Archive September 2011

Illuminating communication Robert Hickson Sep 30

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Wired Magazine recently featured the new big thing in the lighting world – Light Emitting Diodes. But wait, there’s more. Harald Haas is developing LEDs that can transmit data, so wherever there is a light you could get high speed wireless data. He suggests that this will dramatically improve capacity, efficiency, availability and security of  data transmission. As well as being a greener way of transmitting electronic information.

Watch his TED video:

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Energy Forecasts Robert Hickson Sep 30

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The US’s Energy Information Administration has released its International Energy Outlook 2011. This forecasts energy demand out to 2035.  A caveat is that their assessments assume no new policy or legislative initiatives being introduced that could affect energy markets.

Drivers: Economic development, technological innovation

Trends: Increasing energy consumption, diversifying energy supplies, exploitation of new sources of fossil fuels

Challenges: Costs of supply, economic downturn, environmental safety

Opportunities: Improving energy efficiency, developing renewable energies

A main prediction under their Reference case is that world energy consumption increases by 53 percent, from 505 quadrillion Btu in 2008 to 770 quadrillion Btu in 2035 (Btu stands for British thermal units – a measure of energy usage). This growth comes mainly from the continuing development of China and India, whose combined energy use will more than double, making up 31 percent of total world energy consumption in 2035.

Source: EIA

Source: EIA

Where will this energy come from? Mostly from fossil fuels according to the EIA (and most other energy assessments). Renewables – largely hydropower - are expected to be the fastest-growing source of world energy, with consumption increasing by 2.8 percent per year, but fossil fuels will continue to dominate.

Source: EIA

Source: EIA

 The EIA also anticipate that China, which has largely been powered by cheap coal, will rapidly expand its use of nuclear power, contrasting with slow or no adoption in OECD countries. It goes without saying that China’s nuclear power plants will need to be better built and managed than their rail system.  

The EIA have been accused of being too optimistic in their predictions of energy demand  because they seem to underplay the rising costs of recovery of fossil fuels. Other analyses forecast lower oil production. The 2010 report of the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security (whose members include some major transport providers) predict lower oil production in 2015 than EIA estimates. Nevertheless, there is agreement that energy consumption will continue to rise. The Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security also expressed concern that

‘oil shortages, insecurity of supply and price volatility will destabilise economic, political and social activity potentially by 2015’

 The large reserves of what is called unconventional oil in North America hold great promise to some oil men. Daniel Yergin’s book ‘The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World’  is optimistic that these reserves can be tapped economically with new technologies, and shift the oil balance from the Middle East back towards America. Others are of course concerned about the safety of existing and new oil recovery techniques. Not to mention the quantity of  greenhouse gasses that will get pumped into the atmosphere from increasing use of fossil fuels.

Whose predictions are right, if any? That’s hard to say, and is dependent on the assumptions made by the forecasters. Certainly another economic downturn will undermine some of the EIA assumptions, while technological advances could make extracting oil out of tricky things like shale both attractive price wise and safer. It is too early to judge what will happen. Most pundits agree that regardless of new reserves, the prices of fossil fuels will keep increasing.

The issue then really isn’t whether whose estimate of energy use is more accurate, given that the trends are similar.  The important questions are what price of oil (or coal or gas) will still allow us to enjoy economic, social and environmental well-being, and what do we need to do so we can switch to other forms of energy before then?

Game on? Robert Hickson Sep 23

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Thankfully (or sorry) this isn’t about rugby or world cups. It is about what if real world problems become games.

Ariadne’s snapshot on gaming in the real world:

  • Drivers: smarter computing and open innovation
  • Trend: using on-line games to solve problems and generate ideas
  • Challenges: making the games relevant and engaging, sifting the ideas
  • Opportunities: solving difficult problems, gathering fresh ideas

An advance online publication in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology by Khatib et al.[PDF, 0.8 MB] describes solving a difficult protein structure using a multiplayer online game called Foldit. The authors conclude that

‘the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.’

This view is also held by Jane McGonigal, from the Institute for the Future. She has greater ambitions and optimism for all the good things that those gamers could achieve, if they were given the chance.

