wollensky says

Keep hoping for slippered ease

28 February 2005

Robots do all sorts of worthwhile work

Going on for half a century ago, when supersonic air travel became possible for anyone who could afford Concorde fares, and governments that could afford it flew men to the moon, some imaginative souls of the time dreamed of and schemed for a society served – at home as well as at work – by fantastically capable robots. Now the 21st century is well on its way, bereft of Concorde passengers and lunar voyagers, and automata have yet to wait upon us, make our beds, and clean and tidy our living quarters; but robots have made some progress.

There is indeed an international cup to be won by teams of robot footballers, and the engineers who devise the artefacts get more than just fun out of their endeavours. Some of these clever people develop seriously useful automata for industry. The nuclear business has been a major beneficiary. Robots go fearlessly into radioactive and otherwise hostile environments to do all sorts of worthwhile work.

Among the efforts that most tickle my own fancy are those of Professor Huosheng Hu at the University of Essex, England. I am in no doubt that he enjoyed his part in entering the first UK team for that international football competition, but I hear that he has also been applying himself to the development of flying robots to help in the decommissioning of the complicated piping in nuclear reprocessing plant. Once he has completely cracked that problem it will surely be child’s play to deploy hummingbird-like robot plumbers, windowcleaners and builders on public and residential structures, and the helotic machine invasion of dwelling place interiors should not be far behind.

The age of endless sybaritic leisure may, after all, be only about a century late.

Maybe shrugs are best

What can our industry do to keep the respect of the public despite the lay media? Consider these two examples.

A very reputable broadcaster flashed round the world a story of “Russian scientists’ . . . plans to build a nuclear power station on Mars”*. The “technical drawings” had reportedly been finished and only “a few minor niggles” had “to be ironed out” before construction could begin. The Russians had envisaged that the plant “should be up and running by 2030”, to serve ensuing expeditions. The “only stumbling block”, apparently, was choosing “how to deliver ready-made building blocks” from Earth to a Martian site. Oh, and a way had to be found to protect staff and the Martian environment against radiation. A mere half-dozen engineers would suffice to maintain the station. The project’s promoters, “a state scientific company closely affiliated with Russia’s Nuclear Energy Ministry”, was said to be scheming construction, possibly in a canyon. The broadcaster added that experts were questioning the feasibility of the undertaking.

But nobody flinched on the page of a well known business newspaper that printed the following motor-car news under a Fuel cell technology subject heading. The writer told of Toyota’s Prius hybrid automobile that “it uses an electric motor to improve the efficiency of its petrol engine”. A next step, some readers might have supposed, could be to employ electric motors to improve the efficiencies of heat engine prime-movers in power stations. ‘Prius’, by the way, is pronounced to rhyme with ‘see us’, not ‘try us’.

Might any net good be done by a regular publication listing media stories like the two above, quoting each with a gentle, uncensorious, unmocking, informative background note to counter any misapprehensions possibly conveyed? Who could or would sponsor such a periodical? Who would read it? No, nobody and nobody, I think I hear someone sigh.

Chroniclers please note

Archaeologists and antiquarians have swarmed to point out that Wollensky says began twenty years ago, in the February 1985 issue of MPS. That just goes to show what pitfalls beset the historian who does not pursue his researches deeply enough. Your hard-hatted if soft-centred columnist actually started ‘saying’ in the October 1982 issue. The feature merely had a different title in those days. For its first two-odd years (no pun intended) it was called Flashover. Neither editorial memories nor dusty archives explain the change, But I feel compelled to set the record straight as far as I can.

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