A Self-repairing robot

In one sense, the idea of robots building and repairing robots is obvious and old hat.  And repairing yourself can be a pretty simple extension of repairing some other machine.  But it’s not done very often.

This fall researchers from the University of Tokyo reported on demonstrations of teaching a self repair operation to commodity robots [2].  Specifically, the robots learned to use their own manipulators to tighten screws on their own body. (For this demo, the robot didn’t figure out for itself when a screw needs adjustment.)


Now, tightening a screw isn’t a gigantic deal.  However, robot manipulators are not really designed to reach their own body, so some screws are going to be challenging.  And some of them require an Allen wrench, which is a different grip and generally calls for changing the grip as you go, ‘regrasping”.

“The actual tightening is either super easy or quite complicated, depending on the location and orientation of the screw.”  Evan Ackerman in [1].

They also demonstrate that once you can do screws, you can screw on additional pieces, such as carrying hooks.  Neat.

Part of the trick is that they use CAD data describing their body.  They use this data to learn how to operate on themselves. Duh!  It’s so obvious, once you see it!

It seems to me that part of the challenge here is that these generic robots were not designed to self-repair or even repair each other.  There is no reason for this.  With a bit of care, robots can be assembled in ways that are easier for them to self-repair.  One way to assure this is to use robots to assemble the same model of robot.  And CAD systems themselves can analyze designs to maintain self-repair-ability.

This concept will be especially interesting to combine with evolutionary design.  The robot should not only be able to assemble and repair a robot, it should learn to optimize the assembly/repair process, presumably in tandem with evolutionary design of the robot to be assembled.

(To prevent a runaway robot uprising, the system should have to submit detailed proposals and requests for funding, in order to acquire the resources needed for the new versions.  That ought to keep them under the control–of accountants!)

  1. Evan Ackerman, Japanese Researchers Teaching Robots to Repair Themselves, in IEEE Spectrum – Robotics. 2019. https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/robotics-hardware/japanese-researchers-teaching-robots-to-repair-themselves
  2. Takayuki Murooka, Kei Okada, and Masayuki Inaba, Self-Repair and Self-Extension by Tightening Screws based on Precise Calculation of Screw Pose of Self-Body with CAD Data and Graph Search with Regrasping a Driver, in IEEE-RAS International Conference on Humanoid Robots (Humanoids 2019). 2019: Toronto. p. pp.79-84.


Robot Wednesday

Coworking Researchers Meet In Warsaw [repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

The Coworking Library held a “meetup” in Warsaw in November [1].  The speakers discussed their current research on coworking in Europe.  I’m very glad to see that coworking is (finally) attracting attention of social scientists.  I’ve been saying for a long time that there is a lot of interest here, and these investigators are taking interest.

This particular meetup was fairly informal, a sort of “what have you been working on” session, rather than refereed papers.  (There are papers associated with the research, but those are reported elsewhere.)

So what have these folks been working on?

The overall impression is that the big picture hasn’t changed.  Coworking is still about “community, community, community”.  And the reported benefits are about the same as reported many times before, including in my book.

One of the speakers (Marko Orel) discusses a taxonomy of coworking, i.e., what do people mean by the term?  As he points out, the terminology has been evolving and mutation rapidly.  And, I would add, the terms were never sharply defined in the first place.  While creative ambiguity is beneficial for marketing and Internet yapping, it is problematic for academic research.  It’s not clear that any two studies are even talking about the same thing.  I look forward to his result in the future.

Another speaker (Viktoria Heinzel) is looking at “rural” coworking, which I’ve written about.  It’s not clear from the slides how this concept is defined or which specific “rural” areas were studied.  The summary of points seems consistent with other work on the topic, including the potential for ”recruitment & return of skilled workers/ young talents”.

Anita Füzi examined what attracts workers to a specific space.  The basic finding is that social factors; i.e., “community, community, community”; are what matters most.  And she points out that “One space is not better than the other”.  As I have said many times, there is no one right way to do it.

The fourth speaker (Miryana Stancheva) explores the idea of looking at coworking spaces as “a living organism”, specifically, through the ideas or Erik Erikson.  I’ve never studied Erikson in any detail, though I am familiar with the general topic.  This approach requires applying concepts such as “ego development” to coworking.  She seems to be trying to create improved coworking communities through this analysis.

I strongly agree with the importance of a developmental model.  She also considers the development of satisfaction and happiness, not just numbers and revenue.  But, I’ll have to reserve judgement as to whether this particular interpretive framework works well.

