Sunday, November 22, 2015

Tai Chi for roboticists

As roboticists struggle to create devices (especially humanoid devices) capable of moving about safely and elegantly in uncontrolled environments, it would help if they had a deep, visceral understanding of movement themselves.

This is something the practice of Tai Chi could help with. Tai Chi begins with static balance, and progresses very gradually to dynamic balance, although incorporating momentum from the outset, while it is still negligible, with the aim of developing exquisite awareness of it.

There are also health benefits, which can be achieved through many activities, but for assimilating the fundamentals of graceful movement, there is nothing better than Tai Chi.

Friday, June 12, 2015

hunger & crop subsidies

Alternative uses for commodities that are directly consumable by people (wheat, maize, soya, etc.), such as the production of meat, fuel, and bioplastics, drive up the prices of those commodities, making them less affordable to those who can't afford anything else. Government subsidies contribute to the profitability of producing such commodities, but are inefficient as a means of keeping the prices to end consumers under control.

The solution would be to confine subsidies to shipments which actually go to direct human consumption, leaving other uses, including meat production, to compete in an open market. (Dairy and egg production might be subsidized at a lower rate than direct human consumption, although this begins to get complicated as laying hens, dairy cows, and the majority of male chicks and calves go to slaughter sooner or later, so such operations are a mixture.)

However, this approach begs the question of whether the grain that goes into a box of processed breakfast cereal should receive the subsidy. Since some processing (roasting, rolling, milling and/or grinding) renders many commodities more useful, it wouldn't make sense to preclude that, but there are other ways to approach this issue.

Subsidies could be limited to larger package sizes, say one kilogram (2.2 pounds) as a minimum, or to products where marketing overhead (advertising, packaging, etc.) and profit constituted no more than, say, 20% of the price to the end consumer. (That figure would need to be high enough to fund a distribution network, but not so high as to make that business lucrative enough to attract corruption.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Intel fails Apple again

Well, obviously not just Apple, but Apple in particular.

Apple has chosen to ship new 15-inch MacBook Pro models with last year's (Haswell) processors, because the appropriate low-power, quad-core chips remain unavailable in the current generation (Broadwell) of Intel processors. With the first of the next generation (Skylake) processors arriving in August, it's likely that, for this particular product line, Apple will skip Broadwell altogether, and, once new MBPs ship with Skylake, all will be well once again, for awhile.

Meanwhile, ARM cores and Apple's implementations of them are closing in on the performance levels of Intel's products, while continuing to beat the pants off of Intel in terms of performance-per-watt, although Intel has made progress in that regard.

If current trends continue, at some point it won't make sense for Apple to continue to use Intel processors for some Mac line, probably beginning with the 12-inch MacBook or MacBook Airs, but once one line switches over, the others will surely follow, with the Mac Pro being the last holdout.

When that day comes, it's likely there won't be many tears shed at Apple.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

state security, nexus of control, and government legitimacy

I you believe, as I do, that the general well-being of the governed is the primary rationale for the existence of government, and the source of its legitimacy, certain things follow.

Among them, in the current environment, is the need for some state security apparatus, a sort of early warning system for any sort of threat to that general well-being, combined with some means to effectively head off those threats or respond in the event they cannot be averted.

But in a world in which state security is a given, and a culture unto itself, one of the most poignant questions to be asked is in whose interest it acts. This breaks down into three more specific questions, relating to the law authorizing the existence and activities of such agencies, the political appointees who run them, and the career agents who rise through the ranks to exert a degree of control.

Of these three, the agents, faced with harsh, pragmatic realities, are the least likely to bend to changes in the political wind, while the political appointees running the agencies are the most. Law moves more slowly, but it too grows in reflection of the prevailing winds of the times. That's not to say that the agents are necessarily more interested in the general well-being of the governed than their bosses, but that can be one result.

This might make the agents seem hard-nosed and unresponsive, but they have a job to do. What's more material is how they conceive of that job, and how they are directed by law and agency administrators, whether it is truly in service of the general well-being or whether it is in service of something else, something more in line with the agenda of the Koch brothers.

