It's interesting to see developments in the world of robotics and to think and wonder about the different possibilities that such a movement could power in the near future.
I've been casually observing the work done by companies such Boston Robotics. Also, as I have shared on my blog before, Boston Robotics acquisition by Google is very interesting.
Now, Boston Robotics have this one product and it's called Petman. When I look at a product such as Petman, I can't help but wonder:
Petman can change a lot of things across a very wide spectrum.
Also, Petman reminds me of C-3PO and I never thought of C-3PO as a robot. It was just another character. But what a great enabler it was!
The conceptual designs for the O’Neill Colonies and the subject of Nanotechnology have always managed to capture my attention.
At least when it comes to the O'Neill colonies, often I find myself going back and observing the designs as envisioned by Gerard O'Neill. Also, I keep thinking and wondering about the enormous potential nanotechnology, in a developed form can offer for our species.
To cut to through the chase, large scale sustainable colonization of space is impossible, unless and until our species gets a much a better control over how to structure and positions atoms.
A thought related to this conceptual merger between space colonies and nanotechnology, led me to this very question.
So I started searching the web, and sure enough, my search soon led me to this very book called ‘The Visioneers’ written by a gentleman by the name of W. Patrick McCray.
I was very surprised to observe, that the entire book is a historical record when it comes to the developments related to the two concepts that I was thinking about, namely space colonies and nanotechnology!
As you might have noticed from the front cover (image above), this book is about “How a group of elite scientists pursued space colonies, nanotechnologies and a limitless future”.
Now, since the 60’s, a number scientists and visionaries have been trying to build a case for the colonization space. But, this vision has been met with a fair bit of resistance. Largely, due to the fact that the technology just wasn’t ready. And even if it was possible, then there has always been scare mongering that has been attached with these concepts (at the time) and how it had the (supposed) potential to destroy the world.
But in fits and starts, this movement has also gained encouragement from certain segments of society, academia and the Government. Namely, the United States Government and from what I can gather from this book. I’m sure that (since the 60’s) other governments have also invested in both nanotechnology and the colonization of space, but that is not in scope when it comes to the contents of this book.
The main characters:
Coming back to the book, most of the content revolves around the work performed by:
Gerard K. O’Neill: An American physicist, inventor and space activist. O’Neill tried to champion the cause of giant space settlements that could hypothetically be used for the colonization of space, using materials used from mining asteroids and the moon. O’Neill’s designs weren’t just an artistic rendition of what the conceptual models for the space colonies and manufacturing sites could look like. In fact, these designs were backed by a lot of research and what really distinguished them from science fiction was the meticulous amount of calculations that went into effect, in order to support the overall models.
Eric K. Drexler: The other amazing individual is Eric K. Drexler. An engineer from MIT (at the time), who in my opinion, is the rightful father of nanotechnology. Drexler, took the ideas as envisioned by Richard Feynmann for manipulating and controlling atoms and molecules and helped nurture and guide those ideas towards a path where they could eventually turn into a science.
Drexler’s book ‘Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology’ (published in 1986) is considered to be the first written record that hypothesizing the designs and details of machines that can be operated on a nanoscale. To quote from Wikipedia, Drexler envisioned a world where: “Molecular robots can be used for any purpose, from medicinal robots that can be guided for helping clear capillaries to environment scrubbers that can clear pollutant from air.” To even molecular robots that come together, in order to build lighter and stronger materials. Drexler worked closely with O’Neill, to see how the overall vision for the colonization of space could be supported with the aid of nanotechnology.
Obviously, there are other characters mentioned in this book as well. But like I said, most of the content focuses on the work performed by these gentlemen.
Meat and Potatoes
The overall narrative is really all about the dreams, the vision (backed by engineering designs) that these individuals continued to pursue, sometimes in the face of resistance and setbacks.
