Developing systems, challenging assumptions

Mary Lou Jepsen with the  XOI was on the phone today with Mary Lou Jepsen, founding Chief Technology Officer of One Laptop Per Child and now founder of Pixel Qi, a commercial spin-off company of OLPC that will be putting their new ambient-light-viewable displays into cell phones and laptops. Mary Lou and I both started off in holography about twenty years ago, and have (miles permitting) been friends for most of that time. And she has never ceased to amaze me: both in her talent and in her fortitude. Read More …

From spinal cords to sofas

SofaThose of you interested in my last article on central pattern generator chips may also want to read a new piece I’ve written for EE Times, this time on the use of CPGs in modular robots. It partly covers the salamander robot built by Auke Ijspeert and his team EPFL (and widely reported on after an article about it appeared in Science), but goes on to discuss how CPG-based locomotion may is being used to make Roombots: modular, self-organizing furniture that can walk around on its own.

This kind of work is an important step in the evolution of modular robotics, which I first got a chance to write about some years ago. There are very real problems to be grappled with, both in terms of the electronic and the mechanical design. This article explains how the EPFL team are handling the control side of this problem.

Analog chip does job of spinal cord for locomotion

While I was at Johns Hopkins University during the summer, I found out about the first demonstration of a new chip that can be used to stimulate locomotion in an animal (tested on a temporarily-paralyzed cat, see right). Unlike previous controllers, this one is tiny and low-power. However, it can still take account of the sensory input coming from the movement of the limbs through a tiny neural network.

I find the work very interesting and, potentially, extremely important. Rather than explain it here, I recommend you check out the story I wrote for EE Times on the subject. Let me know what you think.

Diagram: The schematic of the experiment showing locomotion stimulated by a central pattern generator (CPG) chip. 

Why nano is still macro

Artists impression of a nanobot.In my review of Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near,  I said that I felt the author’s ideas about nanotechnology were unconvincing. I’d like to elaborate on that now. I don’t claim to have huge expertise in the field: I’m not a chemist. But I have been following it for almost 15 years: I remember hearing Drexler talk about his work when I was based at MIT in the early 1990s and have had an interest in the subject ever since then. I’ve been editing a publication on the subject for several years and even refreshed myself in this area last month, attending a study trip on the subject for journalists in Switzerland. Read More …

Information they need, when they need it

GPS data superimposed on see-through night-vision image.You may be interested in a full write-up I recently did for Electronic Engineering Times on the see-through night-vision goggles that I posted on last year. The article talks not only about the benefits of the approach right now, but the potential the new goggles have to become an increasingly powerful information platform in the future.

There are actually two pieces. One by me, and another a wishlist written by O’Gara Group Chief Technology officer Bill Parker about the kind of components he’d like to see in order to build the next generation systems. (Bill is an amazing guy… he started off his career as an undergraduate at MIT by re-inventing the plasma ball, which led to it becoming a product). Anyway, I hope you enjoy them.

Photo: GPS data superimposed on see-through night-vision image. Photocredit: O’Gara Group.

The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, by Ray Kurzweil

The Singularity is Near by Ray KurzweilI should start by saying that I tried with this book. I really did. I tried 231/487 pages of text and 66/100 pages of notes worth. But I couldn’t finish it. Normally I would have written off a book that I disliked much earlier, but I persevered. I was actually pre-disposed to like it: not only had Kurzweil referenced one of my articles in an earlier book (which I actually never read, but was flattered by), but this tome came highly recommended by a friend of mine. Joe said he liked it because it allowed him to stretch his imagination. He found it fun to read the way he finds science fiction fun to read. I found the book unbearable for more-or-less the same reason. Read More …

Feeling virtual worlds

Me trying a Force Dimension haptic device.Like many universities, EPFL has an innovation park for start-up companies: there I visited Force Dimension, a company that has exploited the delta robot invented by Reymond Clavel to create a haptic device. In this kind of system you don’t expect your hand to explore a system directly (as with the virtual reality workstation I mentioned previously). Instead, your interaction with the virtual world is mediated through some kind of instrument. For instance, in the image on the right, you can think of the black sphere I’m holding as the handle of some kind of short, fairly blunt, tool. I can use this to probe the virtual landscape. If I hit a solid object, I will feel force feedback from the robot arm. The system also creates vibrations that allow me to feel textures and friction as I move around. Read More …

Talk to the hand

This tactile stimulator developed at Johns Hopkins University has servo motors that control the force exerted by each pin.I’m interested in different ways of displaying information to our bodies, and particularly to our skin. So, in my June visits to the Washington DC area and to Switzerland (Zurich and Lausanne), I made a point of trying to see as many people working with tactile and haptic displays as possible. I had the opportunity to try three very different devices, which made me realize just how difficult a problem this is. Read More …

Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and the World Together Again, by Andy Clark

Being There by Andy ClarkOf all the books I’ve ever read that related to artificial intelligence, robotics, cognitive science, neural networks, and the brain, I’m pretty sure this is my favorite. Usually, for me, these books are about filling in the blanks in terms of how other researchers see the world. I get frustrated because I feel that their assumptions are wrong, their view is too narrow, or they lack imagination. I need to know about their view, but it’s not one I share. Read More …

Connecting in 3D

Irvine Sensors scheme for 3D interconnection back in 1998.I’m currently reading Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity is Near, which I’ll properly review later. Among other things, the book talks about the supposed imminence of our being able to simulate the brain. I’m afraid I’m not convinced by his arguments. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I think it’s not going to happen. It’s just I really think he minimizes the engineering challenges that will have to be overcome to make it happen. I’ve been interested for many years in the challenge of building brain-like hardware and it’s not (to say the least) a trivial problem. Read More …