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Archive for February, 2008

Send in the Robots

Friday, February 29th, 2008

It’s bad enough a robot wants your job, now they want to kill you too.

In a keynote address to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Professor Noel Sharkey, from the University’s Department of Computer Science, will express his concerns that we are beginning to see the first steps towards an international robot arms race. He will warn that it may not be long before robots become a standard terrorist weapon to replace the suicide bomber.

Read the full article here. Just when they started to get really cute too. My nephew has a baby door over his stairway. It’s not for the kids; it’s to keep his robots from falling down the stairs.

It does make you wonder. Here is a Wired article about Israel putting their air defense system under AI control. It brings up a vision of the future where the robots keep fighting long after all the people are dead. There is a link there to a report about a glitch in a cannon killing nine soldiers during a shooting exercise. One thing is for certain, my computers are cranky enough I would never consider giving them a gun.

It always makes me laugh when the humans are running around in the Terminator series and the robots are shooting and missing. I doubt the real military robots will miss, or waste much ammo.

When DARPA sponsored their third Grand challenge, I was struck by the amazing progress made in just a few short years toward self driving cars. Here is a video. While I fantasized about a future where I could roam around the country in some self-driving, solar powered, motor home, it is obvious what this technology will mean for the future of the car bomb. It also makes you wonder about the first time you get pulled over and try to explain to the cop to send the ticket to GM or Microsoft or whoever. Although it’s easy to believe this form of travel could rapidly become far safer than human driving, it also could give a whole new meaning to the blue screen of death.

When I was in high school, I worked at a local hospital hauling trays of food around to the patients. It looks like the robots have taken over that position.

“A lot of people that we needed 20 years ago are no longer needed,” says Dr. Wen. “However, [the personal computer] has spawned another huge industry – and I see robots doing exactly the same thing.”

It’s odd the personal computer revolution seemed to increase the productivity of just about every institution with the exception of the U.S. government. Maybe he is right, maybe more jobs will be created but maybe not, as robots will build robots. As they become more capable, it will be the most skilled workforce which will be displaced. No one will risk having a human surgeon or airline pilot, once a machine can do the job more reliably. The personal computer revolution did create a lot of jobs but it also created a situation where those jobs rapidly shifted to places like India where labor costs are very low. The jobs stopped there (momentarily), until they can be shifted further down to intelligent machines when it is cost effective.

Ray Kurzweil estimates the point where machines will be smarter than humans at a mere 21 years away. There is a point defined as the Technological Singularity where the instant a machine is smarter than a human it will be able to instantly evolve or create a smarter machine.

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make

I would make the point, it is not necessary for a machine to reach the level what we call human intelligence for this to happen. It is only necessary for a machine to surpass human intelligence in the narrow field of machine design. Already there are many products designed using evolutionary software. Here is a quote from an article about software at NASA used to design an antenna.

Four NASA Ames computer scientists wrote the AI evolutionary program that operates on 120 personal computers, which work as a team. The scientists wrote the AI software because it can create designs faster than a human being can do so.

“The software also may invent designs that no human designer would ever think of,” Lohn asserted.

Already we have systems that no ‘human designer would think of’. And why, because no human could understand it!


Thursday, February 28th, 2008

I read this article in the New York Times today where 1 in 100 U.S. adults are now in prison. Is this necessary or just insanely expensive? The article talks about how much it cost to keep them there but doesn’t mention the revenue lost to income taxes not collected and so on. Here is a chart of incarceration rates for other countries.

Not that we shouldn’t keep the bad ones locked up, but using jail for every punishment is silly. Anyone who has dealt with the IRS or the BMV knows the government is quite capable of making you miserable without sending you to jail.

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tiny society

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Hearts and Games

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

Code Blue, Dr. Frankenstein! Scientists create a live beating heart in a lab. It’s a little creepy to watch but it also gives you that ‘we are rushing headlong into an amazing new future’ feeling.

You would expect this technique to be pretty limited because the software isn’t getting much information, and it is, but Make3D can create a 3D model from a 2D image.

The Onion is a humor site specializing in satire. I got a chuckle out of this report; Diebold Accidentally Leaks Result of 2008 Election Early.

Here is a collection of photos by Rarindra Prakarsa. I really love the light in these photos. Here’s a explanation of how it’s done.

