The History of Computing in Lego

The family and I were just at Legoland San Diego, which was big fun.  It’s a cheery small theme park filled with LEGO creations, and with boxes of the blocks everywhere for the kids to create with.   Yet in this networked age, you can always find someone somewhere who takes things to astonishing and intimidating levels.  Here’s a bitmap display built solely out of bricks:

Lego bitmap display by AncientJames

AncientJames’ Lego bitmap display.  Click for site

It uses that little board to specify which disks to flip on the display, where the white cones specify the position of white disks.   A stack of the boards can spell out a message one letter at a time on the 5×5 matrix.    Here it is in operation:

Spelling out Everything Is Awesome!   That song was inescapable at Legoland.

This was done by someone in New Zealand, which is clearly a country of ingenious people with a lot of time on their hands.  It’s like the Jacquard Loom of 1801, which took punch cards and used them to direct the weaving of a piece of cloth.  That was the first real piece of computing technology, incorporating stored memory and a means of output.

So can Lego take one to the next level of computing?  But of course:

Back Camera

Andrew Carol’s Lego Difference Engine.  Click for site

This is several cells of Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2 of 1849, as built by Andrew Carol.   Here it is computing the squares of the first several integers:

If you want to learn more about the Engine, you can’t do worse than to pick up Sydney Padua’s just-released graphic novel about Lovelace and Babbage:

Lovelace and Babbage, Padua

Click for her site

Their actual lives came to depressing ends, but in this better world, this odd couple joined up for excitement and adventure.

Now, can Lego actually take one to the first full computer, ENIAC?

WIP by Christopher Briggs, click for photostream

WIP by Christopher Briggs, click for photostream

Almost certainly not.  ENIAC had about ten thousand gates, so many that it was barely reliable enough to function when using electronics, never mind mechanical parts.   Electronics also have the great advantage of having gain elements, which is so hard to do with mechanics that Babbage himself never accomplished it.

Still, a computer can be built with as few as two hundred transistors, if they implement the Subtract-contents-of-address-A-from-contents-of-address-B-and-branch-if-negative single instruction architecture.   I’m sure that someone somewhere is working on a LEGO version now!

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Who Are the Most Inventive People?

In What Are the Most Inventive Countries, States, and Cities, I described how the inventors listed on US patents granted in 2014 were distributed geographically.  The data came from Google XML files here, with a pile of Perl post-processing.  Let’s now ask some questions about the inventors themselves:

Q: How many people are involved in patents?

A: In 2014 there were 301,643 US utility patents issued with 831,131 names listed as inventors, representing 537,662 individuals.

Q: Were they lone inventors or groups?

A: About 1/3 of the patents had a single inventor and about 1/2 had one or two inventors, so inventions do tend to be individual affairs.   The most inventors on a single patent was 63 for 8,694,397, “Consistent set of interfaces derived from a business object model”, which was assigned to the German business software firm SAP.   It looks like a typical bogus software patent, and the USPTO was pretty leery of it as well, given that it took 9 years to get granted.

Q: Are the multiple inventors together?

A: Less than one would think.   Only 3/4 of the multiple-inventor patents had all the inventors in the same country or US state.   About 1/5 are from two places, and the other 5% are from more.  The record is 7 for 8,706,683, “Knowledge management across distributed entity” which has 12 inventors from SAP from the countries US, Russia, Ireland, Israel, India, China, and Egypt.  A distributed entity indeed!

Q: How many patents did each inventor tend to get?

A: Of the half million inventors, 25% received two or more patents in 2014.  That’s higher than I would have expected.   Patents are expensive after all – they cost at least $15K – so the cost adds up fast.   When I think about my own patents, though, they also got issued in bursts.   You come up with new ideas when you’re facing new problems, and you usually get several at once.    This is very clear when you look at the historical record – innovation comes in big bursts when a new material or a new technique or a new product comes along.   As soon as it became clear that you could make light by electrically heating a wire inside a glass envelope, everyone tried different flavors of light bulb.

Q: Who got the most?

This guy:

Shunpei Yamazaki - the most prolific inventor of all time

Shunpei Yamazaki in his lab

The most prolific inventor of 2014 was Shunpei Yamazaki of the Semiconductor Energy Laboratory of Toyko with 436 US credits.  In fact, he’s the second most prolific inventor of all time, with 3611 US patents to his name.  He trails only Kia Silverbrook of Sydney Australia, who has 4705, but only got 52 in 2014. The SEL appears to be Yamazaki’s personal lab.   His first filing was in 1978, so he’s been out there for almost 40 years.

