Thoughts

Brussels visits: HSBXL

While in Brussels on a DIY supercapacitors experiment with Michka Melo, we visited local organisations related to creative technologies. First we went to HSBXL, Hacker Space Brussels. The organisation occupies a whole house in the city centre, complete with a pleasant garden. We had a chat with local hackers who hang out in HSBX every Tuesday evening, very competent with feral networking and GNU.

hackerspaceBrusselsSign

Typically for such a place, there were piles of old IT becoming e-waste, a few 3D printers in various states of operation, soldering irons and scattered workstations. The bar was well stocked, with bottles of mate in different flavours seemingly the drink of choice among coders in these quarters. An open source stock management system rules the fridge, and a cavernous voice announces new visitors.


We saw a book-scanning device, an in-progress ominous suitcase server with self destruct capabilities and an hydroponic tank full of healthy tomato plants… We walked out with a bunch of dead laptop batteries for our experiments, thank you HSBXL!!

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On the garden table I found a sticker for Phaune Radio, an internet station that plays engaging mixes of non-mainstream music and animal-themed spoken material, recommended.

Experiments in DIY supercapacitors

Just back from Brussels where I worked for 5 days on DIY supercapacitors with my inspiring friend Michka Melo. We worked on the premises of the equally inspiring organisation Foam, trying to build supercapacitors from upcycled computer batteries and other methods including chemically altered cuttlefish bone, in a true citizen science spirit!

[Supercapacitors are electrical storage devices that become a viable alternative to conventional batteries, making up for lower capacity with a very fast charging time and much longer life.]

Michka compiled a detailed account of our experiments. 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.

Visit to Access Space Sheffield

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I visited Access Space in Sheffield, where I enjoyed a two days crash training in using the command line and shell scripts in Linux. Initiated by James Wallbank and the Redundant Technology Initiative group in 2000, Access Space is arguably the first open source/community computing creative technology labs in the UK. The space is open several days per week, with two main areas: the Media Lab where visitors can access a Linux workstation for web access, design, programming, etc. A code-protected door opens on the Refab Space which hosts the digital fabrication machines (laser cutter, CNC router, several rep rap 3D printers), a lot of recycled computing gear and several solid workbenches.
During my stay I saw lots of activity in both areas, including a Sheffield Hardware Hackers meeting (every monday 6pm), and the laser cutter was pretty much always busy.

James is a great host, busy with many projects including his latest business adventure Infinite Crypt. He is always keen to share on topics of technological accessibility, community development and techno-social trends. I recorded an audio interview where he gives us his insight on Access Space and thoughts on the opportunities offered by digital fabrication technologies.

Interview with James Wallbank in Access Space Sheffield, 26th February 2014

Four options for our future

Riding the train back from Swansea, UK, just delivered a talk to fine-art students, with a strong contextual part about contemporary technology and progress.

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Good response from the students, they seem to share some level of technological anxiety. I told them about my take on the co-evolution of humans and machines and the four families of outcomes I categorised:
* the terminator, machines take over and eradicate
* the pripyat, after massive permanent techno-natural disaster(s) the global ecosystem recovers unhindered. Remaining humans, if any, go back to hunting-gathering (for a while).
* the amped, humans integrate machines internally, becoming hybrids for the next step of human evolution, homo-cyborg
* the teddy, human, robots and other machines benefit to each other’s well-being in harmony. This option includes best practice in agriculture, sustainability, social development, bio-engineering…

In my view, the future will be more complex than any of these outcomes, likely a combination.

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