Roboticist Grant Imahara Of Mythbusters Fame Dies Of Aneurysm At Age 49

We awake this morning to sad news of the premature passing of Grant Imahara at the age of 49 due to a brain aneurysm. Grant was best known for his role on the wildly popular Mythbusters television show on which he starred and built test apparatus for seasons three through twelve. He landed this role because he was a badass hardware hacker as much as he was an on-camera personality.

Grant received his degree in electrical engineering from USC in 1993 and landed a job with Lucasfilm, finding his way onto the Industrial Light and Magic team to work on blockbuster films like the Star Wars prequels (R2-D2 among other practical effects) and sequels to Terminator and The Matrix. Joining the Mythbusters team in 2005 was something of a move to rapid prototyping. Each of the 22-minute episodes operated on a 10-day build and a film cycle in which Grant was often tasked with designing and fabricating test rigs for repeatable testing with tightly controlled parameters.

After leaving the show, Grant pursued several acting opportunities, including the Kickstarter funded web series Star Trek Continues which we reported on back in 2013. But he did return to the myth busting genre with one season of The White Rabbit Project on Netflix. One of the most genuinely geeky appearances Grant made was on an early season of Battlebots where his robot ‘Deadblow’ sported a wicked spiked hammer. Video of his appearance in the quarter-finals is like a time-capsule in hacker history and guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

Grant Imahara’s legacy is his advocacy of science and engineering. He was a role model who week after week proved that questioning how things work, and testing a hypothesis to find answers is both possible and awesome. At times he did so by celebrating destructive force in the machines and apparatus he built. But it was always done with observance of safety precautions and with a purpose in mind (well, perhaps with the exception of the Battlebots). His message was that robots and engineering are cool, that being a geek means you know what the heck you’re doing, and that we can entertain ourselves through creating. His message lives on through countless kids who have grown up to join engineering teams throughout the world.

Grant was the headliner at the first Hackaday Superconference in San Francisco back in 2015. I’ve embedded the fireside chat below where you can hear in his own words what inspired Grant, along with numerous stories from throughout his life.

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RIP Danal Estes, Developer Of Multitool 3D Printing Infrastructure

Last week, [Danal Estes] passed away. This comes as a shock to many of us who had the pleasure of interacting with him online. Not only was [Danal] an active contributor to the 3D printing community, he was simply a warm-hearted character who was just fun to get along with. I met [Danal] online less than a year ago. But I owe him a debt in helping transform a set of design files that I posted online into a full blown community of hardware enthusiasts.

Here’s my best shot at recounting some of this fellow human’s legacy as seen from the fellow tool changing 3D printing enthusiasts who knew him.

Getting to Know an Online Community Builder

I first met [Danal] online last September through Thingiverse when he posted a make of Jubilee, a tool changing machine design that I posted a few weeks prior. At a time when Jubilee was just a set of files and instructions on the internet, I was stoked that someone in the world was out there building a duplicate. To get to know these people better and work out any pinch points in their assembly process, I started a Discord Chat Server. [Danal] was the first to join and start telling his story in pictures.

As a community of curious people on Discord grew, questions about the machine started to arise. How big was it? How did the tool changing work? I tried answering as many as I could, putting an FAQ blurb on Thingiverse, But a few weeks in, something else happened: [Danal] started answering the questions. Not only that, he was greeting nearly every single person who introduced themselves on the server. I didn’t understand the value of a simple “welcome aboard!” that follows someone’s first post in a budding online community, but [Danal] did. So he did just that. He made you feel welcome to have landed in this corner of the internet. In a world full of engineers who don’t like repeating themselves, [Danal] seemed to get that his repeat interaction was new for the person on the other end; and that made it worth doing.

Danal’s first tool changes

As the days passed, questions continued, and [Danal] continued to fill people in with answers to questions–even repeat questions. All the while, he posted progress pictures of his own machine. In a way, the rest of the community seemed to be holding their breath during this time, watching [Danal] post status reports; waiting for some conviction that these files actually turned into something that worked. Then, less than a month later, [Danal] posted a video of his first successful tool change. It did work! Almost certainly inspired by [Danal’s] success, a few more folks started building machines of their own. But [Danal] was the first person to duplicate a Jubilee.

More than twenty machines have been built in the wild since I posted the project files back in September. I believe that the inspiration to start draws from the success of people who have finished before, which chains down to the inspiration drawn from the success of the first person to finish: [Danal Estes]. I owe him one for that: for inspiring a community of folks to follow in this adventure.