Efforts to 'out' agents, like the recent mining of LinkedIn data, are sure to expose many well-intentioned people for every bad actor they uncover, and paint them all with the same brush. While it does possess a certain ironic quality, the net effect will be to thicken the wall between the agents and the general populace they serve. This is not useful.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Drought & desertification: Robots can help

A NYTimes article published April 2nd, Mapping the Spread of Drought Across the U.S., leads off with an animated map supplied by the National Drought Mitigation Center, which shows the spread of drought conditions across the contiguous 48 states since late fall, 2014.

From that article: “Droughts appear to be intensifying over much of the West and Southwest as a result of global warming. Over the past decade, droughts in some regions have rivaled the epic dry spells of the 1930s and 1950s. About 37 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least a moderate drought as of March 31, 2015.”

There are two major ways in which robots can help with the effects of climate change, whether permanent or cyclical, upon food production.

Most immediately, robots can operate indoor production facilities using artificial light to produce high value, quickly maturing crops requiring moist environments. To operate most efficiently, that artificial light would be predominantly red and blue, since green light is mostly reflected away by plants, which is why they appear green to us. This might prove a stressful environment for human workers, but robots won't care.

The other way in which robots can help is in dry fields under the hot sun. This can be as simple as reflective umbrellas, nets, or horizontal shutters that shade the ground from the mid-day sun, but uncover it again in the late afternoon to allow cooling radiation into the night sky. Robots could also maintain drip-irrigation systems or make daily rounds to inject water into the soil near root crowns.

In principle, they could also perform planting, weeding, pest control, pruning, harvesting, and deal with plant materials left behind after harvest, and do it all working a mixture of annuals between and around standing perennials, although much of the technology needed for such a scenario remains to be developed.

On the other hand, given that level of utility, much becomes possible that currently is not. The weight of machinery can be kept entirely off of productive soil, rendering it more capable of holding water. Mulch can be applied at any time. When expected precipitation fails to materialize, plants can be pruned to reduce their leaf area and the amount of water they require. Windbreaks can be installed surrounding relatively small patches of land, in a manner not conducive to working them using tractors and conventional implements, but affording much better protection from drying winds as well as providing a secondary crop of woody fiber and habitat for wildlife. If planted in low berms, those windbreaks would also help to keep what moisture there is in the fields and eliminate water erosion.

The benefits of such technology aren't limited to coping with drought, of course, but given that drought is likely to be a widespread, persistent problem, it can help to keep marginal land, which might otherwise turn to desert, in sustainable production, and perhaps even help to reclaim some land that has already been lost to desertification, beginning with the construction of windbreak fences (like snow fences) to accumulate wind-blown dust that will become the berms into which living windbreaks can be planted.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Bay Area commercial space vacancy spikelet following opening of Apple's campus 2

While it's certain that Apple won't be vacating all of the commercial property they've occupied over the last few years, when their Campus 2 opens next year, some of those properties are sure to become surplus space and unnecessary expenses as far as the company is concerned. And while some of that space will be immediately snatched up by the growing collection of enterprises that participate in Apple's ecosystem or cater to their employees, there's still likely to be a spike in the commercial property vacancy rate.

Anticipating this, Cupertino and other nearby communities should be thinking about whether they want to allow those properties to sit idle, waiting for other suitable tenants to come along, or for Apple to again outgrow their own facilities, or should they perhaps encourage their conversion to other uses: housing, mixed use, indoor vegetable production, etc. This would be a good time to start examining and if necessary reforming their zoning ordinances, to clear away legal obstacles to alternative uses of what might otherwise become a problem.

Here's what a few communities are doing with abandoned shopping malls...

Saturday, February 14, 2015

intro/blog from (cultibot)

From my personal profile/blog on
(account name: cultibot)

26 Mar 2011 (updated 26 Mar 2011 at 02:45)
Some Things Can't Be Done Without Robots

I had pretensions of being a back-to-the-land hippy before I ever became seriously interested in robotics, but my brother successfully popped that bubble with a simple, unarguable observation, that most people don't want to go back to subsistence farming. So far as that went, he was right, but that didn't make the abusive practices of modern agriculture acceptable. I didn't have an answer, but I kept looking for one.

