Baddass Biomimicry Part 2 Science fiction becomes science fact!

skeeterHave you ever watched a dragonfly? They can hover almost as if frozen in space wings beating so fast they appear as a blur, land with delicate precision on a waving blade of grass, skim gracefully over a pond and fly off at speeds that defy sight. Surely a target for biomimicry and that of course is what has happened. A helicopter used by sea rescue services based on dragonfly flight would be wonderful. Hmmm, scaling up insects is tricky. The fossil record indicates that the largest flying insects existed some 275 million years ago had wingspans of only around 700 mm (28 inches). So may be a dragonfly based rescue helicopter is conceptually inept. So in this case biomimicry has to stay in scale. In which case if you could mimic a dragonfly or aspects of a dragonfly what would you mimic. Given the aerial dexterity of the dragonfly it’s not surprising that Animal Dynamics, an Oxford University spin off, has developed Skeeter a tiny flapping winged drone specially designed for covert surveillance. Weighing no more than 30g, and designed to cost less and fly for longer than other hand-launched drones, it could, its creators claim, help reshape urban warfare. Biomimicry transforming urban warfare! It’s not difficult to see biomimicry playing out in armaments developments. Should this be discussed in D&T lessons? On the grounds of the subject reflecting activities in the world outside school it is difficult to say ‘No’. But any discussion will move into tricky territory very quickly. A surveillance drone, even a tiny one, can easily provide targeting information and missile flight path data for larger weaponised drones. And without too much difficulty be developed into a lethal weapon in its own right. Some argue that the basic technology itself is has no moral compass. The guidance technology used in missiles can just as easily be used for autonomous farm equipment. Where does this leave the designer? And where does it leave the design & technology teacher? As always comments welcome.

Baddass Biomimicry

antEarly in 2013 when there was considerable debate about the government’s proposed National Curriculum Programme of Study for design & technology. Dick Olver, chairman of BAE Systems, one of the UKs biggest companies, criticised the government’s proposal on the following grounds: The draft proposals for design & technology did “not meet the needs of a technologically literate society. Instead of introducing children to new design techniques, such as biomimicry (how we can emulate nature to solve human problems), we now have a focus on cookery. Instead of developing skills in computer-aided design, we have the introduction of horticulture. Instead of electronics and control, we have an emphasis on basic mechanical maintenance tasks. In short, something has gone very wrong.” The result of such authoritative criticism was a complete revision of the proposed programme of study such that it included the following statement under the teaching of design: To use a variety of approaches, such as biomimicry and user-centred design, to generate creative ideas and avoid stereotypical responses. Although biomimicry was a non-statutory example of a design strategy it was mentioned by name.

The Design and Technology Association ran inset sessions to help teachers understand what was for many a new idea. And many teachers have since taught pupils at both KS3 and KS4 about biomimicry, particularly how designers have used it as a creative product design tool. At its most basic the development of webbed gloves and flippers to aid swimming (biomimicking a frog) and more sophisticated the use of corrugated card for a cycle helmet based on the bone structure in a woodpecker’s skull. And of course it’s possible to view the circular economy as a systems approach based on biomimicry that can be used to move the world away from a destructive linear economy.

Kill Decision CoverUnderlying this appears to be the idea of biomimicry as a benign design tool; one that can only be used for good with few if any harmful consequences. But this view misrepresents nature and the constant struggle between and within species for survival. This was made very apparent to me when I read Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez. It’s a rollicking good read but I won’t go into too much detail as this will spoil the story for those who haven’t yet read this excellent piece of science fiction which borders very much on science fact. A key element of the story is to use biomimicry of weaver ants to develop swarms of lethal quadcopter drones that once unleashed can operate without human intervention and control. Weaver ants are able to communicate with one another by laying down and following pheromone trails which indicate the task to be accomplished be that foraging or territory defense. In the case of territory defense the trail will lead more and more ants to the sites where defense is necessary and even large intruders are soon overcome by the multitudes of smaller weaver ants that converge on the site. The brain power of individual weaver ants is of course very small but the colony achieves highly effective defense by getting large numbers in the right place at the right time to attack and kill the intruders. So imagine using biomimicry to transfer this ability to a swarm of drones, each drone with highly limited AI and equipped with simple but effective weapons.

Noel SharkeyThis led me to ponder the role of design strategies in general. In themselves they might be considered neutral in terms of being intrinsically good or bad but their use will of course depend on the intentions pursued by the designer. So the buck clearly stops with us humans. The case of robots and the intention to use them in warfare has led Noel Sharkey, Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics & Public Engagement University of Sheffield, to urge extreme caution and argue for international conventions to govern their development. So as always with design & technology we find ourselves in territory where values are as important if not more so than knowledge, understanding and skills.