Commoditized Automatic Nozzle Alignment

[Danal] did more than affirm the machine design to a new Jubilee community. Over the short span of the project, [Danal] put his software hat on and developed an automated machine-vision based tool alignment system that he called TAMV. It turns out that tool tip calibration is one of the gnarly problems for any multi-nozzle 3D printer. Tools must be aligned relative to each other such that each of the unique materials they print are aligned in the resulting print. The current ways of doing this are cumbersome and manual. Either you measure offsets by printing a vernier scale or by taking pictures with an upwards-facing microscope. [Danal] took this gnarly problem as an opportunity to automate the process completely, so he did.

In just two months, [Danal] returned with an announcement on the Jubilee Discord to present TAMV, aka: Tool Align Machine Vision. By mounting an upwards facing webcam to the front of his Jubilee, [Danal] simply ran his one-button script, and his machine automatically calibrated each available tool both automatically and better than most humans could with the prior methods. It did this by sequentially picking up tools, putting them in the camera field of view, and then measuring their offsets. What’s more, he released the entire code base as open-source, literally transforming a gnarly problem into a thing of the past with a commodity solution made usable with a simple installation script and setup instructions that he also wrote.

Here on Hackaday, it’s humbling to read about the amazing feats folks are overcoming all from the comfort of their home workbenches. But it’s invigorating to see that same feat unfolded in a way that lets us unpack it, learn from it, build on top of it. The act of documenting work you’ve already done with the intent that others could follow it is an act of grace. [Danal] was gracious.

A Shared Story Told in Projects

As [Danal] became one of the most active community members on Discord, we started to learn more about his other projects. For [Danal], 3D printers were as much a side project as they were tools in a family of other tools for creative projects. Armed with these machines, [Danal] put them to work on machines for flight, from extraordinary remote control aircraft (3D printed of course) that could barely work their wingspan through a doorway to the consoles of real world aircraft that could carry a pilot.

It was always a pleasure to get a slice of [Danal’s] adventures. Getting to hear about his excitement in projecting was food for a growing community of hobbyists eager to get back to our workbenches. And the framing of his adventures was warm enough to make you feel not just that you wanted a bit of this lifestyle for yourself, but that you could have it too. I hope that this part of [Danal’s] legacy is something that we online folk can continue: the shared courtesy and warm attitude to newcomers in a hardware hacking community.

Thanks, man; I already miss you.

John Horton Conway, Creator Of Conway’s Game Of Life, Has Died

Programmers everywhere are familiar with Conway’s Game of Life: whether they’ve written a version themselves or simply seen the mesmerizing action resulting from the cellular automata, it’s a household name in all homes where code is spoken. On Saturday April 11th, 2020 its inventor and namesake, John Horton Conway passed away from COVID-19 at the age of 82.

Born in Liverpool, Conway received his PhD in mathematics in 1964 from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He accepted a position at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge which he held until joining the faculty of Princeton University in 1987. A brilliant mathematician, he received numerous awards and was well known for his work in combinatorial game theory, group theory, and theoretical physics.

Many readers will be familiar with his Doomsday algorithm which can be used to deduce the day of the week for any given date in your head. But by far the rockstar mathematics moment of developing Conway’s Game of Life in 1970 cements him a perpetual place of legend in computing lore. His original work on the concept used pencil and paper as the computing revolution had yet to make digital resources easily available, even to mathematics researchers like Conway.

The game uses an infinite grid of squares where all of the edges of the grid wrap around. Four simple rules (which can be boiled down to three if you’re clever) determine which cells live and which cells die during each frame of the “game”. The only parameters that are needed are the number and position of living cells at the start of the game, and the delay between each game frame. But the effect of this simplicity is not to be understated. The game can be coded by a novice — and it’s become a common challenge in University course work. Small errors, or intentional tweaks, in the implementation have profound effects on behavior of the game. And the effect on the person programming it for the first time can be long lasting. You could call it a mathematics gateway drug, grabbing the curiosity of the unsuspecting mind and pulling it down the rabbit hole of advanced mathematics discovery.

We’d love to celebrate his life by hearing your own stories of programming the Game of Life in the comments below. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, now’s a great time to take on the challenge.

[Game of Life example shown in this article is John Conway’s Game of Life – 1.0 written in Python by Nick Jarvis and Nick Wayne]

RIP Rex Garrod, Creator Extraordinaire

Earlier this month, the youth motocross champion, special effects creator, inventor, TV presenter, and Robot Wars competitor, [Rex Garrod] died at the age of 75 after a long battle with dementia. We do not often carry obituaries here at Hackaday, and it’s possible that if you are not a Brit you may not have heard of [Rex], but his work in the time before YouTube would have made him an international must-watch star had he been operating in the age of on-demand Internet video.

