About This Blog
Automating Invention is Robert Plotkin's blog on the impact of computer-automated inventing on the future of invention and patent law.
- Artificial Invention
- Design & Engineering
- Evolutionary Computation
- Genie in the Machine
- History of Computing
- Human Creativity
- Intellectual Property Law
- Philosophy of Computing
- Software Patents
- Technology Industry
- A Shift in Microsoft's Focus
- The Ludicrous Designs of Steven M. Johnson
- DIY Robots at Maker Faire
- Algorithms which Automate Creativity
- Crowdsourcing with The Energy Crowd
- Twitter on the Brain
- The In Crowd
- Evoletronica: Survival of the Funkiest
- A Micro-Manufacturing Revolution
- Darwin and the Origins of Modern Science
- The Evolutionary Art of Theo Jansen
- The Largest Workforce in the World
- August 2009
- July 2009
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- May 2009
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August 20, 2009
A Shift in Microsoft's Focus
In an Infoworld article, Microsoft chief officer for strategy and research Craig Mundie predicts that computers of the future will be programmed to serve people automatically, rather than reacting to human instructions. "I've lately taken to talking about computing more as going from a world where today they work at our command to where they work on our behalf," Mundie is quoted as saying. This focus indicates a shift in Microsoft's strategy towards user interfaces for computers (including gesture, voice and touch interaction).
At Microsoft's annual Field Summit in Spokane, Washington, Mundie showed a video of a prototype digital personal assistant. The image of a person on a computer screen was used to gather information and perform tasks. Mundie also presented a video on the digital office of the future, where files, a whiteboard, and presentation area are all represented by 3D projections. Interaction would take place through touch and gesture interaction. Mundie called these demos "half smoke and mirrors and part real," but stated that they are possible with current technology.
August 14, 2009
The Ludicrous Designs of Steven M. Johnson
Writing in the New York Times, Allison Arieff investigates the work of Steven M. Johnson, who she describes as an "inventor/author/cartoonist/former urban planner ... a sort of R. Crumb meets R. Buckminster Fuller."
Johnson, a former urban planner, creates designs for inventions that are sometimes whimsical, sometimes visionary. He calls them "sneakily outrageous." Examples include an office desk that transforms into an enclosed bed for late nights and afternoon naps at the office. On the more practical side, Johnson envisions a city where gasoline and diesel powered vehicles are barred and only electrical cars and bicycles are allowed. These are only the tip of the iceberg of Johnson's ideas, which are illustrated by cartoon panels. Johnson describes his design process as lateral, letting loose the imagination and ignoring the worrying part of the mind. See Johnson's work on his PantentDepending website.
July 23, 2009
DIY Robots at Maker Faire
At the annual Maker Faire this spring in San Mateo, California, do-it-yourself robotics was one of the largest exhibit categories. Twenty-four individuals and groups had working robots on display. Two of the popular events at the Faire were the RoboGames, where robots were pitted against each other in combat and RoboMagellan, where robots used GPS to navigate obstacle courses. The function of many of the robots tended towards whimsical, with robots that make cocktails on demand and robots that are replicas of Star Wars robots being two of the most popular genres. The proliferation of DIY robotic kits is credited with the boom in homemade robots at the Faire and could be the impetus for a mainstream movement.
June 13, 2009
Algorithms which Automate Creativity
In the Journal of Genetic Progamming and Evolvable Machines, a paper entitled Incorporating characteristics of human creativity into an evolutionary art algorithm examines computer-generated art and design software which uses an evolutionary approach. This software usually relies on human intervention to select the 'best' of two variants and determine the makeup of the next generation. The paper's authors, Steve DiPaola and Liane Gabora, discuss ways in which the software can incorporate this human intervention into its algorithms, automating one more step of human creativity.
June 9, 2009
Crowdsourcing with The Energy Crowd
The Energy Crowd is a crowdsourcing web site which is attempting to create new sustainable energy technologies by gathering input from engineers, designers and the general public. The goal is to bring together individuals who might otherwise be working in isolation. Participants may be highly skilled but are working without remuneration. A project which is currently underway is the design of a solar heating system for the home which will capture energy from sunlight during the summer and store it to heat the home during the fall and winter. If a commercially-viable solution is arrived upon, it will be made available via a General Public License (GPL).
The site also publishes online a collection of news and information about sustainable energy called 101 Ways to Kick the Carbon Habit.
