Monday, 13 June 2011

The Key to Automation

Every day seems to see new reports about incredible robots being developed. Robots that carry stuff for soldiers, robots that perform surgery, and robots that play football. It's all very exciting, but what we really need are robots to make our lives easier. To give us more time to do what we want. To do the mundane jobs and free us up to take on more creative work that robots can't do.

But how do we go about this? How do we bring robots and automation into our everyday lives, unless robot intelligence is significantly improved? Well, while this intelligence is improving at a rapidly accelerating pace, there is a huge potential for solving problems using simple, task repeating, programmable robotics.

The key is to standardize everything. We have to "put it on rails".

As an example, let's look at making an automated dish washing system.

We have dishwashers, but we still need to load and unload them. We need to develop 2 things. Firstly, we need a robot that can safely sort dishes no matter how randomly they're piled up, and insert them into their relevant areas of the dishwasher. Secondly, and this wouldn't be so difficult once the first stage was completed, is a mechanism for unloading the dishes and putting them away.

The important thing to note is that the kitchen would need to be designed with this in mind. In many solutions, we may need to consider our existing infrastructure. This needn't be as complex as it's made out to be, and would always pay off once a working automated system was integrated.

So you would need containers either side of the dishwasher, one for humans to pile up the dirty dishes, and one where the clean dishes would be stored permanently. This would make it easier than if the storage cupboard was, say, on the other side of the room to the dishwasher.

The next step, we could consider 2 options. The first is to standardize all our plates, cups, dishes, pots, pans, and cutlery, so that the loading robot would "recognize" them all. Alternatively, we may be able to develop robots that can recognize new items and program themselves "on the fly" to deal with them effectively. This would obviously be a little harder. To achieve the first step, all the dishes we use in a house could be embedded with RFID. The robot could also have powerful sensors similar to face recognition software many cameras currently have.

Within the dishwasher, every item would have a specified place. The robot would simply grab each item and move it to its "cleaning slot". Any odd items could occupy a separate platform within the dishwasher.

You get the idea. While it still has some creases to iron out, the point is that there is plenty that can be achieved with a minimal level of robot intelligence, if we standardize our practices and the environments that automation functions in. The same theory could be applied to transportation. It's baffling why trains are still driven by human beings, when a computer could control them perfectly.

If you think that giving computers so much responsibility is dangerous, it's because you've been conditioned to seeing machines that have been challenged by real life scenarios. The point is, these machines have been limited by the programming of humans. They have been put in situations where they have not been designed to cope with all possible scenarios. They were expected to work like humans, yet they were limited in the number of possible actions. Automation system designers need to limit the scenario to a set routine, as well as limiting the influence of external factors.

To put it another way, they need to simplify what a robot has to do, and design its environment to confine it, protecting it from the need to make decisions. We can do this by standardizing its interactions. This will allow us to bring automation into our lives in more ways than we ever thought possible, even at current technology levels.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The Evolution of Complexity

Matter Evolution

Since the first particles were set in motion, every action has been part of a chain reaction.

At first, there were the simplest of elementary particles in an empty universe. Hydrogen atoms - single electron entities, were the pinnacle of complexity.

Eventually, a few of them collided, stuck together, and formed more complex atoms, and then molecules. Well, it was a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea. These molecules accumulated until there were so many that gravity and magnetism began to have a significant effect. As the gravity increased, the mass increased, and nuclear fusion commenced. Star systems were born.

The planets continued a sequence of their own. Eventually molecules increased in complexity by way of chemical reactions in order to form amino acids which then combined to create proteins.

These proteins and amino acids increased in complexity until living cells emerged from a random chemical process. I realise this step is a big debate, but it does seem to follow the natural flow of this theory.

Life started simple - with single cell organisms converting oxygen into energy.

Like everything before it, life increased in complexity as its requirement for survival drove it to trial different solutions to the problems it faced. Solving any problem always creates new, more complex problems. When the first animal came onto the land to find food, it had to develop solutions to deal with this new environment. So because of legs, lungs had to be developed. (Or vice versa?) Because of cars, roads and the Department of Motor Vehicles had to be developed.

Consciousness Evolution

After an unfathomably long time, something incredible happened. Life increased complexity so much that a brain able to comprehend its own existence was formed. This brain not only solved problems, as brains before it did, but it built upon ideas. It developed the same skills as nature itself, evolving ideas that increased the complexity of the universe. *These self acknowledging brains loosely described this phenomenon as consciousness, and these complexity-increasing ideas as technology.

Consciousness is a feedback to nature. For the first time in history, nature is no longer the main driver of complexity, the complexity itself is driving further evolution.

Now I'm not talking about transhumanism or notions of driving our own evolution to become more than human. I'm talking about the ability to create ideas. Ideas drive evolution. Like nature before it, the function of ideas developed by consciousness is to increase complexity. This evolves the course of the universe itself.

Ideas are created by combining previously existing concepts to solve a problem. These ideas then create new problems that need to be solved and so new ideas always add to the ever increasing complexity.

Evolution = increasing complexity, using ideas as the mechanism.

Evolution began as hydrogen atoms evolving into complex molecules. It is not restricted to the evolution of plants and animals. Charles Darwin's identification of the evolution of the species was just a very small part of a much bigger picture.

