Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

The Future of Innovation? Collaboration.


A low-cost, lightweight solar cooker designed by a team of students from MIT and Qinghai Normal University in Tibet’s Amdo region. The cooker is easily disassembled, transported, and reassembled by one person. A metal coil attachment allows the solar cooker to provide heat for the home. (Credit: Scot Frank/MIT)

— by Joseph Caputo

While traveling through Tibet a few years ago, MIT senior Scot Frank, an American from Salt Lake City, Utah, learned about the harsh conditions Tibetans face when gathering materials for their traditional yak dung-and-wood-fueled cookers. He heard stories of how women, sometimes pregnant, must travel through dangerous storms and unforgiving terrains to find dung. And how obtaining firewood, a scarce resource, often means cutting down tress in environmentally fragile areas. Although alternative solar-powered cookers were already around, their poor design often led to fires and unhealthy amounts of smoke.

Frank and his travel partner Catlin Powers of Wellesley College soon took steps to produce a solar-powered cooker that is safe, cheap and easy to make, a project they continue today under the name SolSource Tibet. The secret to their success is collaboration, both with other teams of students, in this case from Qinghai Normal University in Tibet’s Amdo region, as well as the rural Tibetans. The solar cooker, which looks like a tin-foil satellite dish with a frying pan in the middle, is changing the lives of Tibetans and could be ready for mass production by the summer of 2009.

Frank presented the solar-powered cooker as part of Innovation Night at MIT Museum. Although mostly a poster session and panel discussion to advertise a $30,000 Lemelson-MIT student prize, the evening also highlighted a growing trend in the business of new ideas: collaboration.  The lone, aloof inventor of yesteryear would not make it in today’s world. The future of innovation requires a team of talented and diverse individuals to create shared products and resources, a vision described by Robin Chase, co-founder of ZipCar and present CEO of GoLoco.

“I feel that we are living in a world of increasing scarcity and we want to move back to abundance,” Chase told her audience. “I think we’re feeling this scarcity because we feel like we have to own everything ourselves.” In her opinion, we need to create platforms to share excess capacities.  What’s innovative about Zipcar is that each person is responsible for their share. This approach does not tear down any existing infrastructures, it is just a small step forward to save space and make things more affordable, essential if the population continues to expand at the rate it is.

This idea can also be applied to intellectual resources. Both Frank and Chase relied on the input of others to create their inventions, which as Chase pointed out, is exactly what the Internet age is doing with Web 2.0. New innovation will increasingly rely on networking, specifically solving problems through community collaboration. Whether this generates a safer way to cook or a transportation revolution, the strategy will no doubt produce great contributions for science and society.

The MIT Museum will host two more evenings of science-related forums and presentations in the coming weeks. Science Outreach night will be held on Friday, September 26, and Energy night on Friday October 10. Both events begin at 5:00 p.m. and include refreshments.

Posted by Joseph, under technology  |  Date: September 12, 2008

Google Chrome Marketing Couldn’t Be Beta


An excerpt from the Google Chrome comic book. (Credit: Google)

With a marketing campaign geared for both computer geeks and grandmothers, Google is convincing the world to embrace Web browsing 2.0. The company is taking on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla’s Firefox with Google Chrome, an application-based Internet browser that promises less bugs, more security, and a better online experience. According to Google, to download their product, which is available to download in its beta form today, is to make history. Rather than catering to the text-based origins of the Web, Google maximizes the use of Java and other modern applications. For Google’s competitors, however, those be fightin’ words.

Google has to be tough. In a market dominated by Internet Explorer (Used by nearly 80 percent of people who search the Web), the success of their product is based on getting people to break old habits. Due to Internet Explorer’s tendency to crash, it shouldn’t seem too difficult, but brand loyalty is a powerful factor.

“It’s tough to break into the ‘market’ with a new browser because people use it for everything,” says Jeff Gunn, a senior network and server engineer at Newmarket International, Inc, a software distribution company. “It has to be almost perfect, or you get a close to 100 percent rejection rate, unless it has some killer new feature or amazing performance.”

There are many new features that come with Google Chrome and to help users figure them out, the company produced several short tutorials explaining, in simple and clear terms, what is unique about this browser. The most prominent is that it is somewhat crash resistant. This means that if a tab playing an episode of “Lost” freezes, no other tab would be affected.

Another feature is the ability to browse incognito. Because Web browsing is based so much on search history, going incognito means less savory Web pages are not recorded. Teenage boys everywhere rejoice.

In addition to tutorials, Google produced a hip and cool Chrome comic book aimed for technology insiders and business-owners. It is 10 steps above the common application manuals, usually filled with technical jargon. Why 2008 is the year we finally see handsome, young, computer geeks explain a product in understandable language is another issue entirely.

These visuals are perfect for Websites and bloggers, an example of how much Google knows about viral marketing. Bloggers, both skeptical and enthusiastic, are doing there part to spread the word about the new browser.  As of 8:30 p.m. EST, over 50,000 blog posts and 14,500 news stories have been dedicated to Chrome.