A while back Adobe created a lens that takes 19 slightly different views of the same picture at once. The quality of this video isn’t that great but it does cover it in more depth than some I’ve seen. This thing would be so much fun to play with. I have a cheap plastic stereo lens I can take 3D pictures with. For the high quality ones, I have to take two pictures. That means I have to move the camera perfectly, the light has to stay constant, and nothing in the scene can move.

My wife and I have been playing this silly game called Word Leaves. It’s a pretty simple game where you have to make words from adjacent letters. It seems like your score depends a lot on whether you get a good or bad board. Also, it has an annoying flaw where on rare occasions it doesn’t give you credit for a word. They reset the high score table at 6 and 7 EST, so we often play it around that time. We use the initials AKS so if you see that on there it’s probably us.

If you solve Sudoku puzzles, here is a good place for them. They offer puzzles in easy, medium, hard, and my personal favorite, evil.

If you prefer to shoot things, try this scrolling shooter called Sky Warrior.

Desktop Tower Defense is one of those games where you create a maze using automatic shooting devices of various kinds and creepy things try to run the maze to get to the other side. It’s amusing, but once you figure out the secret it’s no longer challenging.

AGS games is a site where they have an adventure game editing system and people put up games for free. I haven’t found many good ones. People nostalgic for the old style Sierra games have recreated the King’s Quest series. We played some of them but I guess the thing that struck me was how desperate we were for computer entertainment back in the old days. Then again, writers strike on TV, a winter that just doesn’t seem to go away, I guess that’s why we tried them. Modern games just went mostly to first person shooters. The old style games were a little too obscure in the puzzles. It does make you wonder if there was some way to combine the two effectively.

Fine Print

Monday, February 25th, 2008

I’d like to thank everyone who has submitted a comment. In my previous web site, I only had images with no way of leaving comments. It’s fun to get feedback and ideas from other people.

Over the weekend I heard from a blogger at Fabbaloo:

The 3D printing thing will be a really big deal. When people can punch out items at home instead of heading out to the store, a lot of things will be very, very different. The digital rights issue will become important not just for the RIAA/MPAA and their songs/movies, but for *any* manufacturer! I wouldn’t want to be a freight carrier in 10 years….

While I do believe this technology is becoming more and more powerful, there are a lot of issues to solve. We have a long way to go before someone says “Hey can I borrow your couch? I’d like to make a copy”. However, it does seem like it is following the 2D print market example. One post on their blog discussed regional fabbing centers. I used to go to print and copy places until the equipment became so cheap and common I had everything I needed to do it myself. I can see this happening in 3D as well. Having constructed many virtual 3D objects, I would really enjoy being able to get one of them made for real at a reasonable price.

Here’s a do-it-yourself 3D printer at Evil Mad Scientists that fuses sugar to make an object. Not only can you make something cool, you can eat it afterward.

Talking about 3D printing gave me the thought to see what has been happening in robotic house building. Here is another article. I know people in the construction business I would not like to see unemployed. On the other hand, half the cost of a house is in the construction. Here is a video of how a system might work.

Grancrete was originally developed to store nuclear waste. A year or so ago I went to their site and they were just getting started. The idea was, you would just create a shell out of Styrofoam and spray this stuff on. It does seem a lot simpler than having a robot print your house. Looking at their site today though, it seems they are pushing the material more as a coating than as the primary building material.

The links above bring up the vision of a stark, bleak concrete home but in reality I’m sure you could make it normal looking. You could also put this stuff on the outside and make it blend in with the surroundings. I find it surprising it took a subprime mortgage meltdown to lower housing prices, when I expected technology to do it in the same way as many of the things we buy. Personally I wouldn’t mind living in a bleak structure if it cost a fraction of a normal house and I didn’t have to cower in the basement during threatening weather. Not to mention how easy it would be to clean. O.K., that’s silly but I still think you could have a bathroom similar to a dishwasher. Just put soap in the door and twist the knob on your way out.

When I got my first photo printer, it was a dye sublimation printer. I tried things like putting foil in it and I bought a silver cartridge intending to see if it was conductive enough to make circuits. It just seemed like something so accurate could surely be used for all kinds of things. Now they are trying to use ink jet printers to make human organs, but a truly ‘here today’ cool application of printing technology is solar energy.