I had a pretty good idea of what computing was about from an introduction to CS class in which we wrote FORTRAN programs on cardpunches. At that scale there was no help to be found from that direction, but the advent of the microprocessor changed everything. Suddenly it became thinkable to have mobile devices each with its own electronic brain. My mind reeled with the possibilities, but there were a million unknowns.

One thing was clear, though, if Moore's Law was even close to being correct it wouldn't be long before the speed of the electronics was no longer the hangup. It would be the mechanical designs, the software, much of which would depend on transforming biological knowledge into computer code, and the chicken/egg problem of creating an industry and a market for that industry's products at the same time.

And that's pretty much where we are now. The speed of the electronics has so far exceeded the other pieces of the puzzle that even if we might wish for still more it's a moot point. We're not putting what's available to good use.

Remember, we're talking here about getting what we need from the land while honoring the back-to-the-land aesthetic of living lightly upon it, as a species, but not about people fleeing the cities to scratch out their personal livelihoods with whatever meager assemblage of skills they might manage to collect. That could be more destructive than factory farms.

The solution, really the only possible solution if we're to stop soil erosion, ground water and stream contamination, the loss of biodiversity, and the gutting of rural culture, is robots. That's right, robots.

Only by substituting machines which can be invested with some understanding of ecology, or which are at least well suited to play a role in an ecologically sound approach, for the dumb machines currently in use, can we have it all, our comfortable lives, a reliable supply of food of varied types, and a clear conscience.

I'd love to be telling you about all of the cool developments in cultivation robotics, how this team had succeeded in building a system that could differentiate between closely related species immediately upon sprouting, and how another had created a tiny robot that ran on the body fluids of the aphids it consumed. I wish I could report that the USDA had funded research into intermingling rare and endangered native species with crop species and making room for moderate wildlife populations without sacrificing too much commercial productivity. Heh, at least I can truthfully say it could happen, which seemed pretty far fetched just one year ago.

Realistically, though, nearly all of that sort of work remains to be done, and it'll be a great ride when it finally does begin to happen!

25 Feb 2011 Key term: Precision Agriculture

In considering how robotics might be applied to agriculture, a current trend to watch goes by the name Precision Agriculture. This series of posts on provides some idea what's meant by the term and how it's used.

25 Feb 2011 (updated 25 Feb 2011 at 20:11)
Sony’s War On Makers, Hackers, And Innovators

An article by Phillip Torrone on Make's blog declares Sony an enemy for all makers, hackers, and innovators and explores the company's long history of going after legitimate innovation, hobbyists, and competition.

14 Feb 2011 (updated 14 Feb 2011 at 17:17)
why I want to replace tractors

Tractors are good for one thing, pulling something that's difficult to move, generally because moving it means displacing soil, turning over the top layer with a plow, slicing it and turning it slightly with a disc, or simply clawing through it with a harrow. They can, of course, be used to pull lighter loads, but their design is driven by the need to apply strain to a tow bar.

Displacing soil (tillage) might be termed the original sin, although overgrazing resulting from large herds of domestic animals moving too slowly/frequently over marginal land predates it. Through excessive aeration, tillage burns through humus (the organic content that, among other things improves the ability of soil to retain water), and exposes the soil surface to wind and water erosion. It also consumes a considerable amount of energy, usually in the form of diesel fuel.

To make matters worse, mechanical tillage works best with the worst cropping practice, monoculture, where a single type of seed is sown over an entire field, effectively all at once, and the crop typically harvested by shearing off everything more than a few inches above ground level. It's a practice that's efficient in terms of the number of man-hours required per land area, but at a terrible cost.

Personally, though, I have another reason for wanting to replace tractors; they're dangerous. I grew up in a farming community, and, of the farmers I knew as a child, two were crushed by overturning tractors (inherently unstable because they're designed for traction), and another was killed by a falling disc section.

So please forgive me if I seem a little too zealous, too much in a hurry to retire a nineteenth century technology and replace it with something not yet available, something so different that it will require a systemic overhaul, one long overdue in my humble opinion.

