March 20, 2018

Why I Build Robots

(This is the text of an essay I read in a presentation at African Leadership University in Mauritius. Please see the video of that presentation here. For the other lectures from that trip, please see this playlist.)

At a first pass, zeroeth order, I'm trying to make better 3D printed robots. I'm constantly, fanatically working on 3D printed robots. I've been in to robots since I was 11, and building things since I was 5. And now I work in Silicon Valley and have a nice career in robotics.

But when I go home, in the evenings and on weekends and even with not uncommon protest from my partners, I'm working on robots.

The goal is not just to print robots for fun. Yes, printing robots is fabulously fun. And I do want to preach and evangelize the wonders of making robots at home. When you have an idea and a month or three later you see the thing alive and moving around - expressing itself - it's extremely rewarding. But it's hard too. You find yourself dedicated and staying up till 3 or 4am before heading to work the next day. You lose sleep, and you stress and it can be hard.

I keep going because I think there are broader implications to 3D printed robots. More deeply, my goal is to enable people anywhere in the world to start up their own local manufacturing center, and I want to help those people make economically productive robots right in their shop or home. When you can manufacture something yourself, you can change it to fit your needs. The thing better serves you. The world will, I predict, by and large provide a highly centralized model for distribution of robotics technology as it develops. The Googles and the Samsungs and all the other big technology companies from all over will use their wealth to produce fantastic robots capable of hugely productive work. But they will also charge a great deal for those robots. Billions will be unable to directly benefit from these technologies. The big companies will lease their robots with license fees just cheaper than human workers, and local businesses will pay indefinitely for the machines that allow them to compete just a little better than before. The explosion of wealth promised by robots will not go to those leasing the machines, but those producing them. The global population will pay what they can for the improvements the machines provide - their lives truly will be better by many measures - but they will not own the machines to fix and change and modify as they see fit.

I see a vision for the future instead where little towns all over the world have places where local vendors are printing, assembling, upgrading, and selling robots to their local population. Instead of Samsung manufacturing a robot in asia and shipping it to a little town, bringing the profits back to Samsung's already wealthy holdings, local vendors would work hard to make robots that are just what the residents need. When the local farmer takes their hard earned savings and decides to buy a robot, the local vendor gets wealthier and becomes better able to support the farmers. The vendors in turn take their wealth to buy more food from the farmers, and in this way the robots help improve everyone's lives.

Too often we see stories of workers abused by their employers. In 2013, riots broke out in Little India, Singapore, when a bus collided with and killed a migrant worker. The local companies had been hiring these workers but paying less than they had agreed, and if a worker got injured they'd be kidnapped by the employer, forced to sign documents they were not permitted to read, and sent back to their home country with no say in the matter. The law requires that these companies pay the medical bills of the injured workers, but instead the workers were shut out and sent away. The workers had no power to negotiate - they were at the whim of their employers. They only had freedom as long as they were useful.

I dislike this treatment of people as small cogs in a giant machine. As disposable laborers to be utilized until they're worn out, and then discarded. It is inhumane. I see no reason why some people should be left in a situation where they chose the destruction of their own bodies in order to survive.

And this is something I see robots as being able to eliminate.

Right now, workers are people. And so in order to meet the needs of one group of people, another group of people has to work. And the first group wants the second group to behave like machines. Well we are not machines, we are human. Let the business people have their machines. Let them build empires.

We will take the shops they build, and the factories they create, and use those to produce technology that frees the laboring class from their toil. Machines that help farmers harvest. Machines to transport goods between towns and cities. Road and aqueduct building equipment. And when you have roads and water and a roof, then we will make machines that make high quality stoves that vent away from the kitchen so you can save your lungs. And when you have a machine that makes houses and stoves and you can breathe better we will make machines that wash your clothes for you, and cook your food for you, and we will make machines that make those machines. Instead of working outdoors where your feet hurt, you can work indoors and make improvements to the machines. Instead of working twelve hour days, you can work six. When there is a sunset, you can stop and enjoy it, because you will still eat even if you are not working constantly.

Once this is all underway, I hope to see a world where no one wants for food. The world is large and I do not believe that all of the machines that produce everything we all need can come from Asia. The machines that help the farmers can come from the builders who live in the towns where they're used. The builders can see how those machines can be improved, they can make the changes needed, and they can print upgrades as needed. When they do, they'll share the knowledge they have learned freely with everyone else on the internet. The machine builder in the local town in Bangladesh is not competing with the machine builder in a town in Kenya - they are brothers and sisters in a global network of hackers who want to see the world around them improve.

I see that the way to get food in to every mouth is not to beg the wealthy to send food to everyone. The cost would be enormous and many people would be missed. Even if we took on such an endeavor, the destruction of the environment would be accelerated by the constant flights of jumbo jets from the fields to the hungry mouths. Brussels and Beijing cannot support the world from afar, nor would everyone appreciate the effort.

Instead, we must work to share the knowledge of what we have. The robots we build in San Francisco will not be the same robots that are needed to rebuild the shattered cities in Yemen, but the insight we gain can be shared. We needn't export robots people don't need, but knowledge that can be repurposed. In this way, the people with great wealth who spend their days making robots to deliver smoothies to my desk can still help those who want to build better schools and larger farms. The wealth of the few is not mere things, but knowledge. And we can build a world that refuses to put up barriers to help others. When we learn how to make a cheaper or better robot, we can share that with others so that they too can make machines that help their people.

This will take participation the world over to accomplish. We need a global movement of engineers and builders and users who work together to build, use, improve, and share machines that make the lives of all people better. When the cities become automated and the workers are sent away, lets give those workers a new place for their skills to be used. The engineers in the wealthy places can search the world for new better ways of moving motors, sensing the world, and solving problems. And those in the small towns can work online with the engineers in the cities to try out new ideas, see what works and what doesn't, and give their own feedback on modifications. The machine builders can work to find customers and understand their needs. To take the human problem and convert that in to a plan of action for the engineers. The will to help others can drive a global population of hackers to find new and better ways to solve problems, and we can put the massive wealth of this world to the task of helping us all.