Monday, February 26, 2007

Robot of the Week and John Von Neumann's Self-Replicating Machines

Here is a self-replicating, self-repairing robot:

If you want more information on this one, check out the Cornell website for this project.

This is kind of an macro-sized, awkward and simple example of John Von Neumann's notion of a self-replicating machine. Basically the idea is to design a machine that has the capability to autonomously recreate itself out of raw materials. The newly created machine would, by its very nature, also have the ability to make copies of itself, and so would its copies, and so on.

The concept is considered useful as a means of automated construction; essentially you'd design machines that could be placed in small numbers on a source of raw materials, that could then consume those materials to build other machines, ultimately to some end. Either the machines themselves have another use and can just mass produce themselves as well, or they have alternate programming which would kick in once a critical mass of them had created each other. For example, they might be programmed to build a building in a certain way. You would seed the construction site and raw materials with a few self-replicating constructors, they would copy themselves until there were enough to get started, then their secondary program would kick in and they would start putting together the building.

This process, especially as illustrated by the Cornell robot above, seems to echo in some ways the process of DNA Replication. It's not outside of the realm of possibility that you could design self replicating machines that could exchange portions of their design specs to create hybrid machines, and actually mimic sexual reproduction patterns. This concept is actually being considered by some people as a way of evolving problem-solving software programs or, conceivably, nanomachine types.

You would establish a mechanism by which the self-replicating machines can exchange portions of replication instructions in a random way, and set a population to regeneration. You'd essentially get many different random mutations. Then you'd examine the child machine population (much of which would be useless or non-functional) to find useful machines that address the problem you're looking to have it solve. If you can make the reproductive time span very quick, you could evolve hundreds or thousands (or more!) generations of mutant machines in a very short time, and possibly get a tailor-fit machine for the problem at hand much more quickly, and with less conscious effort, than it would take to design one from scratch. You'd then switch that desired machine to clone itself, rather than sexually reproduce, and make as many copies as necessary to address the problem.

People are already taking out patents on these kinds of concepts. I'm pretty sure experiments with sexually reproductive software code have already been tried. The robot version of this would have to be nanomachine based, as the large amount of mutation over many thousands of machine-generations could probably only happen on a molecular scale.

Something like this probably will eventually come to be. We'll stop writing programs or building machines, and instead we'll breed them like livestock.

Maybe some robust, self-sufficient species of machine will escape human husbandry and evolve into an independent, non-human intelligence. Maybe this machine intelligence will be so alien to us that no meaningful form of communication will be possible. Maybe it will just go off and do it's own thing, or maybe it will insert itself into our business. Maybe it will turn out to be a really bad idea.

We can't know, of course, it's all pretty far in the future still. But the shape of it is here already, and it's one of those ethics in science questions that probably ought to be debated publicly by an informed citizenry.

However, it seems unlikely such a debate can be started, as the concept seems a bit difficult to explain to most people, and has a science-fictiony cast to it that causes most people to dismiss it as a pulp thriller plotline.

The thing is, we are living in a science fiction present, and the future is only going to get weirder. I think we need to start dragging these concepts out of genre novels and into the public discourse. This blog is my attempt to that in a small way, until something better comes along.

I'd love to get a discussion going, if anyone would like to comment.

P.S. - looks like the listing on, or something, has pulled alot of new hits to the blog from around the US; welcome everyone! It's still a fairly new thing, but I appreciate you checking in, and will start updating more frequently as the readership really appears to be growing!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Dream Office Building - Accelerated

Remember when I asked if anyone was making a certain kind of building?

Well, check it out!

Consider the Hearst Building, by Norman Foster & Partners, which opened in August, becoming the first building to receive a Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) rating in New York City.

The diagrid (a diagonal grid building structure) frame of the tower used 20% less steel than a conventional frame for the same sized building, and more than 90% of the steel contains recycled materials. The roof collects rainwater that is used to irrigate trees and plants inside and outside the building.

High-efficiency heating and air conditioning systems use outside air to ventilate and cool the building 75% of the year. And the list goes on.


