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M-type asteroids are high albedo (i.e shiny) asteroids made partially or mostly of metal. Of all of M-type asteroids currently known in the solar system, 16 Psyche is the most massive.  It is a hunk of iron and nickel (and other heavy metals?) which has a diameter of 250 kilometers.  Psyche orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter and is believed to be the exposed core of a planet approximately the size of Mars which was obliterated by a catastrophic impact.  The asteroid is named after the intrepid mortal who found love and ultimately apotheosis in an “Eyes Wide Shut” type Greek myth of great suspense, horror, and beauty.

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Are you curious to know more about 16 Psyche based on this description?  I certainly hope you are, because NASA has just announced future missions for the 2020s and 16 Psyche is on the list. As currently conceived, the Psyche exploration mission will send a robot probe powered by solar electric propulsion out to the obliterated core to examine the planetoid.  The probe will be equipped with a magnetometer and a gamma-ray spectrometer to find out more about the composition and history of the enigmatic relic.

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Of course other long term aspects of the mission are of interest as well.  Although we have not yet mastered nuclear fusion, safe comprehensive control of such boundless energy is probably only 20 years or so away [winky icon].  What if humankind had sophisticated manufacturing robots and near infinite energy?  In such circumstances 8 million cubic kilometers of steel might come in very handy indeed.  So far the good news keeps rolling in for 2017.  This Psyche mission can’t happen fast enough for my taste.

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Last week I blogged about flatfish.  These fascinating benthic predators can be found in oceans worldwide…however my interest in the asymmetric masters of blending in transcends pure ichthyology.  I have been busy drawing a series of intricate pen and ink drawings of flatfish for a project.  I will show you some of these large drawings one of these days, but I have also been drawing a series of small humorous and surreal flatfish in spare moments…during the commute or lunch break.  I am putting these whimsical, comical, and absurd flounders in brightly colored frames for fun.

Here is some of the series:

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This flounder seems to have an industrial refinery in Kazakhstan on his belly.  In accordance with his landlocked status, strange mythical beasts of Central Asia gambol in the twilight skies around him.

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This flounder has Greco-Roman objects around him.  The chameleon above his back reminds the viewer of the true nature of flatfish. The strange quadripeds on his back betoken a different age of agrarian labor.

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This flounder is at home in the ocean (where he is joined by apparitions and animals which look curiously like molecules or primordial forces.  Indeed, Gauss’ Law for electrical fields reminds us of the subtle but ineluctable flux which pervades interactions at all levels.

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I have been trying to garner greater commercial interest in flatfish-themed art, and what is of greater commercial interest (and general prurient interest) than pop-superstar Miley Cyrus?  The famous singer coos atop a stolid turbot in the midst of an exotic and sensuous garden.  A musically literate person can play the musical phrase above the singer for a true multimedia experience. Miley’s cowgirl footwear hint at the true nature of this artwork.

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Trailing streamers of ragged blue plasma, a wild eyed flatfish covered in squirming parasites rides a beam of yellow energy over an elongated pink woodchuck ghost.  What could be more straightforward?

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A radiant orange flounder with the sun in his belly soars above some sort of pumping station or acetylene factory. In the sky above him, an overly eager gundam has fired an air-to-air missile at an endangered crane.  Oh no! What will happen next?

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A long faced flounder made of stitched together toruses looks down upon a futuristic city of arcologies and bioengineered structures.

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Mechanical innovation and the aristocratic southern lifestyle begin to seem increasingly at odds.  Predatory animals stock the riverine boundaries. A flying machine whirrs through the heavens.

The flounder at the top of the post–which features fanciful animals gathering around an elegant flounder with a brittle star on its belly is my personal favorite since I drew it with a dip pen–a style of drawing which generally results in the total destruction of the piece with the final stroke of the pen (as a huge blot of ink falls out), however in this rare case that did not happen so you can see some of the linear elegance of the medium.  All of these flatfish are created with ink and (generally) colored pencil, by yours truly Wayne Ferrebee in this year 2016 AD.  I’ll put up the second batch next week.  Thanks for looking and kindly leave any comments!

 

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Happy (belated) Fourth of July! While everyone was out barbecuing and amusing themselves with colorful novelty explosions, there was big news in space exploration: NASA’s Juno probe, which launched from Earth five years ago, has finally reached the gas giant planet and entered orbit. The robot spacecraft, which is about the size of a basketball court, is now dancing nimbly amongst the system of moons and rings and radiation belts around the giant world.

