Tag Archives: Robert E. McGrath

The Interspecies Internet??

This summer saw a celebrity heavy Interspecies Internet Workshop , “to explore whether it is possible to achieve new forms of interspecies communication using the Internet and other forms of interactivity”

I have some reservations about this.

It’s not that I don’t think that Animal Computer interaction isn’t important—I’ve written about it for years [2].

When I talk about this, I talk about creating species appropriate interfaces [2].  Non-humans are, well, not human.  They don’t think like humans, and their communications are not mappable to human communications in any trivial way.  How could they be?

The Earth Species Project (their mission statement opens, “Between Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and Oakland, the Bay Area”) is a lot more optimistic than I am.  They ask, “Is humanity alone as the sole language using species on the planet?”(Yes.) Regardless, the project is developing new artificial intelligence techniques that will allow us to consider this question in unprecedented ways

To me, the overall idea of doing the Google Translate trick, using machine learning to map between the “language” of different species seems highly questionable.  Applying powerful machine learning will certainly find patterns.  But what will they mean?

What Does The Concept of “Animal Language” Even Mean?

Some of the researchers and funders seem to believe that there is some kind of underlying, shared language across all species.  If only we can parse the alien syntax of whales, apes, or whatever, we’ll be able to translate into English and have a conversation.

Unfortunately, there is absolutely no reason to think that this is true, and plenty of reason to think that it isn’t.

We know for sure that no animal has anything remotely like human language.

There is also an implicit assumption here that, say, ape “language” is the same kind of logical entity as, say, whale “language”. This idea is unproven, possibly unprovable, and almost certainly wrong.   And we know for sure that no animal has anything remotely like human language.

Interfaces Are Hard

Especially if you think like a human….

In IEEE Spectrum Elie Dolgin reports on the workshop discussions of a number of efforts to create video and touch screen interfaces for intelligent animals [1].  There are lots of technical difficulties, especially when you try to hack up something designed bay and for humans.

Aside from the physical difficulty of designing for non-humans, it seems clear to me that animals mostly aren’t going to be particularly interested.

As I said ten years ago [2], you need to make the interface and the interaction species appropriate, which means something that fits in the cognitive universe of the animal.


This is the really fundamental question.

Some of the researchers voice motives around empathy and the value of “giving animals a voice”, which would give them more political power.  These platitudes are arguable when it comes to people, and even more so in the case of animals.

I’ll point out that we already know that animals (and plants) are intelligent.  That hasn’t given them political power any more than the undeniable humanity of people everywhere has assured political representation or humane treatment.

In any case, “saving the species” is a purely human motive.

What’s in it for the non-human users?  Assuming you could even make it  work, why would animals want to communicate via a digital network, at all?  What do they want to say?  What do they want to hear?

Frankly, they would have very little to say, and little motive to do so.

Go ahead, surprise me

I could be wrong.

Animals, especially the most “intelligent” species might be more like us that I think.

They might want to play games.

They might want to bully and abuse others, tell lies and scam each other.

They might want to watch (and make) porn.

That would be interesting to find out, and could give us whole new definitions of what “intelligences” means.

  1. Elie Dolgin, The Internet Is Coming to the Rest of the Animal Kingdom, in IEEE Spectrum – Tech Talk. 2019. https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/telecom/internet/internet-of-living-things-can-communication-tools-break-down-the-interspecies-divide
  2. Robert E. McGrath, Species-appropriate computer mediated interaction, in Proceedings of the 27th international conference extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems. 2009, ACM: Boston, MA, USA. http://delivery.acm.org/10.1145/1530000/1520357/p2529-mcgrath.pdf

A Warning From The Dawn Of The Internet

These days it seems like every pundit in the world is “discovering” that the internet is a bad thing.  And many seem to think this is news.

It isn’t news.

Way back when, at the very beginning of the World Wide Web, we saw where it was going, and warned the world.