Q: What does he do?

The most notable thing he has worked on is a kind of thin-film transistor for flat-panel displays made from an indium-gallium-zinc oxide.   This has a much stronger drive than the usual transistors made from amorphous silicon, and so can make displays with faster refresh times, less blur, and more contrast.

He didn’t invent that material itself – that was done by Prof Hideo Hosono of the Tokyo Institute of Technology.   He sure has jumped all over it, though.   Of those 436 patents, a third of them are called “Semiconductor device [and something]”.    39 of them are just called “Semiconductor device”, and 13 more are just “Display device”.  It’s hard to believe there’s something distinctive about those even if his lawyers did manage to fool the patent examiner.   It really looks as though he’s flooding the field with minute variations of ideas in the hope that one of them will pay off.  SEL makes its living on patent licenses, and so attempts to cover everything.

Q: How about other prolific inventors?

The next two top inventors, Roderick A. Hyde (233 patents) and Lowell L. Wood Jr. (220) are not doing tiny variants; they’re doing the opposite.   They appear together on a lot of patents, along with #7 Jordin Kare (125), #8 Clarence T. Tegreene (114), and #9 Edward K. Y. Jung (107).  Most of their patents are assigned to a mysterious entity called Elwha LLC in Washington state.   After some digging I discovered that it’s a shell company for Intellectual Ventures, which is a huge patent sponge started by Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft.  Edward Jung is a cofounder and another senior Microsoft guy.  They buy up languishing patent portfolios and offer patenting services to research organizations, then sue everyone they can find.  They’re the world’s leading patent trolls.

Hyde, Wood, and Kare are mainly known for exotic space technology ideas.   Hyde worked on building big space telescopes with Fresnel lenses.  He and Wood came up with the the Space Fountain, a scheme for accelerating things into orbit by having a stream of pellets shoot upwards and get redirected down again by a big U in space.  Kare has spent his career on rocket laser propulsion, where a ground laser boils a propellant in a rising ship.

None of their real work has come to anything.  They’re all in their 50s and have little to show for their careers.  I think their friends at Microsoft are letting them cash in.   They’re probably acting as patent screeners, checking and editing other people’s ideas.   Hyde has his name on patents in a huge range of subjects: “Blood brain barrier device”,  “Methods and systems for use of photolyzable nitric oxide donors”,  “Systems and methods for managing emissions from an engine of a vehicle”.   No one can make real contributions in such diverse fields.   The fact that they often appear on these patents with Clarence Tegreene, whose whole career is as a patent attorney, is doubly suspicious.   These guys used to be innovators, but that didn’t work out for them and now they’re troll assistants.

Q: That’s depressing.

Cheer up – the work of the #4 inventor, Prof. Shou-Shan Fan (153 patents) of Tsinghua University in Beijing, looks legit.  He’s a leading authority on nano-materials, and most of his patents have to do with uses of graphene. Some of them are outside that fold, like “Method for making touch panel”, so he’s thinking about a range of related things.

#5,  Jeyhan Karaoguz (138) of Broadcom Inc. in Irvine, CA, is also coming up with a nice range of ideas within one area.  His have names like “Method and system for location-based dynamic radio selection” and “Service mobility via a femtocell infrastructure”.  These are all cellphone radio features that Broadcom builds chips for.

Q: So what’s the big take-away?

Some people like Yamazaki and the Elwha guys are racking up big numbers by gaming the system.  Yet there are others like Prof. Fan and Jeyhan Karaoguz who really are idea-creation machines.    Good engineers will generally get a couple of patents to their credit over the course of their careers.   These guys come up with a couple of patents a week.   That’s pretty scary.  Most of them are probably of little value, but so are most of all patents.   Some people are just way off the curve of technical creativity.





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Robot Intimations in Pleasant Palo Alto

I was in the Bay Area last week for a conference, and was able to take some time to visit my friend Ted Selker, an inventor living in Palo Alto.  It was a sunny day in the 70s.  In February.   Knowing that gloating is among the most satisfying of feelings, I was sure to show him pictures of snow-drowned Boston.  We had lunch in an open-air cafe and strolled down University Avenue.   It’s a modest suburban street lined with low buildings.   You would never know that Palo Alto is the blazing heart of Silicon Valley, with more inventors per capita (1 out of 30 Palo Altans received a US patent last year) than any other city in the world, except Redmond.