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The probe is a remarkable spacecraft.  It traveled 2.7 billion kilometers (1.7 billion miles) to reach the exact orbit which NASA planned for it.  The secret behind its astonishing precision (even when traveling at 165,000 mph) is the autonomy of its sophisticated navigational computer.  Mission controllers do not have to radio the probe from half-way across the solar system (which would take minutes—or longer. Instead the probe navigates itself. The ship computer is shielded beneath a titanium vault to keep radiation from frying its clever electronic brain.

earth-jupiterOh man!

 

Among the planets, Jupiter is a sort of greedy eldest child.  Scientists who study planetary formation believe that the gas giant formed first of all the planets and it took the lion’s share of available matter left over from the formation of the sun. Jupiter is more than twice as massive as all the other planets in our solar system put together: indeed, it is three hundred and eighteen times more massive than Earth.  Yet we know shockingly little about this bruiser. Very basic questions about Jupiter remain unanswered. For example we still do not know whether the planet has a rocky core beneath its vast colorful atmosphere.

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As we learn more about exoplanets which orbit other stars, questions about the formation of solar systems have become more numerous.  Astronomers have been particularly perplexed by the number of “hot Jupiters,” giant gas planets which are extremely close to their stars.  Was Jupiter such a world at some point before moving to its current location, or is it a huge freak?  We simply do not know.  Scientists would also like to know more about the unimaginably vast cloudscapes of Jupiter.  What dynamics move these huge bands of pressurized gas?

As Jupiter formed, it was bombarded by strange radiation.  The depths of Jupiter’s storms must still feature giant lightning strikes. This sort of treatment can cause hydrocarbons and ammonia to form amino acids.  Maybe life has a Jovian origin.  Maybe Jupiter still has life floating around like aerial zooplankton.  Again, we just don’t know much about the giant world…

Did anybody see that amazing episode of "Cosmos"?

Did anybody see that amazing episode of “Cosmos”?

However, now that Juno has arrived we can start to answer some of these questions.  The probe will go through various start-up and test sequences until Oct. 19 when it moves to a 14-day orbit of the planet and really starts scrutinizing our giant neighbor.

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Oh, one more thing—NASA has been getting better at PR to make space more accessible and “fun” for us laypeople following at home (as witnessed by the July 4th arrival).  Juno also has a crew of three Lego astronauts: Galileo, Jupiter, and Juno herself.  This leads me to write about Juno herself, for she is a terrifying figure among the gods.  More about her tomorrow!

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A quick post today from the bottom of the ocean where this unknown octopus species was just found by an unmanned robot probe. The endearing cephalopod was photographed by Deep Discoverer, a robot submarine which launches from the NOAA Ship “Okeanos Explorer” a federally funded research vessel. Since 2008, the Okeanos Explorer has been travelling the world’s oceans exploring and mapping unknown parts of the underwater world. The octopus was photographed on a barren ledge of rock 4,290 meters beneath the surface (just off the northeast coast of Hawaii). The octopus appears to have a complete lack of chromatophores—special pigment-containing cells which cephalopods manipulate in order to change colors—so it appears ghostly and transparent. Here is hoping we learn more about this amazing underwater creature!

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The North Pole of Enceladus during the October 30th, 2015 Cassini Flyby (NASA/ESA/ASI)

The North Pole of Enceladus during the October 30th, 2015 Cassini Flyby (NASA/ESA/ASI)

Since 2004, the Cassini spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn. The robot probe (a joint effort of NASA, ESA, and the Italian space agency) received the most press when it launched a flying saucer lander onto Saturn’s planet-like moon Titan, but it is still out there doing amazing work. Last week, while I was busy writing about Halloween themes, the probe made its closest pass yet to Saturn’s ice moon, Enceladus. Enceladus is only 500 kilometers in diameter and it is coated in ice, but it is of great interest to scientists because ice plumes venting from the moon’s south pole seem to indicate a large polar subsurface ocean of liquid water. Warmed above freezing by tidal flux, this ocean beneath the ice probably has a thickness of around 10 km.

