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Automating Invention is Robert Plotkin's blog on the impact of computer-automated inventing on the future of invention and patent law.

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March 31, 2009

Mathematical Firepower and Modern Science

Dr. Louise Ryan is a Harvard professor who was recently appointed Chief of Mathematical and Information Sciences at CSIRO, an Australian research organization. In her new role, Dr. Ryan will head up an organization which provides 'mathematical firepower' in support of all types of scientific research projects in Australia. She plans on using her new role to gain increased funding for mathematical education, since expertise in mathematics is essential for all areas of computer-based research.

One of the CSIRO research projects involves investigation into the human genome, analyzing complex genomic data to learn more about the nature of disease. According to Dr. Ryan, "The ability to transmit and gather information is just changing at an exponential rate. And so our statistical and mathematical fields have to evolve to be able to handle that data and that's where that very advanced computing comes in."

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 3:50 PM | Comments (0)
category: Education

March 30, 2009

Introduction to The Genie in the Machine Now Available Online

The Introduction to my upcoming book, The Genie in the Machine, is now available online for viewing at the Stanford University Press web site. The full table of contents is also available.

For the rest of the book, you'll have to wait about another month . . .

Posted by Robert at 12:15 PM | Comments (0)
category: Genie in the Machine

March 29, 2009

AI Test Patterns

A team of vision research scientists at Queen Mary University of London have developed computer software which creates pictures and stimuli to test visual search abilities in the human brain. The team used a genetic algorithm to 'breed' a range of images and visual stimuli. By using artificial intelligence for test pattern design, the team was able to produce unique tests which were free of predetermined results.

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 3:43 PM | Comments (0)
category: Artificial Invention

March 27, 2009

A Micro-Manufacturing Revolution

In the March issue of Wired magazine, Clive Thompson describes how he recently bought his wife a one-of-a-kind piece of handmade jewelry at Etsy, an eCommerce site where artisans sell handmade creations. Thompson sees Etsy, which last year had 2 million buyers spend a total of $90 million dollars, as part of a larger trend which he calls micro-manufacturing. Consumers are craving unique handmade items and the Internet is the perfect venue for showcasing and marketing a large variety of crafts. Thompson ties this craving to the need for customization and individuality which is inherent in the online digital culture.

Low-cost, automated manufacturing is the perfect complement to low-cost, automated design.  The two can work together to provide end-to-end automation of everything except for the initial conception of an idea.

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 3:37 PM | Comments (0)
category: Human Creativity

March 25, 2009

Open-Source Software Speeds up Molecular Simulations

The simulation of molecular motion is a critical element in the study of diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and in the development of vaccines. In the past, this simulation required large amounts of computing power, restricting researchers to using supercomputers or to breaking up the computations for processing on less powerful desktop computers. Now, thanks to an open-source software package developed at Stanford, molecular motion simulation can be done on desktop computers at higher speeds than ever thought possible.

"Simulations that used to take three years can now be completed in a few days", said Vijay Pande, an associate professor of chemistry at Stanford and principal investigator of the Open Molecular Mechanics (OpenMM) project. OpenMM is able to perform accelerated simulations by taking advantage of inexpensive graphics processors (GPUs). An added bonus is that the software works with any brand of GPU, meaning that the simulations can be done on most laptop and desktop computers.

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 3:27 PM | Comments (0)
category: Design & Engineering | Intellectual Property Law

March 23, 2009

Charles Darwin and Robots

Many tributes have been paid to Charles Darwin this year in honor of the double anniversaries of his 200th birthday and 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species. On the website Robots.net, Darwin's influence on the field of robotics is examined. The development of bipedal walking and flapping wing mechanisms used evolutionary techniques, as did neural networks which allow robots to learn simple behaviors. See the article for more details on these and other innovations in robotics which are attributable to Darwin's theories.

