I For One Welcome Our New Robotic Overlords


by Tim Moran

There's no doubt that one day--perhaps not very soon, but soon enough--robots are going to take on many of the chores we humans either don't want to do or are not that good at doing. Some major players are already working hard to make sure this comes to pass.

From the science-fiction end of the robot spectrum comes a project funded by the European Union, called RoboEarth. The concept here is to build a database and network that will let robots share information about the world--and us. The robots will both contribute to and curate the network, which will allow them to access and share everything they have learned and everything they do.

For instance: If one robot learns how to set a table for dinner, that information can be made available on the robot net so future robots can learn how to do it, too. What one robot has learned is available for all time for other robots. At the speed with which Wikipedia and Facebook have taken off with humans, the mind reels at how rapidly robots will know how to do everything humans can do.

One of the jobs that humans have not been so great at over the years is baggage handling. There's no end to travel-nightmare stories of bags sent to Fiji when the person went to Florence, or bags that came down the carousel looking as if they were handled by a crazed giant ape. The masters of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport decided that such was not to be the way of baggage at their airport, and they teamed up with IBM to do something about it.

Schiphol is the 15th largest in the world and expects to see some 70 million bags pass through each year--and that number is growing. The powers that be decided that robotics technology was the answer to dealing with that massive number of bags. A new nine-square-mile baggage hall was built to accommodate, not only the bags, but the robotic system designed by IBM. It is being hailed as the most advanced baggage-handling facility in the world, and it's all about the bots. According to IBM, through an interconnected, synchronized system every bag can be located at any point in its journey. A 21-kilometer transport conveyor contains technology such as AS/RS (Automated Storage and Retrieval System) bag storage, incorporating 36 cranes for full redundancy, as well as six robot cells for the automated loading of bags into containers and carts.

Since IBM Global Services is selling its software expertise to run these robot skycaps at peak efficiency, I'm thinking that this information will not soon be on the RoboEarth network. So those of flying Delta out of JFK will be at the mercy of the crazed giant ape for a few more years.