Glen Martin

Glen Martin covered science and environment for the San Francisco Chronicle for 17 years, and has freelanced to more than 50 magazines, including Wired, Audubon, Discover, The Utne Reader, Men’s Journal, Science Digest, National Wildlife, BBC Wildlife, Outside, Sierra, The Financialist, Reader's Digest, and publications for the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, Notre Dame University, the University of Colorado, and San Francisco State University. His latest book, Game Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa's Wildlife, was published in 2012 by the University of California Press.

Death to the screen

Is freedom just another word for a smart environment?

You know the “Next Big Thing” is no longer waiting in the wings when you hear it dissected on talk radio. That’s now the case with the Industrial Internet — or the Internet of Things, or the collision of software and hardware, or the convergence of the virtual and real worlds, or whatever you want to call it. It has emerged from academe and the high tech redoubts of Silicon Valley, and invaded the mainstream media.

Of course, it’s been “here” for a while, in the form of intelligent devices, such as the Nest Thermostat, and initiatives like the Open Auto Alliance, an effort involving Audi, GM, Honda , Hyundai, Google and Nvidia to develop an open-source, Android-based software platform for cars.

But we are now tap-dancing one of those darn tipping points again. As software-enhanced objects, cheap sensors, and wireless technology combine to connect everything and everybody with every other thing and person, a general awareness is dawning. People — all people, not just the technologically proficient — understand their lives are about to change big time. This is creating some hand-wringing anxiety as well as giddy anticipation, and rightly so: the parameters and consequences of the Internet of Things remain vague. Read more…

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Slo-mo for the masses

Thinking about technology in highly disruptive ways has made high-speed videography affordable.

Edgertronic Evolution

Edgertronic version evolution, from initial prototype A through production-ready prototype C.

The connectivity of everything isn’t just about objects talking to each other via the Internet. It’s also about the accelerating democratization of formerly elite technology. Yes, it’s about putting powerful devices in touch with each other — but it’s also about putting powerful devices within the grasp of anyone who wants them. Case in point: the Edgertronic camera.

All kids cultivate particular interests growing up. For Michael Matter, Edgertronic’s co-inventor, it was high-speed flash photography. He got hooked when his father brought home a book of high-speed images taken by Harold Eugene “Doc” Edgerton, the legendary MIT professor of electrical engineering who pioneered stroboscopic photography.

“It was amazing stuff,” Matter recalls, “and I wanted to figure out how he did it. No, more than that I wanted to do it. I wanted to make those images. But then I looked into the cost of equipment, and it was thousands of dollars. I was 13 or 14, this was the 1970s, and my budget was pretty well restricted to my allowance.” Read more…

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I, Cyborg

Being better cyborgs may make us — paradoxically — more human.

There is an existential unease lying at the root of the Internet of Things — a sense that we may emerge not less than human, certainly, but other than human.

Kelsey Breseman

Kelsey Breseman, engineer at Technical Machine.

Well, not to worry. As Kelsey Breseman, engineer at Technical Machine, points out, we don’t need to fret about becoming cyborgs. We’re already cyborgs: biological matrices augmented by wirelessly connected silicon arrays of various configurations. The problem is that we’re pretty clunky as cyborgs go. We rely on screens and mobile devices to extend our powers beyond the biological. That leads to everything from atrophying social skills as face-to-face interactions decline to fatal encounters with garbage trucks as we wander, texting and oblivious, into traffic.

So, if we’re going to be cyborgs, argues Breseman, let’s be competent, sophisticated cyborgs. For one thing, it’s now in our ability to upgrade beyond the screen. For another, being better cyborgs may make us — paradoxically — more human. Read more…

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More 1876 than 1995

Jim Stogdill explains how the Internet of Things is more on par with the Industrial Revolution than the digital revolution.

Corliss_Engine

Photo: Wikipedia Commons. Corliss Engine.

Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876 was America’s first World’s Fair, and was ostensibly held to mark the nation’s 100th birthday. But it heralded the future as much as it celebrated the past, showcasing the country’s strongest suit: technology.

The centerpiece of the Expo was a gigantic Corliss engine, the apotheosis of 40 years of steam technology. Thirty percent more efficient than standard steam engines of the day, it powered virtually every industrial exhibit at the exposition via a maze of belts, pulleys, and shafts. Visitors were stunned that the gigantic apparatus was supervised by a single attendant, who spent much of his time reading newspapers.

“This exposition was attended by 10 million people at a time when travel was slow and difficult, and it changed the world,” observes Jim Stogdill, general manager of Radar at O’Reilly Media, and general manager of O’Reilly’s upcoming Internet-of-Things-related conference, Solid. Read more…

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Drone on

UAVs will rule the skies (unless the FAA says otherwise).

Jeff Bezos’ recent demonstration of a drone aircraft simulating delivery of an Amazon parcel was more stunt than technological breakthrough. We aren’t there yet. Yes, such things may well come to pass, but there are obstacles aplenty to overcome — not so much engineering snags, but cultural and regulatory issues.

The first widely publicized application of modern drone aircraft — dropping Hellfire missiles on suspected terrorists — greatly skewed perceptions of the technology. On the one hand, the sophistication of such unmanned systems generated admiration from technophiles (and also average citizens who saw them as valuable adjuncts in the war against terrorism). On the other, the significant civilian casualties that were collateral to some strikes have engendered outrage. Further, the fear that drones could be used for domestic spying has ratcheted up our paranoia, particularly in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations of National Security Agency overreach. Read more…

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The new bot on the block

How robotics are changing everything

Fukushima changed robotics. More precisely, it changed the way the Japanese view robotics. And given the historic preeminence of the Japanese in robotic technology, that shift is resonating through the entire sector.

Before the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami of 2011, the Japanese were focused on “companion” robots, says Rodney Brooks, a former Panasonic Professor of Robotics at MIT, the founder and former technical officer of IRobot, and the founder, chairman and CTO of Rethink Robotics. The goal, says Brooks, was making robots that were analogues of human beings — constructs that could engage with people on a meaningful, emotional level. Cuteness was emphasized: a cybernetic, if much smarter, equivalent of Hello Kitty, seemed the paradigm.

But the multiple core meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex following the 2011 tsunami changed that focus abruptly.

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The emergence of the connected city

Using technology to prevent rat outbreaks.

Photo: Millertime83

If the modern city is a symbol for randomness — even chaos — the city of the near future is shaping up along opposite metaphorical lines. The urban environment is evolving rapidly, and a model is emerging that is more efficient, more functional, more — connected, in a word.

This will affect how we work, commute, and spend our leisure time. It may well influence how we relate to one another, and how we think about the world. Certainly, our lives will be augmented: better public transportation systems, quicker responses from police and fire services, more efficient energy consumption. But there could also be dystopian impacts: dwindling privacy and imperiled personal data. We could even lose some of the ferment that makes large cities such compelling places to live; chaos is stressful, but it can also be stimulating.

It will come as no surprise that converging digital technologies are driving cities toward connectedness. When conjoined, ISM band transmitters, sensors, and smart phone apps form networks that can make cities pretty darn smart — and maybe more hygienic. This latter possibility, at least, is proposed by Samrat Saha, a consultant with the DCI Marketing Group in Milwaukee. Saha suggests “crowdsourcing” municipal trash pick-up via BLE modules, proximity sensors and custom mobile device apps.

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