Contemplating a Future with Robots

Robots will eventually become a part of our society. In fact, in many ways they already are. It may not seem like a very auspicious start, but products from iRobot like the Roomba are already making their way into many homes. The Roomba will clean your floors for you without ever complaining. It started with a vacuum system, but now I notice you can get a Roomba for mopping too. The point is that robots will very likely continue to enter homes to perform less skilled work.

Then again, there is a pressing need for certain kinds of skilled help. Japan is hoping that Softbank’s Pepper will help address a continuing problem of finding someone to help the elderly. In fact, finding people to act as caregivers to the elderly is going to become a problem in many areas of the world where the birth rate is decreasing and the average age is increasing.

For me, robots have always been an answer to the pressing needs of those with special needs. I’ve always seen computer technology as a means of leveling the playing field for everyone. A properly configured computer can make it possible for someone to earn a living and live independently, but simply having a computer or a computer with a robotic arm isn’t enough for everyone. Autonomous robots that can call for help when needed will make it possible for people with greater needs to remain independent and well cared for by an entity that will never get frustrated or lose patience with them. When a human caregiver is needed, they can simply take over the robot and help the patient from a remote location until help can arrive.

As with any scientific endeavor, there are those who are impatient to see something more substantial arrive. Some are even asking why robots haven’t become better integrated into society yet. The days of I Robot and The Bicentennial Man are a long way off yet (even with Robin Williams’ brilliant presentation). The fact is that interaction with an environment is far more complex than we ever thought (making it easier to appreciate just how much the human body can do, even when less than perfect). However, robots are making progress in other areas. For example, one robot recently repaired another, which is an exciting advancement.

I think it’s good that adoption of robot technology is going slowly. There are many social and political issues that must be addressed before robots can become part of society. People need to understand that robots aren’t a threat and there need to be laws in place to address the use of robots in society. More importantly, we need the wisdom required to use robot technology efficiently and safely.

There is no doubt that robots will continue to become part of society and that they’ll play a greater role performing menial tasks and in helping people become more independent in their later years. The potential for robots to truly help society is great, but there are equally terrifying outcomes if we simply rush the technology to market without proper safeguards. What is your take on robots? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Practical Wearable Technology

I keep looking for useful, practical, wearable technology and Google Glass isn’t it. In fact, most of the wearable technology I read about hasn’t impressed me even a little. The problem is that most of this technology has no practical value. At best, it distracts people who are already so distracted that they do things like walk right into fountains while texting. As far as I’m concerned, these people don’t need even a small distraction, much less a major distraction like that provided by Google Glass.

However, Google is working on a practical, useful, wearable technology that apparently isn’t generating much press at all—a smart contact lens for diabetes patients. The new lens monitors a patient’s glucose levels continuously through tears. Instead of having to take readings several times a day (and still missing potential high or low readings), the lens would make it practical to monitor blood sugar continuously. There are technologies currently available that do monitor blood sugar constantly, but they’re inconvenient, restrictive, and uncomfortable. This technology promises to make it possible to monitor blood sugar without disturbing the patient’s daily routine. In fact, with the right configuration, a diabetes sufferer would live pretty much a normal life except for the need to take medications as needed to control blood sugar.

There are other health-related wearable technologies on the horizon. For example, there is Samsung’s Simband that monitors heart rate, blood pressure, and a number of other readings. A device of this sort could make it possible for people with serious health problems to get out of their homes and lead lives that are closer to normal.

Unfortunately, all of these wearable technologies are still in the planning, research, and development phases. Until practical devices appear on the scene, I’ll continue to view wearable technology as yet another disruptive toy with the potential to cause real harm to the wearer. Let me know your thoughts about wearable technology at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Texting and Common Sense

I had written a post some time ago entitled Determining When Technology Hurts that caused quite a stir. Some people accused me of being anti-technology (a luddite, which is actually a misnomer because the Luddites weren’t anti-technology either). If you read the post again, you’ll find that I’m actually pro-technology, I simply espouse common sense when using it. Using the right technology at the right time is an essential component of using technology responsibly and gaining the maximum benefit from it.

When I read about people doing all sorts of weird things while trying to text, the only thing that comes to mind is that they really need to reconsider their use of the technology. Obviously, it doesn’t work to text and drive at the same time, yet people continue to do it. The latest nonsensical use of technology that I read is about people who insist on texting 911, rather than call. It turns out that most 911 call centers aren’t equipped to handle texting, so texting doesn’t produce a useful result.

