Awheel in Tasmania

Somewhere near Strahan
Click to enlarge

One of our readers, contributor and stellar mate on a road trip in Tasmania.

Thanks, Honeyman

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Will a New Glass Battery deliver on the End of Oil?


John GoodenoughCockrell School of Engineering

❝ Electric car purchases have been on the rise lately, posting an estimated 60 percent growth rate last year. They’re poised for rapid adoption by 2022, when EVs are projected to cost the same as internal combustion cars. However, these estimates all presume the incumbent lithium-ion battery remains the go-to EV power source. So, when researchers this week at the University of Texas at Austin unveiled a new, promising lithium- or sodium-glass battery technology, it threatened to accelerate even rosy projections for battery-powered cars.

❝ “I think we have the possibility of doing what we’ve been trying to do for the last 20 years,” says John Goodenough, coinventor of the now ubiquitous lithium-ion battery and emeritus professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin. “That is, to get an electric car that will be competitive in cost and convenience with the internal combustion engine.” Goodenough added that this new battery technology could also store intermittent solar and wind power on the electric grid.

❝ Yet, the world has seen alleged game-changing battery breakthroughs come to naught before…So, on whose authority might one claim a glass battery could be any different?

For starters, Donald Sadoway’s. Sadoway, a preeminent battery researcher and MIT materials science and engineering professor, says, “When John Goodenough makes an announcement, I pay attention. He’s tops in the field and really a fantastic scientist. So, his pronouncements are worth listening to.”…

❝ The new battery technology uses a form of glass, doped with reactive “alkali” metals like lithium or sodium, as the battery’s electrolyte…

They find, for instance, that the lithium- or sodium-glass battery has three times the energy storage capacity of a comparable lithium-ion battery. But its electrolyte is neither flammable nor volatile, and it doesn’t appear to build up the spiky “dendrites” that have plagued lithium-ions as they charge and discharge repeatedly and can ultimately short out, causing battery fires…

❝ Moreover, says…battery codeveloper Maria Helena Braga, a visiting research fellow at UT Austin and engineering professor at the University of Porto in Portugal, the glass battery charges in “minutes rather than hours.” This, she says, is because the lithium- or sodium-doped glass endows the battery with a far greater capacity to store energy in the electric field. So, the battery can, in this sense, behave a little more like a lightning-fast supercapacitor…

…Braga says, early tests of their technology suggest it’s also capable of perhaps thousands of charge-discharge cycles, and could perform well in both extremely cold and hot weather…And if they can switch the battery’s ionic messenger atom from lithium to sodium, the researchers could even source the batteries more reliably and sustainably. Rather than turning to controversial mining operations in a few South American countries for lithium, they’d be able to source sodium in essentially limitless supply from the world’s seawater…

❝ If Goodenough, Braga, and collaborators can ramp up their technology, there would clearly be plenty of upsides. Goodenough says the team’s anode and electrolyte are more or less ready for prime time. But they’re still figuring out if and how they can make a cathode that will bring the promise of their technology to the commercial marketplace.

“The next step is to verify that the cathode problem is solved,” Goodenough says. “And when we do [that] we can scale up to large-scale cells. So far, we’ve made jelly-roll cells, and it looks like they’re working fairly well. So I’m fairly optimistic we’ll get there. But the development is going to be with the battery manufacturers. I don’t want to do development. I don’t want to be going into business. I’m 94. I don’t need the money.”

Gotta love for-real researchers who would rather be exploring the inner space of new opportunities, qualitative discovery – instead of playing entrepreneur and building the next technology startup to an IPO.

Thanks, SmartAlix

Canadian AI company uses humans to mentor robots


The one on the left is the CEO of the company

❝ A secretive Canadian startup called Kindred AI is teaching robots how to perform difficult dexterous tasks at superhuman speeds by pairing them with human “pilots” wearing virtual-reality headsets and holding motion-tracking controllers.

