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Why Aren't Personal Robots on Maui?

March 10, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama
Forbes: Reflections on Personal Robots Backwards and Forwards

A few years ago for I wrote a short history on the world of “personal robots” or small electro-mechanical helpmates that would make our daily lives a bit easier. They can provide assistance for the elderly to move about the house, clean the windows, and even tutor children in mathematics or physics.

Given all the global technological advances in a wide range of disciplines (materials, vision, touch, voice recognition, wheels, batteries, cognitive science, software, memory chips, computing), personal robots should be here now – yet except for a few Japanese (Sony, Honda) experiments (some products terminated or very tiny number produced, for more Public Relations than consumer sales) not much has happened in the past two decades.

Alas, I don’t forsee any time in the near future that we can go buy one at Costco, although we can buy many other things there, to make our leisurely lives more convenient. To develop a personal robot, there has to be a huge amount of R & D investment, plus a way to manufacture these very high-tech machines in a cost-efficient manner.

Although we pride ourselves in becoming “developed” in many high tech ways, there is much in our daily lives that is actually unchanged from, say, the 1960s. We still cook our food, shipped using a lot of oil to power ships and airplanes from far-away places, on electric heating elements in an area called “the kitchen”, and also store our food in large metal units, cooled by electricity. We still use a lot of water, and throw out things, to be hidden in large pits dug somewhere on the island.

For Maui’s 120,000 cars (and 99% of them), we import gasoline to provide the fuel for engines, creating tiny explosions with oxygen and fuel, which drives pistons, and then a crankshaft, allowing the car’s rubber wheels to go faster, and transporting us to schools and malls, where we look at things to buy – all imported from far-away places.

The founder of the global automobile industry back in the 1920s, Henry Ford, would have recognized that technological paradigm in our cars in garages or parked in the streets – and probably would have been puzzled that in 2013 except for the increased use of electrical sensors in engines and for safety, we continue to have gasoline power our cars.

By now, Henry Ford would have imagined something different, some different fuel, some different way to power cars.

That’s why prophecies about the future are all suspect. Yet, if we could have the ability to “see” something new as being the “next wave” or “innovation”, we could transform our societies, our lives for the better, faster – in the so-called “early adopter”, a term used often in the high tech industry, about new tech gizmos or apps.

In the late 1930s my father and his best friend nicknamed “Alabama” drove out of Kahului in a Ford car – which was still a “new tech gizmo” of their generation, and found themselves stuck in a ditch on the way to Hana – a madcap scene not unlike teenagers nowadays.

Their lives seem not much different from how people live now – still searching for gasoline to put into their cars – and living in houses not much different than the early homes in the “Dream City” of Kahului, and without the assistance of personal robots that should have, if we go back in time to projections of the future of Hawai’i in the 1950s and 1960s, be selling on sale at Sears today.


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