Our Robo-Port Overlords

I don’t know if you remember the scene from Season 2 of the Wire when Frank Sobotka is talking about a video he saw of next-generation port automation technology the horror it struck in him as he contemplated the future of stevedoring. Well, at HHLA’s Altenwerder terminal at the Port of Hamburg yesterday I saw an awful lot of impressive automation:

Among other things, automated cranes take containers off boats and load them onto automated trucks that move themselves into place and then drive off to their destination on their own. Volkswagon’s Transparent Factory in Dresden also has impressive little robot trucks that carry around the boxes full of parts and instruments that the workers need to use.

The part of my brain that’s familiar with economic history and models tells me that this automation is pushing the production frontier outwards and ultimately making a better world possible. But the common sense portion of my brain can’t help but fear the specter of mass inflation. And the part of my brain that watched Terminator: Salvation on the flight from DC to Frankfurt is still concerned about robot rebellion.

That aside, of course we have industrial robots in the United States as well. But I do think it’s somewhat telling that the most advanced sector of our robotics industry relates to the military. And it’s really quite advanced. But while military robots come with a sharply enhanced risk of rebellion and subsequent enslavement, it’s hard to see them as pushing the production frontier outwards. Military robots have led to fewer American deaths in Iraq than we would have seen in the absence of robots, but following a “don’t invade Iraq” would have saved many more lives at less cost.