I recently dug out an old article about “Digital Commerce” [1] from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications where Mark Andreessen’s “genius” technology came from.  (You didn’t think he invented the technology he commercialized, did you?)

I want to be clear here:  this article was written in 1995.  Netscape was six months old, and hadn’t IPOed yet, MS Internet Explorer wasn’t out for another six months.  Amazon booted up later that year, Paypal was three years in the future. Zuck was what, in third grade?  Vitalik Buterin (Mr. Ethereum) was in diapers.  Travis Kalanick (Mr. Uber) was applying to UCLA (from which he eventually dropped out).

In the article, Sensei Adam Cain (a student at the time, who didn’t drop out) and I described the landscape of the near future of internet commerce [1].  The early tech was very crude and laughably out of date now, but we could clearly see what was coming.

The most interesting thing to me is the discussion at the end of the paper.  We noted that digital commerce was going to be destabilizing (“disruptive”) in many ways, and would challenge governments and laws.  We worried about digital markets, and about digital cash (pre-Paypal and pre-Bitcoin!), for exactly the reasons we now worry about them.

Well, that all surely happened.

“As more and more economic and social activity is conducted online, what will this mean for society and the economy? The prognosis is far from clear. Digital commerce occurs with blinding speed, unrestrained by boundaries or distance- often beyond human comprehension and regulation. Will the digital economy be wildly volatile, full of lightning surges and panics of worldwide proportions? Can nation-states, as we know them, exist without a monopoly on money? If not, then what sort of governments, laws, and public institutions will come to exist?” (p. 39)

Equally important, we called out the social effects, the rise of digital communities, and the corresponding erosion of physical communities.  In a memorable phrase, I argue that “A home page is no substitute for a home or a hometown.”   And we ask the vital question, “If digital commerce does not offer support for a decent way of life, what good is it?”  (p. 39)


“Digital commerce may help make new virtual communities economically viable. Just as small towns and regions are held together by cultural ties and supported by local economic activity, online communities will form that will be supported by digital economics. In the end, though, commerce is not culture, and digital communications are cold and impersonal. A home page is no substitute for a home or a hometown. If digital commerce does not offer support for a decent way of life, what good is it? “

We knew, right at the beginning, the deep, dangerous changes we were initiating.

And we told you.

So don’t say we didn’t warn you.

  1. Adam Cain and Robert E. McGrath, “Digital Commerce on the World Wide Web, in NCSA access magazine. 1995, National Center for Supercomputing Applications: Urbana. p. 36-39. http://hdl.handle.net/2142/46291


Local Solar Power: Lot’s of Progress, but Some Pieces are Still Missing

In recent years, photovoltaic (PV) systems have become cheap enough that they now are cheaper than coal and competitive with natural gas.

Solar energy can be harvested at many scales, from giant arrays (potentially in outer space), buildings and campuses, individual homes, and, of course, gadgets [1].  It’s basically the same technology.

One of the most interesting things about solar power is that it really is possible to distribute the generating systems at many scales, including personal, neighborhood and community systems. For me, this means that it is possible to “put the tools in the hands of the workers”, so people can own their own electric power generation.  How can I not want this?

Achieving this vision requires meeting a number of challenges.

While PV is cheaper to install each year, and very cheap to operate, building and installing a solar array needs a significant financial investment.  Second, any scheme to share electricity (solar or other) requires distribution to the users, ideally via existing grid connections.  And  third, this requires political and economic structures for the technical systems.

In recent months I’ve reported on some developments that are addressing these challenges [2,3].

This being the US, any problem that can be solved by monkeying around with money, is a problem we can solve, yessir.  So, for instance, there is now a Clean Energy Credit Union (CECU), which offers all the advantages of an insured credit union, and is dedicated to financing PV and other clean energy for consumers and small businesses [2].

Locally, there is also a bulk purchase program, which negotiates a good deal from a good provider, and then promotes installation of PV on homes and businesses [3].  In both these cases, the institutions help pool and direct local people’s money to local projects (and local workers).

