Robots and Automated Cars Will Soon Require Our Cities To Become Machine-Readable

What's to come?
Oct. 11 2011 10:46 AM

The Future Is Machine-Readable

Robots and automated cars will require our cities to become machine-readable, and soon.

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Such a system has already been reborn at North Carolina State University's new $115 million James B. Hunt Jr. Library. The school heralds it as "a symbol of the next wave of development" for the institution. One novelty of this new wave is that students will no longer be allowed to wander the stacks, as generations did before them. Two million volumes will be packed into a climate-controlled chamber underground, accessed only via a robotic crane. The new stacks occupy a fraction of the space previously required and recall will be much faster. (The system may also put an end to the age-old practice of students hiding in-demand books from classmates.) Rather than design a robot that could navigate the library, NCSU designed a library around the robot.

How will this balancing act manifest itself when robots migrate into other walks of life? Making highways friendly to self-driving cars will be relatively easy, as these roads are already a tightly controlled environment with a strong degree of standardization, from the layout of roads to their signage. Highways are often under the control of a central authority, too. This makes it relatively easy to implement any changes needed, so we shouldn't be surprised if machine-readable road architecture becomes the norm. In Peccioli, the researchers added several features to the roads to support DustCart. A special "robot lane" was demarcated in yellow paint, to segregate the trundling robot from normal traffic and avoid congestion in the narrow streets. Signs were also posted to warn drivers of the unusual road user. The area was saturated with high speed Wi-Fi and CCTV to ensure the control station remained in constant contact with the drone, and navigational beacons were installed throughout the collection area to help DustCart find its way.

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But the ascendance of robots is not just about building a robot-friendly controlled environment; it's also about making as much of our surroundings as machine-readable as possible. QR codes, the information-dense mutant offspring of barcodes, are not a new invention, but they are finally coming to prominence thanks to the widespread adoption of smartphones. Rather than design systems with optical character recognition on par with our own, it proved easier to augment or sometimes even replace written text with machine-readable patterns that are incomprehensible to humans. It's unlikely that we'll give over our public information entirely to checkerboard symbols, but if we expect androids to pick up our shopping and transport patients across hospitals, at the very least we should expect this kind of bilingual signage to increase.

We are in the midst of a mass digitization of our data. We expect a huge proportion of our daily information, from news to correspondence, to be published in a format that can be delivered digitally. Meanwhile, archivists are busy scanning and uploading civilization's back catalog of printed materials. But the future offers to take us one step further, where the physical nature of the built world itself will be machine-readable by default.

Frank Swain is a freelance science writer based in the U.K. He works in print, TV, and radio.

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