View of Enceladus’ south pole geyser, backlit by Saturn

View of Enceladus’ south pole geyser, backlit by Saturn

On October 30th, Cassini flew by the icy moon at the dangerously close distance of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). The probe was directly above the south pole of Enceladus and it collected a little flake of ice to analyze (which strikes me as incredibly amazing and beautiful). It will take some time for the ship’s devices to assay the drop of water from an alien ocean, but Cassini also snapped some photos which we already have. These are taken from point blank range above the south pole. The ocean is down there beneath the scratches and scars. What is the nature of this icy ocean? How long has it been there? Could it possibly harbor life?

A ghastly Crown-of-Thorns Starfish denuding a coral reef

A ghastly Crown-of-Thorns Starfish denuding a coral reef

Today’s post is simultaneously inspiring and hopeful and terrifying.   Marine researchers have long been worried about the crown-of-thorns starfish, a monstrous invasive invertebrate which eats coral, doing irreparable damage to the Great Barrier Reef (the world’s largest coral reef).  Human divers have proven ineffective at stemming the onslaught, so conservationists have teamed up with mad scientists to build COTSBOT—an autonomous killing robot submarine which will haunt the reef like a bright yellow uboat/shark.  The COTSBOT will locate and identify crown-of-thorns starfish with robot eyes and then jet over and deliver a lethal injection to the vile invertebrates.  The injectable solution is uniquely poisonous to starfish so any goddamn MFAs doing starfish cosplay projects on the reef do not necessarily need to worry about more than being jabbed and pumped full of weird chemicals by a nightmarish (albeit comic) undersea robot.

COTSBOT (image from Queensland University of Technology)

COTSBOT (image from Queensland University of Technology)

COTSBOT (which I should have mentioned stands for “Crown-OF-Thorns Starfish Robot”) is going to debut in Moreton Bay by Brisbane, a starfish free location where the operators can refine its navigation systems.  If all goes well it will then move on the Great Barrier Reef itself.  The robot (or fleets thereof) will scour an area of the reef killing,  Then human divers will sweep in afterwards to mop up any hardened survivors.   I am extremely impressed at how quickly science managed to make my futuristic ocean sketch come true.  I am also struck with admiration at this high-cost high tech salvation for one of Earth’s most diverse and imperiled ecosystems.  Take that, evil starfish!  You have messed with a reef protected by the fell hand of man.  The alarmist in me can’t help but notice that this is like the first 15 minutes of a horror movie, but, presumably if COTSBOT becomes sentient and decides to protect the reef from ALL dangerous invasive animals we can still pull the plug.  I’m also a bit sorry that humankind has so injured the Giant Triton–nature’s COTSBOT–that the lovely snail can not do the job.

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Our current form—bipedal & prone to toppling, with two limited manipulator arms—always struck me as less functional than it could be. If I were making sentient beings, I would first try something else. I can therefore never understand why robot makers are always trying to copy the humanoid template and create androids. Fortunately there are other robotics experts who are willing to consider more versatile shapes for the next generation of robots. Consider this robot octopus, manufactured by a Greek team.

 

The robo-octopus can swim using traditional octopus jet propulsion (particularly effective because of the elastic webs between its tentacles). It can also crawl along the ocean bottom with its many arms and utilize its synthetic tentacles to carry or manipulate multiple objects.

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So far the robo-octopus is merely an experimental plaything and it has all the awkwardness of some first generation Pre-Cambrian jellyfish, but it is hard not to see immense potential in that adaptable be-tentacled shape. Imagine combining it with a supercomputer and giving it wrap-around artificial eyes. What a magnificent robot that would be!  Indeed, maybe we could utilize such a shape for transhuman cyborgs of the future.  Humans could swim around in three dimensions and be free of all this right-leg/left-leg falling down business!

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Lately I have been reading a series of science fiction novels which are set thousands (or tens of thousands) of years from now in the fictional world of the far future.  In this imagined future, humankind exists alongside of sentient computers which have stupendous quasi-divine intelligence, vastly greater than that of people.   The artificial minds regard humankind as a combination of parent, pet, and childlike ward–however, at the same time the supercomputers are controlled by (or at least work with) the world’s wealthiest citizens who use this considerable advantage to consolidate their hold on elite positions and rare resources.  The book’s writer was (is?) a lawyer so many of the books’ problems involve lawsuit-style disputes over who controls what property in the face of complex rules and circumstances (some of which are hilarious: for example when two entities merge, they literally integrate together as a hive-mind superorganism).  Many scenes involve the hapless human protagonists standing aside baffled as supercilious machines argue over their fate (in impenetrable jargon, of course)—a tableau instantly familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with lawyers.  The work is tremendously entertaining and already out of print—so you will need an e-reader or a used book store if you want to find out what happens.