These are good things, and help everyone “Think Heliocentrically, Act Locally”.  But this isn’t the end of the story.

The vast majority of people do not own their own home or business.  To date, the only way to get PV power is through public utilities, assuming the utility has renewable energy generation and can and will “sell it” to customers (e.g., through a check off that requests renewable energy).   In some places, including my local area, cities are generating renewable energy for government and sometimes local consumers.

But how can average people, without a lot of money, invest in solar power, and reap the benefits of generating their own power?

We can see that the CECU credit union is implementing the “consumer lending” model that helped get two cars in every garage, as well as a lot of people into houses with garages  (for better or worse).

For generating power, we might look for other models from how people finance their housing, such as condominiums, time shares, and cooperatives.  The basic idea is for people who don’t necessarily own property to pool money and build PV arrays near by.  The power generated is shared out to investors, and any profits would go to them.  It is quite possible that an owner/customer’s investment might be entirely paid back in a decade or so, from reduced utility bills.

There are more than one way to skin this particular cat, but I’m particularly interested in local cooperative model for community solar projects.  There have been electric coops for a century and more, usually in underserved rural areas.  This same model can work for a small solar farm in town or on roof tops.

What does it take to do this kind of project?   I’m still learning the ins and outs of how it might be done.  In general, there are a variety of organizational and legal models [5]   Personally, this old bolshie heart beats fastest for a pure cooperative, a la People Power Solar Cooperative [4] .  Much depends on local laws.

Beyond legal charters, the key is, as usual, the right people and leadership.  Identifying and mobilizing the right people in the right way.  Easym peasey!

I have a lot of work to do before I’ll see anything coming true.

More later.

  1. Robert McGrath, Tiny Watts – Solar Power For Everyone, in Tiny Watts Blog. 2018. https://www.ases.org/tiny-watts-solar-power-for-everyone/
  2. Robert E. McGrath, A New Option to Finance A Clean Energy Future for Everyone, in The Public I: A Paper of the People. 2018. http://publici.ucimc.org/2018/12/a-new-option-to-finance-a-clean-energy-future-for-everyone/
  3. Robert E. McGrath, Think Heliocentrically, Act Locally, in The Public I: A Paper of the People. 2019. http://publici.ucimc.org/2019/04/think-heliocentrically-act-locally/
  4. People Power Solar Cooperative. People Power Solar Cooperative. 2019, https://www.peoplepowersolar.org/.
  5. Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, eds. Ours to Hack and Own: The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A new Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet. OR Books: New York, 2017. http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/ours-to-hack-and-to-own/

What is Coworking? It’s All About Community Leadership

Coworking is all about community, community, community.

But this community doesn’t happen by chance or arise spontaneously.

As discussed in Chapter 5 of my book [2] “What is Coworking?”, the contemporary coworking phenomenon is characterized by a cadre of community leaders, who combine roles and skills from a number of other professions.  The success of a coworking space and its community depends on great community leadership.

This month Sensei Cat Johnson illustrates this point in “An Open Letter to Community Managers”, which is surely addressed to her own community leaders [1].

As usual, Sensei Cat says it so much better than I could.


“Without you, this whole coworking thing would fall apart.”

Sensei Cat calls out many roles these professional “community managers” play in her coworking space, including technical IT support, orienting new workers, and office management.  The “manager” also organizes social events (“what about those happy hours we all roll into without much thought”), deals with personal conflicts, talks to everyone, and generally “connects’ everyone.

“You balance badass, cruise director, networker extraordinaire and all around kind/thoughtful/fun person, and you do it with style and flair.”

Besides the vital social glue that is so important to the happiness and well being of the workers, the community leader fosters networking and collaboration, which is one of the key benefits workers find in their coworking space.

“Your knack for connecting people has led to more collaborations and friendships than we could ever count.”

