Archive for May, 2012


how China seeks to innovate

Post from Alan Brown: 

Alan Brown

I recently attended a panel on engineering globalization put together by Rochester Institute of Technology’s Ron Hira and the National Science Foundation. There were many interesting talks, but I want to touch on one by Jason Dedrick of Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies.

Jason Dedrick of Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies recently spoke at a panel on engineering globalization that was put together by Rochester Institute of Technology’s Ron Hira and the National Science Foundation.

Dedrick is well known for studies with UC Irvine’s Kenneth Kraemer and Greg Linden on Apple’s value chain. They found that the U.S. trade deficit increases $275 for every iPad sold in the United States, but the value China captured from their assembly is only $10.

Naturally, China wants to capture more value in the global value chain. One way is to encourage more indigenous innovation.

China does that in several ways. Some are obvious, like supporting domestic technology companies and providing favorable tax and procurement policies.

Others are surprising, Dedrick said. China wants its companies to seek roles in setting standards, since companies that do so capture large amount of profit. It often strong-arms multinationals to conduct R&D and technology transfer in China. This is a relationship shot through with ambivalence, since China does not want foreign firms to dominate its markets or set standards.

Dedrick got five multinationals to open up about their Chinese R&D strategies. There was a great deal of variation among them. All the firms understood that they needed to R&D in China to gain access to its large, fast-growing market. At a minimum, some plan to re-engineer existing products for the Chinese market. Others have gone beyond that. They see China as a source of low-cost science and engineering talent to bolster their overall research efforts.

Either way, Dedrick sees mission creep: Once a company sets up a lab, the people in it become entrepreneurial in developing new technologies. Over time, they will pull work into their lab and start competing with other corporate labs for projects.

There are downsides. The risk of theft of intellectual property is well understood. Less well understood is the lack of experienced that Chinese R&D managers with 10-15 years of experience have.

Another increasingly obvious risk, Dedrick said, is that there is really no such thing as the Chinese government. There are many different ministries and various local and regional governments. While the central government may set the rules, it is the local governments that certify firms and offer incentives.

Often, their goals clash. The central government might want world- class R&D, but the locals might prefer an investment that delivers jobs. Sometimes, Dedrick said, multinationals can navigate among different government entities for better treatment. Other times, they are blindsided by other agencies.


Happy Landing

Post from Jeffrey Winters:

Jeffrey Winters

We’ve covered the art and engineering of flying without a motor—or an aircraft—before in the magazine, most notably in 2004 when frequent contributor Michael Abrams wrote about a wingsuit maker in Germany. (See “The Sky’s No Limit,” Input/Output January 2004.) Michael wrote a book about the history of wingsuits. The chilling aspect of it was that while gliding seemed relatively easy, surviving the flight was a chancy proposition. Between death spirals and tangled parachute lines, the career of a birdman generally did not end in pleasant retirement. Or as designer Alban Geissler put it in Abram’s article, “[T]hose early birdmen missed something—that they should have been thinking first about their security, not about flying. Flying is not so difficult. Security is difficult.”

The holy grail of winged flight has always been touching down without a parachute. And while there have been clever attempts at this in the past—gliding with skis and then landing on a snowy mountain slope, for one—no one had been able to jump, fly, land without a chute, and walk away until British stuntman Gary Connery accomplished the feat on May 23.

The key was the landing. Without a parachute to cut back on the velocity, a birdman traveling at about 75 miles per hour doesn’t have many options to reduce his speed. Instead, Connery and a team of about 100 volunteers set up a landing strip made up of 18,500 cardboard boxes. As Connery plowed headfirst into the 12-foot-high cushion of boxes, after jumping from a helicopter 2,400 feet in the air, the collapse of each box absorbed a bit of his momentum, slowing him down. Connery emerged from the mass of boxes unscathed.


etiquette for the robotic tourist

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

Harry Hutchinson

The phrase “historic sites on the moon” caught me off guard the other day when I first read it. Historic sites are eternally fascinating. I’ve been to quite a few—Independence Hall, Westminster Abbey, Cowpens—and I grew up a block away from Pennington Road, where General Washington led the Continental Army to the Battle of Trenton.

Then a press release showed up in my e-mail with this headline: “NASA Offers Guidelines to Protect Historic Sites on the Moon.” It conjures visions of battlefields where Moon Men repelled Space Invaders.

But there are indeed sites on the moon of world historical significance. There is no wind to disturb the dust. Rain doesn’t fall. Not only are there arrays of historic hardware on the moon, but Neil Armstrong’s first footprint is still up there. So is Alan Shepard’s divot.