May 25, 2009
Twitter on the Brain
Twitter has become habit-forming for many people, but only Adam Wilson can claim to have posted on Twitter using his brain waves. His message, "using EEG to send tweet," was actually a demonstration of brain-computer interface technology. Wilson, a University of Wisconsin biomedical engineering doctoral student, is interested in providing communication interfaces for people with "locked-in syndrome," meaning their brains are functional but communication is hampered by injury or a medical condition.
Wilson used an electrode-studded cap wired to a computer to send electrical signals from his brain to an on-screen keyboard. Focussing on a letter caused it to be 'typed' on the keyboard. The Twitter experiment was one of the first to tie a brain-computer interface to Internet technology. Justin Williams, a UW professor and Wilson's advisor, hopes that this demonstration will inspire other researchers to focus on inventions that will help the daily life of people with neurological deficits.
April 29, 2009
The In Crowd
In an article in the March 2009 issue of the Communications of the ACM titled "Crowd Control," Leah Hoffman looks at the growing popularity of computer crowdsourcing applications. Crowdsourcing leverages the abilities of the human mind which aren't easily replicated by computers, including visual cognition and language processing. Crowdsourcing applications distribute tasks related to these abilities, attracting workers by using online games or by paying a small fee for completion of a task.
Crowdsourcing first received widespread recognition with the publication in 2004 of James Surowiecki's best-selling book The Wisdom of Crowds. The oldest and most well-known crowdsourcing application is Amazon's Mechanical Turk, which is a web-based platform which allows 'workers' to complete micro-tasks and receive payment (which is usually also 'micro').
Consulting companies are now available to help businesses and individuals interface with Mechanical Turk. Dolores Labs, based in San Francisco, sets up Mechanical Turk tasks for clients, then validates the results for quality and meaning. For more details on how crowdsourcing works, see the ACM article.
Read an earlier post about crowdsourcing here.
April 15, 2009
Evoletronica: Survival of the Funkiest
The blog for the Journal of Genetic Programming and Evolvable Machines (GPEMjournal) reports on a new website which uses genetic programming and human fitness assessment to 'breed electronic music.' The Evolectronica website streams loops of audio which are voted on by site visitors. Loops which receive the most votes 'reproduce' and 'baby loops' are created. The website is also something of a social community, with members posting their comments and competing for the Hall of Fame. It takes a little work to get set up to listen to audio, but once you do you will be fascinated by the evolving sounds.
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.
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.
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.
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.
February 23, 2009
Garage Genome Hackers
NewScientist describes a do-it-yourself movement in biotechnology, specifically in the area of synthetic biology, which uses genes and cells as the building blocks for the creation of new organisms. The movement includes a diverse mix of people who enjoy tinkering with DNA in their spare time.
The science fiction website io9.com recently sponsored a Mad Scientist contest aimed at "mad scientists with homebrew closet labs, grassroots geneticists, and garage genome hackers." Contestants were asked to build a real life form using MIT's registry of standard biological parts known as "biobricks," or by using other scientifically plausible materials. The idea behind encouragement of this grass-roots movement is to bring a wider group of people into the field of discovery, similar to what happened when tinkerers like the Homebrew Computer Club of the 1970s spawned the first personal computers.
January 9, 2009
Upcoming Talk on Automated, Collaborative, and Distributed Inventing
We usually think of an "inventor" as someone who sits alone in a workshop, sketching designs and hammering out prototypes. In the future, individual inventorship will increasingly be overtaken by various forms of "collaborative inventing" as inventors leverage computer technology as an inventive tool. The talk will provide real-world examples of the phenomena that are changing the face of inventing.
October 1, 2008
Does Google Make Us Dumber or Smarter?
For the next chapter in the debate sparked by Nicholas Carr's article in The Atlantic entitled, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," see this retort from Damon Darlin in The New York Times. We need to have the same debate about invention automation technology: will it replace human inventors or enable them to become better at inventing?
September 27, 2008
Vernor Vinge on the Future of Human-Machine Intelligence
July 26, 2008
Forgetful? Just Upgrade Your Memory
Have you ever referred to Google's search engine as your "backup memory"? Clive Thompson calls it his "outboard brain." Both metaphors are apt. Forget the name of that Japanese restaurant that opened last year down the street? No worries. It's just a few keystrokes away. The director of your favorite movie? Just as easy. I've reached the point where if I forget the meaning of a word while at my desk I'll look up the definition online rather than reach a few feet further for a hardbound dictionary, and not just because I'm lazy - the former has finally become faster than the latter.
