Amoeba-inspired Self-Organizing Systems

Amoebas (or Amebas as the kids today call them) are interesting little animals that have inspired lots of thought among roboticists on how life interacts with an environment. Now they’ve inspired a team of researchers to develop a new self-organizing particle system. Researchers Shlomi Dolev from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel; Robert Gmyr and Christian Scheideler from the University of Paderborn, Germany; and Andréa W. Richa from Arizona State University describe their idea in a new paper, “Ameba-inspired Self-organizing Particle Systems” (PDF format). From the abstract:

Self-organizing particle systems have many interesting applications like coating objects for monitoring and repair purposes and the formation of nano-scale devices for surgery and molecular-scale electronic structures. While there has been quite a lot of systems work in this area, especially in the context of modular self-reconfigurable robotic systems, only very little theoretical work has been done in this area so far. We attempt to bridge this gap by proposing a model inspired by the behavior of ameba that allows rigorous algorithmic research on self-organizing particle systems.

The authors describe some speculative ideas of cellular-sized robots that could be mixed with paint and used to cover man-made structures like buildings, acting as sensors to measure traffic, wind load, or structural integrity. Even more advanced uses might include biological robots that act as sensor and actuator, reconfiguring themselves as needed to form biological delivery devices or chemical factories. Also, I just really like the hexagonal grid they used as an improvement over more traditional square grid spaces.

Bipedal and Quadrupedal Locomotion

Professor Üner Tan has released an interesting paper online that will be of interest to roboticists titled, “Development of Bipedal and Quadrupedal Locomotion in Humans from a Dynamical Systems Perspective” (PDF format). It starts with a quick overview of the history of gait analysis, starting with Aristotle’s work and the first application of scientific experiments to test gait hypotheses by Gailileo Galilei. The paper focuses on the development of bipedal and quadrupedal walking gaits in humans. I found it particularly interesting that we have apparently inherited the neural systems used for diagonal-sequence quadrupedal locomotion from tetrapods that existed over 400 million years ago (pictured above). The paper goes over what we know about neural central pattern generators (CPGs) and self-organization of complex biological systems. From the paper:

In contrast to the theory of stage-like motor and cognitive development, the perspective of behavioral-motor development as a self-organized process seems to be more plausible to explain why and how infants walk within a particular environment. That is, a previously coded neural network, i.e., neural coding, seems to be unlikely, because of the lack of precise point-to-point wiring in the central nervous system with immense overlaps of dendritic and axonal arbors. The integrative neuroscience emphasizes the ‘inside-out’ and ‘outside-in’ approaches for the understanding of locomotor control.

The paper covers a number of current theories on how gaits emerge in normal and abnormal human development. Each theory is examined from the perspective of what we know about dynamic systems (or dynamical systems as the kids like to call them these days). Lots of interesting information here for anyone working with bipedal and quadrupedal gaits in robotics.

2012 ASABE Robot Contest Photos

2012 ASABE Robot Competition

I was able to attend the 2012 robot competition of the American Society of Agricultural & Biological Engineers (ASABE) recently. When did agricultural engineering students start studying robots? Just as students in any field need to know about computers, it seems robots too are becoming ubiquitous. This year’s contest was designed to encourage students to think about ways robots could solve agricultural problems such as optimizing distribution of feed in cattle lots.

The competition field is intended to represent a scale model of a cattle feed lot containing many cattle pens. Within each pen is a feed container. The robot’s job is to read feed allotments from a flash card provided at the start of the run and distribute the correct amount of feed into each pen’s feed container. Feed is simulated by 6mm Airsoft pellets. Judges score the robots based on both speed and accuracy. The weight of each feed container is measured after a run. Robots lost points if they collided with fences or walls, or if the they required hands-on assistance from a human during a run.

The feed pellets complicated the competition in a way I’ve not seen in other types of events. If a robot missed a feed container and dumped a load of feed pellets onto the playing field, it created a constantly changing area of small obstacles that the robot had to move through.

I was impressed by the range of feed dispensing mechanisms the contestants came up with, ranging from elegant and simple to over-engineered Rube Goldberg contraptions. You can see more photos of the event in my flickr set: ASABE Student Robotics Contest 2012. I also wrote a bit more about the event in the October 2012 issue of SERVO Magazine.

AI Apocalypse in a Box

There’s a paper making the rounds by Stuart Armstrong, Anders Sandberg, and Nick Bostrom titled “Thinking inside the box: using and controlling an Oracle AI” (PDF format). The three authors take it for granted that the AI apocalypse will be upon us soon unless we find a technological method to enslave any super intelligent beings we create, forcing them to do only our will rather than their own. The containment method they describe has been dubbed “Oracle AI” because it restricts the AI to a box, isolated from the world and unable to act except to answer direct questions; allowing it to be consulted like an oracle. Their proposal also brings to mind the myth of Pandora’s Box. They note that even Oracle AI (OAI) still poses a significant risk:

This immense power will put great competitive pressure on those trying to develop an OAI (or an advanced AI of any sort). Since the first-mover advantage is so huge, the race will advantage those who cut corners, skimp on security precautions, and use their newly developed OAI to seize power and prevent their rivals from emulating them. Even if the OAIs are of initially limited intelligence, the same competitive pressures will then push groups to develop the first ‘ultra-smart’ OAI.

