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March 18, 2011

Japan Imports US Robots for Nuclear Duty

We (generally) only know what people are willing to tell us, and there are a lot of motivations for dissembling.

In the Cold War, we made estimates of Russian strength and they made estimates of American strength. Since funding only flowed to the military-industrial complex for projects in which the enemy held the advantage, it is not remarkable that each side's bureaucracy overestimated the strength of the other. It was in everybody's interest to escalate the arms race, with the possible exception of the citizens of either country — who might have preferred that the resources were used to, say, fight childhood malnutrition or cure cancer (which, if I remember, Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971, forty years ago. We've built a lot more weapon systems than we've built cancer cures.)

We're told that the Japanese are eating America's lunch on robotics and technology. The demos are remarkable.

NY Times, pre-firewall:
At the request of the Japanese military,
a Massachusetts company, iRobot, said it put four robots on a plane for Japan on Friday
. Colin Angle, the chief executive, said it had sent two small robots that could measure radiation levels close to the reactors and two larger ones that could pull hoses to spray water on the fuel rods.

He said the robots might be able to tug the hoses for 200 to 300 yards. Japanese soldiers could operate the robots from a protected vehicle, he said.

From NECN: "iRobot is sending two of its packbots...and two warrior robots to Japan, along with six employees. The pack bots will be equipped with a hazmat sensor...the warriors will be fitted with a special gripper that can hold a fire hose. Both are able to go where humans can not."

From UberGizmo: "The team that consists of PackBots and Warrior robots have been designed to work in such situations... The robots can be sent out into the field, while the controllers can stay inside protected vehicles where they will be safe from radiation. The PackBot can be used to determine how dangerous the radiation levels are, and the Warrior could be used to pull hoses into “hot zones”, delivering cold water where it is needed inside the nuclear reactors."

Kirsten Korosec, in Why Japan’s Nuclear Plants Sacrifice Workers Instead of Robots, argues that it's not a technological issue as much as a cultural issue.
...there’s a competing culture in Japan, one that relies on humans for tasks that have given way to automation in the rest of the world. Add an ingrained worker culture that places extraordinary value on selflessness, modesty and consensus-building to the mix, and it’s easier to understand how TEPCO could see the low-tech human approach as the right choice.

Reuters explains that Japan is a world-leader in robotics in many fields, but that cultural issues inhibit Japanese systems engineers from considering worst-case scenarios, which involve a tacit loss of face.

Lest we become smug, let me point out that this is the American military-industrial complex seizing an opportunity to extend military capabilities into the civilian market. We probably wouldn't have PackBots and WarriorBots if it weren't for our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Update: click here for WIlliam Saletan on Japan and nuke-plant robots.


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