Robots Can Invade Your Home and Kill You. But They Can't Lay Bricks. Why Is That?

The Newsletter of Newsletters, Volume 10.

Every week I highlight three newsletters that are worth your time.

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1. Construction Physics

Brian Potter looks at the limitations of robotics in manual labor:

When researching construction, you invariably discover that any new or innovative idea has actually been tried over and over again, often stretching back decades. One of these new-but-actually-old ideas is the idea of a mechanical bricklayer, a machine to automate the construction of masonry walls.

It’s easy to see the appeal of this idea - masonry construction seems almost perfectly suited for mechanization. It’s extremely repetitive - constructing a masonry building requires setting tens or hundreds of thousands of bricks or blocks, each one (nearly) identical, each one set in the same way. It doesn’t seem like it would require physically complex movements - each brick gets a layer of mortar applied, and is simply laid in place next to the previous one. And because each brick and mortar joint is the same size, placement is almost deterministic - each brick is the same fixed distance from the previous one.

On top of this, masonry, especially block masonry, is one of the most physically punishing construction tasks, since it requires hours and hours of repetitively moving extremely heavy objects. All together masonry seems like the perfect candidate for a task to hand over to a machine, and it’s something people have been attempting for over 100 years.

Potter goes on to examine the various ways modern robotics has tried to handle bricklaying—from giant mobile machines, to small robot assistants, to brick-printing to—most interestingly—an exoskeleton for human masons.

But the most interesting part of the piece is examining why robots aren’t good at laying bricks, because it illuminates some of the limiting boundaries of robotics:

[W]hat makes laying a brick so different than, say, hammering a nail, such that the latter is almost completely mechanized and the former is almost completely manual?

There seems to be a few factors at work. One is the fact that a brick or block isn’t simply set down on a solid surface, but is set on top of a thin layer of mortar, which is a mixture of water, sand, and cementitious material. Mortar has sort of complex physical properties - it’s a non-newtonian fluid, and it’s viscosity increases when it’s moved or shaken. This makes it difficult to apply in a purely mechanical, deterministic way (and also probably makes it difficult for masons to explain what they’re doing - watching them place it you can see lots of complex little motions, and the mortar behaving in sort of strange not-quite-liquid but not-quite-solid ways). And since mortar is a jobsite-mixed material, there will be variation in it’s properties from batch to batch.

Masonry machines have constantly struggled with the mortar aspect of masonry; many of them simply ignored the aspect of the problem. . . .

Mortar joints make setting blocks more complicated. Whereas a nailgun can apply force to a nail and get a fairly uniform result every time (and if it can’t, it’s not critical - a nail will still function if its driven slightly askew), setting a block on a layer of field-mixed non-newtonian fluid isn’t so forgiving. Without some feedback from the environment (measuring the levelness of the block that’s been set), it’s hard to be sure that the wall is being built level. Human masons are constantly checking the levelness of their blocks with strings or field levels to ensure the wall remains true as it gets built, and making slight adjustments as needed . . .

Robustly getting a machine to react based on its surrounding environment remains a complex problem, even if the machine is physically capable of doing it.

Score one for the meat bags.

Potter’s whole newsletter is fascinating. Subscribe here.


2. The Russia-Iran File

If you read The Bulwark, you’ve probably read Shay Khatiri, who writes frequently for us about foreign policy. (His latest piece on Biden and the Afghanistan pullout is here.) Anyway, Shay has started a newsletter focusing on Russia and Iran, two subjects he knows a lot about.

This post on the Russo-Georgian war is deeply interesting and full of stuff I did not know:

Taking advantage of a separatist rebellion, Russia invaded northern Georgia and occupies it today. The war came at a convenient moment for Putin, with an unpopular President in the United States distracted by two other wars, months away from a transitional Presidential race. Weeks later, the world would stop paying attention to Putin and Georgia as Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the Financial Crisis erupted. . . .

Looking back, the war lasted only two weeks, and it was a cakewalk for Putin. This is a misguided view. The Russians struggled in Georgia. The details of the military operation revealed to the Russians their own military ineffectiveness. From battlefield success to command, control, and communications (C3), Russian forces struggled. Their only reason for success was the Georgian military’s inferiority. The best example of this ineffectiveness was the Russian forces’ reliance on their personal cell phones for communication. Out of the six or seven Russian aircraft that were downed, the Georgian military shot down only two—the others were downed by friendly fire. The Russian forces also lacked precision-guided munitions. Between 60 and 70 percent of their tanks broke down during the operation. Russia’s swift victory was because it had tactical superiority on the battlefield and outspent Georgia by a factor of thirty.

This prompted Putin to rebuild the military. In 2009, Minister of Defense Anatoliy Serdyukov announced his New Look plan to change the posture of the military. The new Russian military eschews the reliance on overwhelming numbers and mass mobilization that formed the core of Russian military doctrine since before World War I, probably in response to Russia’s decline in population relative to its adversaries. Instead, the new doctrine endorses a leaner and more combat-efficient force with high combat readiness. The military updated its C3, including upgrading its communication systems, and improved officer training.

Five years later, the Russian military’s effectiveness surprised military analysts as it invaded and annexed a part of Ukraine. While the Russian military encountered surprisingly stout resistance from the Ukrainian military in Donetsk and Luhansk, the seizure of Crimea by the “little green men” required a degree of C3 that far exceeded the capabilities of the Russian army that invaded Georgia. . . .

For the first time in centuries, the Russian way of war is no more just throwing people at the problem, in part because Russia doesn’t have as many people anymore in combat age and shape. The new Russian military is investing in its weaponry, as well. Then-U.S. Army Commander in Europe Ben Hodges called Russia’s electronic warfare capabilities “eye-watering” in testimony before Congress, with NATO forces lacking capabilities for offensive and counteroffensive electronic capabilities against Russia. . . .

The other addition to Russian doctrine was the introduction of “hybrid warfare,” which is combining conventional, non-conventional, and information warfare together for a simple purpose. In addition to the conventional military renovation and nuclear weapons build-up, cyber- and information-warfare have been especially proven to be useful tools with little financial investments.

So Russia learned all the right lessons from Georgia. The United States and NATO overall did not.

This is great stuff and reading Shay will make you smarter.

Go subscribe.


3. 3W 3M

So Substack has jumped into comic books which is of great interest to

And also, me.

In the initial slate of creators making the move to Substack was Jonathan Hickman who’s been around for forever, but is probably best known for East of West.

His Substack creation (along with co-creators Mike del Mundo and Mike Huddleston) is a project called 3W 3M, which stands for “Three Worlds, Three Moons.”

They’re creating a big, deep sci-fi universe set in a solar system which has three habitable planets, which share three habitable moons.

I was curious as to how comics creators would use Substack and for their part, Hickman and the Mikes seems to be trying to do something very different: Part comic book; part open-source game design; part literary VR.

I’ll refer you here to the the Three Worlds Three Moons FAQ:

The idea behind it is what we are calling a Concept Universe. A place where, from scratch, a universe of stories, characters, places is built and the readers have full access to engage, and watch it unfold. . . .

Will these books be in print?

Yes. Of course. The plan is to eventually make some of the most beautiful books in the market. Designing these is what Sasha Head is primarily going to be working on. But this space is where the stories are born, and live, and grow -- it’s meant to be a completely different experience. And it will be.

This may not be your bag. It might not even be my bag.

But these guys are trying to create a new medium and I’m interested to see how it plays.

Subscribe to 3W 3M here.


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