Nanosolar began producing solar cells using print technology in December. I wasn’t able to get the CNN video at their site to play but the other two seem to have been made before they actually started producing product. I was struck by the phrase ‘cheaper than coal’ used here and here. I guess I was wondering whether it was still cheaper if you included storing the electricity for nighttime use. In one of the videos an engineer says you could sell your excess electricity back to the grid in the daytime but in fact if this technology were truly embraced by the masses you couldn’t sell your ‘excess power’ so what would you do with it? You could have some robot making cool things or you could be nice and power some device to remove CO2 from the air. People can argue all they want about global warming but when it comes down to it, we are tired of external entities like OPEC having control over our lives. Just taking that first joy ride in an electric car powered by sunshine is going to be a liberating experience.

This article discusses how much environmental damage is done making solar cells and according to it, they are still cleaner than other means of producing power. The other thing they mention is what happens when you use solar power to make solar cells. I suppose every solar manufacturer wants to do that.

According to this, the United States is finally willing to accept binding reductions of greenhouse gases. Whether you believe in global warming or not, there is no question we are changing the earth’s atmosphere and acidifying the oceans. I personally feel, altering the earth’s ecosystem and seeing what happens, is not a good experiment. There is an expression, you don’t go the bathroom in your kitchen. I may be paraphrasing here but the future will likely be somewhere between Mad Max and Star Trek. At some point, we will probably reach some point of sustainability. It would just be nice if there was something left besides humans and whatever soylent green we are eating.

While I was looking for stuff on ‘house printing’ I came across Zipblocks. Zipblocks are a kind of Legos for adults. It doesn’t look like they have a manufacturer, funding, or much of a company really, but I like the concept. Here’s a youtube video. The video at their site on building a kid’s playhouse is cool too.

Finally, on a lighter note, here is an article about a kid who crashes computers simply by being near them. My friend Matt runs a consulting business and on more than one occasion has mentioned there are some people who should not go near computers. I can’t say I put much stock in this stuff but I have to confess street lights often malfunction around me. Maybe there are a lot of faulty street lights out there and maybe it’s just one of those things like cold reading where you remember the ‘correct stuff’ and gloss over the incorrect, but it still gives me the creeps when it happens.

RIAA to sue for song stuck in your head

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Just kidding. I have recently watched Steal This Film part 1, and Steal this Film part 2. Both the films are free to download and are about pirating music and video. I couldn’t help but think how bad this is going to be in the future when you have some digital memory merged into your brain which will allow you to make a perfect copy of a song the first time you hear it.

Larry Lessig is a professor at Stanford who is involved in the Creative Commons, a legal framework for sharing content. Apparently he has some political aspirations as well. Here is an entertaining Ted Talks video where he talks about the subject. I think one of the interesting points he makes is the corrosive effect of making things kids want to do illegal. That concept also comes across (at least to me) in those other two films.

Speaking of copying, a supernote is a nearly perfect counterfeit bill. I had bookmarked the original article at the Kansas City press but the link went into an archive. I had to search pretty hard to find the link above still containing my favorite quote:

Stranger yet, the number of supernotes found indicates that whoever is printing them isn’t doing so in large quantities. Only $50 million worth of them have been seized since 1989, an average of $2.8 million per year and not even enough to pay for the sophisticated equipment and supplies needed to make them.

Ha! Surely that means aliens or people from the future! Wikipedea also has something for you conspiracy theorists. Scroll down the page to the part about the CIA.

I have always wondered why people attribute UFO’s to aliens. I would argue a slightly better, but also totally crazy explanation is they are humans from the future. The reasons are, we live in the boonies of the Milky Way, we wouldn’t be interesting to them, and any civilization advanced enough for interstellar space travel would certainly have more entertaining things to do. On the other hand, humans from the future might be interested in us from an anthropology standpoint, as a tourism destination, or to find Sarah Connor. We may not have to wait long. According to this guy, aliens will make a mass appearance in 2013 or 2017.

What happens when you make a 3D printer that can make a 3D printer? The technology has a way to go but after I watched this video I started thinking which things in my house could be made with that type of machine.

Heineken bottles shaped like bricks. I have often wished you could buy water bottles in the shape of Legos so you could make a greenhouse out of them.

It was only a joke, but I used to say the day I get a Tattoo is when I can get an animated one. Well, here is an electronic one that runs on blood.

When the Wii came out, you just knew people were going to do all kinds of clever things with the controller. Johnny Lee uses one to control the point of view of a display with jaw dropping results. Check out this video of how remarkably 3D it looks.

