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Automation Solution: Humans and Robots Working Together?

Automation Solution: Humans and Robots Working Together?

Among the many reasons why I’m glad I’m my own boss, knowing I’ll never fire myself for being obsolete ranks high! But there are many jobs out there that are threatened by mass automation — from the obvious data entry gigs and telemarketing to the startling library technician jobs, and, I’m sure, personal assistants.
 
But new research is showing that replacing all human employees in industrial working environments with automation is — against all assumptions — not the most efficient option. 
A co-pro between the Universities of Göttingen, Duisburg-Essen, and Trier, the study has recently been published in the International Journal of Advanced Manufacturing Technologies. In it, the team presented a challenge to three different teams of workers, sporting varying levels of automation.
 
“The research team simulated a process from production logistics, such as the typical supply of materials for use in the car or engineering industries. A team of human drivers, a team of robots and a mixed team of humans and robots were assigned transport tasks using vehicles. The time they needed was measured. The results were that the mixed team of humans and robots were able to beat the other teams; this coordination of processes was most efficient and caused the fewest accidents. This was quite unexpected, as the highest levels of efficiency are often assumed to belong to those systems that are completely automated.”
 
These results give a ray of hope to humans currently working in industrial fields who have thought, until now, that robots would be taking over their positions. The combo — of human logistical capacity, and the tolerance of repetitive tasks — could be well nigh unstoppable.
 
This is certainly a rosier vision of the automated future than we have been led to believe. While we’re nowhere near the fifteen-hour workweek predicted by John Maynard Keynesin the early 20th century, neither are we staring down the barrel of life under Skynet. Here’s to a future for both humans and robots, working together to make life better for all!

A Rose By Any Other Name

rose

I love this part of spring — all the early snowdrops and crocuses have had their time, and the gardens are now filled with my favourites: showstopping tulips. It’s early enough that I’m still surprised by their presence. Soon we’ll be seeing all kinds of wonderful summerflowers in our neck of the woods, including roses of all stripes.
 
A team out of the University of Texas at Austin has taken inspiration from nature and looked to the rose for help with one of humanity’s biggest problem: sourcing clean water. The team sought a more efficient method of solar steaming — a process by which the heat of the sun is used to evaporate water up and away from contaminants, then collected and condensed back into clean drinking water. (Much like the principle of the solar still in that episode of Voyage of the Mimi.)
 
Current solar steaming technology is generally bulky and stationary. In order to have a real effect on water quality and availability in places it’s needed, portability and efficiency are key. The new system attempts to remedy this. As outlined by the team in a recent issue of Advanced Materials the solar steamer is inspired by an origami rose, featuring “petals” made of black paper coated with polypyrrole, all surrounding a collection tube that acts much like a stem. From UT Austin’s press release:
 
“[Leader Donglei (Emma)] Fan and her team experimented with a number of different ways to shape the paper to see what was best for achieving optimal water retention levels. They began by placing single, round layers of the coated paper flat on the ground under direct sunlight. The single sheets showed promise as water collectors but not in sufficient amounts. After toying with a few other shapes, Fan was inspired by a book she read in high school. Although not about roses per se, ‘The Black Tulip’ by Alexandre Dumas gave her the idea to try using a flower-like shape, and she discovered the rose to be ideal. Its structure allowed more direct sunlight to hit the photothermic material – with more internal reflections – than other floral shapes and also provided enlarged surface area for water vapor to dissipate from the material.”

The device decontaminates the water from bacteria, heavy metals, and sea salt, and makes it fit for human drinking according to standards set out by the World Health Organization. Again, science looks toward the designs of nature for solutions to our problems. It is fitting that the rose — the harbinger of summer, subject of poetry carrier of centuries of symbolism  — should find its form harnessed for our very human needs!
 

The Genetic Case for Dog Ownership

dog ownership and more

Here at the DFC ranch, we don’t have to come up with excuses that dogs make office and home life better: we have reasons  a pair of them. The dogs get us away from our desks when our eyes and backs need a break, and inject much-needed levity into our workdays. (The fact that Jill can open doors, and is vocal enough to interrupt any conversation she dang well pleases — her foundation stock includes malamute, god help us — is hilarious.)
 