Whether or not you think Google is the next Microsoft or an altruistic giant hip to the future, Chrome is at least worth the download. For those who prefer to write with a quill or use a typewriter, there will always be Internet Explorer.

Posted by Joseph, under technology  |  Date: September 2, 2008

Tufts and DARPA Team Up to Develop Caterpillar Chembots


Soft-bodied caterpillar robot prototype. Credit: Tufts University

Will the caterpillar inspire a new generation of military robots?  The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sees potential. The research and development arm of the Department of Defense, known for funding long term and risky scientific projects such as the stealth bomber and atomic clock, signed a $3.3 million contract with Tufts University last week to develop caterpillar-like chemical robots.

Caterpillars, like mice or octopi, can sneak through small crevices by flattening their bodies,   remerging moments later into their usual shape. The military wants unmanned robots to be able to do the same, except remerge 10 times larger, and ultimately biodegrade.  Normal metallic robots are too rigid to contort their shape this way, so DARPA is looking to use a Chembot, a robot made of a softer material like artificial silk, the expertise of David Kaplan, the chair of biomedical engineering at Tufts and one of the scientists awarded the contract.

DARPA posted its solitation for the project in March, which includes lengthy specifications for progress withing the first 18 to 24 months.  According to the document, if the scientists are to receive further funding, by the end of Phase I, they must:

“1. Demonstrate a ChemBot, approximately the size of a regulation softball, that can:
a) travel a distance of 5 meters at a speed of 0.25 meters/minute;
b) achieve a 10-fold reduction in its largest dimension; and
c) traverse through a 1 cm opening of arbitrary geometry and reconstitute its original size and shape, in 15 seconds.”

According to the press release, the robot design is inspired by the Tufts scientist’s findings on both the brain mechanics of the Manduca sexta caterpillar and the properties of large artificial molecules.

The Manduca sexta caterpillar, the Chembots’ inspiration. Credit: Tufts University

The Tufts Chembots will copy the Manduca’s  flexibility, climbing ability and scalability. (From hatching to the end of its larval stage, the caterpillar grows 10,000 fold in mass using the same number of muscles and motor neurons.)

Dr. Barry Trimmer, a Tufts neurobiologist also on the contract team, has been studying the nervous system and behavior of this caterpillar for almost two decades. The complete chembot is envisioned to have multiple hair-like sensors for temperature, pressure, chemical and audio/video, not to mention use wireless communication.

More updates on the project are to come in following months. But for now, it seems Nature can’t be faulted for bad design.

Posted by Joseph, under technology  |  Date: July 3, 2008

Houseflies Inspire Rescue Robots


Engineers at the Harvard Microrobotics lab use insects as inspiration to build tiny robots that could one day help emergency rescue teams on the field.
Eva Zadeh has the story.

Posted by Joseph, under technology, video  |  Date: May 25, 2008
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You Tube Reacts to Robot Dog


Over 4.2 million YouTube visitors have heard the hum of BigDog. The “alpha male” of Boston Dynamic’s family of robots, touted by the Massachusetts-based engineering company as “the most advanced quadruped robot on Earth” is amazing and creeping out the nearly 7,700 people who have commented on the video (posted below).

Dynamic’s robot program is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) and at least one viewer was impressed with their investment. nexusnew, a YouTuber from Poland writes “America’s Army RULEZ!!!!” Badgerius, an Australian, is a bit more cautious, “They are still grappling with the highly advanced engineering and robotics in order to make something like this. We all want robots slaves, but geez, show some patience…”

Many comments were made about BigDog’s appearance – a dark, headless half-insect, half-dog. The robot, 3 feet long, 2 feet wide and 165 lbs, was designed to be roughly the size of a large dog or small mule. According to Boston Dynamics, it can run 4 mph, climb slopes up to 35 degrees, walk across rubble, and carry a 340 lb load. While most viewers find BigDog spooky or something straight out of a video game, others like CassandraTroy are channeling their inner-engineer, “How come the front legs are on backwards? Does this really help with stability and are there any examples of this kind of body design in nature?”

People are also curious about the loud hum. Airtimia, also from Poland, writes, “I think that this sound is generated by some little power generator, because when the robot is in the hall and it has external power source the sound is gone.” While a video like this can show off the latest in technology, it also seems to inspire scientific thinking.

Some commentators are exploring the political and moral implications of BigDog. While not always informed, they seem to represent members of the population who fear that science isn’t always used for “good.” “You guys are crazy. WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE! There will be no stopping the war machine if leaders no longer need to weigh their choices against the loss of human life. Jesus Christ, it’s awful! Science is out of control if all it cares about is obtaining military contracts,” writes GregStuartSmith, an American.

Noasking, a 17-year-old, is a bit more enlightened. He comments on the potential benefits BigDog could have. “Its to save extra soldiers from having to go out into the field and possibly sacrificing their lives,” he writes. “not only that, but if anything, this would be a supply and cargo robot.”

The BigDog video is now the top favorite of all time in You Tube’s Science and Technology category. Do people finding it interesting because it just looks cool? Or is it tapping into something bigger – an excitement and possible fear over what we can engineer and what’s to come.

Posted by Joseph, under technology, video  |  Date: April 7, 2008