13 Feb 2011 An Initiative to Keep America's Robotics Roadmap Relevant

Did you know the United States has a roadmap for robotics? It does! In 2006, a one-day workshop titled Science and Technology Challenges for Robotics was organized by George Bekey of USC, Vijay Kumar of UPenn, and Matthew Mason of CMU. A summary report of that workshop states There was an enthusiastic response to the workshop with over 85 participants. Discussions had to be cut short because of time constraints. This could clearly have been a two-day workshop. There were many volunteers who were ready to take on more responsibilities to promote the discipline. (Vijay Kumar has recently been interviewed on Robots Podcast and was mentioned on even more recently.)

During the process which followed that workshop, Matthew Mason and Henrik Christensen of Georgia Tech collaborated on an essay which summarized the state of robotics and previewed the findings of the effort to produce a roadmap for robotics. (Before occupying the KUKA Chair of Robotics at Georgia Tech's College of Computing, Henrik Christensen was the founding Chairman of EURON, the European Robotics Research Network.)

The final roadmap report was presented in May, 2009, before the Congressional Robotics Caucus, however, in the effort to produce that report, the call for the formation of an American Robotics Network (9th slide) appears to have fallen by the wayside.

On January 22nd, Professor Christensen posed the question Are we ready for an American Robotics Network on his blog, saying that he had started a discussion regarding the organization of an American Robotics Network. He has also discussed the formation of such a network in a brief essay on his website. In the recent blog post, he says I would like to get this underway as soon as possible to make sure that we can leverage the momentum from a National Robotics Initiative. It will also be an important mechanism to make sure that we can maintain a push forward.

12 Feb 2011 (updated 13 Feb 2011 at 03:37)
a minimal-hardware approach to weeding

The idea presented here applies only to weed seedlings. Weeds growing from tubers or invasive roots will need to be handled more aggressively, but seedlings, being poorly rooted, are vulnerable to methods that destroy their single meristem. Moreover, after a few years of careful weeding, they are the only type of weed that would persist, except for those growing from runners invading from adjacent land, around the perimeter of the plot, so this method would become gradually more sufficient.

In a nutshell, the idea is to use video imagery to locate seedlings, an expert system (the hard part) to distinguish between desirable seedlings and weeds, and a pulse laser to first make sure it has a clear path to the weed seedling (nothing in the way), focus on the portion of the seedling containing the meristem and then deliver one or more relatively high-energy pulses to heat it sufficiently to render the meristem inert, so that the cells are no longer capable of growth and division. It isn't actually necessary to kill the meristematic tissue outright, just inactivate it, so the higher energy pulses used to accomplish this should not need to be so powerful that they present any danger of fire.

Of course, if the machine carrying out this task maintains or has access to a very detailed map of the plot, which precisely locates and keeps an image archive of every seedling, the next time it passes nearby it can simply check whether the plant appears to have withered, or whether it has recovered and continued growth, in which case it may be time to call in heavier equipment. In this way it can build experience with just how much energy is required to stop the growth of a weed seedling of a particular type at a particular stage in its development. Weeds that survive the surgical approach of the laser can be dealt with by more conventional mechanical methods.

The video system should at least combine a wide-angle view with a telescopic view (needed to distinguish between weeds and desirable seedlings). Either or both might be binocular (stereo), for 3D capability, and the telescopic view in particular would benefit from the use of a sensor that could deliver partial frames very rapidly, to help assess the effectiveness of the laser pulses (how much does the meristem swell within the first tenth of a second?).

I call this a minimal-hardware approach because it involves little more than a pair of cameras, one wide-angle and the other telescopic (two pair for stereo video at both focal lengths) and a laser, on a mount with two degrees of freedom, both rotational, and some means of moving that mount around a plot or field. The real complexity would be in the software that deciphered the video input, deciding which seedlings to zap and which to let live. A high-pressure water jet could be substituted for a laser, but such an arrangement would be more challenging mechanically, because the nozzle would need to either come within a few inches of the seedling or use a significant amount of water to be effective. Too much water applied at high pressure might create other problems, for example encouraging the growth of fungi.