Also, after reading this book, I believe that the present day planning and activity when it relates to space exploration, colonization and mining can only trace it’s roots back to the work that individuals like O’Neill and Drexler helped envision and also champion.
Not only were these gentlemen the original dreamers, they were also the very first pioneers who dedicated a significant chunk (if not the entirety) of their lives when it comes to taking certain ideas and concepts from a fuzzy area and help bring them to a place where they could become very tangible in the foreseeable future. It is my wish that society will look back in time and always be indebted to individuals like O’Neill and Drexler and the fine work they did and sacrifices they made.
It’s also interesting to see how things are interconnected. Starting in the 60’s, from the origins of the L5 society and the whole world catalog and even individuals like Timothy Leary. To the emergence of social networks (in the absence of the internet) in the form of telephone networks e.t.c.
Or on the flip side, in a modern day context and to quote from the book “It’s impossible to ignore a certain homogeneity among this book’s characters. O’Neill, Drexler, Raymond Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, Ted Nelson, Freeman Dyson, and even Richard Smalley: all men who graduated from elite schools with technical degrees.
This book is a great read for anyone who is interested in the following:
Also, there is a silver lining to the resistance that visionaries like O'Neill and Drexler had faced. As it can now serve as a lesson for new age visionaries. Namely:
It seems like a lot of things in life, kind of go back a full circle. Towards the beginning of this book, they were talking about this movement of sorts in the 60's where there was a lot of emphasis on 'Limits'. And supposedly, how limits had to be imposed on the continued advancement and development of society, if we were to continue living on this planet in a sustainable way. This was precisely the time when creative and intelligent engineers like like O'Neill and Drexler had decided to tackle these challenge head on. Their ideas and designs could help potentially help the human race leap frog these limits and such a movement could also (potentially and theoretically) help usher in a new age of abundance.
Now, some 50 ++ years later, the human race finds itself confronting a somewhat similar scenario. Where, among a host of other problems, we also have the looming threat of climate change. Luckily, for us, the debate this time around is not so much around the imposition of limits. There isn't much of a debate, the way I see it. But the one good movement I have noticed is the very nascent framework that is beginning to develop around space exploration, manufacturing and mining.
Hence, the vision as it was conceived by Gerard O'Neill and Eric K. Drexler, is still alive. It was dormant for a while and now it is slowly beginning to materialize. These individuals performed all this intelligent work decades ago, sometimes in the face of resistance, so that one day humanity could benefit from it. That era is getting closer with the passage of each day.
Overall, great read. Backed by a lot of research. Great work by Patrick McCray!
Excerpt from the Asteroid Mining page on Wikipedia.
Didn't doubt the numbers when I first heard about this, which was a couple of years ago.
Space exploration, colonization and mining can offer unimaginable opportunities for our species.
So apparently this aerogel technology is 83 years old and it has certainly evolved during this timeframe.
Future state and potential unconventional uses for the aerogel. I am thinking of a couple of ideas here and in random order.
This is definitely future state. Maybe 10, 15 or 20 years out.
Some of these thoughts and then some more, were inspired by this book I am reading. 'The Visioneers', written by a gentleman by the name of W. Patrick McCray. Who, by the way, was very kind in responding back to one of my tweets and even ended up retweeting one of them.
Halfway through this book, I started thinking of a somewhat new form of transportation and perhaps a new mechanism and method for manufacturing. Not so new, if you read the book, as a significant majority of the content revolves around the fine work done by Eric K. Drexler. What a great guy!
Then, I started thinking of lighter than air particles and eventually lighter than air machines. Or a combination of the two. Then I happened to be looking at some basic research being done when it relates to self-assembling nano-machines. And I thought to myself, could all of this be combined together? So that a million different individual components could come together to form a bigger structure?
Next, I literally got this idea of injecting stuff in space, over the more conventional approach of using rocket based technology. Don't get me wrong, I love the advances that have been made when it relates to rocket based technology. But in order to colonize space, we either need to build an elevator that goes into space or we need to come up with another mechanism for getting huge amounts of materials into space and back.