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This phenomenon of using gaming methods in the real world is called, inelegantly, ‘Gamification’ (which brings to my mind images of over ripe and pungent meat). It is increasingly being used with mixed success in retailing to create customer loyalty. But it is also being used for less mercenary outcomes — training, improving employee performance, and stimulating innovation. Some, such as the folks at the Institute for the Future and Gartner have high hopes for the spread of online gaming into the real world. Others, such as O’Reilly Radar, are more circumspect — they games need to be well designed and meet the needs of the problem, not just be a gimmick.

 Such games may be used to engage the target audience (to get them interested in an issue or product) and/or to generate ideas or solve problems. An example of the former is the World Food Programme’s Food Force game which teaches students about the challenges of delivering food aid.

 Generating ideas and solving problems through games taps into the wisdom of the crowds. Humans are better than computers at certain tasks, such as identifying galaxies or identifying words. Making games out of such tasks can help get more people solving these problems, which is what Foldit does.

Crowdsourcing ideas is becoming more popular. Businesses are using websites such as InnoCentive to seek solutions to particular challenges. The World Bank Institute ran a game called Evoke to support social innovation. Locally, Magnetic South used a game format to gather ideas for the Future of Christchurch. Other examples can be found on NESTA’s Serious Game page.

 Birkinshaw and colleaguesprovided a useful assessment of when such open source innovations work well in a business environment. They aren’t a panacea — one of the biggest challenges can be sorting through all of the ideas. Sometimes it is better not to invite all the world to come and play, just those who are most likely to provide really good insights.

As computing moves from desk-top and laptop machines to mobile devices, they way in which games for real world issues are designed will need to change — most people won’t spend hours at a time on their smart phone or tablet computer just playing a game.

The success in gaming to solve specific problems rather than be just being an idea generator remains to be seen. Not all of the world’s pressing problems can be solved like protein structures.

What other problems in New Zealand could gaming be good for?

  • World of weightcraft – Tackling obesity?
  • Wii NZ – Catching up with Australia ?
  • Grand theft auto — New Zealand’s future transport system?

There is perhaps an urgent need to develop a game to plan how to get people to and from the final of the Rugby World cup in Auckland on October 23rd.

Where’s my Robot? [Part 2] Robert Hickson Sep 15


Part 1 looked at trends in Robotics. Here I consider some of the challenges, as well as provide more information on military robots.


What is needed for robots to be valued and respected members of our world? As a non-specialist I see five main requirements:

Discriminating – It is easy for us to distinguish individuals and objects by sight, sound, touch and smell. It is much harder for software to do so, but this is changing rapidly. As better and more sensors are added to robots, they’ll need to also get better at analysing and filtering the information that these sensors provide them with.

Safe – Not quite Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics at this stage, but as robots become increasingly autonomous in both mobility and decision-making there is a need to ensure that they do what they are supposed to do. As Lora Weiss points out, being able to properly test such independent robots before letting them out into the real world will be challenging but not insurmountable. One potential safety complication is to ensure that someone in their garage or bedroom can’t (or is strongly discouraged from doing so) hack into a robot and make it do nasty things. Or turn them into a real walking, talking spam bot. (Oh wait, we have those already — they can’t read the ‘no circulars’ sign on letter boxes!)

Communicative — Weiss also notes the importance of robots being able to communicate appropriately with other robots, as well as other machines and humans. There will be a diversity of devices of varying degrees of ‘smartness’ in the world, and it is critical that different systems can interact with each other to avoid accidents.

Cheaper — Most robots are expensive, affordable only by well funded firms or institutions. Simple modestly priced cleaning robots are really of novelty value. The price of more sophisticated robots will need to go the way of flat screen TVs before they really take off as common domestic items.

Ethical — Many research groups are looking at the morals and ethics of robots, and human interactions with them. See, for example, the publications from the Georgia Tech Mobile Robot Lab. How we respond to the robots (especially those that look like us) may be a greater challenge. Under what circumstances is it right or ethical for a robot to take over a human job? Surveillance robots are common in the military. There is likely to be growing interest in having similar surveillance drones used for law & order and traffic management on civvy street. Will additional safe guards (and warnings) be required for such applications so that privacy is adequately protected?


Battle Bots

Military robots have experienced particularly rapid growth. In the US nearly 12,000 robots had been drafted by last year (compared with just 50 flying ones in 2000), with many more anticipated to be added over the coming years. At least 50 countries now have military robots.

