‘People would rather die than think and most people do’ is a witticism attributed to Bertrand Russell. If this is true then the prospects are poor for the societal conversation on the morality of organizations that I suggested a few months ago, since it requires people to think for themselves. Socrates ran into trouble when he advocated such an approach; so, perhaps I should be careful about what I suggest and return to the silent majority. Now I have contradicted myself, but as Erwin Schrödinger wrote ‘If a man never contradicts himself, the reason must be that he virtually never says anything at all’. I am sure that I have contradicted myself many times in my posts over the last year but you continue to read this blog in increasing numbers [up by 50% compared to 2014]. Thank you for your support during 2015.
Happy New Year!
For many of us the pace of life will have accelerated to a fever pitch as the holiday season approached and we tried to complete time-sensitive tasks while being deluged with emails, messages, images, reports and demands for a slice of our time. Fredrik Sjoberg in his delightful book, ‘The Fly Trap‘ suggests that ‘if you think the torrent goes too fast, then in nine out of ten cases you can turn it off or just close your eyes and breathe your own air for a while.’ Nile crocodiles have a life expectancy of 100 years which some have attributed to their ability to slow their metabolism. ‘Unfussed, they can reduce their heart rate to about three beats a minute’ according to Peter Hughes. So in this holiday season: switch off, close your eyes, go mind-wandering (see my post entitled ‘Mind wandering‘ on September 3rd, 2014) and you are likely to live longer and have time for everything.
Fredrik Sjoberg, The Fly Trap, Penguin Books, 2015
Peter Hughes, ‘Gently does it’, Financial Times Weekend, 17/18 October 2015
Farm tractors have been growing bigger and bigger, though perhaps not everywhere – the photograph was taken in Donegal, Ireland earlier this year. The size of tractors is driven by the economics of needing a driver in the cab. The labour costs are high in many places, so that the productivity per tractor driver has to be high too. Hence, the tractors have to move fast and process a large amount of the field on each pass. This leads to enormous tractors that weigh a lot and exert a large pressure on the soil, which in turn results in between 1 and 3% of the farm land becoming unproductive because crops won’t grow in the severely compressed soil. But what happens if we eliminate the need for the driver by using autonomous vehicles? Then, we can have smaller vehicles working 24/7 that do less damage and are cheaper, which means that a single machine breakdown doesn’t bring work to halt. We can also contemplate tailoring the farming of each field to the local environmental and soil conditions instead a mono-crop one-size fits all approach. These are not my ideas but were espoused by Peter Cooke of the Queensland University of Technology at a recent meeting at the Royal Society on ‘Robotics and Autonomous Systems’.
It is a similar argument for modular nuclear power stations. Most of the world is intent on building enormous reactors capable of generating several GigaWatts of power (that’s typically 3 with nine zeros after it) at a cost of around £8 billion (that’s 8 with nine zeros) so about 50 pence per Watt. Such a massive amount of power requires a massive infrastructure to deliver the power to where it is need and a shutdown for maintenance or a breakdown potentially cuts power to about a million people. The alternative is small modular reactors built, and later dismantled, in a factory that leave an uncontaminated site at a lower capital cost and which provide a more flexible power feed into the national grid. Some commentators (see for example Editor’s comment in Professsional Engineer, November 2015)believe that a factory could be established and rolling modular reactors off its production line on the same timescale as building a GigaWatt station.
Regular readers will recognise a familiar theme found in Small is beautiful and affordable in nuclear powerstations on January 14th, 2015, Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering on January 28th, 2015 and Small is beautiful on October 10th, 2012; as well as the agricultural theme in Knowledge-economy on January 1st, 2014.
Some months ago I wrote about soft robots that could delicately pick up fragile objects [see my post entitled ‘Robots with a delicate touch’ on June 3rd, 2015]. These robots, developed by George Whiteside’s research group, went some way towards mimicking the function of our hands. However, these robots are numb because they have no sense of touch. Think about how hard it would be to strike a match or pick up an egg without your sense of touch. Katherine Kuchenbecker from the University of Pennsylvania is working on robots with tactile sensors that detect pressure and vibrations. This sensitivity transforms their ability to perform delicate tasks such as picking up an egg, or perhaps more significantly perform surgery. I listened to Professor Kuchenberger speak at a meeting at the Royal Society on ‘Robotics and Autonomous Systems’ where she put us off our lunch with some gory videos on robot-assisted surgery. You can watch them at her website. Her vision is of robots that connect vision and touch, which is of course what we do effortlessly most of the time.