Saturday, March 19, 2011

Self-driving Cars and Stricken Nuclear Reactors

How to cool the stricken nuclear reactors at Fukushima has become the most daunting challenge for Japan's nuclear engineers. I have not read any report about robots doing at least part of the dangerous work. Instead, many Japanese workers and technicians have sacrificed their safety, and perhaps their lives, by spraying the reactors with water from close quarters while also trying to restore power.

Robots are clearly not technologically advanced enough to perform these functions. Otherwise they would have surely been employed by now. What about Google's self-driving cars? Could these vehicles, loaded with lasers and sensors, become Robots 2.0 and taught to perform these dangerous tasks? There could be an entirely separate category of such cars developed for ensuring the safety of nuclear reactors when hit with natural or man-made disasters.

Far-fetched? I don't see why. The alternative is death for humans. Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention and the elixir of entrepreneurs. There will always be risks associated with nuclear reactors. The probability of partial or full meltdowns can never be zero, since what is beyond man's expectations is what is normal for nature. Besides, as the Japanese physicist Torahiko Terada wrote with such clairvoyance in 1934, "The more civilization progresses, the greater the violence of nature's wrath."

But if the risks can be reduced from their current level by even a small fraction, that will be bona fide progress. Small, unmanned super-intelligent cars that can take corrective actions inside stricken reactors can save lives and prevent nuclear disasters from spiralling into apocalypses. Is it not an idea at least worth looking into?

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