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As with most science fiction, the series of novels reminds me not so much of the world of the far future (concerning which… who knows?) but rather of the present.  We are currently living through a great revolution: every year our machines become substantially more powerful and more intelligent.  Thanks to devices of all sorts, today’s world is ever more efficient which, in turn, makes the price of goods and services cheaper.   Although it sometimes seems otherwise, production costs for just about everything keep going down (even though many industries are coming under the influence of cartels and monopolies).  At first the growing utility of machines  was only evident in industry where machines and industrial robots started performing the tasks of assembly line workers (to make textiles, refrigerators, automobiles, airplanes or such), but now computer programs are taking over for accountants, librarians, stock-brokers, and bookkeepers.  Inhumanly precise robots can now even do the work of surgeons, sculptors, and pastry chefs.

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Ostensibly we are all beneficiaries of this revolution.  Economic and moral philosophers have talked about a “post-scarcity” society where all essentials are cheaply provided to everyone and the only premium is on luxury goods and services.  It is reasonable to argue that citizens of the first world (and even in parts of the developing world) are entering such an economic paradigm:  everyone has a pleather couch, a big screen TV, and all the corn-based junk food they can cram in their pantry.   Yet somehow Netflix and Doritos lose their savor when nobody has a worthwhile job. Technological change and attendant globalization are causing tremendous inequality as labor becomes irrelevant and capital becomes more important.   It is more than just a political canard that the middle class is disappearing.

(Source: Forbes.com)

(Source: Forbes.com)

Secretaries, factory drudges, and travel agents are beginning to seem archaic–like scribes and icemen.  If such trends continue oncologists, soldiers, writers, radiologists, and actuaries will begin to disappear as well.  Carefully combing the daily news, one increasingly reads about breakthroughs which allow computer programs and elaborate machinery to efficiently do white collar jobs.  Here is an example article about how stock traders are being replaced by cold inhuman computers (which, strangely, still contrive to be more likeable than the traders). Soon the only people who will be productive will be the super-elites who own robotic factories, proprietary software, and energy production facilities (and consequently everything else).

Billionairebot from Futurama

Billionairebot from Futurama

Of course the hollowing out of the American middle class and the rise of the super billionaires is not only due to more effective technology.  Globalization of world labor markets and the afore-mentioned cartels (and rent-seeking) are also factors.   Expensive machines do not have all the jobs:  it is cheaper to outsource light manufacturing overseas where inexpensive labor and minimal regulation ensure maximum profits.   Yet, it seems the day is coming when society becomes so stratified that there will be few ways to enter the top echelon of society.  Capital & equity will have meaning.  Labor and innovation will be worthless.

Of course maybe I am being paranoid.  Perhaps the machines will also usurp the leaders who stand at the pinnacle of social power/wealth (or the elites will otherwise be deposed) and we can all work two day workweeks and spend the rest of the time going to petting zoos and having online conversations with friends.  Maybe the supercomputers will just kill us all off like we did with earlier hominids.

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Again, who knows?  We are talking about the future.  But right now society is not keeping up with the pace of machine innovation.  As a consequence we face all sorts of alarming class ossification, wage stagnation, unemployment, and political gridlock.  Those of us who still have jobs should start to think about the ramifications of obsolescence in the face of ever-better machines–for that fate is coming.  In the near future, travel agents won’t be the only ones who have lost their jobs to the march of progress.  Unless you are the richest person in Venezuela or the Duke of Windsor, you will soon not have a meaningful job. Will you enjoy a life of empty leisure and fey entertainment like my housecat or will you be stuck working 65 hours a week doing some task which the economy deems to be beneath the dignity of machines?

Our glorious mechanized future?

Our glorious mechanized future?

Gibbous Europa (Credit: Galileo Project, JPL, NASA)

Gibbous Europa
(Credit: Galileo Project, JPL, NASA)

Tonight is Yuri’s Night, when space enthusiasts around the world celebrate the first human trip to outer space made by Yuri Gagarin fifty two years ago.  You can read about Yuri here.   It is an excellent occasion to assess what is most exciting in space exploration.  Unfortunately nobody has jumped forward to build a floating colony on Venus.  Indeed NASA seems rather flat footed lately—building a series of colorless rockets and sending successive similar rovers to Mars.  Fortunately there is one exciting mission which still has not definitively been cancelled because of budget stalemate.