But then you see this jammed between two buildings:

The Cathedral of Apple

The Cathedral of Apple

They put their snazziest store in their home town.  We wandered in and were chatting about the recent New Yorker piece about Jonathan Ive, Apple’s lead industrial designer.   “Yes, the luckiest guy in the world,” said Ted.

“Really?” I replied. “They said Ive had obvious talent even as a kid.  How often do you see some object and go ‘ah!’ the way you do with all this stuff?”

“Yes, but he found someone in Steve Jobs who actually appreciated that talent, and could really let it shine.  The world is full of talent, but not much of it finds its niche.”

True enough.  We strolled on, and Ted said “Here’s a place you have got to see.”  It was a shop that looked almost bare.  There were some sofas and a coffee table in the back, but the rest was open carpet.  There were some odd devices against the wall though.  We walked in, and one of them came to life!

Ted Selker and a Beam agent on a telepresence robot

A Beam agent on a telepresence robot, and Ted Selker

It was a BeamPro telepresence robot built by Suitable Technologies.   An operator can drive it around with a touch pad.  It has a camera and screen a little below eye level, so it doesn’t feel superior to you.   We chatted with the charming Katherine, who was driving it from her home in the East Bay.

They’re intended for tele-conferencing, to avoid exactly the kind of business travel that I was on.   Instead of being stuck in some video-conference room, a visitor could roll around and see something of what their hosts’ place looked like.   As Aristotle discovered with his Peripatetic School, people think and speak better when they can walk around.  That’s what Ted and I were doing, after all.

This big version goes for a few thousand bucks (although it can be leased), and there’s a couple-thousand dollar consumer version that lets a tech-savvy grandmother see the kids:

Consumer-level Beam+ on left, BeamPro on right.  Docking stations on floor

Consumer-level Beam+ on left, BeamPro on right.

The Beam+ has lower resolution video, a smaller display, and less battery life. Both systems charge themselves on those docking stations on the floor, but can’t yet drive themselves in there on their own. There’s a down-pointing camera that lets the operator guide them in.

One problem with them is lighting. We could see Katherine very well because she had set up desk lamps around her screen to get a nice even illumination, but our faces were lost in the glare from our receding hairlines from the overhead lighting. There should be some LEDs around the display to help that, just like the bulbs around an actor’s makeup mirror.  There was also some warping from the fisheye lens, but that’s a GPU software update.

These kind of robots may also ultimately be a solution for a problem that Palo Alto itself has – workers can’t afford to live here.   If you make less than $100K a year, it’s hard to live anywhere in the Valley.   This naturally causes resentment.   I saw this myself on a previous night when I was going to dinner in San Francisco and was wearing my conference uniform of a navy blazer.  A street person with a beard down to his chest yelled at me: “Silicon Valley a–hole!”   True Valley sorts would never wear a jacket, but he was right overall – I am exactly the sort of person who would be driving rents up to impossible levels.   Yet if people like me were running San Francisco, we would find places for crazy people to live instead of them forcing them to sleep on sidewalks and yell at strangers.

Anyway, telepresence robots could actually start doing things if they had arms.   With current robot arms it wouldn’t be safe to have them near people, but there are new designs such as the Baxter production bot from Rethink Robotics that use compliant springs instead of hard motor drives, and so are much safer to have near people.   Such robots could do the housework and yardwork instead of forcing people to drive two hours each way from a town they can afford to live in.   They could also do 20 houses a day instead of having to spend time trudging between them.

This was the plot of the interesting SF movie “Sleep Dealer” (2008), where Mexicans work driving robots in the US instead of doing manual labor.    That was dystopic, but it might actually work out well.  And that future is nearer than we think, given what I saw in pleasant Palo Alto.

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What Are the Most Inventive Countries, States, and Cities?

That is, in what places do the most inventors live?   Let’s define an inventor as someone who gets their name on a patent.   Let’s restrict it further to names on US patents, since the US system is much the largest – it gets twice the filings of the EU Intellectual Property Office.   It so happens that Google keeps an XML database of all US patents here , although they’ve deprecated their search tools.   I downloaded all 32 GB of the files for the year 2014 and boiled it down into this spreadsheet.

