Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Anternet

Ant colonies operate coherently without central control. They can offer insights on other such systems that operate without central control, such as neurons in our brain, or cancers. Deborah Gordon gave a fascinating talk exploring these relationships.

There are over 12,000 species of ants and they operate under different algorithms that strike a balance between operating costs and resource availability, depending on their environment.

For instance, in the desert, operating costs are high, since ants have to expend precious water to go out foraging for food and more water. In this environment, ants don’t leave to forage until there’s been a positive signal, namely a certain frequency of ants returning from foraging. Since ants only return once they’ve reached their foraging target, a steady stream of returning ants indicates foraging has been successful. Different colonies have different trigger. Because of advances in genetic decoding which allows identification of offspring colonies, Gordon has been able to analyze many years worth of data to show that higher trigger levels yield better evolutionary success.

The Internet works in a similar way to these desert ants. Data doesn’t leave an Internet node until there is a positive signal that there’s enough bandwidth available. Hence the name the Anternet. The expression “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail” comes to mind at this point.

Ants in the tropics have an opposite algorithm to desert ants. The environment is friendly, so operating costs are low, but resources can be scarce because of the plethora of competition. So these ants go out foraging all the time, until they receive a negative signal. Understanding this behaviour in ants could yield new insights for co-operating robots.

When ants find a really juicy stash of food, they recruit other ants to join the party, so to speak, thus explaining that steady stream of ants attacking your last picnic. It’s possible that cancer cells have a similar recruitment behaviour and so understanding ants might even provide some insights into cancer.

What an engrossing field. Ants may not be as pretty as fireflies (Sara Lewis' focus as described here), but, to me, they're immensely more fascinating.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Sparkle of Fireflies

Did you know that female fireflies evaluate potential mates based on the size and power of their glow as the males hover nearby? In turn, the females signal their interest by flashing back. During mating, the males not only provide sperm to the females, they also deliver a ‘nuptial gift’, a store of nutrients that nurture the young. That’s pretty interesting interesting information about sexual selection in fireflies, and I’d probably be content if that’s all I knew about fireflies.

That’s not enough for Sara Lewis though, who’s harboured a lifelong fascination with the 2,000 different species of fireflies. She wants to know everything there is to know about fireflies! As always, I find it so interesting to hear from someone who's had a lifelong passion for something I know nothing about.

Like all other species, fireflies are threatened due to habitat loss and light pollution (which interferes with those mating rituals).

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why do Athletes Keep Getting Better?

Faster Higher Stronger is the motto of the Olympics. Olympic records show that athletes have achieved just that. 3 hours 28 minutes was enough to win the marathon in 1904, whereas you had to beat 2 hours 8 minutes to win in 2012. Are such gains attributable to better nutrition, training, or perhaps performance-enhancing drugs? That’s probably what most people think.

Epstein presented research to show that much of the gain comes from the technology and science of sport. In 1936, Jesse Owens won the 100 metres race in 10.2 seconds.  He would have come last by a large margin, in the race that Bolt won in 2013 in a time of 9.77 seconds. However, Epstein argues you have to take into consideration the advances in track surface technology compared to the cinder track Owens ran on. And Bolt was starting from specially engineered blocks, whereas Owens dug out a small indentation in the cinders with his trowel. Trying to account for these differences, Owens would have come a close second to Bolt!

Investigative journalist David Epstein has written about the dark side of sports, how players gain unfair advantages with various methods. But this talk focused on how technology has made such a different. He showed a chart of record times for the 100M freestyle, showing a steady decline in records for this distance. But the biggest factors had nothing to do with the swimmer, and everything to do with technology: in 1956, with the introduction of the flip turn; in 1976, when gutters on pool edge reduced water turbulence; and in 2008, when full body suits were introduced.

Back in 1972 Eddie Merkx set a record for the longest distance cycled in 1 hour:  30 miles, 3,774 feet. Recently the record was 35 miles, 1,531 feet, an astonishing improvement. However, riding with 1972 technology the record would only be 30 miles 4,657 feet when using 1972 technology, not very impressive at all. Despite the publicity about doping in this sport, the greatest gains have come from bicycle technology, Epstein argues.

Epstein also points to body specialization as a big factor in athletic success. In the 1920s, it was believed that there was an optimum athletic body, and that conformation was appropriate for all sports. High jumpers had the same build as the shot putters. Now, shot putters are 2 ½” taller than high jumpers and 130 pounds heavier. Michael Phelps' body is optimally shaped for swimming, a big factor in him becoming the world's fastest swimmer.

This ‘big bang’ disruption in body types is very obvious in the NBA, where fully 10% of the players are over 7’. But Epstein’s most amazing statistic was that of all the 7 footers in the US, 17% of them are in the NBA. Forbes pondered whether being 7' tall is the quickest path to being rich.