Someday it may be possible to have a chip implanted in your skull which will achieve the same effect. We shouldn't, however, make too much of the difference between internal and external memory enhancements (as Andy Clark argues eloquently in Natural-Born Cyborgs). Both kinds of upgrade enhance our recall and influence our behavior. Admit it - you've looked up a fact on Google while on a phone call and inserted that fact into the conversation without confessing to the ruse. To an external observer, there is no difference between a sharper you and the same old you with a high-speed Internet connection.
One you come to rely on the ready availability of technological memory boosters, you may become less inclined to expend energy memorizing facts, just as books reduced the incentive for people to memorize Homer's Iliad. After all, anything you forget is within arm's reach. Clive Thompson, in the article mentioned above, points to a study by neuroscientist Ian Robertson which found evidence of this trend: fewer than 40 percent of respondents to a survey could remember a relative's birthday, while 87 percent of people over 50 could do so.
Inventors who harness invention-automation technology experience similar effects on their inventive abilities. A novice engineer can effectively boost his inventive skill level to equal that of a more experienced inventor by using automated tools which can explore pathways he would not otherwise have considered. Experienced designers can relegate the low-level details of design to software, just as we relegate fact-finding to search engines. The result: human inventors whose creativity has been augmented by computers, with no chip implant required.
February 3, 2006
The Spark of Co-Creation
In his new book Spark, John Winsor and 16 others discuss "co-creation," in which companies work collaboratively with their customers to create and improve their products and services. In other words, it is a collaboratively-written book about collaboration.
I see a parallel here between collaboration of businesses and their customers in "co-creation," and the "collaboration" of software and its users in interactive evolutionary computation.
July 19, 2005
Is it harder to think in the abstract than in specifics?
Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a. "Instapundit") criticizes Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind for encouraging people, perhaps indirectly, to seek out "holistic" and "right-brain" approaches to problems that will be appealing because they seem "easier than those tiresome traditional linear approaches with all their steps, increments, and well, work." Reynolds cautions that:
[G]enius . . . has more to do with perspiration than inspiration. And while our workplaces may be too unfriendly to right brain thinking, they're a lot friendlier than they used to be. . . . In fact, it's arguable that most business management could benefit from a more traditional approach to balance sheets and bottom lines: More thinking inside the Income Statement, and less effort to think "outside the box."
I think part of Reynolds' criticism stems from a problem with Pink's distinction between "logical" and "holistic" modes of thought. I've said before that I think Pink's analysis is insightful and well worth reading, but this distinction has limitations.
Consider instead a different distinction, that between thinking at different levels of abstraction (see previous posting). Imagine an engineer faced with the problem of designing an electronic calculator. She might start with low-level electronic components, such as resistors and capacitors, and attempt to combine them together into a calculator. This would require a detailed understanding of circuit design at a low level of abstraction (i.e., a high level of specificity).
If, however, the engineer had available existing components for adding, multiplying, and performing other arithmetic functions, she could design a calculator by combining those existing components together. She might not need to know anything about the internal guts (e.g., resistors and capacitors) of the components she used. This would require an understanding of circuit design at a higher level of abstraction.
Finally, if the engineer had access to an existing electronic calculator, she would not need to know anything about circuit design. But imagine that she programs the calculator to not only perform arithmetic, but also to solve equations. This would require a yet more abstract understanding of mathematics and programming.
Is it any "harder" or "easier" to solve problems at any one of these levels of abstraction than at the other? Yes, but only in the sense that it is easier to make an existing calculator add 2+2 than it is to design from scratch a calculator for adding 2+2.
But that is comparing apples and oranges. Once the calculator exists, it poses problems at a higher level of abstraction that are just as complex in their own right as the problems that existed at the lower level of abstraction before the calculator was built. Science and engineering are fractal in this way; there is no loss in resolution as you move among layers of abstraction.
Let me take a stab at using this analysis to harmonize Pink's original argument and Reynolds' criticism of it. We need to use both "logical" ("left-brain") thinking and "holistic" ("right-brain") thinking at every layer of abstraction. As Pink's Abundance, Asia, and Automation make it impossible for people in the U.S. to compete at their current level of abstraction using logical thinking alone, they will either need to use holistic thinking at that level of abstraction, or move up a level, where it will be possible for them to succeed using only logical thinking until the same forces kick in at that level at some point in the future. Then the whole game starts over again, and Pink will be able to write about the Neo-Conceptual Age and its progeny, ad infinitum.