In 2014 there were 301,643 US utility patents issued.  There’ve been about 9M issued total, so it’s growing fast.  I didn’t count design patents because they’re largely ornamental.   There were 831,131 names listed as inventors, representing 537,662 individuals, where an individual is identified by last name, first name, city, state, and country.   People who moved or happened to have the same name as someone else in their town would not get counted correctly.   Rather than counting names on patents, I counted individuals, although one person may have gotten many patents in a year.   There’s a rather sad story about that which I’ll tell in a later post.

Let’s first look at what fraction of all inventors live in which countries:

inventors_by_countryNot too surprising – these are the leading technical countries of the world.  The US is larger than it probably should be because this is its own system. The UK and France are farther down than I would have expected given their scientific prowess, and Taiwan is farther up.

Patents have been issued to 155 countries all told.  They’ve gone to inventors in a lot of places you wouldn’t expect: Cuba has 154, Iran 62, North Korea 32,  Afghanistan 3, Syria 2, and Greenland 1.  Even tiny Monaco has 19 inventors even though they only have 36K residents.

94 countries and territories had no inventors, of which the largest was Sudan (pop 38M), followed closely by Iraq (pop 37M).   Places torn up by war tend to not be good places for  patent lawyers.  There were also no inventors in Haiti, Laos, Bhutan, and El Salvador (too poor), or in Fiji (too beautiful), or in Antarctica (since no one is actually a citizen),  or in the Vatican, although I’m sure the Jesuits would file a lot if they were allowed to.

Now let’s look at the number of inventors versus number of people in a country.  The higher the ratio, the more inventive the place:

inventors_per_capita_by_countryThese are all the countries that beat the world average of 0.07 inventors per 1000.  The most inventive countries are in developed Asia, North America, and northern Europe, with Israel as an outlier.   This is again unsurprising.   The top countries are largely those whose main resource is educated people.   They invent because they must in order to be globally competitive.  The exceptions to that rule are the US, Sweden, and Canada, which do have lots of natural resources.    They also have lots of talented people, though, and so prove the rule.

Perhaps a better rule is that countries with strong democratic values are friendly to invention.  The least democratic state here is probably Singapore, and it still has a parliament, even though one party has always won.   The most democratic country that isn’t here is probably Spain.

Now let’s look closer at the US, where about half of those credited on US patents live.  Breaking it down by state:

inventors_by_stateCalifornia rules!  If it were its own country, it would be second only to the US and Japan in number of inventors.  Texas does well too – it has more inventors than all of China.  Note, though, that it’s the only red state in the top 10.

Sorry about that blur of names at the top – a lot of states just have very small proportions of the total.  However, there are inventors in every single US state, and even 2 in Guam.  There aren’t any in Samoa or the Northern Marianas, though.

Again let’s look by population:

inventors_per_capita_by_stateIn the states of Massachusetts and Washington, about 1 in 500 people received a patent in just the last year.   It looks overall like the Pacific coast and New England lead in inventiveness, plus Minnesota.   The highest-ranked red state is Utah at 13th.  It’s a bit surprising to see Hawaii at the bottom of the list, but perhaps it, like Fiji, is too distractingly beautiful to invent much in.

But these geographical regions are still pretty broad.   How about if we focus down on cities?   The statistics here vary wildly depending on city size, so let’s break it into categories of Large (> 3M people), Medium (300K to 3M) and Small (30K to 300K).  Here are the 30 most inventive large cities:

inventors_per_capita_by_large_cityJapan and Korea dominate.  I’ve never been to Korea, but I can say that whenever you visit Japan it’s clear that these are a people who delight in skill.    Bangalore, the red-hot heart of Indian tech, is #7, and the first non-Asian city on the list.   Los Angeles, New York and Berlin are the large inventive Western cities, and are similar at about 1 inventor per 3000 people.  Madrid is unexpected, and a bit ahead of London.  Paris actually does very well at 0.6 inventor/1000, but its nominal population is only 2.2M, so it missed the cutoff.

The largest city with zero inventors is Aleppo, Syria with 4.4M people.   Some other large inventor-less places are  Jiddah Saudi Arabia (2.8M), Medellin Columbia (2.4M), and Phnom Penh Cambodia (1.6M).

