From Three Mile Island to the moon, by way of Pittsburgh

The rebound of Pittsburgh can be traced to Three Mile Island, according to Red Whittaker. As reported by Glenn Thrush in POLITICO, when the post-steel-powerhouse city's unemployment rate reached 17.1% in 1983, Whittaker and some grad students at Carnegie Mellon University used a $1.5 million grant to build a “remote recognizance vehicle” that could explore the “nuclear soup” of the basement of TMI's damaged Unit 2.

More recently, Whittaker is involved in efforts to claim the Google Lunar XPRIZE, as he described at last summer's NIWeek.

As Thrush in POLITICO notes, the success of the TMI robotics team initiated “…a spectacular, three-decade cycle of innovation, investment, and expansion that put Whittaker and his protégés on the leading edge of their new field and created a cool cottage industry that has come to define a city's resurgence.”

He continues, “Pittsburgh, after decades of trying to remake itself, today really does have a new economy, rooted in the city's rapidly growing robotic, artificial intelligence, health technology, manufacturing, and software industries.”

Thrush cites some specifics: CMU is Google's biggest rival in the autonomous car development effort, Silicon Valley moguls have invested in CMU spinoff Aquion Energy (a maker of next-generation batteries with production in Pennsylvania), and Disney is partnering with CMU to improve cinematic graphics and develop hominid robots.

Unfortunately, Thrush quotes Whittaker and others as saying there is no magic formula that enables post-industrial cities to bounce back. Thrush cites some advantages of Pittsburgh, including the fact that it's located in a valley that kept the population naturally contained. In contrast, Detroit splintered into an auto making industry in the suburbs and a predominantly poor inner city. Even the slow pace of Pittsburgh's recovery helped, avoiding speculative real-estate bubbles.

Thrush further notes that the embrace of robotics reasserts Pittsburgh's “irrepressible identity, its industrial DNA.” He quotes Ilana Diamond, founder of Alphalab Gear, as saying, “We have always made stuff around here. … That’s what the mills were, right? It’s in our genes—we don’t have to argue with anybody that Pittsburgh is a place where stuff gets made.”

It's ironic, Thrush notes, that a city built around an industrial working class is now building robots that can replace workers. But Whittaker, who runs a company called RedZone Robotics that makes robots that inspect sewer lines, has a pithy response. “We create jobs, we don't take them away,” Thrush quotes him as saying. “If you want to dig through shit for a living that’s your business. But a robot can get into a tiny pipe, and a person can’t do that, so I’m not taking anyone’s job away.”

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