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Boy Attends School Using Robot September 24, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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This is the kind of story I enjoy reading.  Technology unequivocally making someone’s life better.

When Devon Carrow was a baby, a cookie-coated kiss from his mom made him break out in hives. An accidental encounter with peanuts at his godparents’ home three months later landed him in the hospital, under an oxygen tent. His food allergies are so severe that he doesn’t even have to eat something in order to have a life-threatening reaction — just breathing in trace amounts of an allergen is enough to send him into anaphylactic shock.

But thanks to technology, the home-bound boy is finally able to attend school in person — so to speak. He sits in his classroom, runs small errands for his teacher, and participates in group projects all thanks to a $6,000 robot from Nashua, N.H.-based VGo Communications.

His mom converted a room in their home for use as a classroom, and two teachers help him manipulate his computer equipment from there. Thanks to the VGo, which he started using in January, Devon can walk the halls of Winchester Elementary with his classmates, check books out of the library, join other kids on the carpet for circle time, and participate on stage during assembly. The only things he can’t do are attend gym and lunch, but once the school’s wireless system is upgraded, he should be able to hang out in the cafeteria with his buddies while he eats his lunch at home.

Heartwarming.  And that’s not something I say often unironically.

DARPA Unveils New Robotic “Mule” September 10, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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Like it or not the military has been behind some of the biggest technological breakthroughs in history (no surprise given the amount of money spent on it).  The US military has been sinking a lot of money into robotics in recent years in an effort to automate their forces.  Predator drones are probably the most well-known example of this but they have also been working on ground based robots to assist infantry.  DARPA has recently put out a new video demonstrating their newest creation; the LS3.

Not exactly the Terminator but pretty cool none-the-less.  Sure it’s got a funny gait and it’s “running” probably couldn’t outpace a twelve year old but the technology has been steadily improving since the days of Big Dog (which was cool in it’s own right).  While it’s something we take for granted maneuvering on uneven terrain, even very slowly,  is actually an incredibly complicated skill that requires a great amount of agility and balance, things that up until recently robots just haven’t been able to do.  Life has had millions of years to get the process down so it’s no big shock that robots are taking a little while to get it right.


P.S.  Anyone more knowledgeable about the subject know what happened to Big Dog?  Looking at those old videos again makes me remember what a seriously impressive technology that was/is.  It’s still amazing, and somewhat eerie even for me, to see it slip on an ice patch and stumble about in such a “life like” manner.

Google Employees To Commute In Self-Driving Cars August 21, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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As anyone reading this blog is probably familiar with Google has been in the process of testing it’s self-driving auto technology, so far with impressive results.  In 300,000 miles of driving the car has been in only a single accident and in that case it was when the human driver took control.  Now Google is putting their money (or lives as the case is) where their mouth is and actually allowing their employees to “drive” the cars on their daily commutes.

Of course, the Mountain View, California area isn’t the most arduous of terrains on which to test road worthiness. Acknowledging this, Google engineer, Chris Urmson, writes“…we’ll need to master snow-covered roadways, interpret temporary construction signals and handle other tricky situations that many drivers encounter.”

Until now the cars have been ridden with at least two people, but Google will allow their employees to ride solo during their commutes. As usual, control of the car can be taken over if deemed necessary by the passenger.

In the United States, there were 10.8 million motor vehicle accidents in 2009 resulting in 36,000 deaths, according to the Census Bureau. When Sebastian Thrun announced Google’s self-driving car program back in 2010, he said that robotic cars could possibly cut worldwide vehicle-related deaths by half. And while it’s true the car remains untested in the more challenging conditions mentioned above, public resistance to giving up control at 60 mph could prove even more difficult terrain to cross. It will certainly be some time before Thrun’s pronouncement is put to the test, but as Google employees start sharing their experiences on YouTube, PR progress could be just as important as the technical progress.

Now they just need to install a voice system and you could officially be riding Night Rider in the near future.

Diesel From Algae: The Future Of Fuel February 27, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Okay so first thing first I lied a little bit in the title.  A company in Massachusetts is claiming to have genetically engineered a species of cyanobacteria (once called blue-green algae, so only a little lie) that produces hydrocarbons when exposed to sunlight, water and CO2.  In other words where most autotrophs use photosynthesis to produce sugars like glucose these little guys make gasoline.

Now the idea of growing fuel, so to speak, is certainly not a new one and in many ways has become indicative of everything that is wrong with the renewable energy industry.  The first big attempt was a heavily government sponsored effort to produce biofuel using corn ethanol.  Considering what an incredibly inefficient process that is it turned out to be little more than a massive giveaway to the big agribusiness companies.  Other efforts using algae have looked more promising but have run into to problems of logistics and whether or not they can produce enough to actually be profitable.  According to the article that’s what makes this species so exciting:

Joule says they’ve eliminated the middleman that’s makes producing biofuels on a large scale so costly.

That middleman is the “biomass,” such as the untold tons of corn or algae that must be grown, harvested and destroyed to extract a fuel that still must be treated and refined to be used. Joule says its organisms secrete a completed product, already identical to diesel fuel or ethanol, then live on to keep producing it at remarkable rates.

Joule claims, for instance, that its cyanobacterium can produce 15,000 gallons of diesel full per acre annually, over four times more than the most efficient algal process for making fuel. And they say they can do it at $30 a barrel.

Sounds great doesn’t it?  Frankly yes it does but like all new ideas it must pass the gauntlet of skeptics before it can find its place in the general marketplace.  Most have been pointing out that while this technique solves the problem of biomass is runs into problems of its own:

Pienkos said his calculations, based on information in Joule’s recent paper, indicate that though they eliminate biomass problems, their technology leaves relatively small amounts of fuel in relatively large amounts of water, producing a sort of “sheen.” They may not be dealing with biomass, but the company is facing complicated “engineering issues” in order to recover large amounts of its fuel efficiently, he said.

However I have a different problem with this sort of technology.  First of all I admit to not being an expert on the process but it would seem to me that while biofuels may solve one problem, removing us from the economic and political shackles of foreign oil, it does nothing to address the rather large elephant in the room of climate change.  If the cyanobacteria are truly producing hydrocarbons than how exactly will the end result be any different from what we have now.  The transportation sector is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases and any attempt to address global climate change without addressing that fact is doomed from the start.  The article mentions using the CO2 emissions from power plants as a potential benefit but if the carbon is simply being released back into the atmosphere through tailpipes then I question whether there is a benefit at all.

This is my least favorite kind of post to write because when it comes right down to it I’m supportive of this kind of technology.  Used correctly it has the potential to be a powerful force for the kind of change we need to see if we want to prevent some of the serious problems were facing, not just climate change but the aforementioned ball and chain of foreign oil strangling our economic and political climate.  However we cannot be so proud of our own ingenuity that we become blind to what effects our creations will actually have on the world.