Research

Power of the mud

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Robotic artist Paul Granjon and bio-engineer Michka Melo are exploring the usability of microbial fuel cells for powering small robotic, sensing, interactive systems. Microbial fuel cells work by harnessing the electron-releasing capability of certain types of bacteria widely found in soil and mud. Paul and Michka have started working together on Microbial Fuel Cells in 2016.

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They will use sediment mud from Barry Island, Wales, to power a pair of small twitchy robots.

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The mud is rich in Shewanella bacteria, see above.

The original idea was to work on a pair of sloth-inspired minibots. We now think of a mud-powered simple cybernetic life-ish system… Watch this space.

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With support from FabCre8 @ Cardiff School of Art and Design

This machine could bite

•– This Machine Could Bite —————————-

The Australian online journal Fibreculture’s special issue on Creative Robotics is now available! The issue features 8 articles by academics and artists on themes such as creative robots on Mars, non-organic intelligence, working with the most famous humanoid robots, failing robots and more… My contribution to the journal is an article titled This Machine Could Bite, On the Role of Non-Benigh Art Robots. I make a case for experimentation in human robot interaction with machines not designed for being useful or friendly.

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Article abstract:

“The social robot’s current and anticipated roles as butler, teacher, receptionist or carer for the elderly share a fundamental anthropocentric bias: they are designed to be benign, to facilitate a transaction that aims to be both useful to and simple for the human. At a time when intelligent machines are becoming a tangible prospect, such a bias does not leave much room for exploring and understanding the ongoing changes affecting the relation between humans and our technological environment. Can art robots – robots invented by artists – offer a non-benign-by-default perspective that opens the field for a machine to express its machinic potential beyond the limits imposed by an anthropocentric and market-driven approach? The paper addresses these questions by considering and contextualising early cybernetic machines, current developments in social robotics, and art robots by the author and other artists.”

Eppur si Muove exhibition

Last week the exhibition Eppur Si Muove opened in MUDAM museum, Luxemburg. Lots of good stuff in there. The exhibition is a combination of historical scientific and technical artefacts from Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris and contemporary artworks related to similar techniques and science. Until February 2016.

 

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The exhibition features many excellent works, including Tinguely’s Fata Morgana, Eliasson’s Trust Compass, Kowalski’s Arc en Ciel, Stelarc’s Third Hand and many more. My own Smartbot has been uncrated for living another segment of its limited existence on one square metre.

The MUDAM commissioned me and a team of artists, engineers and business students from Université de Lorraine, Nancy, France, to develop a robot guide for Eppur Si Muove. Guido the Robot Guide started its visits the day after the opening. There is a fair bit of work to be done before it can take over the human guides (phew) but Guido is popular with visitors, especially young ones. It talks about a selection of artworks and inventions from a robotic perspective, only in French for the moment. Two engineering students are working on Guido’s navigation and telepresence until end August.

 

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Robotics Challenge poster babes

I mentioned last week some original lab testing devices for some robots that will compete in Darpa’s Robotics Challenge tomorrow and Saturday. Well, here they are (most them anyway) in this pure robot geek poster published by the robotics branch of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

Darpa Robotics Challenge finalist, June 2015

An interesting selection of cutting edge humanoid and semi-humanoid designs, ready to bite the dust of Fairplex, California. There even is a Chappie lookalike!

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A winner will be crowned on Saturday.

After the circuits died

After the circuits died

On Sunday 26th October I was in the Victoria and Albert Museum Art Studio in London with three other artists (Jonathan Kemp, Madaleine Trigg, Dani Ploeger) improvising with a large pile of electronic waste.

The day will concluded with a presentation of the work in progress and discussion with cultural theorists Neil Maycroft and Toby Miller.

Details will be uploaded soon.

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After the circuits died: exploring electronic waste is a free event where “Visitors are invited to follow a group of artists and cultural theorists in a one-day exploration of electronic waste”, part of an AHRC research project lead by Dani Ploeger

Interview with Michka Melo

At the occasion of a week of citizen science research with my friend Michka Melo in Foam Brussels, I took the opportunity to record an interview. Michka talks about his atypical background, urban gardening, biomimicry, upcycling, future scenario, art and science collaboration. Inspiring and very well informed views on cutting edge topics!

An account of our experiments is available here. Thanks to Robert Murray Smith for valuable info on DIY supercapacitors.

Recycling plastic for 3D printing

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I have been using basic 3d printers since 2011, starting with a Thing-o-matic  by Makerbot, then a couple of UP3D machines. They use plastic filament, mostly made of Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), the same material used to make Lego bricks, or polylactic acid (PLA), a plastic derived from corn starch or other renewable bio-materials. The filament is generally made from virgin plastic (ie: not recycled), purchased ready-spooled and in various colours.