Some in the military think we are nearing a tipping point [PDF, 1.28MB] for how robots are used in wars. P.W. Singer, a respected commentator on military robots, suggests that since robotic technologies are changing so quickly the armed forces should experiment more with different types of robots rather than lock on to a few tried and trusted ones. There is already considerable discussion both within the military and outside it about the ethics and rules that should govern autonomous robots in warfare. Should robots be able to decide for themselves when to shoot, and if so how should they make the decision? Will countries be more likely to start wars if it is mostly robots doing the fighting?


I think a useful hunter-killer robot would be one that patrols our forests tracking down and humanely killing possums, rats and other mammalian pests. In a few years it should be straight forward to programme a robot to correctly identify such species. Then we could do away with all that 1080 and other poisons. Carnivorous robots have already been designed (as art not science), so an HKP (hunter-killer possum) Bot could both power itself from its prey as well as clean up the mess.


On a serious note, the critical issue with robots may be defining what we don’t want them to do, rather than specifying what they can do.


Interested in videos of a range of robots? Go here.

Where’s my Robot? [Part 1] Robert Hickson Sep 14


Robots have been a promise and a fear for the last century. Up till now robots have been used for what have been called the 3 D’s — Dull, Dirty and Dangerous work. Things like building cars, vacuuming, mining, chopping up carcasses, search & rescue, and joining the armed forces. But there are also robotic footballers, pool sharks, penguins, spiders (yay!) and kung fu fighters. Robots are also starting to drive around town or do experiments (thankfully not yet on us). There may be over 8 million robots already out there.

We haven’t yet got to Rosie the Robot Maid, positronic brains, or Skynet, but we seem to be heading towards at least some of them. Robotic office workers are on the way – oh, here was I thinking some of them had infiltrated our work spaces long ago.

In this blog posting I’m introducing Aridane’s webshot; an overview of the drivers, trends, challenges and opportunities covered by the post:

  • Drivers (influencers of change): demographics (aging populations), technology, defence (warfare), economics (labour costs & productivity)
  • Trends: robots being used for more types of applications and in more complex situations; moving from programmed machines to learning machines
  • Challenges: creating versatile and fully autonomous safe robots, what types of robots will we accept safety, making robots affordable for the middle classes
  • Opportunities: improved productivity and safety, filling workforce gaps

 This post (Part 1) covers the trends, Part 2 looks at some of the challenges.

Current situation

The last few years have seen steady development and deployment or robots in a variety of settings. Industrial robots are making a comeback after two years of slow growth following the global financial crisis. The latest forecast from World Robotics concludes that there will be 1.3 million robots working away in factories by 2014. Current numbers are just over 1 million. Most of the industrial robots are employed in the electronics and automotive sectors, with Asia being where most of them reside. The US is concerned that it is falling behind [PDF, 1.32 MB] in the field of industrial robots.

Robots used in other settings — what World Robotics call ‘service’ robots — are also increasing. These are predominantly military (6,000 sold last year) and surprisingly (to me) milking applications (just over 4,000 sold). The latter are big in Europe, with New Zealand and Australia just starting to get interested in similar machines. Future farmers may need advanced degrees in engineering. More on military robots later.

Service robots for medical and logistical (such as moving freight around) applications each sold about 1,000 units in 2010. The World Robotics report notes only small sales of cleaning bots, but iRobot states that more than 6 million home cleaning robots have been sold. However, World Robotics predicts that over 14 million service robots will be sold over the next 4-5 years.


Drivers for Robotics

Key drivers (or influencers of change) in the field of robotics are ageing populations (leading to fewer human workers and more older people to look after), rising labour costs, reducing combat losses and increasing combat effectiveness, and technological developments (in mechatronics, materials science, sensing technologies, and of course faster cheaper computing power).



World Robotics notes that there are a growing number of more versatile industrial robots — ones able to do several tasks rather than just one. This is being driven by the increasing flexibility of some manufacturing processes, where product lines change quickly and products are personalised for individual customers.

So when will we get a versatile domestic robot, be able to call up ‘Ms Green Robot’ to work in our garden, or get ‘Hire a Botty’ to come over and do some home maintenance?

Not for some time. But just getting robots away from a factory floor or lab is a big achievement. And home and medical care robots don’t seem too far away.