July 18, 2005
A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink
A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink is well worth reading if you're interested in the topics covered by this blog. Pink's argument is that holistic thinking, and a variety of skills associated with it, will become increasingly economically valuable in the coming "Conceptual Age." A relatively small portion of the book is dedicated to substantiating this claim. Most of the book focuses on describing the "six senses" -- the set of aptitudes that you will need to succeed in the Conceptual Age -- and on providing practical ways for individuals to sharpen those senses. (The six senses are Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning.)
Pink identifies three drivers of the Conceptual Age: Abundance, Asia, and Automation. He draws a useful analogy between the defeat of the iconic John Henry by an automated steam drill and the defeat of chess grand master Garry Kasparov by the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue. Pink concludes the analogy:
Last century, machines proved they could replace human backs. This century, new technologies are proving they can replace human left brains.
I agree. But Pink's conclusion doesn't go far enough. Artificial creativity is proving increasingly able to replace human right brains. For example, human programmers were still required to program the incarnation of Deep Blue that defeated Kasparov. Kasparov may have his revenge when Deep Blue's programmers are put out of work by a genetic algorithm that evolves winning chess playing strategies. Although we're not there yet, Moshe Sipper and his colleagues have made some great strides.
In the final analysis, my extended analogy is still consistent with Pink's general thesis -- that people will need to develop higher-level conceptual skills in the coming century to remain competitive. Deep Blue's programmers' best bet for keeping their jobs in the long term is to learn how to write genetic algorithms that produce chess-playing code, rather than continuing to fine tune their skills at writing chess-playing code itself.
June 23, 2005
Who "writes" a reality TV show?
WBUR reported this morning (the same story is being covered by Reuters and others) that the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has launched a campaign to gain a labor contract for writers of reality TV shows. Reality TV producers are objecting to such a contract, in part on the basis that the people seeking a contract aren't "writers."
What's the connection between this and automated inventing? Consider the following (from the Reuters story):
Instead of writing dialogue, reality TV writers say they help craft the overall sense of story. According to the union, this includes casting, creating scenarios, conducting field interviews and guiding the postproduction process so hundreds of hours of video end up with a meaningful beginning, middle and end.
For that reason, video editors feel they are equally deserving of WGA coverage.
"These stories come together in post (-production) -- stories are pulled out by us, in collaboration of course with storytellers -- but we're in there creating stories so it's a logical conclusion to be part of the Writers Guild," said editor Donna Egan, who also is helping organize this campaign. "A lot of it is just about having basic benefits -- health and pension. We have to change the system because the system isn't going to change voluntarily."
Is someone who works on a reality TV show a "writer" because he or she creates the environment in which a reality TV show plays out? This is similar to the question whether someone who writes automatic script-writing software is the "author" of the resulting scripts, or whether someone who writes automatic machine-designing software is the "inventor" of the resulting machines.
Whatever the answer to these questions, now at least I can justify watching "Fear Factor" as a way of conducting research into automated inventing.
June 17, 2005
Inventors Work Hard to be Lazy
I don't think necessity is the mother of invention - invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness. To save oneself trouble.
The purpose of many inventions is to make life easier for the inventions' users. New toasters, cars, and lawn mowers make it easier for the people who use them to make toast, travel, and mow the lawn.
But the purpose of many other inventions is to make it easier for inventors to invent. An engineer might write a computer program to simulate new designs for automobile frames, thereby saving the time, money, and effort needed to build and test physical prototypes of the frames. Similarly, engineers have long invented measurement tools, ranging from calipers to electronic calculators, to make it easier to build and test their inventions more accurately.
Inventors invent such new devices to make their lives as inventors easier -- "[t]o save oneself trouble," in Christie's words. The use of such "invention-facilitating inventions" is usually transparent to the end user, who has no way to know whether his new toaster was designed by pure human ingenuity or by an automated computer program.
Invention-facilitating inventions have long been patentable. But such inventions arguably "promote the progress of useful arts" (the ultimate purpose of U.S. patent law) only indirectly, by reducing the resources (e.g., time, money, raw materials) required to invent. If this is a sufficient basis for patentability, then why not allow improvements in pure mathematics, or at least improvements in "pure software" that performs calculations more efficiently? Surely such improvements may be applied to facilitate the process of inventing.
Although I won't attempt to provide any answers to these questions here, I think that the debate over software patents is in part a debate over how direct the connection needs to be between the function performed by a computer program and some real-world ("practical" or "industrial") use for patent protection to be justified. Future improvements in automated inventing will only make resolution of this question more pressing.