Weird Science

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

I’ve been thinking a about the days I spent at the IU cyclotron lately. On Mythbusters last night, they were making explosions by tossing sodium and potassium metal in water. We used to roll the metals into thin films to be used as targets. I remember Bill, (my boss), joking if you sneezed on them, it would blow your head off.

We worked with toxic, explosive, and radioactive materials. The pay was low, the work intense, and I think it was the best job I ever had. In a sense, it was like being the laziest traveler possible. Physicists from all over the world would come to run experiments. So even though you were staying in one spot, you got to meet fascinating people from many different cultures.

One day there was a solar eclipse. Suddenly everyone rushed out onto the sidewalk and constructed a bewildering array of devices to see the eclipse. It was like an instant science fair. If you don’t know what a cyclotron is, very simply, scientists bombard a substance with a beam of particles and see what happens. It’s like smashing something with a hammer and trying to decide what the thing was before you smashed it from looking at the broken parts. Here is an interesting article from National Geographic on the Large Hadron Collider due to come on-line soon.

My friend Matt was expressing disappointment yesterday when the forecast predicted cloudy weather for the lunar eclipse. I have seen a number of them so I wasn’t really fired up about it. However, stepping out into the bitterly cold, snow covered landscape and looking up, I was struck by both the beauty of the rose colored orb, and the sense of smallness which always comes up viewing an astronomical structure. I’m not sure I really believe this story about Columbus as I’m sure the native people had seen many lunar eclipses, but it makes a good story.

Talk about strange stories. The Antikythera Mechanism is an amazingly complex device built over 2000 years ago. Somehow, the technology required to build this thing disappeared or we could be 1000 years ahead of where we are today. I can’t help but wonder if we would have already overpopulated and destroyed the earth, maybe had a huge nuclear war, or maybe we could be living a Star Trek lifestyle.

Simply put, the first law of thermodynamics says you can’t get something for nothing. The second law says you can’t even break even. Couple that with the fact I love a good story and you can understand my fascination with all the so called ‘free energy devices’. From the hucksters of the past with perpetual motion machines to the conspiracy theories big corporations have suppressed technology which would save us from coal and oil, it’s such a colorful arena. Take this youtube video. The guy looks Amish which is ironic considering what he is showing off.

The laws of physics specifically state nothing like these devices can be possible. Yet, physicists don’t know everything. Reading about this guy it occurred to me, a well trained person would not even try something like this because they would ‘know’ it was senseless. The other striking thing about this article which sets it apart from many is the description of what he is doing is so complete you could pretty much try it at home.

Here are some quick fun links. Self healing rubber, a brain reading headset, and the steak toaster.

A Finnish patient gets a jaw from stem cells that were grown inside his abdomen.

A robot learns to recognize itself.

This is a cute game from the milk people. I just think they did a good job at representing a board game in 3D. Some of the puzzles are trivial and some are pretty difficult. You need to set the resolution of your monitor pretty high or you won’t be able to see what you need to complete the game. You have to do it before you start the game. It also seems to me to be representative of the future of advertising, an interactive way to push your product.

This is another of the TED Talks videos. This guy builds strange beach creatures. I like the part where he designs the ‘logic’ for the system out of bottles and tubes. It reminded me of when I first had to design circuits from logic gates and I realized people could have made computational devices out of common materials long ago.

Finally in the too cute department, just try to watch this video and not say awwwwwwe!

Playing With Dangerous Things

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

My second post and already I’m in a rush. We are supposed to get some snow and I need to run in for supplies. However, I did find a few internet gems to share.

A while back some people at Purdue came up with a scheme for hydrogen on demand using aluminum. You don’t really think of aluminum as a reactive substance. Normally, it is not because it instantly forms a skin of aluminum oxide and the reaction stops. This is nice for soda cans but not for generating hydrogen. They discovered that if you coat the aluminum with gallium the aluminum will continue to react with water generating hydrogen. They have apparently improved on the process.

On a side note, gallium is kind of fun to play with. Actually, I think it is toxic but what’s cool about it is it melts at 85 degrees F. I once made a target out of it for the IU cyclotron. It looks like an ordinary shiny metal, but if you hold it in your hand, it melts. Set it down and it ‘freezes’ (latex gloves recommended).