Now with the Google X Prize offering $30 million as an incentive, the moon may soon be getting more traffic. Some of the prizes are offered for the first photographs of old landing sites, so rovers will be trying to get to them. This sounds almost like robotic tourism.

NASA has come up with recommendations for protecting and preserving “U.S. heritage lunar sites.” The press release—issued jointly by NASA and the X Prize Foundation—says that Google has agreed to take those guidelines into consideration when it judges plans from would-be moon prize contestants.

As the press release explained it: “NASA recognizes that many spacefaring nations and commercial entities are on the verge of landing spacecraft on the moon. The agency engaged in a cooperative dialogue with the X Prize Foundation and the Google Lunar X Prize teams to develop the recommendations. NASA and the next generation of lunar explorers share a common interest in preserving humanity’s first steps on another celestial body and protecting ongoing science from the potentially damaging effects of nearby landers.”

The guidelines, of course, aren’t mandatory. They are an effort to create standards for a new human endeavor. I read that “Experts from the historic, scientific, and flight-planning communities contributed to the technical recommendations.”

This is sounding familiar. Like all useful standards, they have the force of consensus.


Personal Robots

Post from Jean Thilmany:

Jean Thilmany

We’re hearing about robots and robotic advancements being made to serve the elderly as companions. On the one hand, it seems rather sad to me. It says something about our society that we would rather create stand-in humans to do the job of family members. On the other hand, I understand fully. There was an interesting program on this recently on NPR.

Three bits of news got me thinking about these issues recently.

First, in early May, about 25 European researchers met at the University of Orebro, Sweden, to design robots that help the elderly and their families live a better and more independent life. The event is part of project “Robot-Era,” which will last for four years. Organizers hope to produce new technological solutions that improve the quality of life of elderly people and their caregivers.

The second news is that a recent Royal Academy of Engineering report said robot cats and other man-made companions could help the British elderly. The report said that autonomous devices like the Japanese Dream Cat Venus, which costs around $110, may provide a variety of different services to older people—ranging from basic companionship to medical monitoring.

Finally, in April, GeckoSystems of Conyers, Ga., announced that it has been working on the release of its new CareBot personal assistance robot, a version of which already helps elderly in Japan with daily tasks. Japan recently hit 47,756 in their population of residents who are 100 years of age or older, according to GeckoSystems.

“This is not constrained by the technological possibility of it so much as by the desire to do it—and that is bound up with all sorts of social factors,” Will Stewart, a professor at the Optoelectronics Research Centre, at Southampton University told the Reuters news service. Stewart contributed to the Royal Academy report. “It is not a complete replacement for your kid calling you once a week. What you want is continuous attention and that is very difficult,” Stewart said.

It’s Stewart’s line about continuous attention that swayed me. No matter our intentions, few of us can quit or jobs or lives to care full-time for a loved one, especially a person with intricate healthcare needs. In fact, I hope technology moves a fair bit forward before I reach advanced age.


ASME HQ on the Silver Screen

Post from Jeffrey Winters:

In spite of the fact that one of the founders of the group is a (fictional) engineer who made a super suit in his basement, I imagine ASME members made up a relatively small number of the audience for The Avengers over the past couple weeks. And like most comic book movies, there’s plenty to make science and technology nit-pickers yell at the screen. But during the climactic battle between good and evil on—and over—the streets of Manhattan, I noticed a familiar landmark.

“What building is that?” I asked my son.

“Hey, Dad—that’s where you work!” he said.

Indeed, 3 Park Avenue, ASME World Headquarters, is shown prominently in several scenes during the battle, standing as distinctively orange in the middle distance. Some exterior scenes were filmed just up the street from our offices (see above right shoulder).








Granted, 3 Park Avenue doesn’t have the iconic value of the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building, but the filmmakers must believe it has some aesthetic value.


rolling with change

Post from Jean Thilmany:

Jean Thilmany

I write about engineering technology, I use my computer and its attendant software every day. I write blog entries and keep up with social media. But I’ve become tired of keeping up with the pace of technological change. No doubt next month they’ll be a new type of web thingy we all must learn to stay at the top of our games, to stay relevant at work and within our fields.

And this month I’ll certainly get another message that this or that one of my accounts needs updating right now. Or I’ll once again forget my password to an account and the prompts won’t work and I’ll need to call customer service… and so it goes.

A friend gave me a two-hour lesson a few Sundays ago in how to use Pinterest and I kept up with it for a while, but who has the time?