Indeed, these leaders create and sustain the community, and really are the heart of a coworking community.  As Sensei Cat puts it.

“You are the face and maestro of our community.”

As usual, she says it so much better than I could.

But if you want to read my own exposition of this topic and a lot more, please read my new book [2].  Available from several sources.

  1. Cat Johnson, An Open Letter to Community Managers, in Cowroking Out Loud. 2018. https://catjohnson.co/open-letter-community-managers/
  2. Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking? A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community. 2018, Robert E. McGrath: Urbana. https://whatiscoworkingthebook.com/



What is Coworking?

Semantic Web and The Internet of Things

I’m not a gigantic fan of the contemporary Internet of Things (AKA The Internet of Way To Many Things), but this is not because I don’t understand the concept. Quite the reverse actually – I was doing this stuff back at the fin de vingt-et-unième siècle.

I must say that I thought most of that early work was out of date, surpassed by big data, machine learning, and billions of dollars.

This month I was shocked to see not one but two articles about using the Semantic Web for the Internet of Things—exactly what I was talking about back in ought-five [4].

Problem:  the world is filled with more and more autonomous devices which need to connect, configure, and cooperate with each other.

In the IoT, there are no system admins, let alone configuration files, and so on.

So how do nodes know who is who, what is what, and how to talk to anything?

This was the motivating problem at the beginning of my own thesis work (circa 1998-9).

Configuring these devices requires something like scripts, rules, and triggers, but simple scripts

can only apply to known places, users, and IoT devices personal needs.

This lack of discovery and adaptation severely restricts the rules’ expressive power.” ([1], p. 18)

Way back in the last century, I started exploring the use of Semantic Web technology to address this challenge (“Semantic Infrastructure for a Ubiquitous Computing Environment” [4])  I thought it was the right idea, but I haven’t seen much development in the ensuing ages.

Fulvio Corno and colleagues at Politecnico di Torino describe a system that follows this very approach.  Key elements are [1]:

  • An abstract desctiption of devices, fucntions, etc.
  • Logical rules for composing and reusing about these descriptions
  • Standard, cross-vender representation

The purpose is to have a way for computers to know when a rule applies to some ‘node’, and how to apply it, even when the node is a complete stranger.

Corno and colleagues are particularly interested in “programming by functionality”, i.e., making the right thing happen without knowing all the details in advance.

Their system includes a “Semantic Reasoning block” which “maps user-defined trigger-action rules to devices and services in the IoT Ecosystem in order to reproduce the desired behaviors.” (p. 21 )  In other words, it takes an abstract description of what is supposed to happen, and figures out a set of concrete devices and actions that will accomplish the intended goal. (This is “semantic” because the computer is deducing what is “meant” to do.)

The project uses semantic web standards because they (a) are universal and portable and (b) they define a formal logical model for the reasoning that is needed.  The former means that the rules can be vendor independent and will work anywhere, and the latter means that you can do the mapping they need to do.

A second article discusses the more general problem of “Machine to Machine” (M2M) interoperability [2]. Even absent the swarm of IoT things, there is a plethora of computers, systems, and data on the network. Getting systems to work together can be a painful process, and in principle, semantic web technology is designed to ease this process.

However, Hodges and colleagues point out that most semantic models are poorly written and unlikely to be useful for interoperability.

many of these ad hoc ontologies are information silos

This group is working to develop better semantic models based on accepted industry standards.  I.e., the semantic models describe the concepts of existing standards, as well as mapping between multiple standards.

These models have obvious advantages.  Based on accepted standards, they represent existing models, with existing audiences, and known domain applicability. In short, given the effort invested in creating, promulgating, and implementing a standard, it is worth the trouble to create a good semantic model for it.

I would also say that a good standard has a rigorous definition of conformity, so it is possible to check that a node actually implements the standard correctly. That means that it is possible to know that the semantic model can map to one or more concrete implementations.

The big news, though, is that the formal logic of the semantic web makes it possible to formally map between multiple standards, making it possible for a computer to translate.

