- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

Maybe it's just me, but I claim you can tell where the world is going by looking at industrial technology that nobody has ever heard of.
For example, an outfit called Bluefin Robotics ( www.bluefinrobotics.com) makes small unmanned submarines that work autonomously and are not connected to the parent ship by a cable. If you are an oil company, this is a good idea.
Why? Oil companies like to do things such as inspecting undersea pipelines. For that matter, telecommunications companies like to inspect cables. The company sees a large market for unmanned undersea work as the Internet spurs the laying of more undersea cables, as fishing companies spend more on stock management, and mining companies look for everything from diamonds to methane hydrates.
Until recently, such things have been hard to do, given the enormous pressure of the deep ocean.
One way to do them is to use a manned submarine. Since this is dangerous and expensive, it's not good for day-to-day work.
Another approach is to put a submarinelike object, equipped with cameras or sensors, on the end of a long tether and tow it along whatever it is that you want to inspect. This works, but not always well. Given that some objects of interest are in very deep water (Bluefin has a sub rated to work at 6,000 yards), you would need a very long tether indeed. Towing gets awkward, especially if you want to look several times at something small. Imagine trying to control a wagon towed three miles behind your car and you see the problem.
A brighter idea, which has only recently become practical, is a tetherless and autonomous sub that you can more or less just throw in the water. If properly programmed, it can do many things entirely on its own and come up when it's through. The Bluefin subs will do this, says the company, although you can communicate with them in midmission through an acoustic modem.
Robotic vehicles are not a new idea. They just couldn't be made to work. The key today is that phenomenal computer power can now fit in small packages, and also be made highly reliable.
This is only the beginning. As propulsion improves, companies will likely develop autonomous submarines of greater range, able to spend long periods navigating on their own. This has happened with unmanned aircraft, some of which can fly solo between continents.
It is another example of the rapid commercialization of robotics. The military is investing in a variety of unmanned reconnaissance aircraft (Global Hawk, for example) and increasingly, in unmanned aircraft that carry weapons (Predator). Other robots crawl through pipelines, looking for defects. There are proposals for unmanned aircraft that would stay aloft for days to provide such things as Internet service to people below.
In varying degrees, these disparate examples are aspects of the same growing trend: The tendency of machines to do independently things that once required human presence or intervention. We have all read much about "artificial intelligence." We don't hear much about it any longer. The reason, perhaps, is that people thought that artificial intelligence meant Robby the Robot, who could square dance and talk politics.
But to me, a submarine that can go on its own into the deep ocean, do what it has been told to do, figure out how to overcome obstacles and return when it has finished that's artificial intelligence.
Increasingly, machines do just this sort of thing. We are, I think, going to see more machines that go places and do things without supervision. There's something a little eerie about it, but it's going to happen.

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