An interesting talk that had everyone buzzing during the break.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Sting's appearance at TED was deeply moving. I intended to write about him recounting his youth growing up near the shipyards in Tyneside, his yearning to escape and the poignancy of the songs from his musical The Last Ship. I intended to write about how he struck a chord with everyone in the audience. Not in a star-to-audience sort of way, but with a person-to-person feeling.

However, after reading David Brooks' column in New York Times, I feel inadequate.

Education for All

10M students a month. 2B math problems done. Khan Academy has come a long way since Khan's original TED talk; up from 6.9M users to 140M users, to be exact, with 20M new users joining every month. And 200,000 teachers using Khan Academy's lessons. 

Khan's next target is the College Board exams. Rich kids enjoy a significant advantage in those tests because they benefit from the prolific array of coaching options. Now anyone can get such help free at the Khan Academy.

The lessons are also being translated into other languages, including Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese, with French and other languages coming soon.

Shai Resef briefed us on the success of the University of the People since its founding in 2009. The university is tuition free, and charges $100 to write an exam, but there are scholarships to assist with those exam fees. 1,700 students have registered from 143 countries.

The university's business model works because of the cost-effectiveness of online learning and the generosity of volunteer professors. Resef says University of the People will be self-sustaining at 5,000 students. The university has recently been accredited by the US Distance Education and Training Council. 

3D Printing Good Enough to Eat

I ate this tasty little sugar confection at TED this year, at the 3D Systems display. It was made by their 3D printing* machine specialized for making edibles. If you look carefully, you can see that kind of structure could not be made any other way than through 3D. 

There were other intricate edibles on display in these fancy cake stands.

There were examples of once-impossible objects in other materials. As Avi Reichental, CEO of 3D Systems, said in his talk, not only is such complexity now possible, but it's free!

3D Systems machines range from $10K to $1M. The man beside at the display was visibly drooling over the $10K machine. Lest you think such hankering is unrealistic, recall the infamous statement of Ken Olsen, CEO of minicomputer manufacturer Digital Equipment Corporation, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."

Avi Reichental gave an interesting talk on the implications of 3D printing. When you have such machines, accessible in price, which can go from design on the computer right to manufacturing, in the hands of one individual, you have really democratized manufacturing. Manufacturing can be accomplished in small runs, rather than requiring enormous scale for cost-effectiveness. This can contribute to the repatriation of manufacturing to countries with high labour costs. There's even a new word for that - reshoring.

Today's Maker Fairs are like the early computer conferences with their eager computer tinkerers. Now such individual capability for craftsmanship can come to the an individual in a totally modern way. Reichental recounted the proud artisan his cobbler grandfather had been and ended by saying "I am a cobbler too".

* For anyone not familiar with 3D printing, it's defined in Wikipedia this way:
3D printing or Additive manufacturing[1] is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes.[2] 3D printing is also considered distinct from traditional machining techniques, which mostly rely on the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling (subtractive processes).

William Marshall: Democratizing Space

Satellites are big and expensive.  That’s why there aren’t very many of them.  As a result, our planet images are several years old.

William Marshall and Planet Labs intends to change all that by launching a lot of small satellites instead of a few big ones.

The Dove satellite measures 10x10x30 cm. and weighs just 4 kgs, but it packs a huge pixel punch. It has resolution to 3-5 metres but is deliberately engineered to not identify people.

Over 100 satellites will be launched this year, and the array will take a picture of every place on earth every day. Such near-realtime data will be useful in many circumstances: capturing urban development, monitoring farmland, or assessing natural disasters.  Planet Labs already has many contracts for these services.
These satellites are radically smaller and cheaper. A New York Times article writes:
"These satellites are powered by batteries normally found in a laptop, with semiconductors similar to those in a smartphone. "Nothing here was prequalified to be in space," Mr. Marshall said. "We bought most of our parts online.""
Low cost enables so much.  It allows rapid prototyping and agile development, with Planet Labs is churning out multiple generations of their product while big-satellite makes would struggle to get through one. The short development time means that they can take advantage of the latest technology in every version. They can take a failed launch (or a software bug) in stride.

Low cost means Planet Labs can build so many satellites, and since launch costs depend on size and weight, they can actually afford to launch them. This approach of modularization delivers economy, flexibility and robustness. We’ve seen such modularity revolutionize the way computing is done, with the advent of distributed computing.  Vijay Kumar's TED talk showed the power of modularity with robots. It’s interesting to see modularity coming to aerospace.

These satellites keep getting cheaper. Again, from the New York Times:
Version nine, which is almost complete, cost about 35 percent less than the current version in space, and was made four times faster . . .

Planet Labs intends to offer universal access to the data. That idea really resonated with the audience, resulting in a .8 Standing O (i.e. about 80% of the audience was on their feet for the Standing Ovation).