The frequent use of a 3D printer has a common side-effect: the production of a significant amount of faulty parts and temporary support structures, without even counting in the endless tat spewed out by the little machines in the guise of Yoda heads, clumsy plastic jewellery, door knobs that don’t quite work…

Additionally ABS plastic perfectly suitable for printing can be found in the casings of many consumer electronic items, car bumpers, fridge door compartments, lego bricks, luggage etc… The problem is how to turn this abundant source of potentially upcyclable material into suitable filament. The most spectacular and impressively robust use of recycled ABS in a 3D printer is Endless, a project by Dutch designer Dirk van der Kooij based on a modified robotic arm.

The search for an environmentally friendly solution to the needs of desktop 3D printers is underway. The Filabot was probably the first attempt for an open-source solution allowing both the re-use of discarded prints and of recycled plastics. Filabot is now providing a commercially available grinder, the Reclaimer, as well as different models of filament extruders.

 

Other commercial designs include and the Strudittle and the Filastruder. Open source designs can be found on the Recyclebot website. Joshua Pearce from Michichan Technological University made the news in 2013 for his recycling of milk jugs using a Recyclebot v2.2, design available on Thingiverse. Beyond the fact that high-density polyethylene, or HDPE (the plastic milk jugs are made of) retracts dimensionally while cooling, the recycling of plastics presents the inconvenient that polymer chains do break down in smaller chains each time the plastic is melted, thus weakening the material and limiting the amount of useable cycles.

Filastruder recommends a pellet size of no more than 5mm width in any dimension for use with their machine. I experimented briefly with an office paper shredder and some of my discarded prints. The coarse plastic fragments I collected are not suitable for a small extruder, and the shredder struggled to cut anything thicker than 2mm.

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In November 2013 the UK based techfortrade charity launched the Ethical Filament Foundation, an initiative aiming to reduce plastic waste in developing countries while providing income to deprived populations. Their vision: ” We believe that there is an opportunity to create an environmentally friendly and ethically produced filament alternative to meet the needs of the rapidly growing 3D Printing market. We also believe that by doing this we could potentially open up a new market for value added products that can be produced by waste picker groups in low income countries.The foundation is working on a manufacturing and quality standard “.

 

Chip for Human Brain project

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In Manchester today, doing some preparation for a 2015 exhibition called The Imitation Game in Manchester Art Gallery. Curator Clare Gannaway is looking into possible collaborations with the School of Computer Science of the University of Manchester. Today we met Steve Furber, a legendary figure of the computing world who was one of the lead designers for Acorn’s microcomputers in the early 1980’s. After the success of Acorn’s BBC Micro, he was a crucial contributor to the invention of the ARM chip, the descendents of which can be found at the heart of today’s vast majority of mobile phones and tablets. I felt a bit star struck, as it was with BBC micros found in UK skips that I discovered (late) the joys of physical computing.

Steve Furber with one of the first SpiNNaker working units

Prof Furber talked to us about the SpiNNaker project he is currently leading, well on its way to complete a machine featuring an array of one million specialised ARM chips. The machine’s processing power will be equivalent to 1% of the human brain’s. The machine will be used by scientists from various disciplines to run experiments aiming at understanding the least understood intermediary level of brain processing, between neuron firing and high level activity monitoring. This effort is part of the international Human Brain Project.

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Each SpiNNaker chip, designed in the lab, made in China and Taiwan, features 18 core processors. The machine will feature approximately 56000 of the super thin chips, mounted on individual boards carrying 48 units. A massively complex operation, running in 10 wardrobe-size units. Steve Furber told us of an analogy he uses when he talks to secondary school students about the complexity of modern electronics and of the chip architects’ job: the connections and routing in a smartphone’s ARM processor, if scaled up, would be equivalent to all the roads on earth. The architects’ job is to make sure all the roads go to the right destination and that there is no traffic jam. Daunting.

We visited the SpiNNaker labs, where we saw one of the first operational machines running, some mysterious programme with lots of pretty flashing lights. We also had a look at the graphene lab, nanotechnology research heralded to produce great things in the near future. I only know of graphene in relation to promising new designs for supercapacitors. We could see researchers wearing what Furber called bunny suits busying themselves on high tech gear, working on nanoparticles.

TAROS 2013

I was in Oxford at the end of August where I presented the Coy-B project at the 14th TAROS conference. TAROS stands for Towards Autonomous RObotics Systems. It is attended by an international crew of specialists from academia and business. I was hoping to make contact with interested robotic scientists who would share my view that it is important to reflect on what are these cybernetic creatures and what would a cybernetic wilderness be?

During my short presentation I noticed that one member of the audience was nodding vigorously. He introduced himself afterwards and we had a couple of good conversations in the next couple of days. It is too early to disclose the details, but I was invited to present the project to his team, which went well. Hopefully a collaboration will get started within the next few months, depending on funding. Watch this space…

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