All posts by JustinP

Algorithms to reveal secrets of East Germany

In Spring 2006, I spent a week in Berlin with some friends from university. As part of a city tour highlighting the Berlin’s Cold War heritage, the guide made a passing reference to plans for the digital reconstruction of files shredded by East German secret police.

As this project entered its pilot stage in May 2007, Germany’s Spiegel Online reported on the finer details;

[W]ith the looming collapse of the Communist regime becoming increasingly evident [in 1989], agents of the East German Staatssicherheitsdienstfeverishly plowed millions of active files through paper shredders, or just tore them up by hand.

Rights activists interrupted the project and rescued a total of 16,250 garbage bags full of scraps. But rescuing the history on those sheets of paper amounted to an absurdly difficult jigsaw puzzle. By 2000, no more than 323 sacks were legible again — reconstructed by a team of 15 people working in Nuremburg — leaving 15,927 to go. So the German government promised money to any group that could plausibly deal with the remaining tons of paper.

The Fraunhofer Institute won the contract in 2003 … Four hundred sacks of scraps will be scanned, front and back, and newly-refined software will try to arrange the digitized fragments according to shape, texture, ink color, handwriting style and recognizable official stamps.

This week, as the pilot phase of the project reached completion, the BBC’s radio programme Digital Planet picked up on the story;

“It will be a long job – but that’s the interesting part,” said the Fraunhofer’s Jan Schneider.

“First we have to digitise all the pieces from the bags. This is done by a special high-speed scanning device.

“The next step is to segment the image itself from the raw scan – we need the outline of the pieces, pixel-wise, to perform the reconstruction process after that.

“Then all digitised pieces of paper are stored in the database. After that we reconstruct a lot of the descriptive features of the pieces.”

However, at the former Stasi prison Hohenschonhausen, the main place political prisoners were held and subjected to torture, there are criticisms that the process has already taken too long.

“I think it comes a little bit late,” said Hubertus Knabe, director of the memorial at the site, which is also a museum.

“Nearly 20 years after the fall of the Wall we start to reconstruct these Stasi files, which are really important: the most important files were the ones they destroyed.

“I am happy that now it is going forward, but it is late.”

[2nd story via the BBC]

Monkey robot thought control!

robot-monkeyFully aware of the fact that its sounds like something pulled from the mind of an overcaffeinated Japanese TV executive, this week, scientists were revealed to “have trained monkeys to control a robotic arm using the power of their thoughts.”

The team … first trained the macaque monkeys to retrieve marshmallows — a favourite treat — by using a joystick to control the prosthetic arm. Once they had mastered this, the team inserted electrodes into the animals’ motor cortex and used brain signals … to control the arm’s movement.

During the trials, the animals’ limbs were restrained in plastic tubes so that they could not reach for the food themselves. After some errors, the animals learned to perform subtle movements using the robotic arm, which has a jointed shoulder, elbow and wrist, as well as a gripping hand.

But where the Guardian is distracted by the future implications for “controllable prosthetic limbs for patients with stroke, spinal cord injuries or neurodegenerative conditions”, the BBC report remains relatively grounded in the specifics of the actual lab experiments;

The monkeys were able to use their brains to continuously change the speed and direction of the arm and the gripper, suggesting that the monkeys had come to regard the robotic arm as a part of their own bodies.

The success rate of the experiment was 61%.

“The monkey learns by first observing the movement, which activates its brain cells as if it was doing it. It’s a lot like sports training, where trainers have athletes first imagine that they are performing the movements they desire.”

Of course, the only way you’re going to get the full monkey-mecha-wow! impact is by checking out the video footage.

[2nd story from BBC; image by d&e]

Charles Lindbergh, transhumanist

charles-lindberghIn 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic. His single-seat, single-engine monoplane – the Spirit of St. Louis – made the flight from New York to Paris in just over 33 hours, catapulting Lindbergh to instant stardom.

Initially, Lindbergh used his new-found fame to extol the virtues of commercial aviation; later, as leverage in the America First campaign against US involvement in the Second World War. In anticipation of the UK publication of David M. Friedman’s book, The Immortalists, journalist Brendan O’Neill highlights on a lesser-known chapter in the Lindbergh story [for BBC Magazine];

In the 1930s, after his historic flight over the Atlantic, Lindbergh hooked up with Alexis Carrel, a brilliant surgeon born in France but who worked in a laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute in Manhattan. Carrel – who was a mystic as well as a scientist – had already won a Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on the transplantation of blood vessels. But his real dream was a future in which the human body would become, in Friedman’s words, “a machine with constantly repairable or replaceable parts”.

This is where Lindbergh entered the frame. Carrel hoped that his own scientific nous combined with Lindbergh’s machine-making proficiency (Lindbergh had, after all, already helped design a plane that flew non-stop to Paris) would make his fantasy about immortal machine-enabled human beings a reality.