However, the problem is more subtle than simply not reaching 911 when you really need the service. After having had to call 911 several times to help my wife as a caregiver, I’ve learned that the officer responding to the call often needs more information. A text can’t provide this information, but a call can. The officer can request additional information that can make the difference between saving and losing a life.

The FCC has mandated that 911 centers do indeed implement a texting interface, but has no power to enforce it. The main reason for the texting interface is to address accessibility concerns for people who truly can’t call 911. It’s not meant as a method for perfectly able bodied people to text instead of calling. The truth is that even with a text interface, 911 works better with a call simply because a call allows for complete communication that is usually faster than texting will allow.

When working with technology, it pays to think things through and use the appropriate technology for a particular need. Let me know your thoughts on texting 911 at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Odd Nature of Chicken Eyes

When it comes to thinking about how input is perceived, few people think about chickens. However, the whole range of perception has attracted my attention because I see the topics as being interrelated in various ways. I find it interesting that chickens actually have a kind of vision that most of us can’t really imagine. For one thing, instead of the orderly array of cones that humans have, chickens have a disorderly set of cones that actually rely on a different state of matter from those in human eyes. Chickens see color better than humans do and they see a wider range of colors. Humans see red, green, and blue. Chickens see red, green, and blue as well, but they can also see ultraviolet and have a special motion detecting cone (for a total of five cone types to our three).

There are a number of reasons I’m interested in the topic. Of course, we raise chickens and the more I know about them, the better. My interest goes way beyond just raising the chickens though. When I wrote Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements, I experimented with all sorts of techniques for improving a human’s ability to interact with the world. A lot of people might think the book is focused on special needs, but really, it’s focused on accessibility of all sorts for everyone. When a hunter uses a scope to see a long distance in order to hit a mark, it’s a form of interaction that could easily fall into the accessibility category. The hunter is compensating for the lack of long range vision by using a scope (an accessibility aid of sorts). The scientific examination of chicken eyes could lead to discoveries that will help us create accessibility aids that will allow humans to see a vast array of new colors naturally, rather than through color translation (where a color we can’t see is translated into a color we can see), as is done now.

The potential for such study goes even further. Most people don’t realize that men are naturally less able to see color than women. For example, 8 percent of men are colorblind, but only 1/2 of one percent of women have the same problem and usually to a lesser degree. Even odder, some women possess a fourth cone so they can see a vast array of colors that most people can’t even imagine. Only women have this ability. However, it might be possible to provide men with the same color perception through the use of an accessibility aid—one possibly modeled on the research done on chicken eyes.

The ways in which this research could help us out are nearly endless. For example, we rely on the superior smell capabilities of trained dogs to sniff out bombs and drugs. Chickens, as it turns out, can be trained as well (not to the degree that dogs are trainable, unfortunately). It might be possible to train chickens to alert to color discrepancies that only they can see. We could use trained chickens in the same way we currently use dogs.

There are other ways in which this research could benefit us. The actual chemistry of a chicken’s eye is unique. Studying the chemistry and discovering how it works could yield new compounds for us to use.

We look at various animals and think they’re only useful in one way. However, the more time I spend interacting with our animals, the more I come to realize that they really are useful in a host of ways. The next time you look at a laying hen, consider the fact that she can see things you’ll never even imagine. Let me know your thoughts about chickens, the unique nature of chicken eyes, and accessibility at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Regaining the Sense of Touch

A lot of my accessibility posts have focused on regaining function—the ability to perform a task using a prosthetic devices. Recently, there has been some development of touch. In fact, I reported on it most recently in my Continuing Development of Accessibility Aids post. Until now, the ability to feel has been limited to motor perception—how the prosthetic is moving through space and when it touches some other object. A new development makes it possible for the prosthetic to do more. The sense of touch can now include discovering the size and shape of items, as well as whether the item is hard, medium, or soft in consistency. The combination of motor, shape, and hardness touch makes it possible for someone to perform a considerably wider range of tasks using the prosthetic.

There are still quite a number of things missing from the picture. For example, a prosthetic can’t feel heat or cold just yet. It also can’t feel texture, except in the most unrefined manner. There is also no sensation of pain. So there is still a long way to go before the prosthetic could completely replace the biological equivalent, but the technology is getting closer.