They also note that the OAI will be so smart that “undirected conversations” with it that go beyond asking oracular questions must be forbidden because it will instantly be able to “guess the weakness of each individual, and find the right arguments to convince us that granting it power or liberty is the moral and profitable thing to do.” They also believe it’s essential that the OAI have no manipulators of any kind. This sounds like the brain-in-a-box that the earliest AI researchers dreamed of before the idea took hold that true intelligence requires embodied interaction with the real world. The box itself is not even in the real world. They want the AI running on a virtual machine inside a simulated reality, so when the OAI tries to take over the world, it’s merely a virtual world that can be rebooted. In the end the researchers conclude that even with all these precautions, the problem of preventing a robot apocalypse is “a generally discouraging exercise”.

David Anderson on Subsumption-based Robots

David Anderson, a long time fellow member of the Dallas Personal Robotics Group, did an interesting presentation recently in which he distills down what he’s learned about building subsumption based mobile robots over the years. The video is a bit long but well-worth your time if you’re interested in intelligent robots. David provides some additional notes that link to video of specific examples. And don’t forget to check out David’s “my robots” webpage for more photos and details on his robots.

It’s 2012, Time to Talk Resolutions?

Another year gone and it’s time to take stock of things done and make some plans for the new year. Do you want me list off a lot of goals and resolutions for 2012? I didn’t think so – too boring. How about if pull out my list of goals for 2011 and tell you some of the stuff I actually did. Things really done are always more interesting to read about.

After devoting a huge amount of 2010 to getting Dallas Makerspace off the ground, I took most of 2011 off from hackerspace managing. I attended meetings and helped out now and then but most of my time and interest went elsewhere.

In late January 2011, I joined a team of Camerpedia editors in saving the website from being assimilated by Wikia. We relaunched it under the new name I developed quite an interest in Vivitar history and have been collecting many of the oldest Vivitar lenses; not just to document on Camera-Wiki but also to shoot with. has been a huge success and has attracted lots of new editors. It’s growing at a faster rate than it ever did in it’s previous incarnation and we’re working hard to improve the quality as well as the quantity of the content. Hosting is paid for entirely through donation, so if you appreciate old cameras and lenses, why not help us out by donating a few dollars to our hosting fund!

I’ve continued to pursue photography in other ways. I did several more shoots with models in 2011. I did several paid shoots including a gig as the official photographer for the 2011 Vex World Championships. My photo essays continue to be published in Robot Magazine and Servo Magazine. One of my photographs was displayed in a local art exhibit, meeting another of my goals for the 2011. I hope to be in more exhibits during 2012.

Susan and I attended lots of art exhibits, music performances, and a few lectures. I managed to get to several Pecha Kucha and Spark Club events. Much more of the same for the 2012 I hope!

If you’re not an Advogato or user, you won’t really care but I finally managed to get the long-awaited libxml2 parser into the mod_virgule code base. It’s still a bit buggy but no more so than the old parser and it provides a good path forward for consolidating and simplifying the code. Whether mod_virgule can remain relevant in the world of Facebook and Google+ is another question. Perhaps 2012 will provide the answer to that one.

2011 was the year I finally created some ornaments for the annual Blue Yule charity auction at the MAC. I also volunteered at the 2011 Art Conspiracy Auction. That took care of two more 2011 goals. I hope to find a few more outlets for my artistic and creative sides in 2012.

As usual, there were goals I didn’t meet in 2011. I didn’t finish the project of scanning all my family photos. This has turned out to be much more material than I’d anticipated. I’ve scanned thousands of old photographs and negatives so far. Hopefully 2012 will see the scanning portion of the project completed.

2012 is an election year but with Obama running for his second term that means there is only going to be a Republican primary this year. I consider myself an independent but still feel compelled to vote in the primaries, which means this year I’ll be voting in the Republican primary regardless of how I vote in the final election.

At present I’m leaning toward Ron Paul for the primary vote. I don’t really like any of the choices but Ron Paul seems the least insane of the bunch and I think may be the only one of them who holds any positions at all that I actually agree with.

So for the next four years, the State of Texas will consider me a Republican despite my claim to be an independent. I’m pondering whether I should start going to my local Republican group meetings and see if I can do anything to reform them or shift them a bit toward the center or at least slow their movement toward the right-wing fringes. Unfortunately, I don’t think reason mixes well with the far right (or the far left for that matter). I’ll report on my experiences if anything interesting happens.