But while the Lindbergh-Carrel duo made some significant breakthroughs, including ‘a perfusion pump that could keep a human organ alive outside of the body’ (and precursor to the heart-lung machine), their partnership had a darker side. In a New York Times review of The Immortalists, Kyla Dunn comments on the sinister undertones of these early cyborg dreams;

“We cannot escape the fact that our civilization was built, and still depends, upon the quality rather than the equality of men,” Lindbergh wrote in his 1948 treatise “Of Flight and Life.” As late as 1969, he remained concerned that “after millions of years of successful evolution, human life is now deteriorating genetically,” warning in Life magazine that “we must contrive a new process of evolutionary selection” in order to survive.

Of course, it’s worth noting that eugenicist views were fairly common in the 1930s, and some of the claims made by Friedman in The Immortalists have been criticised as based on circumstantial evidence. Either way, the New York Times has published the first chapter of The Immortalists online, for your perusal.

[Image from the Library of Congress, via Wikimedia]

‘Beetlepunk’ – biomimicry and the photonic weevil

Lamprocyphus augustus - photonic weevilWith designers and engineers increasingly turning to the natural world for inspiration, biomimicry is an increasingly important part of the sciences. Author Janine Beynus offers an outline of the discipline’s key principles;

The core idea is that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. They have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on Earth. This is the real news of biomimicry: After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.

Like the viceroy butterfly imitating the monarch, we humans are imitating the best adapted organisms in our habitat. We are learning, for instance, how to harness energy like a leaf, grow food like a prairie, build ceramics like an abalone, self-medicate like a chimp, create color like a peacock, compute like a cell, and run a business like a hickory forest.

As an real-world illustration of biomimetic principles, this morning, Wired‘s Brandon Keim presented a design problem from the field of optical computing;

For decades, scientists have dreamed of computer chips that manipulate light rather than electricity. Unlike electrons, photons can cross paths without interfering with each other, so optical chips could compute in three dimensions rather than two, crunching data in seconds that now takes weeks to process.

For now, though, optical computing remains a dream. The chips require crystals that channel photons as nimbly as silicon channels electrons — and though engineers have been able to imagine the ideal photonic crystal, they’ve been unable to build it.

Earlier this month, a team of American material scientists found a biomimetic solution in the body of Lamprocyphus augustus – a Brazilian weevil. According to the research,

the inch-long Brazilian beetle’s iridescent green scales are composed of chitin arranged by evolution in precisely the molecular configuration that has confounded the would-be fabricators of optical computers.

The “scales’ molecular arrangement, which had the same pattern as the atoms of carbon in a diamond.” So, with real diamonds too dense for the task, and artificial diamonds taking months to construct, the L. augustus scales offer a quick and easy solution.

Of course – as co-author Michael Bartl notes – optical computers won’t use actual weevil scales. The plan is to use the scales as a mould, replacing the chitin with something more suitable for the industrial context.

For someone approaching the issue from a science fictional standpoint, this sent my mind careering down a whole new avenue of speculation. Imagine a world in which Bartl’s mould plan is ineffective. Here, much of the high-end computing infrastructure is entirely dependent on this tiny Brazilian insect.

Our protagonists are rogue entomologists, forced to balance the “bug bounties” offered by the military-industrial complex with the ‘pure’ research of their underfunded university departments. Academic soul-searching, Brazilian protesters, university politics, intellectual property wrangles, and a left-wing subtext. It’s got it all.

I call it ‘Beetlepunk’. 😀

Finally, if this whole ‘biomimicry’ thing strikes you as interesting, be sure to check out Janine Beynus’ presentation from TED 2005. She’s a skilled orator, and her TED talk is a really good way of getting your head around the subject.

[Image by Barbara Strnadova at God of Insects]

All at sea – libertarians and the market for governance

artist\'s impression large seastead

Last month, PayPal mastermind Peter Thiel pledged $500,000 to The Seasteading Institute. Co-founded by Patri Friedman (grandson of Milton), the Institute‘s official mission is to

Establish permanent, autonomous ocean communities to enable experimentation and innovation with diverse social, political, and legal systems.

In an article for the Wired website, Alexis Madrigal zooms in on the original motivations of the Institute‘s founders;

True to his libertarian leanings, Friedman looks at the situation in market terms: the institute’s modular spar platforms, he argues, would allow for the creation of far cheaper new countries out on the high-seas, driving innovation.

“Government is an industry with a really high barrier to entry,” he said. “You basically need to win an election or a revolution to try a new one. That’s a ridiculous barrier to entry. And it’s got enormous customer lock-in. People complain about their cellphone plans that are like two years, but think of the effort that it takes to change your citizenship.”

While over at the excellent BLDGBLOG, Geoff Manaugh has turned his mind to the potential implications of “seasteading”;

What interests me here, aside from the architectural challenge of erecting a durable, ocean-going metropolis, is the fact that this act of construction – this act of building something – has constitutional implications. That is, architecture here proactively expands the political bounds of recognized sovereignty; architecture becomes declarative.

Sovereignty for sale? Whether you see this as a laudable quest for self-government or – as China Mieville arguesa morally bankrupt flight from responsibility, there are definite echoes of a certain late-80s paperback. But who knows? $500,000 might just be enough to give this scheme some real momentum.

[Image by Valdemar Duran, via Wired]