When I built my first computer in the early eighties, I thought how remarkable it was that here was a machine that would do what I told it to perfectly, every time, exactly as it was instructed. Fast forward to my bloated windows based machine where you tell it to do something and it may or may not do it, but if you ask it again, it might work. Now here is a chip which is intentionally built to, well, ‘gloss over the details’, and focus on the important stuff.

I keep reading about various ways people are trying to clean up coal. There is a link here and here. I knew coal was dirty but I didn’t realize coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. They are also talking about building one of these right here in Indiana. When you look at the money involved and the long time frame to pay it back, well I just can’t imagine how you convince your investors this is the way to go. Solar energy has advanced so much recently. I have a whole bunch of links but that is a blog for another day. Anyway, I have often thought it should be possible to make a machine which could make gasoline directly from air. Well, apparently the folks at Los Alamos National Laboratory have figured out how to do that. The article doesn’t mention octane specifically, but it does imply something you can put in your tank.

This is just one of those funny things you read and think if I read it on the internet, it’s probably not true. There is an area around the Empire State Building where your car will not start.

One of the fun things about technology, is you see these really cool but expensive things you might actually be able to afford someday because they will get cheap. Unless you are writing a game or making a movie you wouldn’t need one of these motion capture systems, but it would be awfully fun to play with. I recently saw Beowulf and I guess I was surprised the motion still seemed jerky like Shrek. You would think motion capture has become a fairly mature science. Certainly, the video on the above link is very impressive.

This is an optical illusion I have never seen before. I really want to sit down and read the article more thoroughly but I did play with it a while and was impressed.

Finally I wanted to include a video link from Ted Talks. I’ve seen a number of these and really enjoyed them. I’m going to be referring to some of them in future posts but this one is from a guy named Gever Tulley. It’s called 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do. Actually I think it’s 6 or 7 and he gets his numbering messed up a little but he is quite entertaining and I think he has a good point. When I was a kid, playground equipment was made from steel and when you came flying down that steel slide, you landed in gravel. The point is you learned not to get hurt by getting hurt. I once saw a kid put a knife directly into his thigh playing mumbly peg, (is that the right name), at a horse camp. Believe me, it was a learning experience! I just looked it up and Wikipedia calls it mublety peg.

Hello World

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

It’s my first real blog post and yeah, it’s a stupid title. If you have ever learned a computer language, the first thing you probably did was to make the words “Hello World” appear on the screen. It’s about output and, for the most part, my relation to the internet has been one way. I spend a lot of time browsing and very little time contributing.

So, here I go. After learning WordPress, CSS, PHP, and trying to make the site look nice. It seems odd to finally write something. I promise to write an above average blog. At least in this sense:

The Lake Wobegon Effect is the human tendency to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others.

Quoted from the article at Wikipedia:

Example: Most people have more than the average number of legs, which is slightly less than two. Most people have two legs, but some have one or none, bringing the average down to (slightly) less than two.

As I write these words, it’s 15 degrees F outside with a wind chill of 4. So it seems appropriate to include this link to Nova’s program Absolute Zero. It’s a fascinating look at the science of cold. You can hardly blame early scientists for not understanding the fundamental concept that energy only flows one way, from hot to cold. After all, I can feel the cold seeping in from the wall behind me. I also enjoyed their description of the Bose Einstein condensate as an identity crisis for atoms. I still have an old college notebook where I had to work through the math of this structure, but looking at it just reminds me of the scene in the movie Charly where he realizes he can no longer read his own writing.

I had the thought whether, under the right conditions, people sometimes act the same way.

Speaking of crowd movements, I really like this video of people suddenly freezing at Grand Central Station. It’s so creative but it also reminded me of being in grade school when we thought we were being clever by dropping our pencils at the same moment. If I had been there, perhaps I’d thought a percentage of the human race had been replaced by robots and they were malfunctioning.

Speaking of making videos, in today’s news, Adobe introduces Director 11. Read an article from MacWorld here. This is the link to the Adobe new release. Also today Microsoft announced they were giving away development software to students. Clearly it’s a marketing ploy on their part and one I’m sure will benefit them. In the last few years as I have watched my parents and their friends first become computer literate, and then start using them in creative ways, it occurred to me, unlike so many other businesses, software suppliers do not offer discounts to seniors. Also, when I see some cool computer generated piece, the author always seems all too eager to mention which tool was used to create it. I think the software people should be seeking out talented individuals and sponsoring them or at least giving them free software.


Monday, February 18th, 2008

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The Beachhead

Monday, February 18th, 2008

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