Tech News: Google Seeking “Conscious Homes”

nest_therm1In Google’s drive for world supremacy, a good number of start-ups and developers have been bought up. Between their acquisition of eight robotics companies in the space of sixth months back in 2013 to their ongoing  buyout of anyone in the business of aerospace, voice and facial recognition, and artificial intelligence, Google seems determined to have a controlling interest in all fields of innovation.

And in what is their second-largest acquisition to date, Google announced earlier this month that they intend get in on the business of smart homes. The company in question is known as Nest Labs, a home automation company that was founded by former Apple engineers Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers in 2010 and is behind the creation of The Learning Thermostat and the Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector.

nest-thermostatThe Learning Thermostat, the company’s flagship product, works by learning a home’s heating and cooling preferences over time, removing the need for manual adjustments or programming. Wi-Fi networking and a series of apps also let users control and monitor the unit Nest from afar, consistent with one of the biggest tenets of smart home technology, which is connectivity.

Similarly, the Nest Protect, a combination smoke and carbon monoxide detector, works by differentiating between burnt toast and real fires. Whenever it detects smoke, one alarm goes off, which can be quieted by simply waving your hand in front of it. But in a real fire, or where deadly carbon monoxide is detected, a much louder alarm sounds to alert its owners.

nest_smoke_detector_(1_of_9)_1_610x407In addition, the device sends a daily battery status report to the Nest mobile app, which is the same one that controls the thermostats, and is capable of connecting with other units in the home. And, since Nest is building a platform for all its devices, if a Nest thermostat is installed in the same home, the Protect and automatically shut it down in the event that carbon monoxide is detected.

According to a statement released by co-f0under Tony Fadell, Nest will continue to be run in-house, but will be partnered with Google in their drive to create a conscious home. On his blog, Fadell explained his company’s decision to join forces with the tech giant:

Google will help us fully realize our vision of the conscious home and allow us to change the world faster than we ever could if we continued to go it alone. We’ve had great momentum, but this is a rocket ship. Google has the business resources, global scale, and platform reach to accelerate Nest growth across hardware, software, and services for the home globally.

smarthomeYes, and I’m guessing that the $3.2 billion price tag added a little push as well! Needless to say, some wondered why Apple didn’t try to snatch up this burgeoning company, seeing as how its being run by two of its former employees. But according to Fadell, Google founder Sergey Brin “instantly got what we were doing and so did the rest of the Google team” when they got a Nest demo at the 2011 TED conference.

In a press release, Google CEO Larry Page had this to say about bringing Nest into their fold:

They’re already delivering amazing products you can buy right now – thermostats that save energy and smoke/[carbon monoxide] alarms that can help keep your family safe. We are excited to bring great experiences to more homes in more countries and fulfill their dreams!

machine_learningBut according to some, this latest act by Google goes way beyond wanting to develop devices. Sara Watson at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society is one such person, who believes Google is now a company obsessed with viewing everyday activities as “information problems” to be solved by machine learning and algorithms.

Consider Google’s fleet of self-driving vehicles as an example, not to mention their many forays into smartphone and deep learning technology. The home is no different, and a Google-enabled smart home of the future, using a platform such as the Google Now app – which already gathers data on users’ travel habits – could adapt energy usage to your life in even more sophisticated ways.

Larry_PageSeen in these terms, Google’s long terms plans of being at the forefront of the new technological paradigm  – where smart technology knows and anticipates and everything is at our fingertips – certainly becomes more clear. I imagine that their next goal will be to facilitate the creation of household AIs, machine minds that monitor everything within our household, provide maintenance, and ensure energy efficiency.

However, another theory has it that this is in keeping with Google’s push into robotics, led by the former head of Android, Andy Rubin. According to Alexis C. Madrigal of the Atlantic, Nest always thought of itself as a robotics company, as evidence by the fact that their VP of technology is none other than Yoky Matsuoka – a roboticist and artificial intelligence expert from the University of Washington.

yokymatsuoka1During an interview with Madrigal back in 2012, she explained why this was. Apparently, Matsuoka saw Nest as being positioned right in a place where it could help machine and human intelligence work together:

The intersection of neuroscience and robotics is about how the human brain learns to do things and how machine learning comes in to augment that.

In short, Nest is a cryptorobotics company that deals in sensing, automation, and control. It may not make a personable, humanoid robot, but it is producing machine intelligences that can do things in the physical world. Seen in this respect, the acquisition was not so much part of Google’s drive to possess all our personal information, but a mere step along the way towards the creation of a working artificial intelligence.

It’s a Brave New World, and it seems that people like Musk, Page, and a slew of futurists that are determined to make it happen, are at the center of it.

Sources: cnet.news.com, (2), newscientist.com, nest.com, theatlantic.com

3-D Printing Martian and Lunar Housing

3dprinted_moon_base1For enthusiasts of 3-D printing and its many possibilities, a man like Berokh Khoshnevis needs no introduction. As for the rest of us, he is the USC’s Director of Manufacturing Engineering, and has spent the last decade working on a new direction for this emerging technology. Back in 2012, he gave a lecture at TEDxTalks where he proposed that automated printing and custom software could revolutionize construction as we know it.