I mean, maybe a coworking community is like a child or a family, in some ways.  But maybe not in others.  For one thing, coworkers can walk away at any time.  For another, there is usually very little hierarchy.  And for another thing, the community is usually largely self-selected.  These features probably have a major impact on both happiness and the development over time.

Overall, it is useful to have this kind of academic exchange.  Too much of the discussion of coworking is Internet-grade natter, with little attempt at academic rigor or clarity.  Me, I like footnotes.

It is unfortunate that there isn’t an equivalent effort on this side of the Atlantic.  Perhaps it would be possible to add a virtual component, for those who don’t mind video-ing in from far away.

  1. Coworking Library. Researchers Meetup Warsaw November 13 2019. 2019, https://coworkinglibrary.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Researchers-meetup-presentation-2019-Warsaw.pdf.

(For much more on the Future of Work, see the book “What is Coworking?”)

What is Coworking?

Seeing Through Animal’s Eyes

Here’s an interesting idea.

We know that animals perceive our world through senses that are similar to ours, but not quite the same.  And these differences are generally very meaningful, tuned to enhance survival.  For example, some insects and birds see ultraviolet (that we puny humans can’t see, and some plants have special markings in UV that attracts these pollinators.

Digital imagery is now ubiquitous, and decades of image processing algorithms are everywhere.  (I’m old enough to remember when such things were only possible in labs with supercomputers.)

So, let’s put these ideas together and do some science!

Specifically, a group of Australian researchers has developed an open source library that implements fancy digital image processing, tuned to emulate sensory systems!  Cool!

The idea is to “computationally reproduce the retinal processing of visual information”, integrated with digital image handling [1].  The Quantitative Colour Pattern Analysis (QCPA) is an open source plug in for the Multispectral Image Calibration and Analysis Toolbox (MICA).

This isn’t a simulation of one animal’s visual processing, it is a theory of all animal visual processing!  And the theory is embodied in software, so it is executable!

What this does is let us make software to give us an “x eye view”, for any animal x.

The paper explains the details.

Essentially, a given animal’s eye is described in parameters to the software reflecting the structure and performance of their perceptual system.  The system takes digital images and creates an image representing how it would appear to the subject animal.

They give examples of, say, how a flower looks to a bee.  (Not surprisingly, it looks like a target guiding you right to the pollen.)

Bees not only see the world in different colours (green, blue and ultraviolet instead of red, green and blue like humans), but they also have much lower spatial acuity. This means they can’t see as much detail as we can. In fact we can see things about 150 times smaller (or further away) than bees. This figure shows how wildflowers will appear to bee colour and spatial vision from different distances. The flowers will barely be visible to a bee beyond one metre away. (From QCPA paper press release)

This is pretty neat.

The researchers get additional points for releasing the software as open source.  (It’s a bit clunky, but it did download and install for me.)  In this age of “monetization”, the idea of releasing free software for science has come to have a quaint, old fashioned charm.

Seeing this package makes me think of other things to do with it.  I can imagine using this to develop interesting visual filters.  For example, you might use this in a game where you play an augmented character who has “panther vision” or “bee vision” or whatever.  When you play the character, you see the world through these realistic filters.

And, by the way, you could construct a realistic alien physiology, and create a visual representation of what the world looks like to that species.  Neat.

This could also be installed as an add on for VR/AR goggles.  Flip the switch and you see the world like a bee, like and eagle, like a cockroach, like an alien.  Whatever.  (It’s not bad enough to wear your AR goggles on a date, you have your senses distorted so your friend looks real, real weird. : – ( )

  1. Cedric P. van den Berg, Jolyon Troscianko, John A. Endler, N. Justin Marshall, and Karen L. Cheney, Quantitative Colour Pattern Analysis (QCPA): A comprehensive framework for the analysis of colour patterns in nature. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, n/a (n/a) 2019/12/02 2019. https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.13328


Book Review: “Grand Union” by Zadie Smith

Grand Union by Zadie Smith

I’ve read an ealier novel by Smith, and I was interested to read some shorter works.

A native of the UK, she now lives in NYC (as is clear from the stories), Smith writes with a Caribbean immigrant’s “accent”.  Many of the stories are about childhood and motherhood in a city, though the time periods span the last half century.  But there is a lot more here, including some lovely fantasies (a literal God’s eye view, an alien world of women, a strange escape from New York).

I don’t especially like slices of life from NYC (a place I’ve never been to, and I have no desire to go there), but Smith’s NYC is strangely magical.  It’s gritty and mean, but there seem to be wonders just ahead.  It is surprisingly attractive, considering.