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 4:09 PM | Comments (0)
category: Artificial Invention | Evolutionary Computation

March 21, 2009

Charles Darwin and Online Dating

To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, Discovery Magazine published a special series of articles examining Darwin's impact on modern perceptions of the world. In an article titled We all Live in Darwin's World, the work of Rutgers University biological anthropologist Helen Fisher is discussed. Fisher is a best-selling author of books on love and an advisor to online dating service Chemistry.com. For the dating service, she created a questionnaire based on years of research on the science of romantic attraction. Fisher used the principles of evolutionary psychology, a field with its roots in Charles Darwin's theories.

See the entire article here.

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 3:53 PM | Comments (0)
category: Artificial Invention

March 19, 2009

Darwin and the Origins of Modern Science

In an article in Arizona University's Daily Wildcat, Charles Darwin's influence on modern science is examined. Darwin's On the Origin of Species is defined as the starting point for modern biology and the unifying theory which connects biology, ecology, genetics, molecular biology and taxonomy.

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 3:45 PM | Comments (0)
category: Human Creativity

March 17, 2009

The Legacy of Darwin

February 12 marked the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. In an article in the Columbus Dispatch, several research scientists are profiled whose work carries on the tenets originally put forth by Darwin. One of them is John Holland, professor of psychology, electrical engineering, and computer science at the University of Michigan. Holland was among the first researchers to write computer programs that use genetic algorithms to mimic evolution. His current research is in the area of linguistics. According to Holland, "I'm working with linguists on the origin and evolution of language. Older linguists think language is wired in. The new group believes language is adaptive and very social."

See the Columbus Dispatch online for the complete article.

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 3:36 PM | Comments (0)
category: Evolutionary Computation

March 15, 2009

The Evolutionary Art of Theo Jansen

Theo Jansen is a Dutch artist and kinetic sculptor who creates animated works of art that resemble living organisms. Jansen's vision is to use inorganic materials in an attempt at "redoing the Creation." He works with light materials like plastic bottles, sheets and tubing; the animation is powered by wind. Jansen's works are a melding of art and engineering. Computer calculations which use genetic algorithms to simulate evolution are behind the designs of his sculptures. Since 1990, Jansen's 'animals' have developed through a series of evolved models. He's made the plans for his designs public and invites anyone to duplicate his creations.

Theo Jansen's sculptures really must be seen to be believed. Jansen and his work were recently featured in a European auto commercial, which you can see here. A longer documentary film is available here.

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 3:30 PM | Comments (0)
category: Evolutionary Computation | Human Creativity

March 13, 2009

Darwin and Digital Technology

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, prompting reflection on the profound impact of his work. Darwin's legacy is being re-examined in light of developments in the world of digital technology, especially computing and robotics. Genetic algorithms, which replicate the process of natural selection, are used for computer-based problem solving and design. Several popular video games, including Spore and Creatures, are modeled on biological reproduction and evolution. In the field of robotics, neural networks are being developed to control all aspects of robot behavior.

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 4:03 PM | Comments (0)
category: Evolutionary Computation

March 11, 2009

Darwin's Influence on New Technologies

The Houston Chronicle used the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth to examine some new technologies whose development can be attributed to Darwin's theories. In the field of law enforcement, DNA identification techniques have had tremendous impact on forensic science and criminal justice. In the field of medicine, scientists have come to understand that evolution can cause bacteria and viruses to mutate over time, with antibiotics and vaccines becoming ineffective as a result. In computer science, genetic algorithms use the model of natural selection to evolve solutions in areas such as air traffic control and weather forecasting.

See the article for an example of how a company called Maxygen used genetic algorithms to design a new household detergent.

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 3:58 PM | Comments (0)
category: Evolutionary Computation

March 9, 2009

Networked Human Computation and the Phrase Detective Game

Researchers at the University of Essex are using an online "game with a purpose" (GWAP) called Phrase Detective to enlist the help of the general public in creating annotated linguistic references. These references are needed in the design of computer programs which recognize human text. Language recognition programs, which include search, translation and summarization applications, work from a large database of language examples where the meaning of individual phrases has been explained. Creating this type of knowledge database is time-consuming and labor-intensive. Making use of networked human computation through the Phrase Detective game allows the University to tap into a free labor force.