Likewise, I don’t tweet but I do Facebook. And I certainly acknowledge that as an eBay buyer, I’m thankful for Paypal—and for eBay itself. Google is a great help to doing my job, as is email.

Then I think about how I do my job now as compared to how I did it before the rise of the Internet, the advent of email. I find the depth and breadth of my reporting, not to mention the time-savings brought about by the Internet, has been huge.

The current generation likely doesn’t have my gripe with the pace of change. Keeping up, for them, is a privilege, not a hassle.

For example, college students and recent graduates are used to 3-D CAD programs. Show a 3-D-generated CAD drawing to a 60- or 70-year-old engineer, however, and he or she may toss it for the much less reliable paper blueprint. I know from my own writing about engineering technology that today’s CAD programs and 3-D printers mean engineers can design more intricate products and more intricately shaped products than ever before.

So I guess I need to shelve my churlish reaction to the pace of technological change. But I’m still going to be a late Pinterest adopter.


robot law 101?

Post from Alan Brown:

Alan Brown

I recently spent a weekend at a conference, We Robot, listening to lawyers and technologists discuss the implications of autonomous robots. It was an eye-opener. Especially because nearly everyone at the conference truly believed that we needed to set standards now, because autonomous robots are about to make a real impact on our lives.

There has been a real explosion in robot capabilities. Only eight years ago, economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane analyzed what tasks humans and computers did best. The argued that robots were unlikely to replace humans in tasks where rules were difficult to understand, such as driving a truck.

Last week, Nevada licensed Google’s driverless (as in “autonomous”) cars to drive on state roads. That didn’t take long.

More is coming. That is why A. Michael Froomkin, a Miami Law professor, organized the We Robot conference. “Robots are approaching a takeoff point,” he said. Within the next decade, we may find thousands and then millions of autonomous robots working along side us.

Froomkin has seen it before. He began working on Internet law in the early 1990s. By then, engineers had already deployed key standards. And because they were thinking about technology and efficiency, rather than security or privacy, they could not build those concerns into the core of the emerging online network.

Froomkin wants to avoid that mistake. “Thanks to events like this one, people can get in on the ground floor and make our concerns known,” he said.

It will not be easy. The conference’s first paper asked how the law should think about autonomous robots. It was authored by University of Washington’s Neil Richards, a law professor, and Bill Smart, a computer scientist.

It soon turned into a debate about the nature of autonomous robots themselves. One group argued that robots are tools, and that users directed them the same way they control a hammer.

A second group compared them to horses. While we can train, harness, and contain these animals, the law has long recognized that horses have a mind of their own. They can panic, bolt, break their harness or jump a fence. The law acknowledges this and does not fault the owner who tries his or her best to restrain his animal.

The argument went back and forth, with good points on both sides. I’ll come back to some other aspects of the conference in a future post.


enterprise for the bottom of the pyramid

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

Harry Hutchinson

Six years ago, Evan Thomas was working as part of a team building a water-purification system for a village in Rwanda. At the time, he was a doctoral student in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His day job, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, involved water recovery systems.

He was in Rwanda as part of the NASA chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA. The EWB group teamed with residents of the village, Mugonero, and with students from a nearby technical school to construct a gravity-fed water filtration system that could serve the community. Mechanical Engineering magazine published a story about that project in the February 2007 issue.

I got in touch with Evan the other day and found that he has been busy since then. Today, as an assistant professor of engineering at Portland State University, he runs the SWEETLab. That stands for “Sustainable Water, Energy, and Environmental Technologies.”

He is also involved in three young startups, all connected with the delivery of technology to improve the lives of the rural poor around the world.

He co-founded Manna Energy Ltd. about five years ago along with a few associates, including another member of that EWB team, Max Gold. The company combines carbon credit finance markets with sustainable technologies for the developing world.

Among its projects in Africa, for instance, Manna Energy consulted for a Swiss company, Vestergaard Frandsen, to help them develop a carbon credit model to distribute their home scale water filtration system called the LifeStraw Family, LifeStraw is a portable filter that removes bacteria and parasites from water.

Filtering water means people do not have to boil it to make it safe to drink. So they cut down fewer trees for fuel, and there’s less combustion in general. That qualifies for carbon credits under the voluntary Gold Standard as well as the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism. Some of these carbon credits are tied to a “demand” for firewood use that is currently not being met—instead many of the users previously drank untreated water.