The striking thing to me is how well Smith does these very short works.  She manages to give us many voices, many characters, and a lot of unexpected situations, all in tiny packages.  It’s nicely done.  Frankly, it feels like these are demonstration pieces for students (I think she teaches).

That said, many of these pieces left me aching for more.  Obviously, that’s the point, and she’s really good at it.  But still.  Couldn’t we get another chapter or two about some of these wonderful children, mothers, friends, lovers?  What happens to them?  I don’t want to just leave them!

‘nuff said.  It’s good, and it’s good in a bunch of different ways.

  1. Zadie Smith, Grand Union, New York, Penguin Press, 2019.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Laundromat” by Jake Bernstein

The Laundromat by Jake Bernstein

Originally published in 2017 under the title “Secrecy World”, this is the story of the international collaboration that led to the reporting on the Panama Papers in 2016.  The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) now curates the Offshore Leaks database, which has even more data.

This is non-fiction but it reads like a spy thriller.

The rich and powerful play by their own rules, and one way they do so is by making their money disappear into “offshore” companies—anonymous, unregulated, mostly fictional companies that have only one purpose, to conceal the owners and sources of money.  These shady practices are the main industry of many small jurisdictions (as well as Switzerland and Delaware).   They are also amazing stories, each one.

The ICIJ “Offshore Leaks” dataset is data purloined from some of these operations.  The ICIJ and others have painstakingly digitized and organized the data and released it for the world to examine.  Dozens of reports and legal cases have been triggered by these revelations.

The fascinating thing is, of course, that these financial technologies are used by the richest, most powerful people in the world.  Even the most cursory look will find politicians, executives, corporations, and celebrities.

The Laundromat  (originally published as Secrecy Land (2017) and now a film) recounts how this consortium was pulled together, and how they executed their initial scoops.  It also recounts the history of the Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, (MossFon) which was at the center of the big leak tagged “the Panama Papers”.  (This is slightly unfair to Panama, since the mischief is world wide.)

As an old hand at handling big datasets, I sympathize with how much work went in to simply turning the data dump into usable information.  And this was a shoe string operation,  only a handful of people, mostly journalists fer cryin’ out loud.  I’m impressed.

Exposing the secrets of the powerful is dangerous work, and tracking down hidden networks that span the globe requires international cooperation.  The IJCI did a remarkable job navigating the dangers posed by both enemies and friends.

The results have been significant.  Governments have fallen.  Mos F and other operations have closed.  Laws have been changed, though not enough to eliminate the practices.

Of course, lots has not changed.  Many politicians have shaken off the potential scandal, and autocrats have pushed back against journalists. Some jurisdictions have tightened their rules, but others have opened to replace them.

The book seems as timely as ever.  The Trump administration is well represented in these datasets and has successfully passed new laws that help the wealthy profit from offshore transactions.  Malta is roiling in scandal, including the assassination of a journalist. Russian oligarchs and agents are active around the world.  China’s elites are active around the world.  And so on.

Reading the history of MossFon I was struck about the almost ironic notion that this company was a pioneer of mass market services.  What once might have been a bespoke service available to the highest elites, has become simple and affordable, available to anyone with money to hide.  The reported rates are absurdly low, especially considering the amounts of money their clients are dealing.

Indeed, the business is very competitive, with constant pressure for cheap, fast, customized service. MossFon and the rest developed a highly optimized pipeline, customized for the customers.  Furthermore, they franchised the business to local operators, providing a global product line through local representatives.

It is very admirable, except for the basic wickedness of the business.

I am also struck by the fact that the most active off shore jurisdictions (e.g., Malta, Cyprus, Seychelles, Mauritius, Dubai)  are also enthusiastically adopting cryptocurrency technologies.  This is hardly a coincidence, because Nakamotoan cryptocurrencies are basically designed to be “off shore” from everywhere, via the Internet.

Now, cryptocurrencies offer nothing that MosFon and others haven’t provided for a long time. The news is that the technology is extremely fast and efficient, and in the form of “smart contracts”, is almost totally automated.

So, yeah, obviously, secrecy world will love cryptocurrency technology.  And it works anywhere that can connect to the Internet.  (And helpful people are filling the skies with internet connectivity, so it will be everywhere.)  So cryptocurrency offers to further democratize off shore financing, and possibly speed it up.

This cannot end well.

  1. Jake Bernstein, The Laundromat: Inside the Panama Papers, Illicit Money Networks, and the Global Elite, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews

Home Assistants Reveal Where You Are

Home wireless networks are notoriously unsecure. I mean, my network is administered by an amateur (moi), and much of the configuration is opaque or out of my control, to the degree that I am in control at all.

