The Chinese government is having a dam built in Tibet largely without human labor. Instead, 3D printers and AI-controlled robots are being used. From a technical point of view, this makes the project highly interesting – but from a political point of view, it is problematic.
Yangqu Dam to Produce Electricity
The aim of the construction project is to build a dam with a hydroelectric power plant, through which electricity is to be produced. This in turn is to be transmitted from Tibet via a 1,500-kilometer-long high-voltage line to Henan Province, where it will ensure the energy supply for around 100 million people.
What is special about this project is not only its enormous dimensions, but also the fact that only a small amount of human labor is being used. Instead, giant 3D printers and largely autonomous robots will take their place. For example, excavators, trucks and rollers will be used that operate completely without a human controller. The demands placed on the AI are enormous: materials must be identified and correctly loaded, transported via passable routes to the appropriate destination, unloaded there and built in layers. In addition, the AI is to independently monitor the construction and check its quality. For this purpose, ground vibrations, for example, are to be registered and evaluated.
In essence, the construction site functions as a kind of large 3D printer with an automated infrastructure to assist it and – if the project is ultimately successful – is thus a testament to the enormous technical possibilities that such automation processes bring with them.
Problems: Jobs are falling away
The project can thus be seen as a blueprint for the further development of autonomously operating technologies, highlighting both the possibilities and the problems of advancing AI use. The scientist behind the project, Liu Tianyun of Tsinghua University, praises the seemingly humanistic impetus, saying that the project demonstrates that humans can be freed from heavy, dangerous and monotonous work. What is factually correct and would certainly be considered progress under optimal social circumstances is, however, quite problematic – especially in Chinese society. For example, the socioeconomic consequences for all those people who drive trucks or operate rollers and excavators are not addressed. Against the background of the already enormous socioeconomic inequality in China – the Gini coefficient, which measures this on a scale of 0 to 1, is around 0.47, compared with 0.29 in Germany -, an unemployment rate of an estimated ten to fifteen percent and imperfect or non-existent state protection in the face of rising living costs, this development appears problematic.
In addition, there is the fundamental problem of building a power plant in Tibet to produce electricity for Henan: Against the background of the annexation of Tibet in the 1950s and the subsequent suppression of Tibetan structures appears imperialistic.