Weeknotes 187; computing plants

Hello all. Thanks for reading. We are looking back on another impactful week, especially with all the global developments. One of the important things is not to normalize the war. Just because of the horrible consequences every day, but also because it is impacting our current and future lives. In the monthly update newsletter, I wrote for Cities of Things I relate the developments to the direct consequences for the balance of agency between humans and tech.

The presentation by James Bridle at Strp Festival was a very relevant project in this context. It was great as ever. The artifacts in the gallery were a bit hard to grasp without the presentation so I was lucky to be able to experience that. Bridle’s latest project Serverfarm is very inspiring.

In a smaller context, the hackathon that we organized within the program of CityLab010 project together with Creating010 (Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences) touched upon the social design role of autonomous objects in the city. Check the post here.

Other activities last week were the graduation ceremony of Lisa Stevens who designed (and researched) a tool for youngsters to be more aware of their pensions in the future, building upon the notion of predictive knowledge. Congrats also here to Lisa for finishing the project.

Events to visit

Not a lot of events this week on my calendar. There are always even in Pakhuis de Zwijger and HNI with a bit more focus on architecture. v2 is also interesting to check for more artistic-driven research. 

News of last week

A week after Amazon’s rollout of a home robot. We have seen it before but now the reviews came online. And a lot of attention for a banana peeling robot I shared before.

Language of fungi derived from their electrical spiking activity 
BIOCOMP – More on the babbling species that are nonhumans. “Fungi exhibit oscillations of extracellular electrical potential recorded via differential electrodes inserted into a substrate colonized by mycelium or directly into sporocarps.”
Here’s what happens when cops pull over a driverless Cruise vehicle – The Verge
AUTONOMOUS – This will be a classic and returning in lots of presentations I expect… “After police pulled over a driverless Cruise vehicle in San Francisco, the car drove off to park in a safer location. Cruise confirmed to The Verge that police pulled the car over for having no headlights on.”
How San Francisco became an autonomous vehicle test course – The San Francisco Examiner
AUTONOMOUS – “The streets of San Francisco have become a giant, photogenic AV test course where this technology will show its promise and perils in real-time.”Browsing the pictures in the article of the different companies testing their AVs makes you wonder if the techy look with outside sensors and radars will become part of the visual language of an AV even beyond the need for these add ons.
INTELLIGENCE – In case you missed this new popular installment of AI after GPT-3 “DALL·E 2 is a new AI system that can create realistic images and art from a description in natural language.”
Box069: Imagining the Worst
TRENDS – A fine rant of Tobias on the approach of ‘people’ towards new technologies like metaverse and similar. “This re-wrapping, fracking, whatever you want to call it goes hand-in-hand with another strategy; a prevailing novelty bias. Things are presented as important or valuable simply because they are new rather than because they have any innate practical purpose; novelty itself has become a valuable property of innovation.”
Japanese Researchers Develop Robot that Can Peel Bananas
ROBOTICS – I have the strong feeling I have seen this peeling robot before, but there was a lot of attention (again) this week, so why not share again: “Researchers in Japan have developed a robot capable of peeling a banana without crushing the fruit inside. While the two-armed machine is only successful 57 percent of the time, banana peeling points to a future where machines could do more sensitive, skillful kinds of work.”
The missing Hand in creating a truly robot-powered economy 
ROBOTICS – What will be automated first? Physical tasks or cognitive ones in the end? How will that influence our economics? “We can imagine the bots getting created by some companies while the skills for performing different tasks developed by a plethora of companies competing with each other in a new version of the app store.”
iRobot launches Create 3 educational robot
ROBOTICS – Too bad it is not available in Europe yet, would be great to play around with. “Now with ROS 2 and Python support, the Create 3 educational robot is iRobot’s smartest developer platform to date.”
ROS 2 now available on Clearpath Robotics’ Husky UGV
ROBOTICS – Husky is another famous prototyping platform for robotic research, a bit comparable to the wizard-of-oz platform we used at the hackathon. ROS 2 compatibility signals that we will move towards a deconstruction of the device as a platform and the services build on it. 
Amazon Astro Review: R2D2-Like Robot Makes a Good First Impression 
ROBOTICS – The Amazon home robot is now entering the market, the first reviews are in: “Astro is winning me over, but is it really practical? I’m still not sure.”
Robotic wheelchairs to move through crowds smoothly and safely 
ROBOTICS – I am a bit in doubt if this is a problem-driven or tech-driven solution. Will the robots become like helping family members? Or the unwanted stranger helping you out… “People in robotic wheelchairs may soon be able to move through crowds smoothly and safely. As part of CrowdBot, an EU-funded project, researchers at EPFL’s Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory (LASA) are exploring the technical, ethical, and safety issues related to this kind of technology.”
April: 3D printed fingertip
ROBOTICS – “A highly sensitive, 3D-printed fingertip could help robots become more dexterous and improve the performance of prosthetic hands by giving them an in-built sense of touch.”Why this is beneficial for prosthetic hands is more than clear, interesting, especially how it also aims to give robots human-like experiences.
Full-color night vision is almost a reality after a deep learning breakthrough
ARTIFICIAL – I did not actively realize that night vision was only monochromatic; this is another step in building a computational representation as a reality. In a way. “Researchers created an algorithm that uses infrared images to recreate photos as if they were taken in visible light. This machine learning breakthrough could be the future of night vision.”
Tesla is aiming to start production of its Optimus humanoid robot in 2023 
ROBOTICS – Elon Musk has of course a reputation for reaching his promised deadlines… “When first announcing the project, Tesla was aiming to have a prototype of the humanoid robot ready by the end of 2022, but there was no talk of a production timeline just yet.”
Qualcomm’s Autonomous Vehicle Segment Just Got a Big Boost 
AUTONOMOUS – Always interesting signals if this kind of companies decide to take a stake in technology.“The acquisition of Arriver will help Qualcomm expand and commercialize autonomous vehicle tech.”
Social Design Sydney talk. I was invited by Jax Wechsler to talk… 
DESIGN FUTURES – Designing transitions and social design are hot topics, participatory and co-design sometimes seem to replace traditional design research as the only right way to go. This is an extensive exploration (as expected, it is a PhD), with a straightforward conclusion: “The skill is in the orchestration and the synthesis of multiple pieces of knowledge to form the diverse evidence base for decisions. That’s something that designers are typically very good at.”
Deception, exploited workers, and free cash: How Worldcoin recruited its first half a million test users
INFRASTRUCTURE – I was a bit hoping we could shift from the Black Mirror dystopian narratives to something more constructive… “The startup promises a fairly-distributed, cryptocurrency-based universal basic income. So far all it’s done is build a biometric database from the bodies of the poor.”
Should cars drive like humans or robots?
AUTONOMOUS – I spoil the answer. I might say that there is more differences between drivers than being a robot or human…“An autonomous vehicle has to be better and more nimble than the driver it is replacing, not worse,” said William S. Lerner, a transportation safety expert and delegate to the International Organization for Standardization, a group that sets global industrial standards. “
Mercedes set to take legal responsibility for ‘autonomous’ car crashes
AUTONOMOUS – This could be an important stimulating factor and sending trust “Carmaker indemnifies drivers using ‘Level 3’ software in Germany against accidents”
Honey holds potential for making brain-like computer chips 
BIO COMPUTING – Another example of extracting computational capabilities from natural materials. “Honey might be a sweet solution for developing environmentally friendly components for neuromorphic computers, systems designed to mimic the neurons and synapses found in the human brain.”
Service robots become “stars” of restaurant in Belgium-Xinhua
ROBOTICS – A strange article, check the paragraphs. I had to think about my own experience a couple of weeks ago when I was for some days south of Limburg and ran into of these service robots in an Asian fusion restaurant chain (Dadawan).
Radar trends to watch: April 2022 
TRENDS – For those who don’t want to miss anything, dive into every trend. This overview might be something for you: “Developments in Programming, Biology, Hardware, and More”

