Sugru: A Wonder Stuff for Hacking Things Better

Sugru is a malleable silicone based substance used for all manner of applications and is capable of being used in all sorts of environments. Like modelling clay it can shaped and formed to repair items large and small and it is possible to use it to enhance their design and function as well. It was invented by Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh who went to study at the Royal College of Art in 2002.

It took more than six years to develop Sugru to the point that it could be made available to the general public. It is a material that can be moulded into any shape you wish to make and has the advantage of maintaining the integrity of that shape once it has set. Once the packet is opened there is a thirty minute window to create the desired form and then a twelve hour wait while the material cures at room temperature. Apart from repairs, in the true repurposing tradition of hacking, it is possible to amend or adapt the shape or function of existing items.

How did you get the idea for Sugru?

“It came from a design project. I wasn’t so interesting in designing more consumer products for shops. I wanted to do something that was more about individuals making things and empowering people to redesign and improve the stuff that they have instead of throw it away.”

“I’m a sculptor, my background is in sculpture and I spent quite a lot of time in materials experimentation. I’m very interested in materials and on the other hand I am very interested in design strategies that are to do with organic growth rather than traditional design. It’s about facilitating and enabling things to happen rather than designing things yourself. Those two things came together in Sugru.”

How did the material itself come into being?

“[Sugru] came out of accidents in terms of material experiments that happened in the workshop. I made a material with silicone, bathroom sealant and very fine wood powder out of the wood extraction system in the workshop where they collect all the dust in a bin. I combined that wood dust with silicon sealant to make this paste that then turned into a rubber. I started using that to make sculptures and other things.

“There was some leftover so I used it in my house to improve stuff. I modified the sink plug so the water wouldn’t drain out as I had a problem with the sink plug not fitting. And I used it to customize some knife handles to make them more comfortable to hold.

“Then I got a bit of a lightbulb moment and I realized that if something in that vein, obviously more refined, industrially reproducible and safe was available then I thought a lot of people would find that quite handy.”

On Sunday, December 5, at 2pm a Hackquarium (a word coined by the people at Sugru,) will take place at 091 Labs where people are invited to bring all items they wish to repair modify, decorate and just plain hack.

According to Jane, “Hackquarium is an idea for people to get together and so some making and hacking – a bit of craic really.”

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HTM: New Algorithms and a New Way of Programming

Jeff Hawkins is the founder of Palm and Handspring. He is also the author of the 2004 book “On Intelligence” in which he discusses his ideas and reveals recent discoveries about how the brain works and its relationship to the analysis of large sets of data. Earlier this month, Jeff published a paper Hierarchical Temporal Memory (HTM) in which it is shown that through advances in modeling the neocortex we are closing in on developing useful algorithms that can be used on real world computers.

HTM offers new computer programming possibilities and new ways about thinking about programming that has widespread uses. It maybe particularly helpful in the areas Artificial Intelligence and robotics where real-time learning and prediction in terms of anticipation and preparedness to react are very important.

There are three key points to understand about HTM; hierarchy, “sparse distributed representation”and time.

  • Hierarchy is the efficient and robust method of recognising and predicting patterns by passing information from region to region in the neocortex until a stable memory is formed.

    The benefit of hierarchical organization is efficiency. It significantly reduces training time and memory usage because patterns learned at each level of the hierarchy are reused when combined in novel ways at higher levels. This allows to learn something new and not have to relearn its components in the same way you don’t have to relearn the alphabet every time you come across a new word.

  • Sparse Distributed Representation is the description how a minimal amount of cells are needed to recognise and predict patterns of information. When an HTM receives a signal, it will compare it to previously learned spatial and temporal patterns.
  • Time denotes the idea that this is a continuously active and dynamic process that allows learning by inference and prediction. If somehow time were stopped nothing could be inferred, predicted or learned.

First, a little bit of neuroscience.

HTM is based on models of how the brain works, specifically the neocortex which consists of roughly 75% of the brain’s mass. It should be noted that it is not a simulation but a model based on how the brain itself processes information.

As Jeff Hawkins likes to demonstrate the neocortex can be imagined to be like a folded up tea towel. The compressed contours are all squeezed up together which results in high density of cells for a given space with a resulting high level of connectivity. However, if this notional tea towel which represents the topography of the neocortex were laid out flat it would only be five layers of cells deep.

Each of these layers are conformed slightly differently and seem to have a different roles. Most information travels horizontally through the layer but there is a vertical component as well. Information can traverse the layers via columns of cells.

