The PDP-1: The Machine that Started Hacker Culture

One of my bucket list destinations is the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California — I know, I aim high. I’d be chagrined to realize that my life has spanned a fair fraction of the Information Age, but I think I’d get a kick out of seeing the old machines, some of which I’ve actually laid hands on. But the machines I’d most like to see are the ones that predate me, and the ones that contributed to the birth of the hacker culture in which I and a lot of Hackaday regulars came of age.

If you were to trace hacker culture back to its beginning, chances are pretty good that the machine you’d find at the root of it all is the Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1. That’s a tall claim for a machine that was introduced in 1959 and only sold 53 units, compared to contemporary offerings from IBM that sold tens of thousands of units. And it’s true that the leading edge of the explosion of digital computing in the late 50s and early 60s was mainly occupied by “big iron” machines, and that mainframes did a lot to establish the foundations for all the advances that were to come.

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How To Telepathically Tell A Robot It Screwed Up

Training machines to effectively complete tasks is an ongoing area of research. This can be done in a variety of ways, from complex programming interfaces, to systems that understand commands in natural langauge. A team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) wanted to see if it was possible for humans to communicate more directly when training a robot. Their system allows a user to correct a robot’s actions using only their brain.

The concept is simple – using an EEG cap to detect brainwaves, the system measures a special type of brain signals called “error-related potentials”. Simply noticing the robot making a mistake allows the robot to correct itself, and for a nice extra touch – blush in embarassment.

This interface allows for a very intuitive way of working with a robot – upon noticing a mistake, the robot is able to automatically stop or correct its behaviour. Currently the system is only capable of being used for very simple tasks – the video shows the robot sorting objects of two types into corresponding bins. The robot knows that if the human has detected an error, it must simply place the object in the other bin. Further research seeks to expand the possibilities of using this automatic brainwave feedback to train robots for more complex tasks. You can read the research paper here.

MIT’s CSAIL work on lots of exciting projects – their video microphone technology is truly astounding.

[Thanks to Adam Connor-Simmons for the tip!]

Owning Hacker As A Word

To a casual observer it might seem as though our community is in the news rather a lot at the moment. It’s all about hacks on our TV screens in the soap opera of Washington politics, who hacked this, whether those people over there helped that lot hack the other lot, or even whether that person’s emails could have been hacked on that server. Keeping up with it as an outsider can become a full-time job.

XKCD 932 says it all. (CC BY-NC 2.5)
XKCD 932 says it all. (CC BY-NC 2.5)

Of course, as we all know even if the mainstream journalists (or should I refer to them colloquially as “hacks”?) don’t, it’s not us they’re talking about. Their hackers are computer criminals, while we are people with some of the hardware and software skills to bend technology to our will, even beyond what its designers might have intended. And that divergence between the way we use the word in a sense of reappropriation and they use it in disapprobation sometimes puts us in an odd position. Explaining to a sober-suited businessman as the director of a hackspace, that no, we’re not *those*hackers can sometimes  feel like skating on thin ice.

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Nylon Fibre Artificial Muscles — Powered by Lasers!

If only we had affordable artificial muscles, we might see rapid advances in prosthetic limbs, robots, exo-skeletons, implants, and more. With cost being one of the major barriers — in addition to replicating the marvel of our musculature that many of us take for granted — a workable solution seems a way off. A team of researchers at MIT present a potential answer to these problems by showing nylon fibres can be used as synthetic muscles.

Some polymer fibre materials have the curious property of increasing in  diameter while decreasing in length when heated. Taking advantage of this, the team at MIT were able to sculpt nylon fibre and — using a number of heat sources, namely lasers — could direct it to bend in a specific direction. More complex movement requires an array of heat sources which isn’t practical — yet — but seeing a nylon fibre dance tickles the imagination.

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Umbrella Drones — Jellyfish Of The Sky

Mount an umbrella to a drone and there you go, you have a flying umbrella. When [Alan Kwan] tried to do just that he found it wasn’t quite so simple. The result, once he’d worked it out though, is haunting. You get an uneasy feeling like you’re underwater watching jellyfish floating around you.

A grad student in MIT’s ACT (Art, Culture and Technology) program, [Alan’s] idea was to produce a synesthesia-like result in the viewer by having an inanimate object, an umbrella, appear as an animate object, a floating jellyfish. He first tried simply attaching the umbrella to an off-the-shelf drone. Since electronics occupy the center of the drone, the umbrella had to be mounted off-center. But he discovered that drones want most of their mass in the center and so that didn’t work. With the help of a classmate and input from peers and faculty he made a new drone with carbon fiber and metal parts that allowed him to mount the umbrella in the center. To further help with stability, the batteries were attached to the very bottom of the umbrella’s pole.

In addition to just making them fly, [Alan] also wanted the umbrella to gently undulate like a jellyfish, slowly opening and closing a little. He tried mounting servo motors inside the umbrella for the task. These turned out to be too heavy, but also unnecessary. Once flying outside at just the right propeller speed, the umbrellas undulated on their own. Watch them doing this in the video below accompanied by haunting music that makes you feel you’re watching a scene from Blade Runner.

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3D Printed Nozzles Turbocharge Microsphere Production

Researchers at MIT have used 3D printing to open the door to low-cost, scalable, and consistent generation of microencapsulated particles, at a fraction of the time and cost usually required. Microencapsulation is the process of encasing particles of one material (a core) within another material (a shell) and has applications in pharmaceuticals, self-healing materials, and dye-based solar cells, among others. But the main problem with the process was that it was that it was slow and didn’t scale, and it was therefore expensive and limited to high-value applications only. With some smart design and stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing, that changed. The researchers are not 3D printing these just because they can; they are printing the arrays because it’s the only way they can be made.

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Robots With 3D Printed Shock Absorbing Skin

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, CSAIL, put out a paper recently about an interesting advance in 3D printing. Naturally, being the computer science and AI lab the paper had a robotic bend to it. In summary, they can 3D print a robot with a rubber skin of arbitrarily varying stiffness. The end goal? Shock absorbing skin!

They modified an Objet printer to print simultaneously using three materials. One is a UV curing solid. One is a UV curing rubber, and the other is an unreactive liquid. By carefully depositing these in a pattern they can print a material with any property they like. In doing so they have been able to print mono body robots that, simply put, crash into the ground better.  There are other uses of course, from joints to sensor housings. There’s more in the paper.

We’re not sure how this compares to the Objet’s existing ability to mix flexible resins together to produce different Shore ratings. Likely this offers more seamless transitions and a wider range of material properties. From the paper it also appears to dampen better than the alternatives. Either way, it’s an interesting advance and approach. We wonder if it’s possible to reproduce on a larger scale with FDM.