The technology offers a fascinating glimpse of how humans might work in synchronization with machines in the future, and it shows how tapping into human capabilities might amplify the capabilities of automated systems. For all the worry over robots and artificial intelligence eliminating jobs, there are plenty of things that machines still cannot do. The company demonstrated the hardware to MIT Technology Review last week, and says it plans to launch a product aimed at retailers in the coming months. The long-term ambitions are far grander. Kindred hopes that this human-assisted learning will foster a fundamentally new and more powerful kind of artificial intelligence…

❝ Kindred’s system uses several machine-learning algorithms, and tries to predict whether one of these would provide the desired outcome, such as grasping an item. If none seems to offer a high probability of success, it calls for human assistance. Most importantly, the algorithms learn from the actions of a human controller. To achieve this, the company uses a form of reinforcement learning, an approach that involves experimentation and strengthening behavior that leads to a particular goal…One person can also operate several robots at once…

❝ …The technical challenges involved with learning through human tele-operation are not insignificant. Sangbae Kim, an associate professor at MIT who is working on tele-operated humanoid robots, says mapping human control to machine action is incredibly complicated. “The first challenge is tracking human motion by attaching rigid links to the human skin. This is extremely difficult because we are endoskeleton animals,” Kim says. “A bigger challenge is to really understand all the details of decision-making steps in humans, most of which happen subconsciously.”

❝ “Our goal is to deconstruct cognition,” Geordie Rose, cofounder and the CEO of Kindred says. “All living entities follow certain patterns of behavior and action. We’re trying to build machines that have the same kind of principles.”

Sooner or later, all this interesting stuff will come together in some sectors of the world’s economy – and a significant number of humans will be declared redundant. The good news is that pretty much every educated industrial society already has a diminishing population. Independent, self-conscious women with easy access to birth control are taking care of that.

Won’t make the transition period any easier for middle-age not-so-well-educated guys.

Conjecture on where AI is going doesn’t make it so. Yet.

❝ Artificial intelligence is grossly misunderstood, but you can’t really blame the public. However well-intentioned, we’re up against multiple coordinated efforts to distort the field, whether that’s technologist doomsaying or Singularity marketing. And, as is often the case in overhyped and-or distorted science, there aren’t really people on the inside doing the work of bullshit-calling.

❝ DARPAtv published the video below a few weeks ago and it’s worth your 15 minutes. It’s a rare clear-eyed look into the guts of AI that’s also simple enough for most non-technical folks to follow. It’s dry, but IRL computer science is pretty dry. The key point is that that this stuff is still really hard, and many of the things that we imagine AI to be capable of or imminently capable of are in fact looming challenges in the field—problems just now being formulated.

Click it and watch it.

Scientists in Oz crack the carbon-fibre code


Would be nice to have carbon-fibre for less than $450K

❝ Australia’s CSIRO has cracked the carbon-fibre code, and in doing so has opened the floodgates to mass-production of the composite material in Australia.

❝ Currently only a handful of companies around the world are able to manufacture carbon-fibre, each with their own closely-guarded secret recipe. But none have, as yet, cracked the method to producing ultra-lightweight, ultra-strong composite in significant quantities.

But now, CSIRO and Deakin University have, as they put it, “cracked the code” to mass-production through the use of a patented wet spinning line which can produce carbon-fibre that is both stronger and of a higher quality than previously produced…

❝ The CSIRO has patented the technology which has the potential to be a game-changer for the automotive industry. With current technology cost-prohibitive for wider use, carbon-fibre is usually found only on high-end luxury cars or supercars.

With the potential to now mass-produce the composite material, carbon-fibre is set to be cheaper than ever before, possibly leading to application in mass-produced vehicles. Lighter body panels would make cars even more fuel efficient, no bad thing in this day and age of climate change.

❝ The Director of CSIRO Future Industries, Dr Anita Hill, said the development was an important discovery that has the potential to disrupt the status quo in the carbon-fibre industry.

“This facility means Australia can carry out research across the whole carbon fibre value chain: from molecules, to polymers, to fibre, to finished composite parts,” said Dr Hill.

“Together with Deakin, we’ve created something that could disrupt the entire carbon-fibre manufacturing industry.”

More geek globalism providing a market common to existing and emerging industrial nations. It’s enough to make a parochial knee-bender sweat.

Thanks, Honeyman

The West’s coal giant is going away


Click to enlargeAlex/Creative Commons

❝ The smokestacks of the Navajo Generation Station rise 775 feet from the sere landscape of the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, just three miles away from the serpentine, stagnant blue wound in sandstone known as Lake Powell. Red rock cliffs and the dark and heavy hump of Navajo Mountain loom in the background. Since construction began in 1969, the coal plant and its associated mine on Black Mesa have provided millions of dollars to the Navajo and Hopi tribes and hundreds of jobs to local communities, as well as electricity to keep the lights on and air conditioners humming in the metastasizing cities of Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Yet they’ve also stood as symbols of the exploitation of Native Americans, of the destruction of the land, and of the sullying of the air, all to provide cheap power to the Southwest.