The neocortex is divided up into two kinds of regions. One type of region receives input directly from our sensory apparatus, eyes and ears and so on. However, the other type of regions which forms the vast majority of the neocortex only receives input after the signal has passed through other regions before them. This transferring of information from region to region forms a hierarchy. At each stage each region will match the information it receives to previously learned spatial and temporal patterns. Being able to successfully match new inputs to previously stored sequences is the essence of recognizing and predicting patterns. The information passes from region to region and is its predictions are further refined until it has a solid value in a given region which can be termed a memory.

Also, as information moves up through the hierarchy it becomes a more stable and robust memory. This is because in each region acts as a pattern recognition system. If enough cells are lit up in an array across the layers and columns that correspond with a previously experienced stimuli then the region can be said to be acting as a predictor. Based on all the previous stimuli, a sight, a sound, a touch and so on, it has received it can, by having the same cells activated again and again over time, predict whether someone is looking at a ball or a tin can.

A very important point to take into account here is the importance of time. Because prediction has to take place across time there can be no static view at any given point. This is an important digression from conventional computing where time is largely irrelevant.

Like many of nature’s systems this hierachical method of processing information is highly efficient and remarkably robust. Only the cells most relevant to making an accurate representation of a pattern are lit up. A region can contain 10^6 cells but due to the differing natures of each layer and the array of columns as few as 20 cells need to be lit up to give the representation of a specific stimuli.

The algorithms that constitute the HTM have now been developed into a pseudocode which can be found at the site of Jeff Hawkins’s company Numenta. Here is a sample of the pseudocode. A fuller description can be found in Chapter 4 of the HTM paper.

Commercial Applications

The most immediate practical uses are in areas where there is a huge amount of data that contain a great deal of time-based statistics. These are a good place to start as there already exists a great deal of data to provide a solid basis for pattern recognition and detection.

  • Credit card fraud – large amounts of pre-existing data allows for quick implementation of the algorithm
  • Large sensor environments – handling data from multiple security cameras for instance
  • Web click prediction – being able to statistically predict movement through a site

Since HTM works in a purely statistical manner. it just has to have enough data to create pre-existing patterns that it can compare new data with.

HTM is at heart a memory based system. Like a biological system, the learning algorithms in an HTM region are capable of “on-line learning”, i.e. they continually learn from each new input. As the patterns in the input change, the HTM region will gradually change too and new memory is formed.

These new algorithms promise greater efficiency because instead of having to have lots of power to handle lots of information we can now use the hierarchical system to handle only what is needed for pattern recognition and prediction to take place. A lot of this is based on what has been learned from the sparse distribution representation that takes place in the regions of the neocortex.

The challenge is in being able to adapt the thinking of programmers to factor time as part of the computing process. This HTM model requires the constant handling of predictive processes which can only take place over time.

But for now the most important juncture has been reached. We can now see how modeling of the neocortex can possibly lead to real world computing activity.

In this highly entertaining and informative video presentation “Advances in Modeling Neocortex and its Impact on Machine Intelligence” Jeff Hawkins does an excellent job of setting the context for HTM and outlining its importance.

Ignite Galway: Inspiration, Information and Entertainment

Ignite Galway is a simple format; thirteen speakers will speak for five minutes each on a topic of their choice. It is intended to be a fun evening designed to enter and perform and be free of any kind of product pitching. According to Adrian Avendano, “The basic concept is to get people together from completely different backgrounds and avenues of knowledge to share a powerful idea in five minutes. We are trying to get as wide ranging and as varied speakers as possible.”

Beyond the functional purpose of helping to get a bit of cash into the kitty for 091 Labs the aim of the event is to share powerful ideas from a diverse group of people. The aim is to do that by getting as many interesting people as possible in one room.

Adrian sums it up like this, “The three elements of Ignite will be Inspiration, entertainment, information. We are trying to get a group of speakers who will inform you, inspire you and entertain you – all three!”

Why should people brave the cold and turn out for something like this?

“The answer is quite simple – it’s the experience. When you go to this event, it is not like you watch an isolated talk for five minutes and then another one for another five minutes. It’s really about being in the space where you are surrounded by interesting people.

“You get into the whole experience and it accentuates what you learn from the people you are going to meet. It’s really about totally immersing yourself into the experience of having thirteen people talk on a wide range of topics and meet other interesting people who are there. People who attend should expect to have a really fun, interesting, informative night.”

The last event of this kind had about a hundred and thirty people turn up. The speakers for this event are:

Mark Congiusta: Cisco’s R&D labs, “The User Experience of Christmas.”

Iain MacLaren: Astrophysicist & Director of the Centre for
Excellence in Learning & Teaching, “Turn off the Lights!”