Proposed Europa Clipper (NASA)

Proposed Europa Clipper (NASA)

The Europa Clipper mission is a $2bn dollar project to launch a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa, a large icy satellite covered in cracked ice.  Europa is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon and has a thin oxygen atmosphere.  It is one of the smoothest items in the solar system.   Astronomers believe that an ocean of liquid water lies beneath Europa which is warmed by tidal flexing (a process which causes orbital and rotational energy to be converted into heat).   The surface of Europa is bathed in exotic radiation which rips apart water molecules and leaves oxidants like hydrogen peroxide.  All of this means that Europa is the most likely planet in the solar system to harbor unknown life.  It has even been theorized that beneath the ice the ocean could have black smoker type environments–and just possibly thermal vent or “cold seep” ecosystems.

Artist's concept of the cryobot and hydrobot probes (NASA)

Artist’s concept of the cryobot and hydrobot probes (NASA)

Because of this, scientists have been anxious to get a closer look at the intriguing moon.  Various proposals have been put forward for missions directly to the moon. The Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft took pictures of it as they flew through the solar system and subsequent missions also took readings and photos—but there has been no Europa-centric mission to really find out about the oceans below the cracked ice.  One (amazing!) proposal was to send a nuclear powered melt probe to melt through the ice and sink to the bottom of the ocean, whereupon a mini-sub probe would emerge and explore the extraterrestrial ocean!  That plan was shelved because it was too expensive (and nobody could figure out how to sterilize the probe).  The proposed Europa Clipper mission is more modest but still quite amazing. Here’s how the Jet Propulsion Laboratory describes it:

The Europa Clipper mission would send a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft into a long, looping orbit around Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of Europa.

The possible payload of science instruments under consideration includes radar to penetrate the frozen crust and determine the thickness of the ice shell, an infrared spectrometer to investigate the composition of Europa’s surface materials, a topographic camera for high-resolution imaging of surface features, and an ion and neutral mass spectrometer to analyze the moon’s trace atmosphere during flybys…The nominal Europa Clipper mission would perform 32 flybys of Europa at altitudes varying from 2700 km to 25 km.

That sounds amazing!  Join me in lifting a glass to Yuri Gagarin and also join me in hoping that our moribund government funds this far-sighted mission to what might be life’s other home in the solar system!

Yuri Gagarin--the first human to go to space

Yuri Gagarin–the first human to go to space

Biologists estimate that there are approximately 8.8 million species of eukaryotes (animals with complex cell structure) currently alive on Earth.  So far, humankind has only cataloged 1.9 million species and entire biomes remain largely unknown to us.

Unknown Order of Nudibranch Sea Slug swimming in the depths off Monterey (Image Credit: NOAA/Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

To illustrate this point, here is a photograph of a completely unknown genus of nudibranch mollusk photographed 1 mile beneath the surface of the ocean near Davidson seamount (which is an extinct underwater volcano just off the coast of Monterey).  I wish I could tell you more about the strange mollusk, but this photograph, taken from a robotic deep sea submersible in 2002 is pretty much all that humankind knows about this species.  The mission photographed a huge number of other gelatinous creatures in the middle depths of the ocean, and in fact caused scientists to rethink the importance of such animals in the oceanic ecosystem. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) worked on the mission with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their website explains the robotic study by paraphrasing Bruce Robinson, an ecologist who pioneered the use of robot submersibles:

One of the most important discoveries has been the realization that gelatinous animals are important as grazers and predators that comprise a large percentage of the open ocean animal biomass. Robison estimates that gelatinous animals make up about 40 percent of the biomass in the deep sea water column.

Nudibranch mollusks are largely thought of as colorful predators of the tropical reef, so it is a big deal if they (together with other floating mollusks, cnidarians, and siphonophores) constitute such a substantial percentage of the biomass of the largest portion of the ocean.  As an unscientific postscript I think the delicate translucent nudibranch is very beautiful with its alien and ghostlike (and, yes, gelatinous) features.

The same mollusk (Image Credit: NOAA/Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

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