By Robert Hickson 06/09/2015

Gill Pratt, who until recently ran some of DARPA’s robotics programs, has posited in the Journal of Economic Perspectives that the field of robotics may perhaps in the near future go through the technological equivalent of the “Cambrian explosion”,  resulting in a myriad of wondrous mechanical forms.


Source: ChopShopStore
Source: ChopShopStore

[Of course, the Cambrian “explosion” occurred over millions of years. It is only in hindsight, and through a geological timeline that it becomes an “explosion”.]

Pratt suggests 8 technical drivers could underpin this, involving continued exponential improvement in computational performance, better energy storage and power systems, improved design and manufacturing tools, expanded wireless communication networks, and a more “muscular” internet.

On top of that, the emerging ability of robots, and other computer systems, to connect with and learn from each other’s experiences via the cloud is accelerating the range and capability of their activities. He presents a good summary of some of the key technological developments going on.

However, it is misleading to focus just on “robots”, if by that you just mean hardware. The pace and scale of spread of software throughout many sectors is much more considerable, so looking at robots in isolation of other technological developments is not very helpful.

As an aside, the Economist (and others previously) has also referred to the Cambrian when considering the current technology “ecosystem”.

It’s an interesting and strong metaphor; particularly in the, perhaps unconscious, linking of robots to animate organisms. It implies that robots (and other automated systems) will fill vacant niches, or are potentially invasive “species” that may supplant us and other life forms. The possibility of the latter is an ongoing debate.

Pratt considers whether robots will replace human workers, but does not have any new insights to add.

Over the last few centuries the human body was often described in terms of a machine.  We didn’t talk about a “Cambrian explosion” of agricultural equipment, or re-label the industrial revolution an evolutionary event.

Now machines and technology systems are beginning to be described as organisms, and we talk about robots “evolving“. So we subconsciously seem to be ceding away our control over and responsibilities for them. While on the other hand, in the public and private sectors we often use the language of “tool box” for how we do our work and influence others. People or groups are seen as things we can fix or adjust, while our real tools may, through some of the language we use, becoming less so.

As a recent article in The Atlantic points out the metaphors we use are important

… metaphors matter because they shape laws and policies … As technology advances, law evolves (slowly, and somewhat clumsily) to accommodate new technologies and social norms around them. The most typical way this happens is that judges and regulators think about whether a new, unregulated technology is sufficiently like an existing thing that we already have rules about—and this is where metaphors and comparisons come in.

So while describing technological developments using biological metaphors is useful to illustrate patterns, we need to take care that we don’t talk ourselves into our own evolutionary dead ends.