Pat Comer: Filmmaker and the man responsible for the incredible images that are displayed on the sides of some of Galway’s buildings.

Emma Creighton: Interactive designer and designs social games with arduinos.

Jack Kinsella: Entrepreneur who set up a magazine in Bolivia, talking
about the statistics behind facebook.

Micah Herstand: Entrepreneur at DERI, “Relationships Matter: What’s Important on the Web, in the Web, and to the Web.”

Ed O’Toole: Philosopher at NUIG. Writer of papers on psychosis, and
empathy & socialisation -“Myth & War in the Western Tradition.”

Kevin: Artist at 091Labs, talking about open data>

Julien: Runs Super8 films in Galway Filmmaker Artists.

Yoshimi: On `MOTTAINAI`- the Japanese word means `respect life of
things` / `use totally` / `no waste`. (Galway sushi restaurant owner.)

Gerald Flynn:  Fractology – The Reality Of Imaginary Patterns.

James Gallagher: Cycling and Galway.

Ruby Wallis: Visual Artist – exhibit, Tulca Visual Arts Festival.

The important bits:

Date: 10th December
Time: 7pm
Entrance: €5.00

There will be beanbags for your seating comfort and refreshments will be available.

Cloud Computing: From Capacity To Capability

Recently, at a CIO and IT SRummit in Mumbai, Rakesh Kumar, Research Vice President at Gartner said that analysts, “are seeing an acceleration of adoption of cloud computing and cloud services among enterprises, and an explosion of supply-side activity as technology providers maneuver to exploit the growing commercial opportunity. The potential benefits of cloud are a shift from ’capacity’ on demand to ‘capability’ on demand, a reduced cost of computing resources and a shift from technology use to ‘value’ consumption.”

The shift from capacity to capability marks the point that cloud computing shifts from being a good idea constrained by a lack of widespread acceptance to becoming an unobtrusive, practical, everyday part of our technological lives.

Cloud computing refers to the idea whereby computing power and storage is placed on a cloud of machines that may be physically removed from a local user or application. By distributing processing power and data requirements across very many machines, powerful computing tasks can be carried out that a single local computing device cannot perform.

Data is stored in the Cloud, which means it is on some server somewhere that is not necessarily known by the user and it is just there and accessible. Software and services are also moving to the Cloud, usually accessible via a full-featured web browser on the client device.

The PC era was hardware centric and the subsequent client-server era was more software centric. Cloud computing now abstracts that server and makes it very scalable, by hiding complexities. We can view this stage as being service-centric.

A present example: Banks have become “Clouds”, allowing people to go to any ATM and remove money from their bank wherever they are. Electricity can be thought of similarly, as it can come from various places, and you don’t have to know where it comes from – it just works.

Driving forces behind cloud-based computing include:

  • The falling cost of storage
  • Ubiquitous broadband
  • Democratisation of the tools of production

These factors point the way for cloud-based computing to be considered a utility.

There are five further properties that make this area exciting:

(1) User centric: The data moves with you, and the application moves with you. People don’t want to constantly have to reload their address book or applications on every new machines they acquire. It is time consuming and there is the potential for data to get lost.

Once you’re connected to the Cloud, any new PC or mobile device that can access your data becomes yours. Not only is the data yours, but you can share it with others, The browser is the platform.

(2) Task centric: The applications of the past; spreadsheets, email, calendar etc., are becoming modules, and can be composed and laid out in a task-specific manner.

(4) Accessible: Universal search in the Cloud will allow for better searches in specific categories, restaurants, images and so on. Conventional web search isn’t necessarily the best option as it often returns matches for a given term across different categories.

(5) Intelligent: Data mining and massive data analysis are required to give some intelligence to the masses of data available (massive data storage + massive data analysis = Google Intelligence).

In terms of benefits:

  • cloud computing needs new skills with concomitant job opportunities.
  • Entrepreneurs should have new opportunities with this paradigm shift, being freed from monopoly-dominated markets as more cloud-based companies evolve that are powered by open technologies.
  • Governments and large enterprises will be able to make only update to key software which will take effect across their whole network immediately thus saving enormous costs from the constant need to have to upgrade each and every machine.

As always, one has to beware of the hype. Cloud computing is not necessarily going to obviate the need for hard disks to be present on our computing devices whether they be desktop, laptop or mobile.

One criticism of cloud computing is that it makes many of the same claims as networked computing and networked desktops did in the 1990s (i.e. the theory that users would move to using computers with no hard drives, where all data would be stored elsewhere and would be available from any networked desktop that a user would choose to use). However, users still wanted control over their own desktops (in particular, having offline access to the data contained therein), and hence local storage is still a primary consideration when purchasing a computer.

