efficient logistic cycles that involve rail transport still suffer from progressively greater manual handling of goods as they are distributed from factories and distribution points and moved toward end users.

Modular, reconfigurable and portable architectural systems configured semi-automatically can be used to create discrete living and work spaces that are contiguously connected through highly automated transit systems. Vehicles incorporating flanges into the wheel design can be used to navigate existing streets or ride on rails that are installed as part of the new transportation technology.

The following sections briefly summarize the status of videocom, telerobotics and self-configuring systems and suggests where these technologies might be headed. Against this backdrop, we conclude by outlining Page 5's mission to help identify and create the jobs and transitional educational opportunities necessary to staff the forthcoming rebirth of American infrastructure.

Fiber to Communities

Businesses able to afford the hardware, software and networking costs are increasingly using videoconferencing to reduce travel budgets and improve site-to-site collaboration on projects. The primary obstacle to videocom making its debut for everyday use, were this to become a national imperative, is the high cost to install fiber to every home and workspace—as much as $4,000 per connection by some estimates.

Without government subsidies investor interest in a nationwide all-fiber communication network, one populated by telerobots at most endpoints, is intimately related to the implementation timetable. Prior productivity-enhancing networked devices benefitted from strategies that mitigated the criticality for speed in network roll-out. For example, fax machines worked over existing telephone lines while cell phones proliferated in pockets of service as transmission towers were erected.

More than ever, businesses now need to find management strategies that allow more workers to telecommute (many of whom will become part-time employees) to reduce overhead expenses such as office and parking space, energy costs and insurance. Advanced telecollaboration tools and telerobotics will allow increased competition in matching workers to jobs by eliminating geographical barriers to commerce. People who are financially forced to trade home ownership for living in fully networked apartment and condo buildings will be among the first to gain the advantages of bidirectional telecommunications featuring nearly unlimited bandwidth.

Cost-effective Telerobotics

The most efficient system conceivable for societal infrastructure will one day be built, maintained and serviced by robots. It is safe to say, however, that job-cutting humanoid robots working in unstructured spaces like construction sites (or our kitchens, for that matter) will remain steadfastly in the realm of science fiction for at least another decade.

While robots can reliably pick and place objects all day long in well-organized environments, they fail miserably when it comes time to fetch the fallen pencil that rolled under the fridge. In contrast to the practical limitations of autonomous manipulation is the versatility of object-handling telerobots. For example, telerobots are used to safely move or disarm bombs, in underwater salvage and recovery operations and for remote gardening over the internet. In fact, telerobots have even been used to perform surgery on beating hearts!

Pervasive appearance of humanoid telerobots awaits low-cost high-def 3-D videocom and the advent of inexpensive mobile anthropomorphic structures (machines with humanlike hands and arms). Innovation in the design of wearable telerobotic controllers that enable operators to safely and efficiently interact in human occupied spaces is also needed. And so it has yet to be shown how telerobots can pragmatically serve people while providing good return-on-investment.

The quality/cost ratio for videocom is now approaching a threshold sufficient to meaningfully demonstrate the benefits of everyday use of mobile telerobots. Toward this objective Page 5, Inc. is bringing to market the world's first cost-effective anthropomorphic telemanipulator based on an open platform. Evolution of this product through the efforts of thousands of innovators should lead to a complete mobile solution costing under $15,000 within five years.

The milestone of telerobotic humanoids costing less than an average car will create endless opportunities for people at all levels of education and mechanical aptitude to rapidly diversify and scale-up the base of applications. A tremendous push to semi-automate myriad labor-intensive telemanipulations will emerge as telerobots are increasingly employed in industrial, commercial and domestic settings. As methods to bring structure and organization to our living spaces are devised, descendants of telerobots will finally begin to look and act more like Hollywood's self-learning domestic servants and worker "bots".

Self-Configuring Systems

In the era of global threats, many of which are now displaying exponential growth characteristics, time is of the essence in adopting reconfigurable and portable architectural systems. It is prudent, if not critical, that the testing of foundational machine-based technologies capable of being scaled exponentially under real-world conditions be accelerated.

Many proponents of nanotechnology believe that microscopic self-replicating machines hold the potential to drive an abrupt paradigm shift in how nearly all manufactured items are made. The allure of self-replicating systems is that they follow the equation 2n, with n designating the number of self-replication cycles. The completion of 15 cycles yields nearly 33,000 replicated objects, but after just five more cycles the resultant population will exceed one million units. Real world factors limiting the maximum growth rate and ultimate size of self-replicating systems include duration of the replicating cycle, availability of raw materials and energy and access to space in which to grow and discharge waste materials.

Media hype aside, nano-scale machines are likely decades away from acquiring self-replicating abilities. But current technology can be used to design "self-configuring" mechanical architectures, such as the system under development by Page 5, Inc. In our approach, the basic cellular unit comprises a milling machine and telerobotic manipulator that will be capable of producing copies of itself using only commercially-available hardware, software and raw materials. Approximately 98% of the custom structural elements and unique hardware is produced within the work cell (there are a few purchased parts that are currently modified using a lathe). Some of the manual assembly steps will be transitioned to telemanipulation while others will be directly automated through the collective efforts of entrepreneurs and enthusiasts, ourselves included.

Self-configuring systems, scalable at nearly 2n, can be harnessed to fuel a renaissance in architectural and industrial infrastructure design that is harmonized with the needs of global society. Adoption of self-configuring systems also neatly sidesteps some of the thornier issues associated with self-replicating nanotech such as obsolescence of entire industries and catastrophic runaway growth (the so-called gray goo problem).

Mission and Strategy

The US is realizing diminishing returns through continued investment in current forms of building, transportation and utility systems. America has the technology and human capital needed to usher in a period of Infrastructure Renaissance, the magnitude and impact of which will have no historical precedence.

Page 5's mission and business strategy is to:

  1. Market the following building blocks of self-configuring systems and transition their development cycles to open-platform as early as possible:
    1. Cost-effective dexterous hand and arm (currently open platform).
    2. Wearable remote intuitive controller.
    3. Telerobot peripherals (body shells, pan/tilt/rotate camera platform, etc.), mobility systems and environment structuring devices.
    4. CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacture) work cell.
    5. Peripherals to the CAD/CAM work cell that add self-configuring capabilities.
    6. Post-tensioned reinforced concrete modular structural systems.
    7. Environment structuring devices, containers and organizers.
  2. Operating within The Twilight Realm (Page 5's lab and studio) install and use under real world conditions wide-ranging innovations related to telerobotics and advanced infrastructure. Communicate results spanning the good, the bad and the ugly through online and broadcast media channels.
  3. Apply lessons learned through the Twilight Realm to the creation of 1 Parc Place, a page-assisted residential community. A "page" is a telerobot, defined as one employed to deliver messages, assist patrons, serve as a guide, or attend to similar duties.*

* Merriam Webster's Online Dictionary