Paper for this week

In the Cities of Things update mentioned above the balance of agency between humans and nonhumans is the main topic to reflect. In this paper by Hermann-Pillath a case is made to introduce “technosphere science” next to the Anthropocene to address some of these aspects of shifting agency:

“Agency is no longer seen as a property exclusive to humans, but as emerging from networks of entities, including humans, artefacts and living systems. Hence, technosphere science draws on many general and abstract insights of various uses of the concept of ‘networks’ across many disciplines, which allows for positing distinct forms of causal processes: prominent examples include the concept of autocatalytic cycles (building on their conceptual role in explaining the transition from nonlife to life) or power laws and scaling laws.”

“(…) the technosphere is the sphere of technology, in which humans play a role, but not necessarily the central role.”

“In any case, in the technosphere artefacts and human action, mediated by human sense-making and interpretive creativity, are deeply enmeshed with each other.”

“The question is what kinds of artefacts factually operate as autonomous agents, and which are just components of them. A city might be an autonomous agent, whereas as hammer is not. But once we include humans, the hammer plus a human can be regarded as an autonomous agent: The hammer is a part of the human extended phenotype.”

“That would imply that the function of an artefact is defined in a network of artefacts, at least on proximate terms, and that human intentions serve to realize that function.”

“The economy is the domain where functions of the technosphere are realized via human action. The economy is not seen as being subordinate to human design and human needs and wants, but is the evolved medium which ties up the biosphere and technology.”

Herrmann-Pillath is triggering some interesting notions here, read the whole article here: PDF

Herrmann-Pillath, C. (2017). Foundational Issues of ‘Technosphere Science’–the case for a new scientific discipline. Available at SSRN 3034099

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Iskander Smit is an innovation director at tech and innovation agency INFO, visiting researcher and lab director at the Delft University of Technology coordinating Cities of Things Delft Design Lab, and chairman and organizer of ThingsCon Netherlands.