The 3D brick approach to self-assembly at the nanoscale is based on short synthetic strands of DNA that form building blocks, which self-assemble into 100 different, precise 3D shapes such as letters and numbers. Like the models of 80 of these shapes shown here, each unique shape measures about 25 nm per side.
Thanks, Rob. Yes, it's already starting to look like robots are replacing cheap labor again, even in China. It's been reported that Foxconn plans to "solve" it's widely publicized labor problems by replacing humans with millions of robots:
Because all of this work is still in R&D it might be easy to dismiss it as blue-sky. But I discovered while doing the background research for this article that many of these projects have been underway for several years, and much of what's being done now is second- or even third-generation R&D. There's an awful lot of brains and money aimed at developing self-assembling. self-reconfiguring robots. I came away with the feeling that the future is going to be very different, indeed.
In the past, there has been the myth that robots create more jobs (in robot design and manufacturing systems design) than they replace. But it's simple economics -- if robots create more jobs than they replace they would not be economically feasible -- and apparently they are economically feasible.
Rob, I agree--in fact, it's simple arithmetic. I'm getting a little tired of hearing about all the supposed new jobs that will be created instead of all the jobs that will, obviously, in fact be taken away. What's also ignored in those arguments is--what happens to all the people whose jobs are taken away? And what happens to all the people trained for, and dependent on, that shrinking pool of good blue collar jobs?
For this approach to gain traction, there may be a need for a killer app or specific market for these modular, self-reconfiguring robots to prove themselves in. OEM machines are often very niche oriented (relatively low number of new machines per year and a huge installed base developed over a much longer period). Makes it difficult for new approaches to break in.
In the early years of computers, the computers did indeed create more jobs than they eliminated. That was partly due to poor implementation and apps that were not well designed for labor savings. That, of course, changed in time.
With robots, I wouldn't expect that delay. I would imagine the apps are available as the robots are created. So the labor savings would be immediate.
Ann, this technology seems to reflect what we've already seen in numerous sci-fi books and movies. There are many examples, but one that jumps to mind is Terminator 2, where the terminator robot re-assembles itself after getting shot.
@Rob: The problem with your "simple economics" argument ("if robots create more jobs than they replace they would not be economically feasible") is that economics is not a zero-sum game. Higher productivity creates economic growth, which creates jobs.
Companies don't make money by eliminating jobs, they make money by selling products. If automation allows a company to make products at a lower cost, they can sell more products. If they sell more products, they will make more money. If the company makes more money, they will have more money to invest -- including in new employees.
Al, the main apps I've heard of mentioned more than once are consumer, like reconfigurable furniture, or reconfigurable robots for space exploration and search and rescue. That's the macro-level tehcnmologies. For the nano and micro-Ievel it's usually various medical uses such as drug delivery mechanisms.
NIST's new five-year strategic plan for its Material Measurement Laboratory lists additive manufacturing materials development as one of the main areas it will support by developing measurements, data, techniques, and models.
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