Moving to medium-size cities we see:

inventors_per_capita_by_medium_cityHsinchu is the richest city in Taiwan, and the home of the chip foundries TSMC and UMC.   Note that the scale here is about 10X that of the large cities.  Hsinchu has about 4000 inventors – as many as Yokohama even though it’s 10X smaller.  After it come San Jose and San Francisco, the south and north anchors of Silicon Valley.   Seattle, Austin and San Diego have their charms for coffee, music, and surfing.    Dixie is represented by Raleigh at #13, the anchor of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, a quite deliberate piece of government interference in the economy.

The largest US city with no inventors is Paterson, NJ, a decayed industrial town near NYC of about 150K.

Finally let’s look at the top 30 small cities:

inventors_per_capita_by_small_cityThe scale expands by another factor of 3X.  About 1 in 30 people in Redmond and Palo Alto was an inventor in 2014; that’s more than one per block.   The top spots are dominated by Silicon Valley, and a similar concentration around Microsoft in Redmond.   The highest eastern city is Lexington,MA at #12 at about 14 inventors / 1000.   It has a reputation as a high-end WASP suburb of Boston, but in looking at the names there I see a huge range of ethnicities.  It’s like the upper West Side of the Boston area.   I was pleased to see my own town, Arlington, MA as #21 in the world at about 9 / 1000.   Sadly, I did not myself contribute to the total in 2014, but I have in the past.

What conclusion can we draw from all this?   It’s impressive to see the range of places that inventions come from.   It’s most places in the world, aside from the dead poorest and the war-torn.  There’s a huge range in inventor density between Redmond and Aleppo, but in the developed world there’s an inventor for every couple of thousand people.   You may well have walked past one today.    Half a million people all over the world came up with something new in just the last year.   No wonder no one can keep up with modern life.

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Dealing With Threats From the Sky

Two days ago Boston was hit by a fairly serious snowstorm.   The city got 24″, while surrounding towns got up to 30″.   It was the 6th heaviest snowfall since the National Weather Service started tracking these things in 1935.   The governor declared a state of emergency, and everyone stayed home.

Leo and Frances in snow-covered Arlington

Frances and Leo off to school in snow-covered Arlington

Then yesterday almost everything opened up again, and today even the schools are back on.   The roads were all clear, and the highways were actually dry.  Pickups with plows are so common that there was never more than a couple of inches on the roads.  In my neighborhood snow blowers are pretty common too – everyone had cleared their driveways and sidewalks, even though the snow was waist-deep in places.    No one in the area lost power, even though most towns still use overhead power lines.   The electric utility has recently been strengthening the lines with steel cables, and has gotten efficient about pruning trees to keep them away from the lines.

The storms are getting worse – 3 of the 10 largest have been in the last ten years – but it’s just not a big deal.  Well-to-do and well-organized cities like Boston have little to fear from climate change.

For example, Massachusetts just passed a $20M bond bill to buy out threatened shoreline houses and replace the properties with parks.  Plum Island is particularly vulnerable.  They have been systematically studying the problem, and now have records of shoreline changes down to a fifty foot resolution.  They plan on implementing a managed retreat where buildings are pulled back from dangerous conditions.   $20M won’t buy a lot of beachfront property around here, but a house that’s about to fall into the sea is hard to sell otherwise.  The town of Scituate did get flooded in this storm:

Flooding on Oceanside Dr, Scituate (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Flooding on Oceanside Dr, Scituate MA (Jesse Costa/WBUR), click for story

Yet it’s considered cheaper for the state to prevent the floods than it is to have to rescue people and storm-proof public services.

The state also offers generous subsidies to renewable energy in order to cut CO2 emissions.  Several houses on my street now sport rooftop solar panels.   The payback time is only five years, even here in gloomy New England.  The state gets 10% of its electricity from renewables today through a program called the Renewable Portfolio Standard, and plans to increase it by 1%/year thereafter.   I’ve signed up for 100% wind power from Viridian Energy at 14 cents/kWh, only a couple of cents more than the baseline.  Viridian was Bruce Sterling’s term for bright green environmentalism, and it seems to have caught on.

Even agriculture is adapting.   I learned from “America’s Founding Fruit – the Cranberry in a New Environment” (Susan Playfair, 2014)  that cranberries need about 1700 chill hours (temperatures between 32 and 45F) in order to flower properly, and that’s getting dicey as winters warm.   Local farmers are already buying land in New Brunswick as a hedge, and some are even expanding to Chile.  New varieties are also being bred that can tolerate the shifts in growing seasons.   Sensors are being put out into fields to measure temperature and water levels, and computers are using that to drive irrigation pumps and sprinklers to avoid frost.