The reason that this change is so important to readers of Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements is that this prosthetic has the potential to make computers truly usable for those with special mobility needs. With a refined sense of touch, someone with a prosthetic could potentially use a standard computer that doesn’t require any specialized hardware or software. In fact, it means that someone equipped with this kind of prosthetic device could use the entire range of input devices, including touch screens. In short, the playing field would finally be completely level for this group of people. I find the idea really exciting because it has been so long in coming.

Of course, the impact of such a change extends far beyond computer and other technology use. Imagine how it would feel to be able to pick up a grape or an egg for the first time after not being able to do so for an extended time-frame. It boggles the mind. We’re not quite to the same stage of development as presented in movies like Star Wars, but we’re getting there and at a relatively fast pace.

A bigger question is whether a prosthetic, no matter how functional, could ever really replace the biological counterpart. The answer to that question would have to be a resounding no. Even if the prosthetic functions exactly like a real human hand, or even extends what a human can do to some degree, it’s still not quite the same emotionally as having the real body part. Geordi LaForge (Star Trek) expressed the concept best when he kept seeking a counterpart to the visor he wore. Yes, the visor gave him eyesight. In fact, the visor presented him with eyesight that exceeded human capacity, but it still wasn’t the real thing.

What are your thoughts on the current trends in prosthetic development? Do you feel prosthetic devices will ever truly duplicate human functionality? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

What Am I Reading?

Readers often write to ask me what I’m reading. It’s a hard question to answer in some respects because I have a broad range of interests and I often find myself reading more than just one text. However, it’s a valid question and concern because what I read eventually affects the content of the books that I write and that you read. I strongly believe that the most successful people in life are voracious readers as well. Of course, there are likely exceptions (and please don’t fill my e-mail with listings of them). Reading opens doorways to all sorts of new worlds and different ways of seeing things.

It won’t surprise you to discover that I do quite a bit of technical reading. Every day sees me scanning articles from eWeek, ComputerWorld, and InfoWorld (amongst others). I also regularly read a variety of magazines—some quite serious like MSDN and Dr. Dobbs Journal, others a little less serious like PC Gamer. I also technically edit some books every year and read them end-to-end. Sometimes I read a book simply because I want to learn something new. Currently I’m exploring Rod Stephens’ Essential Algorithms (an outstanding book that I’ll review at some point).

Given the content of this blog, it shouldn’t surprise you to discover that I also read a number of gardening magazines such as Mother Earth News and Horticulture (again, there are others). I usually read books from publishers such as Storey. It wasn’t long ago that I completed reading Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens. Of course, I look for articles online as well.

What you may not know is that I also enjoy reading other sorts of books and magazines. For example, I’m currently engaged reading the Patrick O’Brian novels for the sheer pleasure they bring. Captain Aubrey is turning into a favorite character of mine. National Geographic and Smithsonian are both monthly magazines that I read. I keep up with what is happening in the Navy by reading Seapower. Rebecca and I also enjoy a number of crafts and we read some of the same crafting magazines.

As you can see, it’s quite an odd assortment of materials and I love it all. The vistas opened by the materials I read help me provide you with better material that is both more creative and easier to understand. You don’t have to have the best education in the world to succeed. All you really need is a strong desire to find the information you need when you need it. The more you read, the better you understand the world around you and the better prepared you are to take advantage of the vast array of reading resources at your disposal when you need them.

It’s important to know that the authors you read are also well read—that they make use of all of the available materials to write better books. Experiencing the world through the written word is an essential part of the learning process. Today we have all sorts of multimedia presentations vying for attention with the written word, but in many respects writing isn’t easily replaced because it brings the world to you in ways that other forms of media can’t. Of course, that’s a topic for another post. Let me know your thoughts on the importance of reading at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Controlling the Body

It surprises me when I think about all the injuries that leave a body part perfectly usable, but unreachable. An arm would still work if the brain could contact it, but something prevents that contact. In some cases, the loss of contact is permanent and is reestablished though physical and occupational therapy. However, in other cases, the loss of contact is permanent and another solution for creating that contact must be found. Both scenarios have seen technical improvements as of late.

