John Pientka

Notre Dame – Saving the Past Provides a Glimpse of the Future

The tragedy of Notre Dame’s fire showed how we will really work in the future. Along side the brave hundreds of firemen were robots and drones credited with saving key structures.

An 850-year old structure so engulfed in flames that firemen must retreat from the structure due to the heat. The roof is 115 feet high and the towers soar to 226 feet. None of the Parisian fire fighting equipment can reach those heights. The fire fighters are effectively blind to the intensity and direction of the flames. The spire is gone. The roof is gone. We could be minutes to hours away from the whole structure collapsing as the mortar between the stones weakens due to the heat.

Pundits have railed for years about how robots and A.I. will take our jobs. Fortunately, a small, more reasonable group has been saying these new tools will be complements to us, enhancing our capabilities. The Notre Dame fire unintentionally reveals this. The fire fighters borrowed two drones produced by the Chinese company DJL – the Mavic Pro and Matrice M210 (see picture below) – from the Culture and Interior ministries that were equipped with thermal cameras. This enabled them to hover over the conflagration and determine the progress of the fire. The operators could then direct the water spray from the ground, up and over the walls into the right spots to block the flames’ progress.

Inside the cathedral, as the spire and roof collapses, the heat is oppresive. Even with protective gear and breathing apparatus, it’s just too hot for humans inside the structure. Nonetheless, you have to fight the fire there as well. In order to do so they turn to a French firefighting robot (see next picture below) – Colossus. This 1,100 pound mini tank was used to pump 660 gallons of water per minute into the interior. Firemen could safely stay back up to 1,000 feet while Colossus did its job.

Neither the robot nor the drones were autonomous. Skilled operators who were out of harms way controlled them remotely. But we are not far from the day when we will be able to rely upon machines as autonomous partners. A good look into this emerging partnership between human and machine is: Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI by Paul R. Daugherty and H. James Wilson. The authors demonstrate how the smartest businesses are recognizing the immense leverage of pairing the best of what each do well.

Already numerous plants all over the world have machines and workers orchestrated into a highly productive ballet that is a harbinger of things to come. Rather than the old brute force of assembly line robots doing repetitive tasks isolated from humans, robots and people are working side by side. The resulting ultra-high productivity means that first world high-wage workers can compete with low-wage third world labor forces. We may be witnessing another seismic shift in where and how things are built.

Business and public safety are just two of the areas where this symbiosis is blossoming. All forms of human activity are being affected including war. Over the next few years, the Pentagon is poised to spend almost $1 billion for a range of robots designed to complement combat troops. Beyond scouting and explosives disposal, these new machines will sniff out hazardous chemicals or other agents, perform complex reconnaissance and even carry a soldier’s gear. The pace of adoption is stunning, leading to figures like Elon Musk warning about the potential dangers of autonomous killer robots on the battlefield.

Yes, it seems that almost no human endeavor will not be touched by this burgeoning partnership – even outer space. Just recently NASA delivered to the international space station a number of “astrobees”. Designed to supplement the astronauts in their work. They are robots that can function either autonomously or by remote control to do the routine or dangerous tasks.

Look around. This is how it will happen. Robots and A.I. will just seep into our everyday world. Occasionally, we may notice them as with the Notre Dame fire but most often we will not. We will mostly just take them for granted as helpful assistants.

So, don’t worry about your job being taken and don’t worry about the terminator taking over. Instead your job will be transformed and a robot may save your life. Don’t be surprised by these servants popping up where you least expect them. In fact, maybe you have a good idea of one that could help you. How about it?

By John Pientka


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