Beyond these immediate, quality-of-life-improvement reasons, we haven’t given much thought to the underlying impulse toward dog ownership. But the people at Uppsala University have: and by using data from the famed Swedish Twin Registry, they’ve uncovered the startling results that being a “dog person” can be predetermined by your genes.
 
The team focused on 85,542 individuals in monozygotic and dizygotic (that is, identical and fraternal) twin pairs, who were born between 1926 and 1996, and who were both still alive. They compared the collected data on the twins with stats on dog ownership between 2001 and 2016, as registered with the Swedish Board of Agriculture and the Swedish Kennel Club.
 
“Studying twins is a well-known method for disentangling the influences of environment and genes on our biology and behaviour. Because identical twins share their entire genome, and non-identical twins on average share only half of the genetic variation, comparisons of the within-pair concordance of dog ownership between groups can reveal whether genetics play a role in owning a dog. The researchers found concordance rates of dog ownership to be much larger in identical twins than in non-identical ones — supporting the view that genetics indeed plays a major role in the choice of owning a dog.”
 
The complicated modeling the team undertook is all in their study, published in full here. But, all in all, it shows that heritability of dog ownership runs at 57% for females and 51% in males (in Sweden). This tendency could also help explain why dogs were domesticated so early in our history — and how their own genomes morphed to make living with us more viable. I knew Jill and Samson’s hold on us was stronger than they were letting on!

A Rare Chalk in the World of Math: How Tools Change How We Work

chalk

Working with computers can be pretty esoteric — after all, the reason why DFC exists as a professional team is because folks who prefer to focus on other things need our network-wrangling, cloud-tapping expertise (link: http://dfc.com/solutions/). That is the very same reason I have an accountant, and my accountant, in turn, has a dentist: everyone has a speciality; one that is often a mystery to the other professions!
 
Despite their differences, one commonality that I think ties together professionals of all stripes is a love of craft. I see this in the care David takes over the creation of our line of sauces. I see it in artist friends who put so much effort into the selection of a brush or photo negative. And, I saw it in a charming video from the Great Big Story people, about one of the most esoteric professions, mathematics, and how practitioners of the abstract science are OBSESSED with, of all tools, chalk.
 
Specifically, a Japanese brand of chalk, called Hagoromo Fulltouch, so prized for its smoothness, density, and line that one user dubs it “the Rolls Royce of chalk.” Mathematician David Eisenbud describes the almost cult-like initiation he had into the knowledge of Hagoromo chalk fondly:
 
“I discovered it when I went to visit the University of Tokyo and one of the professors there said to me, you know, we have better chalk than you do in the States and I said, oh go on, chalk is chalk. And so I tried it out, and I was surprised to find that he was right.”
 
Hagoromo chalk became something of MacGuffin for high-level mathematicians, and with its popularity being driven almost as much by scarcity as its near-metaphysical writing properties. Users across the world relied on business trips to Japan or sympathetic Japanese colleagues to maintain their supply — until the company went out of business in 2015. Says Professor Brian Conrad:
 
“I sort of jokingly referred to it as a chalk apocalypse. So I immediately started hoarding up as much as I could. […]

I was probably selling it regularly to maybe eight to 10 colleagues. I would reach into my cupboard in my office and pull out another box and we’d do the deal in my office. Yeah, we all had a chalk fix. And we still do.”
 
A Korean company bought up Hagaromo’s manufacturing machinery and formula, so the critical moment of the chalk’s extinction has been delayed. But the hoarding described by Prof. Conrad firmly underscores the close relationship between the practice of a profession — or an art — and even the most mundane of tools. The simplest solution can dissolve the barrier between a creator and the Zone; a piece of chalk can unlock a complicated theorem. What simple tool in your everyday arsenal is your Hagaromo chalk?

Big Bricks, Ancient Answers

pyramids built with bricks

This Passover I indulged in one of my favourite holiday-themed activities, next to cathartically cleaning house: watching the classic 1956 movie epic The Ten Commandments. Between bouts of arguing the relative acting abilities of Yul Brynner vs Chuck Heston (Brynner for the win!), we got to talking about all the theories about the building of the pyramids. When I went to school, the leading theory involved thousands of slaves — much like the Israelites — using a series of dirt ramps to elevate the giant stone blocks required. (My daughter-in-law, on the other hand, is firmly in camp Ancient Aliens)
 
Though the Israelites in The Ten Commandments (and in the original source) weren’t on pyramid duty, slave labour was definitely a part of Ancient Egyptian society. But scholars have shown that specifically the Great Pyramids were more likely constructed by well-compensated artisans rather than slaves.
 