As an example of the first, where contact is temporarily lost, students have been experimenting with techniques for taking control of someone else’s limbs. When I first read this article I thought about the scary implications that loss of control can present. However, what if the person doesn’t actually have control? A therapist could take control of the limb in order to help a patient regain control or to make it easier to exercise the limb in a natural way so there is less loss of muscle mass. Both uses are important. Using a person’s own muscles to help them move around and become reacquainted with their body after a severe accident makes sense especially when you see some of the convoluted measures that therapists must use now to work with a patient from the outside.

As an example of the second, where contact is permanently lost (or the limb is actually missing), science is starting to figure out how to create new connections. For example, it’s now possible to connect a robotic leg that a patient controls using the same brain waves that a leg would naturally use. The technology is currently in its infancy, but progress is being made. In another five or six years, it might be possible to see people who have permanent loss of contact with a limb or the need to use artificial limbs walking around without any problem at all.

It’s exciting to think of the possibilities. Both technologies will make it a lot easier to help someone with special needs regain full mobility. Ultimately, the incapacitation or loss of a limb will become less life changing. Yes, there will be some amount of time spent in rehabilitation, but the change won’t be permanent. Of course, it’s going to be a long time before even these technologies will help someone do anything too dramatic—basic walking and possibly light jogging will have to be enough. Would you allow someone take control of your limbs in order to help you regain your full capacity? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

The Science Fiction Effect

I love reading science fiction. In fact, one of my favorite authors of all times is Isaac Asimov, but I’m hardly unique in that perspective. For many people, science fiction represents just another kind of entertainment. In fact, I’d be lying if I said that entertainment wasn’t a major contributor toward my love of science fiction. However, for me, science fiction goes well beyond mere entertainment. For me, it’s a motivator—a source of ideas and inspiration. So I recently read A Warp Speed Analysis on the Influence of Science Fiction with a great deal of interest. It seems that I’m not alone in my view that science fiction authors are often a source of creativity for real world scientists who see something that could be and make it into something that really is.

The science fiction effect has inspired me in both my consulting and writing over the years. For example, I’ve seen how science fiction authors treat those with special needs as if they don’t really have any special need at all—science has provided solutions that level the playing field for them. It’s the reason that I wrote Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements and continue to write on accessibility topics. The whole idea that science could one day make it possible for everyone to live lives free of any physical encumbrance excites me more than just about anything else.

What I find most interesting is that the ability to turn science fiction into science fact receives real world emphasis by colleges and universities. For example, there is a course at MIT entitled, MAS S65: Science Fiction to Science Fabrication. Many articles, such as Why Today’s Inventors Need to Read More Science Fiction, even encourage scientists to read science fiction as a means of determining how their inventions might affect mankind as a whole. The point is that the creativity of science fiction authors has real world implications.

Now, before I get a huge pile of e-mail decrying my omission of other genres of writing—I must admit that I do read other sorts of books. Currently I’m enjoying the robust historical fiction of Patrick O’Brian. I’ll eventually provide a review of the series, but it will take me a while to complete it. Still, other books focus on what was in the past, what is today, or what possibly might be—science fiction propels us into the future. The science fiction effect is real and I’m happy to say it has influenced me in a number of ways. How has science fiction affected you? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

3D Printing Technology Safety

A number of people have written to comment about the Thinking About 3D Printing Technology post. Obviously, I still have a lot to learn about this technology and some of your questions have taken me quite by surprise (I’ll address some of them later, after I have conducted more research). I always appreciate it when you make me think through the topics I post because the conclusions I reach often make great fodder for book topics.

The one question that didn’t take me by surprise was one of safety. After all, it’s important to know that the output you create is safe. At the time I wrote that post, there was little on the topic of safety, which is why I didn’t include any sort of safety information. A recent article entitled, “3D-Printed Medical Devices Spark FDA Evaluation” tells that the issue of safety is on a lot of other people’s minds as well. The problem for the FDA is that it can’t actually test a printed medical device in any meaningful way and still allow a hospital to use the device in a reasonable time frame (such as in an emergency room), so it allows use of these printed devices on the basis of similarity to devices it has tested thoroughly. In other words, the printed output must match an existing device, except that it provides a custom fit for a particular patient.

I thought about that article for quite some time. It seems to tell me that the FDA is reviewing the issue of safety, but hasn’t come to any final conclusions yet. What I’m trying to do is weigh articles like this one against other articles that decry the complexity and problems of using 3D printing technology. For example, 3D printing: Don’t believe the hype states outright that many of the plastics used for 3D printers aren’t even food safe. I’m assuming that the FDA requires hospitals that rely on this technology to use the correct, safe, materials. Even so, the article does make one wonder about the safety of the materials provided for consumer-level products. Not many people will be able to afford a hospital grade device.