So if you have the money and you have a reasonable political process, you can deal.   And if you don’t?  If you’re Mexico suffering from drought, or Bangladesh suffering from floods, or the Maldives getting drowned?   Well, you better hope that the rich countries, the ones that benefited from CO2 pollution, can help you out, because they sure don’t want climate refugees.

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Deep Time Geology and the Fermi Paradox

Science by the Pint posterA few weeks ago I went out for a beer and some geology, and learned one reason why the sky is so dark.   The beer came from The Burren, a rundown Irish bar in Somerville MA.   The geology came from Prof. Andrew Knoll of Harvard and a bunch of his researchers and grad students.   They were speaking as part of Science by the Pint, a nice local lecture series that provides researchers with free drinks if they tell the curious public about what they’re doing.   The Burren has a large back room and a PA system, and so is a good venue.   The dark sky comes from the Fermi Paradox, the question that Enrico asked: “Where are all the aliens?”

Knoll opened by talking about his work and his goal – to understand the diversity of life.  There are millions of species of plants and animals around us, but that’s not what you would have seen for 90% of the earth’s history.  It was only after the Cambrian Explosion of about 540 million years ago that really complex life evolved.   Before that life consisted mainly of bacteria and the mysterious Ediacaran fauna.   During it, all the major phyla were established.  Life also became much more widespread, and started having a stronger effect on the chemistry of the Earth’s air, oceans, and rocks.

1996-9-9; Newfoundland, Fortune Bay; view of cliffs 18870069

Nice exposures on Fortune Bay, Newfoundland

I once saw this transition myself.  In 1996 I was on a geology field trip up in Newfoundland that was run for Harvard students by Prof. Paul Hoffman.  It turns out that he and Knoll are old friends.   I wasn’t a student, but he let several hangers-on like me tag along.   We drove all over the province being geo-tourists.  At Fortune Bay we went scrambling along the sea cliffs in search of the Cambrian Reference Stratotype.  This is the rock layer that defines the start of the Cambrian epoch.  About halfway down the cliff we found it – a thin yellow line among the strata.   Below it was only sand.  Above it, it was full of shells.  The start of complex life, right there.  That was Genesis, facing us in the rock.

But why then?   There are scads of theories, but Knoll thinks it’s due to a profound chemical change that was happening then – the rise of oxygen levels.   There was an early pulse of oxygen production about 2 billion years ago called the Great Oxygenation Event, but then there were wild swings in its levels, as seen by the deposition of oxides of chromium 63.   By the time of the Cambrian it was still only up to maybe 10% of its current level.  The O2 level may have been rising because more organics were dying and taking their carbon down to the sea floor.  Or it could have been going up because more creatures were burrowing into the sediments, releasing sulfur, a key element for life, and so enabling more photosynthesis.

Without O2 it’s hard to imagine how big multi-cellular creatures can grow.     Bacteria can live without it, but there are no large creatures at all that use anaerobic metabolisms – they all need oxygen for the ATP cycle that provides energy to cells.   They need a lot of oxygen at that, since it has to diffuse directly into the tissues of primitive animals instead of being moved around by circulatory systems.   Furthermore, you need ozone generated from O2 to block the lethal amounts of ultraviolet produced by the sun.

So O2 rises, and suddenly all the genetic experiments that had been happening for the previous hundreds of millions of years have a chance to thrive.   The fundamental building block of complex life, the eukaryotic cell, was already around by maybe 1.6 billion years ago, but couldn’t glom together with a lot of other cells until there was enough O2 for all.

How does all this relate to aliens?  Because it looks like the earth itself is not all that hospitable to creatures like us.   The earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and has had life for maybe 3.5 billion years of that, but that life was pretty much pond scum.  It’s only in the last 500 million years that complex life was possible.  It’s only in the last 400 million that anything could survive on land.  Even within that span it’s pretty likely that no other species ever got to our technological level.   We’ve already burned up maybe 30% of the planet’s coal, which was mainly laid down about 350 million years ago.  Any other industrial species would have taken it all long ago.

So the most bio-friendly place that we know of in all the universe isn’t actually all that nice.  It was uninhabitable for 90% of its history.   It was uninhabited by tool users until a million years ago.   It’s no wonder that Enrico Fermi didn’t see the contrails of fusion-powered starships criss-crossing the galaxy!    Life may arise easily, but complex life needs a lot of other factors to come together in just the right way.   Those complex lifeforms can now have a pretty pleasant existence, hanging around with each other drinking fermented plants and talking about rocks, but they’re likely to be rare in the universe.