Intrinsic to this vision are a number of technologies that have emerged in recent years. These include Computer-Assisted Design/Computer-Assisted Manufacturing (CAD/CAM), robotics, and “contour crafting” (i.e. automated construction). By combining design software with a large, crane-sized 3-D printing machine, Khoshnevis proposes a process where homes can be built in just 20 hours.

contour-craftingKhoshnevis started working on the idea when he realized the gigantic opportunity in introducing more speed and affordability into construction. All of the technology was already in place, all that was required was to custom make the hardware and software to carry it all out. Since that time, he and his staff have worked tirelessly to perfect the process and vary up the materials used.

Working through USC’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies, Khoshnevis and his students have made major progress with their designs and prototypes. His robotic construction system has now printed entire six-foot tall sections of homes in his lab, using concrete, gypsum, wood chips, and epoxy, to create layered walls sections of floor.

3dprinted_moon_base3The system uses robotic arms and extrusion nozzles that are controlled by a computerized gantry system which moves a nozzle back and forth. Cement, or other desired materials, are placed down layer by layer to form different sections of the structure. Though the range of applications are currently limited to things like emergency and temporary shelters, Khoshnevis thinks it will someday be able to build a 2,500-square-foot home in 20 hours.

As he describes the process:

It’s the last frontier of automation. Everything else is made by machines except buildings. Your shoes, your car, your appliances. You don’t have to buy anything that is made by hand.

contour-crafting2As Khoshnevis explained during his 2012 lecture at TEDx, the greatest intended market for this technology is housing construction in the developing world. In such places of the world, this low-cost method of creating housing could lead to the elimination of slums as well as all the unhealthy conditions and socioeconomic baggage that comes with them.

But in the developed world, he also envisions how contour crafting machines could allow homes to be built more cheaply by reducing labor and material costs. As he pointed out in his lecture, construction is one of the most inefficient, dirty and dangerous industries there is, more so than even mining and oil drilling. Given a method that wastes far less material and uses less energy, this would reduce our impact on the natural environment.

3dprinted_moon_base2But of course, what would this all be without some serious, science fiction-like applications? For some time now, NASA and the ESA has been looking at additive manufacturing and robotics to create extra-terrestrial settlement. Looking farther afield, NASA has given Khoshnevis a grant to work on building lunar structures on the moon or other planets that humans could one day colonize.

According to NASA’s website, the construction project would involve:

Elements suggested to be built and tested include landing pads and aprons, roads, blast walls and shade walls, thermal and micrometeorite protection shields and dust-free platforms as well as other structures and objects utilizing the well known in-situ-resource utilization (ISRU) strategy.

3dprinted_moon_baseMany existing technologies would also be employed, such as the Lunar Electric Rover, the unpressurized Chariot rover, the versatile light-weight crane and Tri-Athlete cargo transporter as well some new concepts that are currently in testing. These include some habitat mockups and new generations of spacesuits that are currently undergoing tests at NASA’s Desert Research And Technological Studies (D-RATS).

Many of the details of this arrangement are shrouded in secrecy, but I think I can imagine what would be involved. Basically, the current research and development paradigm is focusing on combining additive manufacturing and sintering technology, using microwaves to turn powder into molten material, which then hardens as it is printed out.

sinterhab3To give you an idea of what they would look like, picture a crane-like robot taking in Moon regolith or Martian dust, bombarding it with microwaves to create a hot glue-like material, and then printing it out, layer by layer, to create contoured modules as hard as ceramic. These modules, once complete, would be pressurized and have multiple sections – for research, storage, recreation, and whatever else the colonists plan on getting up to.

Pretty cool huh? Extra-terrestrial colonies, and a cheaper, safer, and more environmentally friendly construction industry here on Earth. Not a bad way to step into the future! And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of contour crafting at work, courtesy of USC’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com, nasa.gov

The 3D Printing Revolution

3D-printing1From the way people have been going on about 3D printing in the past few months, you’d think it was some kind of fad or something! But of course, there’s a reason for that. Far from being a simple prescriptive technology that requires us all to update our software or buy the latest version in order to “stay current”, 3D printing is ushering in a revolution that will literally change the world.

From design models and manufactured products, the range of possibilities is now venturing into printed food and even artificial organs. The potential for growth is undeniable, and the pace at which progress is happening is astounding. And on one of my usual jaunts through the tech journals and video-sharing websites, I found a few more examples of the latest applications.

ord_bot_2_2_display_mediumFirst up is this story from Mashable, a social media news source, that discusses NYU student Marko Manriquez’s new invention: the BurritoBot. Essentially a 3D food printer that uses tortillas, salsa, guacamole and other quintessential ingredients, Manriquez’s built this machine for his master’s thesis using open-source hardware – including the ORD bot, a 3D printing mechanical platform (pictured above).