How they did it is another mystery to be unraveled; but I wonder if there was some engineering magic at foot, like that recently wrought by researchers at MIT and sculptors at Matter Design. These innovators have created a fascinating set of 3900 lb concrete bricks, which are so precisely calibrated that they can easily be moved by one or two people. This project, called Walking Assembly, was undertaken to explore how ancient peoples might have made their monolithic structures well before the invention of the crane. From the project description:
 
“Walking Assembly re-introduces the potentials of that ancient knowledge to better inform the transportation and assembly of future architectures. If a brick is designed for a single hand, and a concrete masonry unit (CMU) is designed for two, these massive masonry units (MMU) unshackle the dependency between size and the human body. Intelligence of transportation and assembly is designed into the elements themselves, liberating humans to guide these colossal concrete elements into place.”
 
The giant bricks are made out of variable-density concrete, which makes for an exact centre of gravity. Builders then tilt and roll the bricks into assemblages like walls and staircases. Check out the video of Walking Assembly in action here!
 
The designers also cite play as a key aspect of their creation — and the manipulation of the bricks looks fun, in a jungle gym kind of way! It’s possible ancient builders, enslaved or artisans found ways of engineering their materials for maximum efficiency in the way these modern creators do. Whether they had fun is anyone’s guess.

The DIY Nexus between Cars and Computers

DIY tools

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are some things you can DIY, and some things you can’t. I myself grew up in a very handy household, but even my father handed down the sage advice of always hiring a professional for at least two aspects of maintenance: electricity and plumbing. Pallet planter? Go ahead. Roman blind? Have at it. But anything involving serious risk to life and limb was out.
 
Which is why I am full of admiration for the inventiveness of a certain homebrew community I read about this week. In the Soviet Union, car ownership was sporadic and limited to the basic, quasi-nationalized brands of cars that were less than reliable and even less than affordable. So, what was an Eastern Bloc car enthusiast to do? According to Jalopnik, build their own — from harvested parts, chunks of other machines entirely, and raw materials like fiberglass and glue. Misha Lanin writes:
 
“Resources aside, each homemade car is an incarnation of the creator’s automotive dreams, whatever they may have been — air scoops and spoilers and three-figure top speeds, morning commutes not on the dinky trolleybus, family mushroom picking trips deep into the woods.

Like the $19 million Bugatti La Voiture Noir, these cars are one-offs. But the La Voiture Noir is almost destined to endure a solemn existence, probably hidden for most of its life in a Swiss cave, languishing alongside various other supercars, some valuable art, and the Large Hadron Collider. The homemade cars of the Soviet Era were built to be driven, and driven often. (That’s primarily because those who built them had nothing else to drive.)”
 
Lanin further tells the story of a collector of these extremely limited-edition DIY vehicles, referred to only as Yura. Yura once displayed his own ingenuity when called upon to transport a new acquisition — a meticulously designed, but long mothballed, racing-style car its builder dubbed the Virus — from Volgograd to his home in St. Petersburg, a nearly 1700 km trip. Yura hitched the Virus to the back of another of his collector’s items, a sleek yellow car he called the LamborZhiga. With a minor jackknife on the way, Yura got his cars home — and remains one of the few deep appreciators of this lost art of automotive magic out there.
 
While I’d probably be terrified of driving one of these cars, I can recognize that they filled a need — and also scratched a creative itch. We at DFC are no strangers to building things from the ground up. Even in computing, if there hadn’t been someone to DIY the first iteration of some of our key concepts and products, where would we be now?

The Good Question Hiding In “How Smart is Your Pet?”

smart pet

In my time with DFC, I have worked with lots of intelligent humans: clients, suppliers, colleagues, and friends. What I enjoy most about all these connections is that, when it comes to smarts, everyone has different strengths. Some excel at spatial know-how, others emotional intelligence, still others are wizards of scheduling. It makes for a great mix!
 
Often, after a long day working with among human intelligences, I’ll look into the eyes of my dogs, and wonder “How smart are you?” Over at iai News, Ali Boyle (a philosophy research fellow at the University of Cambridge) grapples with just that question — showing that it’s less about the animals that are its subjects, and more about the humans asking it.
 