But coal power is no longer the best energy bargain. And…the plant’s four private utility owners, led by the Salt River Project, voted to shut down the plant at the end of 2019, some 25 years ahead of schedule. When the giant turbines come to a halt and the towers topple in the coming years, the plant will become a new symbol, this one of a transforming energy economy and an evolving electrical grid that is slowly rendering these soot-stained, mechanical megaliths obsolete.

❝ Salt River Project officials have been very clear…They note that it’s now cheaper for them to buy power for their 1 million customers from other sources than it is to generate power at Navajo, thanks mostly to low natural gas prices. A November 2016 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that the Central Arizona Project pays about 15 percent more for electricity from the power plant — of which it is part owner — than it would if it bought power wholesale from the Mead trading hub located near Las Vegas.

❝ None of this will change even if President Donald Trump rolls back the Clean Power Plan or other regulations put in place by the Obama administration. In fact, if a drill-heavy energy policy is put into place, it will increase natural gas supplies, thus increasing the spread between natural gas and coal.

It’s a sign of the times. We will continues to see pimps like Trump – owned body and soul by the US Chamber of Commerce – run their collective mouths, beat the drums of war and obedience, demand resurrection of backwards methods that will only serve to further slow our national economy.

Science and technology will continue to forge ahead.

Fiery tribute to a crap product — Samsung battery factory bursts into flame

❝ The factory tasked with producing and later recycling the batteries for the self-detonating Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has itself fallen victim to a fire.

Defective batteries and other faulty hardware stored in a recycling center went up in smoke at the Samsung SDI facility in Wuqing, Tianjin, in China. No injuries were reported, although environmental protection workers have been called in to monitor air quality. The plant is snuggled in a suburban area. Some 19 fire engines and more than 110 firefighters turned up shortly after 6am to tackle the flames…

❝ Apparently, the fire occurred in an area dedicated to housing waste and defective batteries marked for recycling. The rest of the factory, including its production lines, was not significantly damaged and normal operations will resume…

❝ The Tianjin factory is one of two that had manufactured the ill-fated battery pack for the Note 7 phablet. Shortly after release, the battery pack was found to be prone to exploding without warning…

The cause of the exploding packs was eventually pinned on a combination of poor design and rushed assembly that resulted in widespread defects and failed safety measures.

Phew. Good thing I ain’t superstitious. Might be some mysterioso revenge shade at work, eh?

Is Your Vizio TV Spying on You?

❝ This week, Vizio, one of the biggest makers of internet-connected televisions, agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle charges that it has been collecting and selling viewing data from millions of TVs without the knowledge or consent of the sets’ owners. The charges, brought by the Federal Trade Commission and the New Jersey attorney general’s office, have some serious implications for consumers and smart TV makers.

❝ Here’s what you should know.

Vizio, which has sold more than 11 million internet-connected TVs since 2010, and its data arm earns money by licensing people’s TV viewing information in three main ways, according to a complaint from the agencies.

One is through audience measurement — showing what programs and commercials people watched, along with how and when they viewed it. Another is from gauging the effectiveness of advertisements, including the ability to “analyze a household’s behavior across devices,” using the IP address attached to all the internet-enabled gadgets in a home. That could mean tracking whether someone visited a website on their laptop after seeing a fast food commercial, or if an online ad motivated them to watch a TV show. The third is by targeting ads to people on other devices, like phones or tablets, based on what they watched on TV.

❝ The complaint says that Vizio has manufactured TVs since at least February 2014 with software turned on by default that collects “information about what a consumer is watching on a second-by-second basis.” It also was said to have remotely installed the software…onto TVs sold without it. Data…are sent to Vizio servers and matched to a database of TV shows, movies and commercials. Vizio called the tracking “Smart Interactivity,”…and portrayed it as a feature for program suggestions.

❝ When TVs were updated with the software, people were notified through a brief pop-up, above, saying “Smart Interactivity has been enabled on your TV,” without disclosure on the data collection. In March 2016, once the F.T.C. and the New Jersey attorney general’s ’s office investigations were pending, the complaint said that a new pop-up appeared that referred to the data collection for the first time.

RTFA. More about the sleaze so common to much of the tech industry.

And, yes, I turned off the “feature” on my Vizio TV.