(By Patrick Cox) On May 22, the SpaceX rocket, Dragon, launched and made its way, largely self-directed, to the International Space Station, where its cargo was delivered. On May 31, it came back, landing in the waters of the Pacific off Baja, Mexico, with 1,400 pounds of return cargo, 300 pounds more than it took up.
Though most people don't think of it as a robot, Dragon fulfilled every requirement for that status. It was, in fact, unmanned and operating under control of artificial intelligence software overseen through remote control.
In practical terms, however, I think the deployment of Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) on June 6 is far more consequential for most of us.
Make no mistake: I'm not diminishing the historic importance of the SpaceX accomplishment. The robotic for-profit round-trip cargo run was a very big deal. The Russian, European and Japanese competitors to SpaceX can't safely return cargo. SpaceX will eventually be able to shuttle crew and passengers in both directions for a fraction of the price that NASA spent to do the same. Moreover, the entry of free enterprise into space will usher in an era of much more rapid innovation than was possible under NASA, which is necessarily handicapped by the politics of state-run enterprises and bureaucracy.
It's a sign of the times that there's so much progress at the moment that IPv6 rollout has gone largely unnoticed. A few years ago, incidentally, the usual apocalyptic doubters were predicting the end of Internet growth because the original protocol, IPv4, was running out of addresses for the many connected devices that had emerged to exploit the network.
When IPv4 was designed and implemented in 1981, even those working in the industry failed to appreciate the potential of the network. As a result, they adopted a 32-bit address system. That meant that the number of unique addresses for devices, from computers and telephones to servers and medical implants, was limited to 2 to the 32nd power, or 4,294,967,296. We officially ran out of addresses in 2002, in fact, but engineers came up with hacks that extended the life of IPv4 until now by allowing computers to share IP addresses.
The scheme, however, was of limited use. Fortunately, 22 years ago, a basic plan was developed to solve the problem with 128-bit addresses, meaning 2 to the 128th power. With relatively few modifications, this system was rolled out on June 6. So now there are, roughly speaking, somewhere around 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 addresses, which should last us for a while.
IPv6 will now usher in the true robotic revolution. The last big obstacle to a true network of things has been removed. Moore's law and human creativity will take care of the rest. From a consumer perspective, this means that we will see more and more common devices joined to our networks with increasingly cheap microchips. I think the much-bigger impact will occur in manufacturing, however.
Ever since iRobot founder and chief technology officer Rodney Brooks left that firm to form Heartland Robotics, the tech industry has been watching expectantly. His first investor, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, brought the company even more attention.
Recently, Brooks announced that the company's first product will be released by the beginning of next year, if not earlier. He describes the robot as the equivalent of an iPad, which means that it will be an open platform for others to exploit. It will be cheap, easy to use and suitable for any repetitive task. The head of marketing is Mitch Rosenberg, who ran the warehouse-robotics company Kiva Systems, which has been acquired by Amazon.com.
Heartland, however, is by no means the only other robotics company in the process of developing smart machines that can do repetitive human tasks. One illustrative company is SoftWear Automation, a Georgia Tech spinoff that has enjoyed funding from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Founder and CTO Steve Dickerson are developing sewing robots, a field that is already relatively advanced.
Soon, however, the process of making garments or anything else from fabric will not be just assisted by robot cutters and sewers, but will be entirely automated. As Dickerson points out, completely automated clothing manufacturing will be both cheaper and higher quality than human manufacturing, even in the developing world.
When manufacturing is robotic, it is energy, not labor, that becomes the most-important cost component of any product. As I explained in a recent alert, North America has opened up vast stores of oil and natural gas, thanks to the technology of hydrofracking. We are the new Saudi Arabia of fossil fuels. This affects not just the cost of powering manufacturing facilities; it affects the cost of many raw materials such as synthetic and natural fabrics.
I think you've probably already seen where I'm going. The cost advantage that the developing world has had over the developed world is going to go away with the imminent arrival of ubiquitous robotics.
People think in habituated ruts, so as a result, many people simply assume that America, Canada and the developed world are at a permanent manufacturing disadvantage with the developing world — just because it's been that way for a while now. That's going to change, quickly, and there are going to be enormous profits available to investors who see the change coming.
Obviously, my colleague Ray Blanco and I are already spending a lot of time scouring the emerging robotics companies that are going to power this world-changing and incredibly profitable technological revolution… and you should too.
Yours for transformational profits,
for The Penny Sleuth