One way humans have tried to assess animal intelligence is by correlating it to trainability. I’ve done this with Jill: she excelled at the scent tracking course we put her through a few years ago. While it takes a certain kind of smarts to make the connection that “scent!” equals “treat!”, other kinds of animals don’t train well because they are not interested in that equation. (Like an octopus, that might prefer to steal light bulbs or squirt water at its trainer!)
 
One fascinating question about animal intelligence vs. human is if animals possess “episodic memory” like we do — the ability to recall events from your past, like a trip or a wonderful meal, rather than cold hard facts learned. In short, it allows humans to create a narrative of our lives. If animals are without this ability, so fundamental to human intelligence, can we even conceive of how they might organize the world?
 
“Some think [episodic memory] is intimately connected to both imagination and foresight – the ability to mentally travel into the future and ‘play out’ possible future events. […]

This makes it tempting to think that if animals lack episodic memory, they don’t have ‘selves’ constituted by memories, and they are ‘cognitively frozen in time’. But here we should exercise caution. It may be that simply having episodic memory prejudices our response to this question. The loss of episodic memory would, for most of us, be devastating. But, as it turns out, there are humans who lack episodic memory – and they are not very different from the rest of us. Their deficits are often not discovered until late in life. In fact, to these individuals, it often comes as a complete shock that other people can mentally relive past events. It seems odd to suppose that these individuals lack selves, or are cognitively frozen in time and that this has gone unnoticed.”
 
I’ve started reframing the intelligence question when I look at Samson and Jill. It’s far more interesting to think of the mechanisms by which their minds were formed (as a result of evolution, and sensory inputs unique to their canine bodies), and why they work the way they do. Even though I may not be able to comprehend their experience (and vice versa!) the question does bring us both, as intelligent creatures, closer together.

Porcupine’s Pointy Problem = Surgical Solution?

As a country-dweller, porcupines are second on my list (after fishers) of Not Cool Local Animals, judged by the main criterion of how much they can hurt my dogs (link: to story of Jill vs. Fisher).
 
Porcupines are herbivorous rodents who are native to most of Canada and the western United States. They are each covered in around 30,000 sharp quills (actually modified hairs), which they release as a last-ditch defense when physically attacked by a predator. When we first moved to the DFC ranch, our dogs made the unfortunate decision to go after a porcupine; which, as thoroughly suburban canines, they had never encountered before, and as, well, just canines, they immediately believed they could eat. Let’s just say that the vet bill, which sets a seemingly reasonable rate of a buck per quill removed from your dog’s face, quickly balloons when there are hundreds of quills involved.
 
So, I’ve long thought porcupines’ painful, tenacious quills to be a problem. But researchers are now looking at their physical properties as a naturally derived alternative to surgical staples in humans. Current surgical staples injure tissues themselves when being applied; also, their curved structure can give infection a foothold. But modeling a new innovation on the porcupine quill might change everything. From KQED Science:
 
“North American porcupine quills pack a hidden punch: microscopic, backward-facing barbs.

Covering just the needle-like tip of the quills, the barbs make removing a quill difficult, because they flare out when pulled in the opposite direction. […]
Those barbs are the main attraction to [bioengineer and professor of medicine at Harvard, Jeff] Karp. He and his team ran experiments comparing a barbed quill to a barbless quill. They measured the forces required to insert and remove the quills.

The results show that the barbs are dual-functional.

“They’re reducing the penetration force and increasing the pullout force,” said Karp. “It’s pretty neat.”
 
The research team likens the ease with which a staple, barbed like a porcupine quill, could enter human flesh to slicing a tomato with a serrated knife (yay!). They’re also looking at creating these staples out of biodegradable material — if the staples’ main asset is their barbed stickiness, then I definitely don’t want a doctor to have to dig one out of me.
I always love it when we look to nature for solutions to our human problems. Mother Nature has had several million years to get things right, after all! And though I have always respected porcupines, I now have a new appreciation for them. If only I could get Jill and Samson on board, on both counts…

Procrastination and Human Emotions

procrastination

Procrastination gets a bad rap: as a demon outside of ourselves, sitting on our extremities, preventing us from picking up a pen, or a broom, or a copy of TurboTax, like we know we’re supposed to. It’s that little imp that has had me up making a total of three separate cups of tea while I attempt to compose the very sentence you are currently reading.