The SWEETLab develops small sensors that can run for a year on a double-A battery. They can tell how many times a latrine door opens, how much water flows through a filter, how much cooking is done on a fuel-efficient stove. And they can transmit that information over the cellular phone network a website.

They might even be able to establish patterns of use to confirm that the devices in place are being used, and how often.

Manna has teamed with DelAgua, a spinoff of the University of Surrey in England, to form a new company called DelAgua Health & Development Programs. That company is mounting a program now to deliver water filtration systems and fuel-efficient stoves to as many as 750,000 homes in Rwanda. A sample of about 500 filters and stoves will be fitted with SWEETLab sensors. Evan says the company is still in talks with prospective suppliers of the filters and stoves.

As if that isn’t enough, Evan has a third venture on his plate. That’s SWEETSense Inc., which will market the lab’s devices for uses that include the same kind of field research that DelAgua Health will conduct, and also for environmental monitoring.

In Evan’s case, “EWB” may stand for “entrepreneur without borders.”


Bird Bot

Post from Jeffrey Winters:

Jeffrey Winters

Flying robots are doing the most amazing things these days. (See this from a few months back.) The most recent example comes from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where engineers are developing a robot that’s a fairly radical departure from what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.

Most flying robots come in two basic types: autonomous airplanes—the kinds of drones that circle over battlefields doing reconnaissance or launching missiles—and helicopters with two, four, or more rotors, which are much more common among hobbyists. The Illinois researchers, led by Soon-Jo Chung, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering, and postdoctoral student Aditya Paranjape, are working on a different paradigm altogether. Their flying robot has articulated wings that bend and flap like birds’ wings. And just as birds can, the Illinois flying robot can swoop to a location, pull up, and then perch on a human hand.

It’s beautiful to watch, but right now Chung and Paranjape’s flying robot is limited to gliding. And whether it develops beyond this clever trick to become as versatile as a quadcopter remains to be seen. But it’s fascinating to see so many ideas that were tried out and discarded in the days before and shortly after the Wright Brothers getting another look in the 21st century.


Personal radio

Post from Jean Thilmany:

News from engineers at the University of California San Diego suggests that a computer algorithm they’ve developed and are calling game-powered machine learning, would enable music lovers to one day search every song on the web well beyond popular hits, with a simple text search using key words like “funky” or, even more precise, “spooky electronica.”

The engineers found that a computer can be taught to automatically label every song on the Internet using sets of examples provided by unpaid music fans. And the results are as accurate as using paid music experts to provide the examples, saving time and money, said Gert Lanckriet, a professor of electrical engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, who led the work. The results were published in the April 24 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The official link to the press release heralding the algorithm can be found by here.

The eventual hope is to create a text-based multimedia search engine that will make it much easier to access the explosion of multimedia content online. Today, humans working round the clock labeling songs with descriptive text could never keep up with the volume of content being uploaded to the Internet, Lanckriet said. For example, YouTube users upload 60 hours of video content per minute, according to that company.

Lanckriet foresees a time when, thanks to this massive database of cataloged music, cell phone sensors will track the activities and moods of individual cell phone users and use that data to provide a personalized radio service—the kind that matches music to one’s activity and mood, without repeating the same songs over and over again.

Speaking for myself, I’ve never had much luck with Pandora Radio, which purports to learn your musical preferences based on your input of the type of songs that you enjoy listening to. You’re then prompted to give each song Pandora subsequently plays a thumbs up or down, and the radio station, backed by its algorithm, goes on to hone in on your musical taste and refine the songs it plays for you.

I know the UC engineers said their machine-learning tool will go well beyond Pandora and the “if you like” style algorithms, but my tastes are broad, from rag time to hip hop, and such algorithms seem to have a hard time accounting for that—and I want to find my way to my own songs. For some reason, the “if you like this, then you’re sure to like this” style of finding my way to new songs and musical genres has never appealed to me. I’d rather be an explorer on my own.

“What I would like long-term is just one single radio station that starts in the morning and it adapts to you throughout the day,” Lanckriet has said. “By that I mean the user doesn’t have to tell the system, ‘Hey, it’s afternoon now, I prefer to listen to hip hop in the afternoon. The system knows because it has learned the cell phone user’s preferences.’”

But I can’t be alone when I say I may enjoy listening to hip hop for an hour or so some afternoons, but then want to hear three hours straight of Dizzy Gellespie on another day. Bottom line is music, like taste in food, is highly personal and people tend to eat what they have a craving for right then, which varies by day and by hour.

There are just some human preferences a computer can’t predict or follow.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

May 2012

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