Biomimicry in the real world

There's good reason to believe nature has clues about how to do a good job — can it also help with web designs?

FestoRoboticBird

Festo’s Robotic Bird. Photo by Mike Loukides.

A couple of years ago, I visited the World Science Festival in New York and saw Festo’s robotic bird. It was amazing. I’ve seen things that looked more or less like a bird, and that flew, but clearly weren’t flying like a bird. An airplane has a body, has wings, and flies, but you wouldn’t mistake it for a bird. This was different: it looked like a giant seagull, with head and tail movements that were clearly modelled on a living bird’s.

Since then, Festo has built a robotic kangaroo; based on work they started in 2010, they have a robotic elephant’s trunk that learns, a robotic jellyfish, and no doubt many other animals that I haven’t yet seen.

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Four short links: 17 April 2014

Four short links: 17 April 2014

Foresight and Innovation, Artificial Intelligence, Consumer IoT, and Gender Disparity


  1. Playbook for Strategic Foresight & Innovation — MANY pages of framework and exercises. Good for what it is, but also as a model for how to disseminate your ideas and frame for the world to consume.
  2. Why I’m a Crabby Patty About AI and Cognitive Science (Fredrik Deboer) — huzzah! the current lack of progress in artificial intelligence is not a problem of insufficient processing power. Talking about progress in artificial intelligence by talking about increasing processor power is simply a non sequitur. If we knew the problems to be solved by more powerful processors, we’d already have solved some of the central questions!
  3. Four Types of Consumer Internet of Things Things (BERG London) — nice frame for the different needs of the different types of products and services.
  4. We Can Do Bettera visualisation of the gender disparity in engineering teams in the tech industry.
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Four short links: 16 April 2014

Four short links: 16 April 2014

Time Series, CT Scanner, Reading List, and Origami Microscope

  1. morris.jspretty time-series line graphs.
  2. Open Source CT Scanner — all the awesome.
  3. Alan Kay’s Reading List — in case you’re wondering what to add to the pile beside your bed. (via Alex Dong)
  4. Foldscope — origami optical microscope, 2000x magnification for under $1.
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Disposable architecture?

Technology is now outpacing innovation, fostering a culture of disposability.

I’ve noticed a number of faint signals recently pointing to a general shift in the speed of technology and the repercussions it’s having on the products we’re seeing come to market. This recent Tweet from Tom Scott got me really thinking about it:

Scott’s comment brought me back to a recent conversation I had with Princeton architecture student Alastair Stokes. I’d asked Stokes whether the technology challenges of designing a building to last 100+ years are more difficult today than they were in, say, 1900 — or if it’s as difficult, just different. He said the challenges might be more difficult today, but regardless, maybe technology is changing the solution: we shouldn’t try to design buildings today to last 100 years, but design them so they’ll last for, say, 20 years and then be replaced. Read more…

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#IoTH: The Internet of Things and Humans

The IoT requires thinking about how humans and things cooperate differently when things get smarter.

Rod Smith of IBM and I had a call the other day to prepare for our onstage conversation at O’Reilly’s upcoming Solid Conference, and I was surprised to find how much we were in agreement about one idea: so many of the most interesting applications of the Internet of Things involve new ways of thinking about how humans and things cooperate differently when the things get smarter. It really ought to be called the Internet of Things and Humans — #IoTH, not just #IoT!

Let’s start by understanding the Internet of Things as the combination of sensors, a network, and actuators. The “wow” factor — the magic that makes us call it an Internet of Things application — can come from creatively amping up the power of any of the three elements.

For example, a traditional “dumb” thermostat consists of only a sensor and an actuator — when the temperature goes out of the desired range, the heat or air conditioning goes on. The addition of a network, the ability to control your thermostat from your smartphone, say, turns it into a simple #IoT device. But that’s the bare-base case. Consider the Nest thermostat: where it stands out from the crowd of connected thermostats is that it uses a complex of sensors (temperature, moisture, light, and motion) as well as both onboard and cloud software to provide a rich and beautiful UI with a great deal more intelligence. Read more…

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Announcing BioCoder issue 3

Advances in biology and biotechnology are driving us in exciting new directions — be part of the revolution!

We’re excited about the third issue of BioCoder, O’Reilly’s newsletter about the revolution in biology and biotechnology. In the first article of our new issue, Ryan Bethencourt asks the question “What does Biotechnology Want?” Playing with Kevin Kelly’s ideas about how technological development drives human development, Bethencourt asks about the directions in which biotechnology is driving us. We’re looking for a new future with significant advances in agriculture, food, health, environmental protection, and more.

That future will be ours — if we choose to make it. Bethencourt’s argument (and Kelly’s) is that we can’t not choose to make it. Yes, there are plenty of obstacles: the limits to our understanding of biology and genetics, the inadequate tools we have for doing research, the research institutions themselves, and even fear of the future. We’ll overcome these obstacles; indeed, if Bethencourt is right, and biology is our destiny, we have no choice but to overcome these obstacles. The only question is whether you’re part of the revolution or not.
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