The general idea here is to use these standards as the basis for the abstract description of the decentralized system.  The semantic web makes it possible to automatically combine and translate between descriptions from many sources.

(Another blast from the past: Hodges et al. suggest using PROV-O ontology to model the behavior of a sensor.  PROV-O is a representation of the Provenance Data Model, which I contributed to at its birth.)

It was nice to see these articles confirming that the technology I called out as important might actually be important.  The motives and general approach are pretty much exactly as I was thinking way back when.  It is great to feel like a vindicated pioneer.

On the other hand, these articles were a pleasant surprise because these technologies are not actually in use yet.  Ten years and more, and it’s still a future wonder.  “They hold the promise of interoperability in name only.” ( p. 27)

I still think this is a good approach, not least because of the principle that:

Any problem in computer science can be solved by an extra level of indirection.”  (The original source of this quote is not precisely known. Lampson et al. [3] attribute this phrase to David Wheeler, citing the authority of Roger Needham.)

I also think that the burgeoning Internet of Too Many Things will make this problem more and more pressing.  However, the IoT is currently dominated by centralized architectures managed by large vendors.  These companies are selling silos, and have little reason to provide open solutions.

  1. Fulvio Corno, Luigi De. Russis, and Alberto Monge Roffarello, A Semantic Web Approach to Simplifying Trigger-Action Programming in the IoT. Computer, 50 (11):18-24, 2017. https://www.computer.org/csdl/mags/co/2017/11/mco2017110018-abs.html
  2. Jack Hodges, Kimberly. García, and Steven Ray, Semantic Development and Integration of Standards for Adoption and Interoperability. Computer, 50 (11):26-36, 2017. https://www.computer.org/csdl/mags/co/2017/11/mco2017110026-abs.html
  3. Butler Lampson, Martin Abadi, Michael Burrows, and Edward Wobber, Authentication in Distributed Systems: Theory and Practice. ACM Transactions of Computer Systems, 10 (4):265-310, 1992. https://www.cs.utexas.edu/~shmat/courses/cs380s/lampson92.pdf
  4. Robert E. McGrath, Semantic Infrastructure for a Ubiquitous Computing Environment, in Computer Science. 2005, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: Urbana. http://hdl.handle.net/2142/11057


Provenance For Supply Chains

Years ago, I contributed to an earlier effort to create the Open Provenance Model [1], which as since evolved into other efforts, including the larger. Stemming from the challenges of documenting complex scientific processes, data, and conclusions, these rather obscure offshoots of the (itself obscure) Semantic Web have not had the impact I would have hoped.  “Sank without a trace” would not be too far off.

So my eye caught by a new app, called “Provenance”, said to be coming Real Soon Now. And it uses the Bitcoin blockchain to publish provenance.

Provenance-the-app is the brainchild of designer Jessi Baker and others, and seeks to implementing the idea for “supply chains” rather than scientific chains of reasoning. The overall goal is make product sourcing “transparent”, arguing that this will allow people to consume more ethically, and save the planet. This means they need to be a consumer facing app, as well, not just a backend reasoning and query engine.

I’m with you so far. I’m not totally convinced of how well transparency will help save the planet, but it can’t hurt. And Baker is, like me, interested in “making things that fuse digital and physical.”  So let’s have a look.

The Provenance app is highly influenced by blockchain technology, including Ethereum. Their white paper [2] is mainly about in public key signatures, assertions about the perceived merits of “decentralized” systems, and some very detailed ideas about digitally tagging  physical processes and products.

They envision a system of certifications that document the sources and chain of processing for consumer products.  These cryptographically sealed certificates are to be posted on a public blockchain, where they cannot be fiddled with, and where anyone can access them.

The idea is to make it possible to scan a product and quickly retrieve a trustworthy confirmation that it meets your ethical requirements.  Presumably, people will be willing to pay extra for products that have these certificates.