Hence the idea of a giant space needle, the kind that injects stuff into space and sucks it back. During that brief moment, when I started questioning my sanity. I happened to be looking out the window and saw the sun shining on a set of puffy clouds.
That's when I got my Eureka moment! Thinking, wondering if what I had envisioned in terms of swarms of machines that we can ride atop lighter than air material. Then we could theoretically transport them onto a different level of elevation. So again, clusters of machines, sitting atop clusters of aerogel. Picked up by a charge of static electricity. Taken to a higher level of elevation. Eventually transported into space. That is where the machines break free from their aerogelly mould and would then come together.
I admit, this is one of the craziest idea I've ever thought of. But, it is theoretically possible, specially with the advancements being made with certain technologies and how they will evolve in a relatively short amount of time.
These ideas compliment part of my vision for the future. Where objects move seamlessly, in a very stable method, without any noise and with very little to no human intervention. Poetry, must possess multiple forms.
A 2.5 kg brick is supported by a piece of aerogel with a mass of only 2 grams. (Source: Wikipedia)
The following is a book review for the”Age of Spiritual Machines” written by Ray Kurzweil.
To begin with and to quote from the back cover:
”Imagine a world where the difference between man and machine blurs, where the line between humanity and technology fades, and where the soul and the silicon chip unite. This is not science fiction. This is the 21st century according to Ray Kurzweil, the inventor of the most innovative and compelling technology of our era. In his inspired hands, life in the new millennium no longer seems daunting. Instead, it promises to be an age in which the marriage of human sensitivity and artificial intelligence fundamentally alters and improves the way we live”
Now before I get into the details, let me begin by saying that I really really enjoyed Kurzweil’s writing style and well, the content. I think it was almost a decade ago, that I was casually introduced to the concept of the ‘technological singularity’ . That is what started my casual interest in all things cognitive sciences, very limited interest in artificial intelligence e.t.c. For someone to even dabble in these subjects and not come across the works of Ray Kurzweil is simply unheard of. So, up until this time, I have simply been watching some ofthe things that Ray has to say, primarily through Youtube. But this was the first book that I have gone through (cover to cover) that has been written by Ray himself.
For anyone who is not familiar with the basic concepts of Technological Singularity and or does not even have a latent interest in cognitive science, but happens to be reading this blogpost. For those individuals, this book is about technology, advances in computing, artificial intelligence and well unravelling some of the mysteries when it comes to a complex organ such as the human brain. And as the title of the book suggests, the content of the book builds up very quickly to determine the probability of when a machine based brain will emerge and the different scenarios of how it will all come about.
Now, a little bit about the author. Ray comes across as someone who thinks very deeply about the subjects that he is writing about. Kurzweil has the rare ability of painting the big picture, as well as getting into the details of how that vision will eventually come about. A significant percentage of the predictions that Kurzweil has made, have come true some 2 decade or more later. Remarkable track record. This list of predictions is long and unbelievably accurate (in scope and timing). Here is an example:
Kurzweil has also got a knack for debating both sides of the issue. I found the dialogues that keep popping up in the book from time to time, to be informative and amusing at the same time. These are thought experiments in the shape and form of dialogues really.
The Actual Book Review
Kurzweil’s manages to pull content from a variety of subjects, and not just related to the items mentioned above. It's almost like poetry. For example, the story begins with the very creation of the universe and subsequently the start of the evolutionary process here on earth. Then he gets into defining technology, as in what's technology at the bare minimum, the inevitability of technology and computing. Explaining things from the perspective of chaos and order, inevitability of Moore's Law e.t.c.
