Maybe the Robots Will Save Us
I am by nature an optimistic person. I don’t think the sky is falling. I don’t believe the apocalypse is upon us. I’m not locking myself in the fallout shelter with 10 years supply of canned goods, several loaded guns and a cook book called “1001 Delicious Ways to Serve Cockroach.”
It’s true the economic news of this past week has been on the grim side. But just today, I spotted a hopeful sign. According to a story in the Bangor Daily News, kids from across Maine are building robots out of LEGOs.
There, don’t you feel better?
It’s true these micro mechanical men aren’t designed to revive the economy. They’re supposed to be able to combat global warming. Which has to be almost as difficult. The little LEGO-droids are preprogrammed by students aged 9 to 14 as part of a national competition to perform a variety of tasks, including repairing levees, taking ice core samples and observing wild animals. About 120 kids took part in the Dec. 7 event at Maine Maritime Academy in Calais, with nearly twice as many scheduled to compete in a tournament in southern Maine this coming weekend. The winner gets to have his or her budding brain transplanted into the first C3PO prototype that rolls off the assembly line.
Regardless of what the prize is, it seems to me that it should be child’s play – literally – for these youthful inventors to reprogram their rockin’ sockin’ robots to deliver a death punch to whatever is causing our economy to shrivel up like a cockroach in a frying pan.
After which the faithful cyborgs would continue to serve humankind by fetching our slippers, placing logs upon our fires and mixing our martinis. Because I’m sure no middle-school mad scientist would be so inconsiderate as to corrupt his or her androids’ circuits with a dictatorial desire for world domination.
When it comes to that sort of deranged power-grabbing, we need only look to the alleged human members of the SAD 67 school board in Penobscot County. They’ve decided to institute Breathalyzer testing not only on any students suspected of having had their personal robots mix them martinis, but on students chosen at random at any school event.
The board refused to delay the new guilty-until-proven-innocent policy until it could be reviewed by the Maine Civil Liberties Union. It did, however, ask for more information before requiring all students to have behavior-control electrodes inserted in their brains.
There’s apparently no truth to the rumor that majority Democrats in the new Maine Legislature are planning to use similar technology on minority Republicans. As a fictional Democratic spokesperson explained it, “We couldn’t find enough members of the GOP to experiment on.”
Nevertheless, the Legislature was sworn in on Dec. 3, amid promises it would promptly get to work solving the state budget crisis. Newly elected representatives and senators also chose their leaders, picking Hannah Pingree of North Haven as speaker of the House and Libby Mitchell of Vassalboro as Senate president, the first time both chambers have been headed by women at the same time. They also picked the first female attorney general in state history. Janet Mills of Farmington won the post as Maine’s top law enforcement official by defeating Robo-Cop.
Of course, most Mainers are not robots. They don’t fuel up on electricity or little nuclear pills inserted in their sternums. They need real food. And according to state figures, a record number of them are having trouble buying enough.
One in seven people in the state is now receiving some form of federal food assistance, which amounts to over 189,000 hungry mouths, an increase of more than 25,000 in the last year.
In recent days, there’s been a certain robotic quality to the news. Pioneer Plastics in Auburn laid off 48 workers, about 16 percent of its workforce.
The Samoset Resort in Rockport closed its restaurant except for Sunday brunch and shut down its café for the winter, costing an undisclosed number of people their jobs.
“It’s hard when you only have five room bookings a night,” the manager said.
Many tree wholesalers have stopped trying to market their wares to out-of-state stores and stands. Instead, they’re selling the conifers directly to the public themselves.
Blueberry growers got a shock when they took their crop to market this year. Prices have dropped from more than a dollar a pound last year to a little more than half that in 2008.
Places that sell blueberries are getting hit, too. Shaw’s Supermarkets is shutting its store near the Bangor Mall and rival Hannaford Bros. announced it was cutting an unspecified number of jobs at its Scarborough headquarters.
And car dealers across the state held news conferences on Dec. 5 to warn that if Congress doesn’t bail out the big Detroit automakers, it could cost as many as 1,000 jobs in Maine.
It’s enough to make a robot cry. Or a cockroach.
Well, maybe not the latter.
Despite all that bleakness, some businesses were spending money. PowerPay LLC, a transaction processing business, has purchased the old Portland Public Market.
It plans to turn the building into office space.
Endless Energy Corp. of Yarmouth is making a third attempt to build a wind farm in Redington Township. Except if Endless Energy gets its way, it won’t be Redington Township for long. The company is asking neighboring Carrabassett Valley (where I live) to annex part of Redington, thereby removing that land from the jurisdiction of the Land Use Regulation Commission, which has twice rejected wind towers there. Instead, the permitting power would be shifted to the town. The whole deal needs not only approval from Carrabassett, but from the Legislature.
And the recession may have one positive impact on Maine. Sure, nobody has a job, health care, shelter or even enough cockroaches for a decent casserole. But we no longer have a problem with sprawl.
According to the latest census figures, people have stopped moving to the outer suburbs and started moving back into central cities.
Although, it’s not just the economy that’s forcing us to co-exist in closer quarters. As one fictional Mainer put it, “I couldn’t sleep at night out there in the ‘burbs, what with all the construction noise. Turned out the kid next door was building this Iron Giant.”
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.