This is an update of a post that originally appeared on January 20, 2016.
I wrote a little over seven years ago that I had read an article in ComputerWorld, Children mine cobalt used in smartphones, other electronics, that had me thinking yet again about how people in rich countries tend to ignore the needs of those in poor countries. I had sincerely hoped at the time that things would be different, better, in seven years. Well, they’re worse! We’ve increased our use of cobalt dramatically in order to create supposedly green cars. The picture at the beginning of the ComputerWorld article says it all, but the details will have you wondering whether a smartphone or an electric car really is worth some child’s life. That’s right, any smartphone or electric car you buy may be killing someone and in a truly horrid manner. Children as young as 7 years old are mining the cobalt needed for the batteries (and other components) in the smartphones and electric cars that people seem to feel are so necessary for life (they aren’t you know; food, water, clothing, shelter, sleep, air, and reproduction are necessities, everything else is a luxury).
The problem doesn’t stop when someone gets rid the smartphone, electric car, or other technology. Other children end up dismantling the devices sent for recycling. That’s right, a rich country’s efforts to keep electronics out of their landfills is also killing children because countries like India put these children to work taking them apart in unsafe conditions. Recycled wastes go from rich countries to poor countries because the poor countries need the money for necessities, like food. Often, these children are incapable of working by the time they reach 35 or 40 due to health issues induced by their forced labor. In short, the quality of their lives is made horribly low so that it’s possible for people in rich countries to enjoy something that truly isn’t necessary for life. To make matters worse, the vendors of these products build in obsolescence (making them unrepairable) so they can sell more products and make more money, increasing the devastation visited on children.
I’ve written other blog posts about the issues of technology pollution. However, the emphasis of these previous articles has been on the pollution itself. Taking personal responsibility for the pollution you create is important, but we really need to do more. Robotic (autonomous) mining is one way to keep children out of the mines and projects such as UX-1 show that it’s entirely possible to use robots in place of people today. The weird thing is that autonomous mining would save up to 80% of the mining costs of today, so you have to wonder why manufacturers aren’t rushing to employ this solution.
In addition, off world mining would keep the pollution in space, rather than on planet earth. Of course, off world mining also requires a heavy investment in robots, but it promises to provide a huge financial payback in addition to keeping earth a bit cleaner. The point is that there are alternatives that we’re not using. Robotics presents an opportunity to make things right with technology and I’m excited to be part of that answer in writing books such as Machine Learning Security Principles, Artificial Intelligence for Dummies, 2nd Edition, Algorithms for Dummies, 2nd Edition, Python for Data Science for Dummies, and Machine Learning for Dummies, 2nd Edition.
Unfortunately, companies like Apple, Samsung, and many others simply thumb their noses at laws that are in place to protect the children in these countries because they know you’ll buy their products. Yes, they make official statements, but read their statements in that first article and you’ll quickly figure out that they’re excuses and poorly made excuses at that. They don’t have to care because no one is holding them to account. People in rich countries don’t care because their own backyards aren’t sullied and their own children remain safe. It’s not that I have a problem with technology, quite the contrary, I have a problem with the manner in which technology is currently being made and supported. We need to do better. So, the next time you think about buying electronics, consider the real price for that product. Let me know what you think about polluting other countries to keep your country clean at [email protected].