I first became aware of Rex when he appeared as assistant to [Tim Hunkin] on his Secret Life of Machines TV series in the late 1980s. He was the man whose job we all wanted, making the most incredible machines and operating them for our entertainment. Our Hardware heroes tribute to [Tim] has a picture of him operating the needle on a giant mock-up of a sewing machine, but he appeared in many more episodes. Of the many tributes to [Rex] that have appeared over the last few days it is [Tim]’s one that probably says the most about his appeal to our community. His propensity for picking up interesting parts from junkyards strikes a chord, and the tale of hugely overpowering car wiper motors by allowing them to be submerged in water is pure genius.

To a slightly younger generation he is best known for his appearances in the British Robot Wars series‘ with his Cassius series of fighting robots. He created one of the first really potent flipper robots in UK robotic combat, and incidentally the first effective self-righting mechanism. As one of the many members of the SMIDSY team that didn’t appear on the recorded TV series’ I encountered him only peripherally, but I remember his work being a major influence on SMIDSY’s run-any-way-up design. Meanwhile for a younger generation still he created the models for the popular children’s TV character Brum, an anthropomorphised scale-model Austin 7 car.

We’ll leave you with a couple of videos featuring [Rex]. The first is from The Secret Life of Machines, in which along with [Tim] he helps explain electronics from first principles, while the second is a fan-created medley of his Robot Wars appearances. Rest in peace [Rex], and thank you.

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Marvin Minsky, AI Pioneer, Dies At 88

Marvin Minsky, one of the early pioneers of neural networks, died on Sunday at the age of 88.

The obituary in the Washington Post paints a fantastic picture of his life. Minsky was friends with Richard Feynman, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Stanley Kubrick. He studied under Claude Shannon, worked with Alan Turing, had frequent conversations with John Von Neumann, and had lunch with Albert Einstein.

“Single layer ann” by Mcstrother

Minsky’s big ideas were really big. He built one of the first artificial neural networks, but was aiming higher — toward machines that could actually think rather than simply classify data. This was one of the driving forces behind his book, Perceptrons, that showed some of the limitations in the type of neural networks (single-layer, feedforward) that were being used at the time. He wanted something more.

Minsky’s book The Society of Mind is interesting because it reframes the problem of human thought from being a single top-down process to being a collaboration between many different brain regions, the nervous system, and indeed the body as a whole. This “connectionist” theme would become influential both in cognitive science and in robotics.

In short, Minksy was convinced that complex problems often had necessarily complex solutions. In research projects, he was in for the long-term, and encouraged a bottom-up design procedure where many smaller elements combined into a complicated whole. “The secret of what something means lies in how it connects to other things we know. That’s why it’s almost always wrong to seek the “real meaning” of anything. A thing with just one meaning has scarcely any meaning at all.”

useless_machine-shot0005Minsky was a very deep thinker, but he kept grounded by also being a playful inventor. Minsky is credited with inventing the “ultimate machine” which would pop up in modern geek culture and shared numerous times on Hackaday as the “most useless machine”. He inspired Claude Shannon to build one. Arthur C. Clarke said, “There is something unspeakably sinister about a machine that does nothing — absolutely nothing — except switch itself off.”

He also co-designed the Triadex Muse, which was an early synthesizer and sequencer and “automatic composer” that creates fairly complex and original patterns with minimal input. It’s an obvious offshoot of his explorations in artificial intelligence, and on our bucket list of must-play-with electronic instruments.

Minsky’s web site at MIT has a number of his essays, and the full text of “The Society of Mind”, all available for your reading pleasure. It’s worth a bit of your time, not just in memoriam of a great thinker and a wacky inventor, but also because we bet you’ll see the world a little bit differently afterwards. That’s a legacy that lasts.

The Passing Of Bob Pease

We are saddened by the recent passing of [Bob Pease]. You may not be familiar with the man, but his work has touched your lives in more ways than you can count. As an electronics engineer who specialized in analog components he was responsible for hardware that made some of the electronics in your life possible, and designed components that you’ve probably used if you dabble in electronic design.

EDN has a lengthy obituary celebrating his life and accomplishments. [Bob] was part of the 1961 graduating class at MIT. He started his career designing tube amplifiers before finding his way to a position at National Semiconductor about fifteen years later. Throughout his career he worked to promote education about analog electronics both through written text, and more recently as the host of Analog by Design, an online video program where a panel of experts discuss the ins and outs of electronics.

[Bob] was killed in an automobile accident on June 18th at the age of 70.

[via Make]