The result is a food printer that an tailor-make Burritos and other Mexican delights, giving users the ability to specify which ingredients they want, in which proportion, and all through an app on their smartphone. No demos available online as of yet, but Mashable provides a pretty good breakdown on how it works, as well as Manrquez’s inspiration and intent behind its creation:


Next up, there’s Cornell University’s food printer that allows users to created desserts. In this CNN video, Chef David Arnold at the French Culinary Institute shows off the printer by creating a chocolate cake, layer by layer, dough and icing. A grad student from Cornell’s Computational Synthesis Lab was on hand to explain that their design is also open-source, with the blueprints and technical design made available online so anyone can build their own.

As Chef Arnold explained, his kitchen has been using the printer to work with ingredients ranging from cookie dough, to icing to masa – the corn meal tortillas are made from. It also allows for a degree of accuracy that many may not possess, while still offering plenty of opportunities to be creative. “The only real limitation now is that the product has to be able to go through a syringe,” he said. “Other than that, skies the limit.”


But even more exciting for some are the opportunities that are now being explored using metals. Using metal powder and an electron beam to form manufactured components, this type of “additive manufacturing” is capable of turning out parts that are amazingly complex, far more so than anything created through the machining-process.

In this next video, the crew from CNNMoney travel to the Oakridge National Lab in Tenessee to speak to the Automation, Manufacturing and Robotics Group. This government-funded lab specializes in making parts that are basically “structures within structures”, the kind of things that are used in advanced prosthetic limbs, machinery, and robots. As they claim, this sort of manufacturing is made possible thanks to the new generation of 3D ABS and metal printers.

Oakridge_natlabWhat’s more, this new process is far more efficient. Compared to old fashioned forms of machining, it consumes less energy and generates far less waste in terms of materials used. And the range of applications is extensive, embracing fields as divergent as robotics and construction to biomedical and aerospace. At present, the only real prohibition is the cost of the equipment itself, but that is expected to come down as 3D printing and additive manufacturers receive more market penetration.


But of course, all of this pales in comparison to the prospect of 3D printed buildings. As Behrokh Khoshnevis – a professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering at USC – explains in this last video from TEDxTalks, conventional construction methods are not only inefficient, labor intensive and dangerous, they may very well be hampering development efforts in the poorer parts of the world.

As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of poverty and underdevelopment knows, slums and shanty-towns suffer disproportionately from the problems of crime, disease, illiteracy, and infant mortality. Unfortunately, government efforts to create housing in regions where these types of communities are common are restrained by budgets and resource shortages. With one billion people living in shanties and slum-like shelters, a new means of creating shelter needs to be found for the 21st century.

contour-craftingThe solution, according to Khoshnevis, lies in Contour Crafting and Automated Construction –  a process which can create a custom house in just 20 hours! As a proponent of Computer-Assisted Design and Computer-Assisted Manufacturing (CAD/CAM), he sees automated construction as a cost-effective and less labor resource-intensive means of creating homes for these and other people who are likely to live in unsafe, unsanitary conditions.

The technology is already in place, so any claims of that is of a “theoretical nature” are moot. What’s more, such processes are already being designed to construct settlements on the moon, incorporating robotics and 3D printing with advanced computer-assisted simulations. As such, Khoshnevis is hardly alone in advocating similar usages here on planet Earth.

The benefits, as he outlines them, are dignity, safety, and far more sanitary conditions for the inhabitants, as well as the social benefits of breaking the pathological cycle of underdevelopment. Be sure to check out his video below. It’s a bit long, but very enlightening!


Once in awhile, its good to take stock of the future and see that it’s not all creepy robots and questionable inventions. Much of the time, technological progress really does promise to make life better, and not just “more convenient”. It’s also especially good to see how it can be made to improve the lives of all people, rather than perpetuating the gap between the haves and the have nots.

Until next time, keep your heads high and your eyes to the horizon!

 

Envisioning The Future of Finance

BrightFutureA few times now, the website known as Envisioning Technology has snared me with their predictive posters. First there was their “Emerging Technologies” infographic for the year of 2012. That was followed shortly thereafter by “The future of health” and “The future of education“. They even took a look at popular dystopian and apocalyptic scenarios and asked the question “Should I be afraid“?

And now, in their latest infographic, they’ve tackled the future of finance. Looking at the financial industry as a whole, they attempt to gauge its readiness to technological change. While looking at trends that are likely to influence the very notion of value in the coming decades, they ask the question “are [organizations] paying enough attention to the imminent changes that will define the future of society or if they are running the risk of letting accelerating change vanquish existing business models?”

And as usual, the information is presented in an interconnected, multi-layered fashion. Dividing all aspects of the financial sector into the categories of Data, Automation, Security, Disintermediation (i.e. removing the “middle men”), Crowds (crowd-sourcing, crowd-funding), Mobile technology, Currencies, and Reputation, potential technologies are then listed based on whether or not they are under development, likely to be in development in the near future, or are currently being overlooked.

Take a gander and see what you think. As usual, its packed full of interesting concepts, speculative reasoning, and a ton of statistical data. And be sure to check out the website in case you have yet to see their other infographics.

Source: Envisioning Technology