Augmented Reality | Pokémon GO update

Following writing about AR goes viral | Pokémon GO at the end of last week, I though a brief update might be useful. Especially in relation to the safety of your pupils (or, indeed, children amongst your family and friends).

Since that last post we have had news of people falling off a cliff, a mass stampede in Central Park (NY), teens stuck in a cave, more phone robbery and teens in Florida shot at. All while playing Pokémon GO. There was also the idiot who called 999 to report a ‘stolen Pokemon’.

Though let’s not forget the Health benefits of Pokémon Go.

If you are a member of CAS (it’s free to join), you will find a useful discussion on their forums about how best to provide safeguarding advice to pupils and their families before the summer holidays.

Useful guidance has been provided by the NSPCC and the UK Safer Internet Centre. My own children’s school has emailed the following to all parents (which suggests something of a misconception about the gameplay, but the central advice is sound):

Pokemon Go explained:
Pokemon Go is an app enabling users to create a character and then use Geo Location to find other users that also have their own character. A map is provided which shows nearby Pokemon on it. The basic premise of the game is to walk or ride towards the Pokemon in order to capture it and increase your game status. The game is fast becoming very popular and many people are enjoying playing the game in a safe and responsible way. There are, however, some risk factors that need to be considered, including becoming so absorbed in the game that players lose awareness of the environmental around them and stranger danger.

[Followed by a link to the UK Safer Internet Centre advice.]

Beyond safety issues, the phenomenon that this game has become continues to generate interesting articles about both the game itself and AR generally;

I’ve included the last of these because, clearly, Pokémon GO uses GPS and this is a review of a newly published book about GPS that looks rather good.

AR goes viral | Pokémon GO

Pokémon GOWhen we published our materials on Augmented Reality (AR) a few months ago it was quite hard to point to really compelling examples of AR.

And then, just over a week ago Pokémon Go was released in Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Earlier this week it came to Germany and then yesterday it was released in the UK. The media interest in the last 10 days has been intense, hyperbolic even.

In case you have somehow missed all the excitement, Pokémon GO is an AR version of the classic Pokémon game, played on a smart phone, that, as the screenshot shows, inserts Pokémon characters  into the reality seen through a phone’s camera. The basic gameplay is that you walk around your locale using GPS to track and capture Pokémon. Other features are layered on to this foundation, some of which will be noted later in this post.

Now, I have never, ever played Pokémon in any form before yesterday, but my interest in AR led me to download it yesterday morning, as soon as it was available in the UK (I was actually watching out for it to be released on the UK app store – which is unusual behaviour for me…). And I have to report it is rather compelling. The basic game is free with in-app purchases, though it seems likely that sponsored content will appear in due course.

But why the media frenzy? Mainly because Pokémon GO is now the biggest mobile game in U.S. history, not only in the number of downloads but also by daily use – and it appears to be heading that way on this side of the Atlantic; last night the game became unplayable for a while as its servers struggled under the demand – a phenomenon that has repeated every time there is a new country launch. It has driven Nintendo’s value skyward and it’s so popular it looks as though around 22,000 people will turn up to a Pokémon GO ‘crawl’ in San Fransisco this Saturday (tomorrow).

What I think is really interesting about this is that for the first time we will get a sense of the implications of mass use of AR. The game appears to be driving traffic to real-world locations (for better or worse) including churches, police stations, Downing Street and a holocaust museum, raising the question of who owns the virtual space around your home. Some players seem to think no setting inappropriate.  On the other hand, a rather lovely story involves a 3am encounter between a middle-aged white player, two young black players and a police officer – though this is rather offset by the very plausible fears that the game could be a death sentence for a black man.

After just 10 days or so we have reports of a dead body being found by a teenager, planned muggings of players, a paedophile attempting to use the game to meet children, players being injured through inattentiveness to the real world, and risking injury by driving and playing (also in Australia). On the positive side, there’s the accidental exercise and the suggestion that playing brings mental health benefits.

And, of course, there have been the inevitable spoof stories of chaos caused by the game, conspiracy theories and even the accusation that it is a tool of Satan and ISIS. Regarding a more plausible real-world risk, it appears that initial concerns about the privacy settings in the app have now been resolved.

So, we definitely have a compelling example of AR now (there has been the claim it’s not proper AR, but for the purposes of our Disruptive Technologies project it counts). Opinions differ over whether the huge success will be maintained or it will turn out to be a flash in the pan. Either way I think there will be lessons we can learn about the potential for impact and disruptiveness from AR that may help us better predict the consequences of other proposed AR systems.

As far as schools are concerned, I have two thoughts; firstly if you want to introduce the idea of AR to your pupils as a Disruptive Technology then not only might Pokémon GO be a great way in but its success means that many will come to the topic with some understanding of the technology.

Secondly, watch out; the last days of term may well be infiltrated by a new distraction for your pupils – a different kind of disruption. Schools may want to warn their pupils (and carers) of the potential risks (see above) before the Summer holidays and note that the NSPCC is concerned.