Safety extends beyond the end product, however, and this is where a true scarcity of information occurs. For example, when you melt some plastics, the process produces Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN), which is an extremely dangerous gas. I thought it fortunate that I found an article on the topic entitled, “Is 3D Printing Safe?” The short answer to seems to be yes, 3D printing is relatively safe, but you’ll want to ensure you have proper ventilation when doing so.

This whole issue of safety does concern me because new technologies often have hidden safety issues that are later corrected after someone encounters them (usually with unfortunate results). Like any tool, a 3D printer isn’t a toy—it is a device for creating some type of specific output. For the most part, I’d recommend against letting children use such a device without parental supervision (preferably by a parent who has actually read the manual).  I’d like to hear more of your concerns about 3D printing at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Thinking About 3D Printing Technology

Any Star Trek fan will tell you that the replicator technology shown in the show is treated as an ordinary occurrence that isn’t so ordinary today. In fact, a number of the ordinary objects, such as communicators, in the show have become reality and some of them are becoming so common that they’re ordinary to us too. Compare a smartphone to a communicator and you realize that the Star Trek creators didn’t actually go far enough—smartphones are actually a lot better than communicators. This makes me wonder if 3D printers might become the replicators of the future.

There has been a lot of news lately about three-dimensional (3D) printing technology. The idea behind the technology is simultaneously easy and complex. The simple part is that a printer adds layer upon layer of one or more substances to create some type of object. The object is described as part of a drawing. Of course, the drawing must indicate all sorts of things in addition to the overall appearance of the 3D object, including which substances to use and what color to make them as needed. Creating a precise description of everything needed to create a real world object can be a complex undertaking and some objects defy simple description.

As with any new technology, 3D printing has plenty of hype surrounding it (such as the printer being able to pay for itself in as little as a year). In fact, hype is a problem because it builds unrealistic expectations. Anything you read about 3D printing today is in an experimental stage for the most part. John Dvorak explores the problems with the hype in his post, “Enough With the 3D Printer Hype Already.” Yes, creating a gun using a 3D printer is doable, but result isn’t really usable today (tomorrow may be another story). However, I get the feeling that many detractors haven’t read quite as much as they should before making a judgement about 3D printing and the sorts of things it can do.

There are other uses for 3D printing that only large organizations can afford. For example, I read about the use of 3D printing technology to create artificial reefs in the August edition of National Geographic (in the Next section). The printer is the size of a house and produces an 1,100 pound result that really isn’t in the realm of something that most people would want to create. However, it’s a useful output of 3D printing technology that is in use today. In fact, there are many uses for 3D printing today, but it’s important to remember that this technology is in its infancy.

Although many of the uses for 3D printing that you read about are for common objects that we can produce less expensively and with greater precision using other technologies, it’s the uses that aren’t available today that intrigue me most. For example, you can use a 3D printer to create a tiny lithium battery. This battery is the size of a grain of sand. You might wonder where a battery like that might see use. Of course, use in spy gear comes to mind immediately, but a more productive use is in medical equipment where battery size is currently a problem.

In fact, for now at least, the main practical area of 3D printing may be for medical use. There was a recent story that talked about doctors printing an emergency airway tube to save a baby’s life. What most people don’t realize is that hospitals don’t typically carry standard airway tubes in the right size for infants because the number of sizes needed would be quite large. In this case, printing proved to be the only practical way to create an airway tube sized for this particular child.

Of course, not every medical use will save lives in such a dramatic fashion. Many uses will be more mundane. For example, a doctor could print a new ear or a new bone for you when needed. Some of the medical techniques use cells from a person’s own body, which makes the risk of rejection quite small. However, even these articles state that this particular use of 3D printing technology is still experimental. The point though is that the technology is being tried in these areas and the result is something that you can’t easily manufacture.

Creating objects using 3D printers is a reality. The cost of those printers is also decreasing in at least some cases. However, the technology is still quite new and you need to take what you read with a grain of salt. Eventually, you’ll likely see 3D printer technology used in a way that makes those replicators on the Enterprise pale by comparison. Let me know your thoughts about 3D printing technology at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.