Whether a blockchain per se is critical to this enterprise is arguable. Public key cryptography is certainly useful for establishing chains of trust. But the write-once ledger of the blockchain itself only solves the problem of destroying or hiding information, which isn’t necessarily the biggest problem. There are lots of ways to openly publish data, and, contrary to their assertions, a blockchain isn’t really that much better than other open publications—especially if you have good public key technology.

Provenance-the-app looks to be positioned to make some very important contributions to the overall problem of Provenance, which appears in many guises.  They are working out some hard problems of digital signatures and open data access. This is very impressive.

To the degree that they succeed, their technology might be repurposed into scientific and other record keeping. If you can track a fish from source to table, you can track the “ingredients” of a scientific paper, no?

Looking through the materials available, it appears that they are unaware (or perhaps deliberately reject) they don’t have anything to say about our earlier work and the W3C Semantic Web activity. At least, t They do not explicitly acknowledge it. (See comment below.)

If I may offer advice, I think they would be well served to harmonize with the W3C PROV WG. As “Open Data” folks, they should hew to open metadata standards, no? Second, they might glance at the earlier academic work in which we worked on models for automated reasoning about Provenance. They may not realize it yet, but there are important, difficult problems that they will want to solve in this area. I’m just sayin’.

(Update (12/24/2015):  see comment below, indicating that there is collaboration in progress with W3C PROV.)


  1. Luc Moreau, Juliana Freire, Robert E. McGrath, Jim Myers, Joe Futrelle, and Patrick Paulson, The Open Provenance Model. 2007. http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/14979/1/opm.pdf
  2. Jutta Steiner, Jessi Baker, and Gavin Wood, Blockchain: the solution for transparency in product supply chains. Project Provenance Ltd White Paper, 2015. https://www.provenance.org/whitepaper

“Booklet Builder”: A good Idea for Teaching Language and Heritage

Friend and Sensei Biagio Arroba sent the  news that his Booklet Builder is now available for download. (I know he’s been working to get to this stage for quite a while.)

The Booklet Builder helps with Native American language education. It is a system designed for Native American colleges, tribes, schools and community-serving organizations, to help organizations with creating and sharing bilingual content.

Built on Drupal and other open software, with extensive support for multiple writing systems, BB is the current result of Arroba’s many years of work on ways to use Web tools to help communities preserve, teach, and learn their endangered languages. BB is a twenty first century answer to the significant challenges of publishing materials in Native American or other endangered languages.

A key feature of BB is that it is designed for “community driven content”, to let people build their own materials for formal or informal education. The flexible framework has been used in a number of projects with many collaborators, including:

  • A Living, Growing Textbook, Héċet̄u Weló Student Manual (Oglala Lakota College)
  • Content Standards (Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium)
  • Children’s Readers (Ilisagvik College in Alaska)

The same platform can be used to create games, story and song libraries, in multiple languages–lot’s of things.

I know that Sensei Biagio has worked for many years and through many versions of this concept, making him one of the outstanding experts in “crowdsourcing endangered languages“.

An earlier incarnation was LiveAndTell, which was a really neat social site for sharing (mainly) Lakota language multimedia.  LiveAndTell is described in some detail in the report and paper cited below.

Archived screen shot of LiveAntTell

Booklet Builder is a unique and interesting web toolkit.  Check it out.

áta čhó (I got that from the web: I hope that is an appropriate translation for ‘nice job’!)


  1. Arobba, Biagio, Robert E. McGrath, Joe Futrelle, and Alan B. Craig, A Community-Based Social Media Approach for Preserving Endangered Languages and Culture. 2010. http://hdl.handle.net/2142/17078
  2. Arobba, Biagio, Robert E. McGrath, Joe Futrelle, and Alan B. Craig, A Community-Based Social Media Approach for Preserving Endangered Languages and Culture, in “The Changing Dynamics of Scientific Collaborations” workshop at 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. 2011.