It's important to remember that this is still part of that original chain reaction. Evolution is the function of the universe itself.

I'll say that again. Evolution is the function of the universe itself. To appreciate this, you just have to acknowledge that the true definition of evolution is to increase complexity. That is all that has ever happened. From the increasing complexity of atoms to the development of life, the improvement of life and then the development of consciousness, the universe is just a complexity factory. That's what it does.

Our Purpose

What is profound about this is realising where we fit it into it all. We've often wondered what is the reason for living, and when you look at the big picture like this, it becomes obvious.

We are just here to continue the evolution of complexity.

Of course this is both empowering and humbling. It turns out that human beings could be pivotal to the evolution of the universe. Looking back at how the universe has evolved we can predict that we, (or another version of consciousness that will emerge if we create our own extinction), will contribute to the emergent complexity of the universe. Our ideas will evolve the complexity and will take the universe to the next level. Yet at the same time, we realise that we are simply a result of what the universe was doing anyway. We are not the 'pinnacle' of evolution, we are just 'where it's at now'. There is much more to come, and perhaps we are just an insignificant speck in the development of something much grander.

What if the development of consciousness is just an embryo of a super-brain and concepts such as individuality are simply mechanisms in its development? Kinda makes the humbling from Darwin and Copernicus seem like a mild slap. The ego of humanity takes yet another beating...

But even if this is the case, there's no need to feel down. Now we know our purpose, we know what to focus on. We have meaning and direction. We are here to drive complexity, by creating ideas which are solutions to problems.

Society Evolution

And there is more. Since we first started integrating concepts and evolving ideas, we have been part of something even more complex than our minds: Society. The hive-mind of ants or bees is one thing, but the hive mind of an entire planet of concscious, problem solving, dextrous human beings is quite another. Society adds yet another level of complexity to the evolution of the universe.

Society has only existed in any sort of complex form for a few thousand years, but until the birth of the internet, it was fragmented and relatively simple. Now, people have the potential to connect to any of seven billion others. Cultures merge. Belief systems collapse and form in seconds. Values shift and perceptions alter. More possibilities present themselves. When the internet exploded, our day-to-day functioning as a society hit the knee of an exponential curve in terms of complexity.

This is not to be feared. This is the destiny of evolution, the destiny of the universe. Yes, we will create ideas to temporarily simplify many concepts. But this is just so that we can then use this simplification as a step up to further complexity. Like a fractal. For example, Google simplified searching the internet, but in doing so empowered people to solve more complex problems than ever before, due to the ease of access to new concept-combinations.

It's no doubt that these are exciting times. Technology is advancing at a similar rate, enabling all sorts of new opportunities, problems and the ideas required to solve them. The more technology, the more ideas. The more ideas, the more complex society becomes. Even the power of our own brains is on the verge of improvement, adding to our ability to drive further complexity.

So immerse yourself. Ride the wave of nature and accept our destiny - the perpetuation of complexity.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Product Longevity in a World Driven by Consumption

It will obvious to most of you that Product Longevity is incompatible with capitalism as we know it. The system relies on continuous consumption to perpetuate the workforce and grow enterprise. While there may be a capitalist incentive to produce long lasting products in some industries, the fact remains that breaking down just outside of the warranty period is the most profitable circumstance.

Constant technological advancements seem to be a licence for excessive consumption, ongoing changes justifying the buy and throw away culture.

So how do we address this from a sustainability perspective?

It's becoming increasingly apparent that the decoupling of monetary gain from the production is imperative.

Would it be possible (profitable) for a company to start up, complete a production run of one very long lasting product, and then move onto another, different product? Possibly, but only if the company's infrastructure was designed in such a way as to allow for cheap and fast transformation to a new product line. Breakdowns may still happen and there would need to be something in place to deal with this or we would run out of products very quickly. Fundamentally, this approach would never be preferable to any company whose priority is to grow and make profit, but it might be demanded as more people realise the importance of sustainability.

It might even be in the interests of a sustainable community to form their own production facility not concerned with profit, similar to a cooperative but with a focus on sustainability over profit. Working outside the monetary system, this would undermine any companies working within it, completely out-competing them. It would take a large amount of resources to instigate and complete, but these could be supplied voluntarily and without debt by the community. Also there would only be a single one-off project for each product.

However, this single production run system would not work for genuinely consumable products, or fast advancing technological products. It would also have a problem dealing with any products that break down.

We must think about how to produce goods that integrate product longevity while also allowing for ongoing technological enhancement, and effectively dealing with product failures.

Whilst this is completely incompatible with corporate growth, it may still allow a company to run indefinitely, albeit without growth. Is it really so bad for a company to continue running at the same capacity indefinitely, especially if it means sustainable production?


The above post was written some years ago, and since then these ideas have become apparent to many people.

In fact, work is taking place to create asynchronous enterprises - organisations that use their non-profit status to completely out compete their for-profit counterparts. Due to the lack of profit requirement and a desire to maintain a sustainable production cycle, these enterprises have the potential to obsolete many traditional businesses.

It is called Peer Production, and the idea is gaining momentum. Does it have the potential to shift the world away from profit driven business?

Check out a whole host of information here.