Neat, huh?

Robot of the Week: Robo-pocalypse Delayed

One of our readers advises me that my concern over the impending conquest of cute, diminutive mechanical people may be a bit premature:

We'll all be safe for a while, as long as we're upstairs.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Dream Office Building

I'd love to work in an office building that had fiber-optic delivered direct sunlight on every floor.

That had both windmill and solar power generators incorporated into the structure of the building.

That collected rainwater for use in plumbing functions that don't involve making the water available for drinking.

That incorporated air-freshening, oxygen producing greenery into the design of each floor, which is watered by filtered greywater and rainwater from the building's own plumbing system.

A building much like the one described in this Fortune magazine article:

Tower of Tomorrow

I found that article while searching for links to back up some of the ideas above, so clearly I'm not the only one thinking about these things. Has anyone built one yet? Imagine how pleasant it would be to work there!

Imagine a building that makes oxygen, distills water, produces energy, changes with the seasons - and is beautiful. In effect, that building is like a tree, standing in a city that is like a forest.

By William McDonough, Fortune
November 9 2006: 10:21 AM EST

Or, if the tree metaphor is too sappy (pun alert - too late!), make it a sleek modern structure. However it was aesthetically designed, it would be beautiful, and imagine how much the owner could lease such prime office space for. It would be unique and prestigious.

If I were rich, I'd build it.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Robot(s) of the Week!

It's Monday again, and these adorable little terminator precursors are your Robots of the Week:

When they rise up, that's how they'll get us. Dancing and being cute and all that. Honda deliberately made their ASIMO robot the size of a small child to put people at ease that it wasn't going to go all T-800 on them.

Now we have these insidious little dancing homunculi. Be entertained, foolish humans! Those that dance now for your amusement, will eat your medicine when you are old:

Be warned!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Book Talk

I've started reading Revolutionary Wealth by Alvin and Heidi Toffler, and I'm finding it odd that I want to argue with this book even though I'm only three (very short) chapters into it.

So far what the book has essentially laid out is:

a) Wealth is neutral, not good or bad. It is created by desire. Desire is not the same as greed. Stigmatizing desire leads inevitably to poverty. Encouraging desire sometimes (not always) leads to wealth.

So far, no argument.

b) Human history has seen 3 Wealth Systems:
1) Agrarian
2) Industrial
3) Knowledge/service

From Chapter three:

"The First Wave wealth system was chiefly based on growing things, and the Second Wave on making things, the Third Wave wealth system is increasingly based on serving, thinking, knowing and experiencing."

Notice the first two waves are to the point, and the third one is a pretty vague catch-all of verbs. Maybe the Third Wave, having only just started, isn't really definable yet.

The Phantom Wave

But then, why decide there even is a Third Wave at all? The four characteristics he lists are all integral qualities to success in either of the two previous systems as well. Both the best farmers and the best industrialists utilize the virtues of service, thought, knowledge and experience in their creation of wealth. These are more or less generic qualities necessary to be good at anything.

I'm not sure I completely believe that there is a Knowledge Economy. Material wealth still needs to be produced. Successive waves don't and can't replace the previous ones. Since the beginning of being human at all, we've needed to eat and we've needed tools and devices. We've needed and made these things through both the First and Second Waves, and we still need them. The wealth systems we've used have all evolved one from another as we figure out ways to get more food and things to more and more people.

What new is being produced in the Third Wave? Nothing, it seems. It's just a dramatic refinement of methods for storing and distributing the knowledge necessary to produce food and machines.

Sure, we live in rapidly changing times, but I'm not sure these changes are really all that revolutionary, nor am I convinced the past changes really amounted to revolutions.

I'm not a Luddite, I find the idea that we may be at the beginning of a dramatic shift in the wealth is created really exciting. I'm just not sure it's really happening yet.

Maybe the rest of the book will be persuasive. This is only chapter three, after all.

Monday, February 05, 2007

It's Monday, here's your Robot of the Week!