On top of these shaky foundations, people run an ever growing array of network connected devices, including voice operated “assistants” and “smart” gadgets.  These critters are designed to snoop on you, and when hackers get into the network it’s game over.

Just say, no! Turn it off!

This winter researchers from the University of Chicago report on yet another grievous flaw in these home networks:  sniffing the wireless network traffic can detect the location and movement of people in a room [2, 3].


The essential idea is that the radio signals flooding the room are occluded by objects, notably including people.  This has always been so, but the more wifi enabled devices, the more signals and the more continuous the coverage is.  Notably, this effect does not require decoding the content of the packets or knowledge of the devices or their location.

Specifically, the technology detects the presence of a human (or large animal) in a room within a building with a single antenna listening outside the building.  (Obviously, this attack works because most walls do not block wifi signals.)  This snooping is undetectable by the target.

“It’s not just about privacy, it’s more about physical security protection.” (Professor Heather Zheng quoted in [1])

The researchers point out that even this limited surveillance is potentially very dangerous, because it reveals the current presence or absence of people in the area.  Criminals can case the premises to time an attack or intrusion.

The researchers report that It is difficult to defeat this attack with inexpensive commodity wireless networks.  They  suggest an inexpensive defense that involves injecting additional packets that obscure the traffic from current devices.  (At least, I think that is what they are talking about.)  This approach expends bandwidth but makes the devices seem to be in the wrong places.

Phew.  Yet another reason I don’t want these things in my house.

  1. Rob Mitchum, How hackers could use Wi-Fi to track you inside your home in uchicago news. 2019. https://news.uchicago.edu/story/how-hackers-could-use-wi-fi-track-you-inside-your-home
  2. Yanzi Zhu, Zhujun Xiao, Yuxin Chen, Zhijing Li, Max Liu, Ben Y. Zhao, and Haitao Zheng, Et Tu Alexa? When Commodity WiFi Devices Turn into Adversarial Motion Sensors, in Network and Distributed Systems Security (NDSS) Symposium 2020. 2010: San Diego. https://dx.doi.org/10.14722/ndss.2020.23053
  3. Yanzi Zhu, Zhujun Xiao, Yuxin Chen, Zhijing Li, Max Liu, Ben Y. Zhao, and Haitao Zheng, Et Tu Alexa? When Commodity WiFi Devices Turn into Adversarial Motion Sensors. arXiv, 2019. https://arxiv.org/abs/1810.10109



Study of Antarctic Ice Balance

The ice is melting everywhere.

In Antarctica, the ice shelves extending over the ocean have been thinning at a rapid pace, likely due to warmer ocean waters undercutting them.  This could lead to ice from the interior flowing faster to the sea, resulting in thinning of the whole ice cap. But this relationship has not be established, nor is it clear how much of overall ice changes might be due to such effects.  In addition, it has not been known how rapidly any effect propagate inland, i.e., how fast the rest of the ice responds to the loss of sea ice.

This winter, researchers from California and Northumbria report a new study of the whole of Antarctica uses improved measurements of ice thickness and movement from IceSat-2 and earlier satellites [1].  They developed a model of the complex processes that occur at the grounding lines of glaciers, which are the product of “an intricate interplay between several opposing processes”.

The model agrees with the observed distribution of ice losses around Antarctica.  Furthermore, the model suggests that the effects are essentially instantaneous, i.e., thinning sea ice causes increased flow upstream with little delay.  This model only includes the effects of thinning at grounding lines, but this seems to be a major contributor to the overall mass loss.  These changes at grounding lines are due to warming ocean waters.

“We find that the magnitude and spatial variability of modelled changes are in good agreement with observations, suggesting that thinning ice shelves have driven a substantial portion of the recent ice-loss of the Antarctic ice sheet”

Both the data and the models have limitations, so this finding will need to be confirmed with further study and better data. The data is still pretty sparse, and there are plenty of other factors that may be involved (such as wind, cloud cover, and precipitation patterns).

But if these findings stand up, we can expect to see further rapid ice loss across all of Antarctica, with much faster losses in places where warm ocean waters are thinning the sea ice.

  1. G. Hilmar Gudmundsson, Fernando S. Paolo, Susheel Adusumilli, and Helen A. Fricker, Instantaneous Antarctic ice-sheet mass loss driven by thinning ice shelves. Geophysical Research Letters, n/a (n/a) 2019/11/20 2019. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019GL085027

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