But, as I’ve written in this space before, procrastination is actually linked to deeply set survival mechanisms in the human brain. Previous research has pointed to a battle between your limbic system (“fight or flight”) and prefrontal cortex (the slower, more rational future-planner) as the crux of procrastination. But just because procrastination is a natural response to perceived danger doesn’t mean it’s appropriate all the time. (Like when you spend a week trying to pick up the phone to book a dental cleaning.)

The New York Times has a fascinating deep dive into procrastination-as-self-harm, and how, as such, it’s actually more of an emotional regulation issue rather than a productivity issue. Researchers say it prioritizes a quick repair of bad feelings sourced in self-doubt, boredom, anxiety, etc., over the long-term happiness of successfully completing a task.

“But, of course, this only compounds the negative associations we have with the task, and those feelings will still be there whenever we come back to it, along with increased stress and anxiety, feelings of low self-esteem and self-blame. […]

But the momentary relief we feel when procrastinating is actually what makes the cycle especially vicious. In the immediate present, putting off a task provides relief — ‘you’ve been rewarded for procrastinating,’ [professor of psychology Dr. Fuchsia] Sirois said. And we know from basic behaviorism that when we’re rewarded for something, we tend to do it again. This is precisely why procrastination tends not to be a one-off behavior, but a cycle, one that easily becomes a chronic habit.”

So how do we shake off the demon? Forget Getting Things Done or Pomodoro or any number of productivity-focused techniques — counter-intuitively, they won’t help procrastination.

We have to address the very unpleasant feelings procrastination is trying to help us avoid. According to the researchers in the NYT profile, that means finding a “Bigger, Better Reward” for our brains than putting things off. This can involve dividing a big task up so we get more frequent “hits” of reward. Or forgiving ourselves for the times we do procrastinate, so we’re not compounding our bad feelings by beating ourselves up. In short, recognizing that we’re human — and that it’s not a bad thing — can help us overcome our most human of protective mechanisms.

Computing without Computers

When we first started out, DFC was primarily in the hardware/software business. Since then, we have moved to include networks, security, and bespoke business solutions. I see DFC’s trajectory as a metaphor for the development of computing at large. Time was, you got the unit first (whether out-of-the-box or DIY) and then futzed around figuring things out and building muscle memory. In short, in the chicken or egg metaphor, the egg of hardware came first, before the chicken of skills.
 
In today’s modern and connected world, having computing skills are taken for granted — but what happens if you’ve never even seen a computer? Ghanaian information and communications technology teacher Richard Appiah Akoto is subverting the binary: successfully teaching his students how to use a computer, without a single computer to practice on.
 
The mother of Mr Akoto’s invention is the fact that public schools in Ghana lack the significant resources of private schools. His enthusiastic Facebook posts about his work went viral last month, and the BBC has produced a video of his teaching in action. In it, he replicates the standard working screen of Microsoft Word with chalk and a ruler on a blackboard, then guides his students step-by-step through its processes by pointing at each function. He also explains how to use a mouse, and a keyboard, by drawing them too. Watch the video here.
 
Mr Akoto is dedicated to making sure his students pass the national ICT exam and compete with students in the future workforce from larger cities, and whose schools have computers. His students, like those in a computer-filled lab, still need some wrangling — but mostly due to lack of context for what they’re learning.
 
“It’s sometimes challenging. You will draw, and expect the student to do the same thing, but you go around to inspect it in their books, and they will be doing a different thing,because they are not familiar with the features.” Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9rtFiZ7unw
 
“Definitely those in Accra [Ghana’s capital] will pass the exam because you cannot compare someone who is in front of a computer, who knows what he is doing with the mouse to someone who has not had a feel of a computer mouse before.”
Link: https://qz.com/africa/1217879/a-ghana-teacher-shows-microsoft-windows-on-a-blackboard-is-a-viral-sensation/

Upon hearing Mr Akoto’s story, Microsoft pledged to send his class one computer, gratis. Several other donors have since stepped up to fill the need for as many desktops as possible. While the donated computers will take his students far, I think Mr. Akoto’s ingenuity is the greater gift — showing kids that limits can be dissolved by outside the box thinking.