Fab at Home Open-Source 3D Printer Lets Users Make Anything

I just StumbledUpon an interesting article about a new type of printer that can make 3D objects. You can use various materials as input ranging from plastics to chocolate if you wanted. This device reminded me of the Matter Compiler in The Diamond Age which I reviewed recently. This is still a primitive technology, but I wonder if what Neal Stephenson envisioned might ever come true. Check out the original site to watch a brief video demonstration of the device.

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Blue Brain project combines neuroscience with computers to simulate brain activityBlue Brain project combines neuroscience with computers to simulate brain activity

Ever since I first read I, Robot by Isaac Asimov I have been interested in robotics and AI. Back in 1996 or so I had no idea that simulation of a brain might be possible in my lifetime. John Lehrer with Seed Magazine has written a very interesting article, “Out of the Blue“, which covers the Blue Brain project led by Henry Markram. One of the biggest challenges was determining how exactly a neuron is supposed to behave. Without that information, it would be impossible to simulate it. One of the freaky things about this project is that they have a robot conducting experiments and recording data 24/7. This robot is more efficient than 10 experienced lab technicians combined. I would assume that this robot only has enough programming to complete these experiments, but what if robots become sentient? What would keep them from creating other more capable robots? The current project aims to first simulate the brain of a 2 week old rat, which would then be transferred to a robot body to see how it develops.

With the current progression of technology, Markram suggests, “In ten years, this computer will be talking to us.” That seem a bit crazy, but who would have thought 10 years ago that there would technology capable of simulating 10,000 neurons and 30 million synaptic connections? That currently only represents a small slice of a 2 week old rat brain, but given how fast computing power is growing, I can’t see why Markram’s prediction would be impossible. If not 10 years from now, why not 20, or 30? I think that it is just a matter of time. I highly recommend reading the full article, especially if you have any interest in robotics or AI.

IBM’s Watson beats Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad RutterIBM’s Watson beats Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter

For all of you geeks that have had your head in the sand, artificial intelligence has hit a milestone. Yesterday, IBM’s Watson trounced these bags of meat known as Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in Jeopardy. If I ruined the result of the match, I apologize, but I figure posting a day after is enough notice for anyone that was following this from the start. For some more background on Watson and behind the scenes info, check out my original post on this. I have to admit that I was rooting for Watson from the start. I was a bit worried when after the first day in the tournament Watson was only tied for first place. I’m not sure what happened between the first and second matches, but Watson rocketed ahead in the second day and never looked back.

I think IBM might have been in a rush to show off their new creation. It was interesting to see the answer confidence levels during the rounds, often revealing some really wacky possible answers. Watson crashed several times during the second day of filming, nothing a regular viewer would notice while watching the recorded match on TV.  One criticism I’ve heard about the match was that Watson was fed the questions electronically rather than relying on voice and character recognition. I have to agree that the electronic delivery could have been an advantage.  Had voice recognition and OCR  functionality been used in Watson, the victory would be quite a bit more impressive. I could clearly see the two mere mortals struggling to buzz in and shake in frustration when Watson was faster. The producers touted the physical buzzer plunger that Watson had to activate, but I still think that Watson had the advantage.

I would be interested to see a rematch in a year but with only inputs into Watson be voice and video of the Jeopardy board. After all, Deep Blue was given a second chance versus Garry Kasparov, so why not give the humans a second chance on more equal footing? It is quite possible that programming algorithms over the year would improve enough so that Watson still would win, despite the reliance of voice recognition and OCR. In that case, the victory would mean that much more. Even if you know the outcome already, I still recommend watching the matches. I already saw the Nova special, so I skipped through most of the background stuff from the IBM folks. Here is a link to my YouTube  playlist that has the three episodes broken into 6 videos. Check it out! Then you can tell your grandchildren how you watched a computer beat humans in Jeopardy for the first time. Then they’ll ask, “Humans were allowed to play Jeopardy back then?”

Isaac Asimov introduces the Radio Shack TRS-80 pocket computerIsaac Asimov introduces the Radio Shack TRS-80 pocket computer

I ran across this ad recently for an amazing new product, promoted by my own favorite science fiction author, Isaac Asimov.

Radio Shack’s TRS-80 Pocket Computer turned my dreams into a reality. Now I can take the power of a true computer with me wherever I go.
— Isaac Asimov

The marketing guys chime in a few paragraphs later.

And it can also function just like a calculator — something a desktop computer can’t do.
— Radio Shack

Wait, what!? With a standard calculator included in just about every phone that I can think of, it is hard to imagine a desktop computer ever existing without that ability. Crazy, right? Now that I think of it, it wasn’t too far in the distant past that desktop computers couldn’t be used for voice communications, something a simple phone could do. So what does $169.95 actually get you?

From Dave Dunfield’s old computer page:

The machine was actually a Radio Shack branded version of the Sharp PC-1211, which features:

  • Sharp SC43177/SC43178 4-bit CPU running at 256khz
  • 1×24 character LCD display
  • 57 key “Qwerty” keyboard
  • 1.5k of RAM for user program storage
  • Pizoelectric buzzer

Be sure to check out the full breakdown at Dave’s TRS-80 Pocket Computer page

As a point of comparison, here are a few highlights of Motorola’s Droid 2 tech specs:

  • 1 GHz processor
  • 480×854 Pixel display (Characters displayed depends on the font)
  • QWERTY keyboard
  • 8GB flash (expandable to 32GB)
  • Support for stereo bluetooth (not sure if actual speaker is stereo or not)
  • 100’s of other features like camera, video capture, streaming video, and get this includes the ability to make phone calls. Sadly though, it can’t make you breakfast… yet.

Let me whip out my calculator on my i7 Desktop Computer! The Droid 2 has a 3,906.25 times faster processor (just based on clock rate, not actual computational power) and has 5,592,405.33 times more storage. That seems crazy right? The TRS-80 pocket computer came out in 1980, about 20 years ago. I wonder how people will feel about our state of the art smartphones in 2020? That is assuming we haven’t been taken over by robots gone wild, destroyed ourselves with nukes, or succumbed to a raging nano-plague. But that is all just science fiction.

Isaac Asimov promotes Radio Shack's TRS-80 Pocket Computer

Isaac Asimov promotes Radio Shack's TRS-80 Pocket Computer