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Saving Whales With Quadcopters

A few weeks ago there was a horrifying story on the front page of the Boston Sunday Globe – Chasing Bayla by Sarah Schweitzer.   It described the desperate efforts by Michael Moore, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceangraphic Institute, to save right whales from being cut apart and starved by fishing gear.   Their main habitat is the North American eastern seaboard, one of the busiest marine areas in the world, and they are constantly getting tangled in fishing nets and ropes:

The young right whale Bayla, with rope in her mouth and abrasion scars on her back

The young right whale Bayla, with rope in her mouth and abrasion scars on her back (NOAA)

The ropes saw through their skin and blubber, causing infections.   They also cause huge drag, preventing the whales from feeding.   There are only a couple of hundred right whales left in all the world, so losing any single one is a tragedy.

Marine biologists have tracked and named most of them.   They are constantly attempting to free them from the tangle, but it’s nearly impossible.  The whales are easily spooked, so you can’t just row up to one.  If they turn, they can easily smash you and your boat.

Moore has been following them for decades.   He finally came up with a solution – a tranquilizer dart with a foot-long-syringe that’s  fired by a rifle.   It takes 60 cc to knock out a 7-ton whale, when a few drops of the stuff would kill a person.   They tried it on a two-year-old female, Bayla, in January 2011, and it worked.   She lay calmly in the water as divers went over and cut off as much rope as they could.

It was too late.   Bayla was found dead a few days afterward, infected and emaciated.   Part of the rope was so embedded in her snout that the flesh had grown around it.   Moore had to do the heart-breaking autopsy.   The skeleton ultimately went to a museum in Atlanta, while the rest of the remains were buried in a marsh.

NOAA is aware of the problem, and doing its best.   They’ve put regulations in place to restrict fishing in sensitive areas, reduce the amount of rope used for lobster and crab pots, and put weak links in them so that they’ll break.  But the ropes are getting stronger and tougher all time, which makes them  steadily more dangerous.  The fishermen themselves are rather endangered, and are hard put to do the right thing.

What else can be done?   It occurred to me while reading the story that some newer tech might help.   If people can’t get close to these whales, maybe robots could.

There has been huge progress in recent years in computer-stabilized unmanned aerial vehicles, quadcopters.   Werner Herzog used one to make his spectacular documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2011) , which I wrote about here: You’ll Never Fly But Your Robot Can.   Only three years ago this was custom-built gear for moviemakers, but now you can get them on Amazon:

DJI Phantom Vision 2 - click for site

DJI Phantom Vision 2 – click for site

Only $800!  They’re flown by remote control and send back an HD video feed.  Maybe one of these could be flown over to the whale with a cutting tool on a hook.  It could snag the ropes and slice through them.   If it got whacked, that would be no big deal.

I wrote to Moore with the suggestion.   I mentioned the quadcopter above, but thought that it might not have enough lift or battery power to handle a cutting tool.   I found that  Prof Molly Lutcavage of U Mass Amherst was already using them to track bluefin tuna in the Atlantic, and so might know how they performed at sea.

Notice that I don’t call these things drones.   That term has really bad connotations.   Hear drone and you think of assassination robots in Central Asia, or of police spying.  I thought that any company that makes these would be happy to get some good publicity by helping him.  See, our products are used to save whales, not to blow up people!

Moore wrote back to say that he was already interested in these devices.  He actually has a DJI Phantom, and wants to use it for entanglement research.   They’re already using similar devices in Canada to get pictures of whales from above so they can tell if they’re pregnant or losing weight – Vancouver Aquarium Uses Hexacopter Drone .  He thought they weren’t quite ready to carry tools, but that could happen in a year or two.  Getting FAA permission is also an issue.

Woods Hole has also been working on autonomous underwater vehicles to track sharks.   They used a two-meter-long AUV to follow a transponder fastened to a great white, although the shark did try to eat it: REMUS Sharkcam – the Hunter and the Hunted .  Moore thought that this would be tough to use with whales, since they cruise at 6 mph, and their AUV maxes out at 5.

So he was already on it!   I really hope he can make some progress on this problem.   In the Globe article he sounds despairing.    Maybe these flying robots can do something positive, instead of reminding people of Skynet’s Terminators.

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