We shouldn’t just be imagining a single house robot either. Robots swarms are likely to become more common in the near future. These can help map environments, as well as undertake surveillance. And with more things getting connected to the internet (see my previous post on the Internet of Things) your future Roomba may be conversing with other small autonomous devices to organise cleaning the home and other tedious tasks.

While the increasing dexterousness of robots and their sensory capabilities are impressive, the more significant trend in robotics is the changing approach to programming. Software is moving away from coding simple stimulus-response actions to more evolutionary behaviours, enabling robots to learn in new environments. Advances in artificial intelligence are likely to result in more sophisticated robot behaviours in the next few years. The August edition of National Geographic provides an overview of some recent advances in making robots more sociable.

There is also a move (as in other areas of ICT) for robotics to adopt an open source software approach to stimulate developments and new applications.

The larger underlying trend is of increasing automation in our lives. Dishwashers, microwave ovens, smart phones, robot vacuum cleaners, robotic genome sequencers, and computer assisted driving (and flying) are all now common. They free us from some activities or help us do others better. In the short to medium term it seems that robots will simply continue this trend. Some consider that a popular future robot could be a self propelling equivalent of a smart phone or tablet computer that acts like a personal assistant.

There will be further blurring of the boundaries between humans and machines as bionic prosthetics become more common. See this video on TED about human exoskeletons.

There are of course fears that robots will take the jobs of humans, but will this be any different from other technologies (think of ATMs, shipping containers, the internet). New types of jobs for humanoids usually emerge.

A transformation will occur when robots start making complex decisions and actions that can’t be pre-programmed. Then perhaps we’ll stop considering them as just devices and start thinking of them as creatures. (Roomba owners can get very attached to them, but it’s not quite the same thing). The goal of the RoboCup is to have a robot team beat humans by 2050. That will be a significant turning point.

Part 2 gives a brief overview of challenges facing robotics, and more on military robots.

The Internet of Things Robert Hickson Sep 02


An interesting infographic from Cisco forecasts the anticipated growth of devices connected over the internet. It notes that the number of things connected to the internet in 2008 was greater than the world population. By 2020 it predicts that 50 billion things will be connected — from cows to household appliances. This assumes that Internet Protocol version 6 is adopted so that there are enough IP addresses for all these things.


We aren’t yet living in a world where your fridge does the shopping for you, and some wired-up appliances have been expensive gimmicks that didn’t sell. But an increasing number of things are being connected up — bathroom scales, ‘smart’ fridges, laundry services, printers and manufacturing processes  . Some of the main developments in the last year can be read about at ReadWriteWeb.

The utility of such connections range from providing information to influence behaviour (such as losing weight, exercising, which attempt to work through the use of feedback loops), personal safety (monitoring your heart remotely or helping avoid road accidents), through to better monitoring of environmental hazards, more efficient use of energy or streamlining production processes. Scientists are also connecting their research subjects and other things up to the internet to gather data.

Are we really going to be living in a world where nearly everything is connected? And if so what will that mean? On the one hand there are certainly economic, environmental and social benefits from collecting and sharing certain information.

On the other hand there are concerns about privacy, reliability and security. Elizabeth Churchill from Yahoo! has written a good reflective article on trust in such a connected world [PDF, 6.34 MB]. Who will be liable if your fridge shares your diet with the neighbour, or orders the wrong food? Will you start developing more meaningful relationships with your household appliances? And what happens if someone hacks into your wired coffee maker?

Costs of such “smart” devices will also influence manufacturers and consumers. But I’d start investing in data centres.

Some researchers, government departments, and other organisations (not to mention curious citizens permanently on-line) are already familiar with information overload. Is it just going to get worse for the rest of you too? Developing new ways of collecting, analyzing and displaying information will be required so that the best use is made of everything that is collected. The way some organisations are structured and how some decisions are made will need to change as they increasingly rely on Amazonian-like flows of information.

Governments are just getting use to making more data available to the public. Most aren’t prepared for the digital floods that could start flowing back to them.

Update: I just came across a report from the UK’s Technology Strategy Board on Information Security 2020 [PDF, 1.06 MB]. It notes that more attention has recently been given to process and people aspects of information security, but that with increasing amounts of information and greater computational performance, technological approaches are likely to dominate again. The report emphasises the far reaching impacts information security issues will have for organisations, and identifies key questions organisations need to consider.

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