Part 5: The Sensor Evolution

A man walks into a bar with a robot on his back. It’s not the setup for a joke, or for a scifi western movie, but the near future of data collection. Although we often talk about future robots being our servants, the situation today is endearingly reversed.

Without an understanding of the world, and machine proprioception, the robots have to be directed and carried by humans.

That’s why London Underground commuters were recently met with the unusual sight of a man giving a Google robot a piggyback ride. It’s the latest foray to collect data about the physical world in the long and interesting evolution of spatial data collection.

Years ago we grew accustomed to Google cars driving on our roads, capturing streetview footage. Today, billions of those images have been used to create the Google Spatial API, and even more advanced cars with LIDAR arrays are now roaming the streets of a growing number of cities.

The road and its surroundings are so well-mapped now that these cars are starting to move around and map the world autonomously.

But for the world beyond the road and the open skies, humans still need to carry and guide the machine. Although mixed reality may be the eyes and ears of AI, we humans are still its mode of locomotion.

You’re carrying one right now. The smartphones in our pockets have already been drafted to the robotic mapping army. Niantic, the makers of Pokémon GO, trained their VPS on images captured by their users, helping them map public spaces rather than roads. Snap has also trained their own solution for recognizing public places, and enterprises are increasing their spending on digital twins.

The map of the world is growing, but the sensors are still not ubiquitous. Beyond our roads and public spaces is where humanity spends most of its time, in our places of business and in our homes. But these are still uncharted parts of the map. Not for much longer.

iRobot, the company behind the famous Roomba vacuum cleaning robot, recently had an acquisition attempt squashed for anti-trust reasons. The would-be buyer was not who you might expect. It wasn’t Elon Musk and Tesla, or Microsoft or Apple, but Jeff Bezos’ retail and data behemoth Amazon.

Regardless of how well civilization will tackle the privacy implications of this new technology, its rise is inevitable. How we arrive at this destination, and the choices we make along the way, is going to change our culture and economy forever, shaping who we are as a civilization.

Both for the next 100 billion thinking inhabitants on this world, but also for the worlds we reach next.

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