The knowledge necessary to distinguish between seedlings of various species would be an appropriate addition to the RoboEarth project.

6 Feb 2011
a compromise between rails and walking directly on the ground

If the area to be covered by a farmbot is known, and limited, it might be tempting to outfit the land with rails and the machine with wheels to match, to keep the weight of the machine off the soil and improve its mobility, but in areas where production is constrained by low precipitation or short growing seasons this could prove uneconomic.

A possible compromise solution would be to use long, spider-like legs to span between the tops of posts, a foot or two above the soil surface, or even just low mounds of gravel. Providing this much infrastructure would not only prevent tracking and compression of the soil over most of the area, but it would help the machine locate itself in the field, since the posts or mounds would have known, static locations.

While such machines might move more slowly than if they were equipped with wheels running on rail, the logistics of having several working the same field would be simpler, since they could just walk around each other.

2 Feb 2011 (updated 2 Feb 2011 at 17:27)
cascading distributed network

Another such idea (taken through initial development as a thought experiment), in this case one that you'd have to be a chip hacker or microcode programmer to actually implement, first saw the light of day years ago, on The WELL, and then more recently in a topic in the Robots Podcast Forum (since closed).

This one is about very efficient addressing and message passing through a processor network having arbitrary topology, using only the minimum necessary number of bits for each step in a path, and automatically generating a return address, which can also serve to identify the source of the message.

It's recently occurred to me that this idea might be particularly applicable to robotics, where machines might have a separate processor to control every major joint and sub-system, and need to pass messages directly between them without going through a central switch, to keep latency manageable.

Such a network could also accommodate situations where hardware needed to be hot-pluggable, added and removed as the situation required, since newly attached hardware would automatically acquire predictable addresses and, in the case of removal, remaining hardware would always have return addresses for use in sending "cannot deliver, that path is closed" messages.

2 Feb 2011 (updated 2 Feb 2011 at 16:56)
examples (and the limits) of design through imagination

At the beginning of March, 2009, two such ideas (designs or simulations running inside my head) had been taking up cerebral resources for some time, weeks or months, so, since they weren't going to be getting any better in the absence of something more tangible, either a CAD model or a mockup, neither of which I had time for, I decided to offload them to one of my blogs, in the hope that someone else might benefit.

The first is essentially the miniature equivalent of inserting an air hose through the tread of a tire at a very shallow angle, nearly tangent, to create a dust barrier via the resulting airflow, with the idea of using it to keep dust off of camera lenses and the like.

The second had its origin in the knowledge that the closer you get to the pivot point of a lever the more force is available. Applied to a robotic manipulator, this means that the outer tips of the 'fingers' should be more sensitive and delicate than segments closer to the 'wrist' (the point of attachment to the supporting arm). Conversely, it also means that those inner segments might be used where more force is needed, as in clipping through the stem of a woody shrub. Inconveniently, stems in need of clipping come at odd angles, so if a shear only operates in a single plane that plane may need to be rotated as much as 90 degrees in moving from one clipping to the next, which might require repositioning the entire machine, which could slow down the operation considerably. Giving the manipulator a set or semi-rotatable digits, that can pair in two different X-shaped configurations, 90 degrees opposed from each other, could provide as many as six shear planes without any rotation of the manipulator unit as a whole. This would allow a pruning robot to move from one clipping to the next with a simple repositioning of its digits.

30 Jan 2011 (updated 2 Feb 2011 at 16:08)
Further Introduction

Not mentioned in my intro is that I received a Bachelor's degree in biology in 1980. I'd hoped to return to school for a second degree in engineering, but that never happened, and I spent several very hard years essentially trying to punch my way out of a cognitive bag composed of academic categories, and the emotional baggage I attached to each.

The resolution I found came through the discovery of General Systems Theory, itself an academic category, but one that points to the general applicability of a collection of fundamental concepts. Thus armed, I approached learning with renewed confidence.