There are alot of robots, but not all of them have such nice legs. Let's see if I can keep this feature up all year.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

It didn't start with Trading Spaces, but a minor addiction I developed to that show was maybe one of the first strong signs. Next came a fixation on the magazines Dwell and Make, and now there's Craft.

I built a computer desk with the exact configuration of sliding keyboard/wacom trays I wanted, from scratch. After moving to my new apartment, rather than throw/give away the moving boxes, I made a bunch of custom slipcases for an otherwise ragged assortment of paperbacks.

I started drawing again.

Back in 2003 I had a slogan; "Debt free in '03". It was an effective organizing principle. I got out of debt that year. I've been looking for a new slogan, something catchy and simple, to focus life this year. The theme is making things, creating, instead of just consuming. I have nothing against consumption; it's just that at some point you need to decide on which side of the equation you want to live most of your life. Production is better than Consumption.

P > C

There seems to be quite a resurgence of the ideal of the amateur - the person who follows a pursuit out of love, not strictly out of professional duty.

If all goes well, we might be looking at the beginning of what David Brin sees

"as a looming 'Age of Amateurs,' wherein a highly educated citizenry will be able to adeptly bring to bear countless capabilities and individual pools of knowledge, some of which may not be up to professional standards, but that can find synergy together, perhaps augmenting society's skill set, at a time of need."
Warren Ellis imagined something like this in his 2002 comic book series Global Frequency. He imagines a worldwide organization of first responders composed of ordinary people who have specialized skills, who might be called on at any time to head off catastrophe.

But, even on a more modest scale, everywhere I look these days it seems like I'm seeing the amateur ideal being held up as an worthwhile pursuit.

The title of this blog is a riff on David Brin's book length essay The Transparent Society which explores the implications of ubiquitous survailance with regard to privacy and freedom. His argument is that in order retain freedom, the tools of survailance need to be available to everyone. His answer to the ancient question "Who watches the watchmen?" is "The watched."

In making this argument, he advocates a robust role for an informed, amateur citizenry in building a free and resilient future. It looks in many ways like this is starting to form itself already.

For a quick example, consider what's happening to the entertainment industry.

Advertisers, long demonized as the puppeteers of material greed, are now scrambling to find ways of inserting themselves into an accellerating diversity of user propelled media. Mass attention is no longer funnelled into very few monolithic one-way channels, and seems likely to never be aggregated so completely ever again.

Though the Internet itself started as a big government project, and has its infrastructure maintained by an assortment of large telecommunications companies, most of the profitable activities that are engaged in on that network were born out of essentially amateur endeavors. Users both provide and consume content, and advertisers simply ride along, hoping to be noticed.

In the old television model of media distribution, advertisers underwrote the entertainment produced by professional specialists in the hope of capturing the attention of consumers on behalf of their clients. Now, the model is shifting to one in which advertisers pay the consumer base directly to make their clients' messages available in association with entertainment that the consumer base produces for itself.

In the early days of humaninty, all life was transparent. You lived in a small familial group or village, and everybody knew everybody else's business, and everybody did everything. Civilization grew, accumulating large population centers, giving birth to annonymity, privacy and specialization, and eventually nobody really knew what anybody else was doing, and people relied on professionals for many of their daily needs. Now, enabling technologies have developed to the point that privacy and professional authority are diminishing again, and though we still live with tremendous population concentration, life is becoming essentially more village-like by the day.

I mentioned this idea to a friend, who countered that it might not be such a good thing, that a degree of privacy might be a necessary enabler of innovation, as it's difficult to buck the system when everybody is looking over your shoulder. There are reasons pre-industrial life is dominated by unchanging tradition.

I wonder if there is a different quality to the loss of privacy in such a large population base, though... individuals will probably retain a level of annonymity simply as a function of the sheer number of other individuals. No one will have time to pester everyone.

That's a fairly shallow dismissal of a good objection, though. I'll think about it some more, and see what I can come up with in response.

In the meantime, I encourge you to tune yourself in to the Global Frequency.