In the first four weeks online, Phrase Detective players created more than 40,000 linguistic annotations. This is a promising beginning and will help answer the question of whether networked human computation help provide data to solve complex language comprehension tasks.

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 3:47 PM | Comments (0)
category: Artificial Invention

March 7, 2009

Evolved Transforms and Image Compression

Image compression is a key task performed by image processing software. The most widely used compression schemes, such as wavelet transforms, usually introduce a loss of information while reducing the number of bits required for image representation. A new approach which uses evolutionary computation (EC) circumvents the problem of data loss.

A team of computer scientists from the University of Alaska Anchorage and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio are using EC's fitness-based selection and genetics-inspired operators to evolve solutions for image compression optimization. Working since 2004, Frank Moore, Brendan Babb, Michael Peterson, and Gary Lamont have found that EC can outperform wavelets for compression tasks. Ongoing research is underway on the optimization of satellite images. Future applications could include radio frequency signal compression and noise reduction in medical imaging.

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 3:41 PM | Comments (0)
category: Evolutionary Computation

March 5, 2009

The Largest Workforce in the World

Crowdsourcing is a relatively new term which refers to contract work which is outsourced to a large community of people through an open call. Generally, it's a tool for tapping into human knowledge and expertise to provide data for web applications. Amazon's Mechanical Turk is a web service which works through crowdsourcing, publishing HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks) which can be claimed and completed by Workers for small cash payments.

Nathan Eagle, a research scientist at MIT and the Santa Fe Institute, is launching a cell phone-based system similar to Mechanical Turk. The txteagle system will distribute tasks via cell phones, with the goal of employing people in poorer parts of the world. Its charter is "Empowering the largest knowledge workforce on Earth." Sample tasks include translation of phrases to other languages, rating the relevance of search results, and transcribing audio clips.

According to Eagle, the goal for txteagle is to start small and measure how well the model works before expanding. Through grant money, he would like to start service in Rwanda, Kenya, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic within the next year.

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 4:15 PM | Comments (0)
category: Human Creativity

National Magazine on Business Method Patents

National Magazine, published by the Canadian Bar Association, has a good article on the implications of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit's decision in In re Bilski on business method patents in Canada and elsewhere. (Shameless self-promotion: I am quoted at the end of the article as stating that although some are interpreting the Bilski decision to mean that software is not patentable, the decision itself expressly states that it is not intended to address the patentability of software.)

Posted by Robert at 2:12 PM | Comments (0)
category: Software Patents

March 3, 2009

Can Google Make You Smarter?

An article in Discover Magazine challenges claims that the increased use of search engines like Google can rob us of our ability to think and remember. There have also been claims that increased text messaging encourages illiteracy. Author Carl Zimmer disputes these theories, proposing instead that information technologies are making the world an extension of our minds.

The concept of an extended mind was brought to public attention in a 1998 article by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers. They describe the mind as a system made up of the brain and parts of its environment. They argue that we all have minds that extend into our environment. If we subscribe to this extended mind theory, then today's mind-altering technologies can be seen as opening up a world of possibilities.

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 4:22 PM | Comments (0)
category: Philosophy of Computing

March 1, 2009


A team of engineers at Carnegie Mellon University has developed software that supports creation of 3D designs by sketching on a tablet computer. The SketchCAD software is intended to give users more creative freedom and a shorter learning curve. Future users of SketchCAD may include physicians planning surgeries as well as mechanical engineers designing products such as cars.

Some industry experts have pointed out that tablet input devices for CAD were first introduced in the 1960s, but were eventually replaced by the ubiquitous mouse. According to Levent Burak Kara, one of the project leaders, this is a new take on an old tool. "The idea is to empower engineers and designers with tools that are already familiar to them and are the most natural for the task."

Posted by BlogAuthor1 at 3:59 PM | Comments (0)
category: Design & Engineering