It wasn't long after this that I began to become obsessive about computer processors and software, always with an eye to how they might apply to robotics, since I was already interested in mechanizing and scaling up horticulture. Being possessed of a vivid imagination at least with regard to machinery, I built many machines and set them running in my mind, frequently sharing descriptions of these designs with whomever would listen.

For me that was the missing ingredient, collaboration. With no one to share my enthusiasm, it was wet blankets wherever I turned. It's only recently that I've begun to feel like I might have found my tribe.

But I'm not a tinkerer; I'm out to change the world, by replacing big, dumb machines with smaller, smarter (wiser!) ones, beginning with agriculture.

Original introduction:

In 1976, I attended the Social Ecology Summer Program at Goddard College, Vermont. At the very end of that summer I saw my first personal computer, which, rightly or wrongly, I've long assumed was a pre-production Apple II, however unlikely that might seem. In any event, other experiences from that summer combined with the realization that computing was about to become ubiquitous formed in me the beginnings of a dream about using robotic machinery to transform agriculture (and land management in general) for the better.

This dream has persisted and grown more detailed and persuasive ever since, and, along with the increasing detail, I developed a general interest in the various technologies which together make up robotics. On The WELL, after years of scattered brainstorming and random proselytizing, I opened the Augmentation and Robotics Conference (augbot.ind). This conference has never been particularly active but it provided me with a venue where discussion of robotics was at least topical.

In the current, elaborated state of my dream, I now imagine intensive intercropping using soil-conserving no-till methods, combined with the protection of rare and endangered plant species and the provision of habitat for animals, all rolled together in a single system, which could also respond to weather forecasts and might even adjust itself for market conditions. Over the last few years I've shared most facets of this dream via my Cultibotics blog.

Another long-standing interest is automatic transportation systems, such as some of those described on the Innovative Transportation website.

I work as a transit dispatcher, using a GPS-generated display and voice communications to help keep a circulator bus route running smoothly.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015


The US government currently favors production of certain crops, including corn (maize) and soy beans. A proposal, authored by Tamar Haspel and published yesterday in The Washington Post (Unearthed: A rallying cry for a crop program that could change everything), would change that by shifting subsidies from support for particular crops to crop-neutral support.

While this isn't specifically about robotics, it would have the effect of making more money available for equipment to produce crops other than the handful that have traditionally been subsidized, and, increasingly over time, that will mean robotic equipment, as the value added by sensors, processing, and flexible behavior will become too compelling to forego.

Monday, November 17, 2014

marketing custom silicon without aiding your competition

I have, on several occasions, remarked that it would be nice if certain, unnamed chip design houses (on at least one occasion I imprecisely used the word "vendors") would make their chips available to the startup/DIY/hobbyist/education market, in lot sizes appropriate to that market.

So what, you might ask, would prevent other companies from scooping up those chips and using them in competing products? There are two answers to that question.

First, you don't market your latest designs this way, particularly not when your own products are parts-supply constrained. Rather, as each design reaches the end of its life in your own product lineup, you let the fabrication line run for just a bit longer to produce a few extra parts (thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands), for use in repairing returned devices and for sale, at a significant mark-up, to alternative markets, as to the producers of small circuit boards like the Raspberry Pi, or even as single parts to supply houses like SparkFun.

That "significant markup" is the second reason why this would not aid the competition. While you may be able to cost parts included in your own products at a slim margin above the cost of production, there's no need to apply this practice to parts sold into the open market. You can charge several times, even ten times, the cost of production, and still be doing your customers a favor.

The only party who would stand to lose from this, so far as I can see, is Atmel, who has the lion's share of the market for processors used in boards sold to individuals and in small lots. However, since they already have the relationships for serving this market, as well as some potentially useful processor-design related IP, a great first step would be to buy Atmel.

In any case, as the size of this business grows, and it's sure to, it will become more reasonable to create custom designs better suited to it, combining cores honed for highly-competitive mass markets with more generic i/o circuitry. It will also become more reasonable to make one's software development tools available for use in programming devices into which one's chips have been incorporated.

Not saying who I'm talking about/to here, but, if the shoe fits, please try it on.