The next couple of chapters build up very quickly and we start getting into the realm of artificial intelligence and the various possibilities that will come about, with the emergence of a machine based brain. Kurzweil highlights the enormous benefits to society and I would say that the significant majority of the book focuses on the events leading up to, during and in a post technical singularity world. There is even a chronological timeline towards the back of the book that highlights the major achievements in the history of computing and tech and then shows the evolutionary path that these trends will be following.
There are some warnings, but by and large the content is focused on the benefits. The only exception to that rule are the warnings to pay attention to potential attacks from the luddites. A reoccurring theme throughout the book.
Also, there are so many ideas packed into this book! I couldn't help, but to stop, think about all the things Kurzweil had prophesied. You have to remember, that this book was written in 1995. So it was eerie to review the content and then actually come to the conclusion that some of these events (on the projected timeline) are occurring as we speak, exactly like Kurzweil had predicted some 19 years ago. For example, there is mention of Virtual Reality and Kurzweil starts getting into the details of how it will play out. And that totally was/is Oculus Rift and OMNI.
Coming back to the ideas bit. Seriously, there are entire product lines mentioned in this book. So quite naturally, I found myself sending out a couple of tweets relating to this.
Overall, this has got to be one of the most interesting books that I have gone through.
Our grasp of our consciousness is, well, still a guess. But Kurzweil predicts that in a couple of decades, we will start seeing the emergence of machines, machines that claim to be having spiritual experiences.
In short, Kurzweil has made me rethink the very notion of what it means to be human.
The Age of Spiritual machines. What a wonderful, wonderful read. Thank you Ray Kurzweil!
Okay, this is interesting. This blog-post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a couple of weeks now. There was this thought in my mind, something to do with the idea that 'Robotics should go mainstream.' It was just a random question and I didn't even know what that meant. Obviously, I still don't. But I've had this gut feeling that the industry should start gaining traction in the near future.
Lo and behold, just a couple of hours ago I found out that Google has decided to acquire Boston Dynamics link.
Now, I'm pretty sure that Google has no intention of getting into the field of military robotics. I'm making an assumption here and if I happen to be wrong, then this is/will be quite a pivot for Google.
A more logical assumption, Google and potentially others want to be the first. The first pioneers when it comes to Robotics making a giant leap into the future of everyday robotics.
Now, that thought that I was referring to earlier on. I did spend a teeny weeny bit of time, thinking and wondering how Robotics could actually start making inroads into our daily lives. But as with everything, it starts with defining the problem first. Why create or spend time making something that nobody wants.
So, I think, there are a couple of key components here:
Now this spectrum that I was referring to, it's full of so many different possibilities and opportunities.
Imagine the possibilities that could open up when you have one robot that can do pretty much anything. Now the barrier to that happening would be one of programming the logic into the machine, for it to be able to conduct tasks a specific way.
The other barrier is one of security and reliability. We are not talking about software apps on a tablet anymore. We are talking about a device that has the ability to interact with your physical world. Things could go wrong even when they are not supposed to.
But, the possibilities are endless and the more you think about it, the more doable it seems.
I'd easily drop a couple of G's on a robot if it did do most of the things I have mentioned above and then some more. The amount of time that such a purchase would free up for me, would make it worth it.
I think one key ingredient for mass-scale manufacturing and adoption of robots is for the manufacturer to *not* try and program all of the logic into the machines themselves. This is precisely the reason why the price point for ASIMO is so high. Plus, even with a price tag of a couple of million dollars, I'm not sure if Honda is actually selling them. I don't think they are ready just yet. As they keep running into some kind of a glitch.
Hence the alternative would be to crowd-source as much of the development effort as possible. Again, the app-store model for mobile devices is a perfect example. Imagine if Apple or Google tried to create all the applications that the consumers wanted by themselves.
Hence, instead of working really hard to create a need for an Asimo in every house. Perhaps it would be better to start with an R2D2 that performs 40% of the tasks that we'd like a robot to perform. And we keep enhancing the product suite, as we continue making advances in machine learning.
Interesting move by Google. Very very interesting.