Just in case you want more, here are some longer related articles:


@ShrimpingIt: Training for Educators

ShrimpingIf you’re curious about programmable control via an Arduino-compatible system, then the @ShrimpingIt kit might be of interest to you; it’s a low-cost, build-it-yourself microcontroller system that works with the usual range of Arduino programming environments.

There is a two-day training course coming up on 8-9th July, in Morecambe; See the links for details and tickets.

And if you do go, let us know what you thought of the system!

Stuff we like about Robotics

Robotics VSI2We’ve just added a page of Stuff we like about Robotics. We want to provide some background to the Robotics materials we have published for teachers as a part of the Disruptive Technologies project and so we’ve gathered together some books, websites and other materials that we have found useful in developing our thinking about robotics as a disruptive technology.

To help with navigating what turned out to be quite a large collection, the resources are grouped into what we hope are useful areas for teachers:

Start here
Teaching robotics
Influences on robot design
The Personal; how robots and humans shape each other
The Social; the impact of robots on society
Building robots

The aim is that stuff that appears on this page will remain relevant over a reasonable time. However there is also a constant stream of robotics news at the moment, much of which is ephemeral but could be of use in your teaching. Clearly, if you have the time and interest, you could pick up a lot of these yourself by visiting sites like the BBC, Wired or MIT’s Technology Review. More easily (for many) you could also follow David on Twitter as he often shares these kinds of items. In addition to all of that, we’ll occasionally publish on this blog a compendium of robotics news items that we think might be intriguing, surprising or otherwise compelling.

If you have recommendations for resources that should appear on this page, or interesting news items that we might blog about, please do let us know.

Augmented Reality Teacher Briefing now available; but with a word of warning

Augmented Reality (AR) is one of the disruptive technologies we have identified as suitable for teaching in secondary school.

AR is a live, direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.

A longer definition is that AR is a real-time direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment that is enhanced or augmented by adding virtual computer-generated information to it. Accordingly, an AR system: (i) combines real and virtual objects in a real environment, (ii) aligns real and virtual objects with each other so that as the view to a real object changes, the augmented object connected to it changes accordingly, and (iii) runs interactively, in three dimensions, and in real-time. AR technologies enhance human perception and help seeing, hearing, and feeling the surrounding environment in new and enriched ways. This is achieved by making people sense virtual objects, which appear to coexist in the real world. AR can also be used to hide visual elements of the real world to allow people to focus on specific aspects (Diminished Reality).

AR TBAR is distinguished from Virtual Reality (VR) systems in which the user is immersed in a computer-generated environment that completely replaces sensory input from the real world.

The AR Teacher Briefing is now available, but before we enthuse about this and other new and emerging technologies it is prudent to inject a note of caution. There is often public disquiet about new and emerging technologies, especially those that are seen as disruptive. Government and industry are often bemused by this rejection in the face of what seems to them the obvious benefits of such technologies. The rejection of genetically modified foods by the public in the United Kingdom is one such example.

Phil Macnaghten

Professor Phil Macnaghten and his co-workers have investigated this by recording talk about emerging technologies in a range of focus groups composed mainly of lay people with little technical knowledge about such technologies. Interestingly the analysis of the talk revealed five underlying cultural narratives describing attitudes/beliefs towards such technologies that embodied this disquiet. These narratives were:

  1. Be careful what you wish for – the narrative of Desire
  2. Being kept in the dark – the narrative of Alienation
  3. Messing with nature – the narrative of the Sacred
  4. Pandora’s box – the narrative of Evil and Hope
  5. The rich get richer – the narrative of Exploitation.

We believe that it would be wrong to dismiss such concerns out of hand and also that it is important for teachers to be aware that they might exist amongst their pupils. There is an analogy here with the idea of pupils’ alternative constructs in science. Simply telling pupils that such ideas are wrong in no way helps them to change their minds. Similarly dismissing concerns about new technologies that are in fact based on deeply believed ‘cultural narratives’ would almost certainly be counterproductive. Our position is that we would not want the teacher’s position to prevent pupils acknowledging their sympathy towards the narratives. Overall we want pupils to use critique in an informed but not overly skeptical way and engage with the narratives in a way that is neither completely dismissive nor totally accepting.

Phil’s research goes further than simply identifying such concerns. He wants the public to be engaged in the innovation process much earlier; having a voice that informs what science and technology ‘does’ in society. He is concerned with the democratization of the development and deployment of technology. This is very much in line with the thinking of the Disruptive Technologies Project.

You can see and hear Phil describe his research in this short video clip:

And as a cautionary tale this science fiction short describes a future world in which robotics and AR overlap:

So given what Phil’s research has revealed and the sci-fi cautionary tale above, what might we want our pupils to consider when speculating about future uses of AR?