However, having our information and applications in the Cloud gives us new opportunities to be able to share data and use programs that will allow us to collaborate and work together in new, productive and more efficient ways then what we have now.

Irish Software: A ‘Program’ That’s Good For Ireland Is Good For The World

The only area of economic activity that promises real growth in the absence of an extensive manufacturing base in any of the world’s economies is technology. Fortunately, Ireland’s tech sector is extraordinarily well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities that are available. According to ICT Ireland, over 75,000 people are employed in the ICT area which is responsible for approximately 25% of Ireland’s total turnover and represents one third of Ireland’s exports by value. Employment alone has grown by 6% in this area this year and there is still the promise of more to come.

Michael Martin is manager of the Irish Software Innovation Network. One of ISIN’s main tasks is to act as a matchmaking service between university research institutes and business. As Michael explains, “We have a good history and a good base of knowledge in the [tech and software] areas and now we have to build on that in a fast-changing industry.

Just recently, Craig Barrett, ex-CEO of Intel, spoke about the need for closer ties between the public and private sector. How do you see the two fitting together?

“Technologies are changing all the time and it is difficult for smaller companies to keep up-to-date. On the other hand, we have this huge database of knowledge in our universities which have been well-funded for the last ten years and there is a great opportunity for these companies to tap into that, make use of that technology and get ahead of the competition.

“The challenge is to make companies aware of what is happening. And then to make sure that we can find the right match for that company.

“So, we got all the different software associations together. We looked at the issue from the point of view of: Can we help companies? Can we facilitate companies in posting information about jobs that are there to create more awareness in this area? How to get more students to pick [maths and science] as subjects – particularly with career guidance teachers to make them aware that this is an area that is doing very well. We are looking at ways to increase awareness of this area and facilitate companies to fill those jobs.”

So what are the challenges ahead?

“Over the last number of years there has been a lack of people and students going into the engineering subjects. Now there is a shortage. The numbers are way down in all these disciplines. The talent pool has shrunk in the last few years. The number of people doing the maths and science subjects are down. So it is difficult to get the good people with the good maths to go into computer science. Also, people are not moving in the present climate. They don’t want to start again somewhere new. If there are cutbacks they would be the first in line to go.

“If we don’t act now then in ten years time things will be worse than they are currently. It’s very important. There is the Champions Program which is organised by ICT Ireland and Engineers Ireland to get engineers to go out to schools with the good story about what is happening in the industry… To encourage and show pupils good examples of how people have been successful, and that makes it more attractive for people to do these courses.

“ICT Ireland has been lobbying for a large number of years. The CEOs and the multinationals really believe that it is very important for Ireland to keep that skills pool large. Over the last few years, people have gone into more secure places such as law and medicine and things like that, particularly the ones with good maths. We have to break that trend and keep that technical skills pool large because that is an advantage to Ireland.”

So what are the good examples we should be looking at?

“We have award-winning companies such as NewBay, and eMedia. Norkom is also doing very well.

Some of our institutes are recognised all over the world in the localisation services, the Semantic Web and the mobile communications area. Ireland has three of the leading institutes in the world.

“A strength we have is problem solving and developing a solution. We do have a talent in this area. Irish people are very innovative and very good product developers.”

The temptation in the current economic and political climate is to take an exceptionalist view and assume that Ireland is somehow uniquely disadvantaged. But Ireland is only one of a great many countries facing difficult times. However, unlike many other places, it has a huge advantage in that the most important sector for growth a country can have, the tech sector, is growing. It deserves as much help as possible to grow as quickly as possible. Hopefully, one day in the near future people can say, “What’s good for Ireland is good for the world.”

Tim Berners-Lee: Three Principles Of The Web – Universality, Decentralisation And Separation


The computer that Tim Berners-Lee used to invent the World Wide Web at CERN.

Twenty years after coming up with the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee has written an essay entitled “Long Live the Web” which can be found here at Scientific American. It is a terrific testament to the power of the individual idea that a concept that existed on one web site and one browser now dominates almost every aspect of our lives. If you don’t believe that then try unplugging from the grid for any meaningful length of time.

However, despite amazing progress he is clearly worried that the core attribute of the Web – openness – is coming under increasing attack. The Web is too big to ever be fully controlled, but walled gardens, the abandoning of net neutrality, and the increased level of snoopiness from government and market information gatherers all serve to delay the very real benefits that an open Web promises to deliver.

He names three principles in the essay that determines the Web’s “usefulness and growth”, which he discusses in great detail:

  • Universality: “When you make a link, you can link to anything. That means people must be able to put anything on the Web, no matter what computer they have, software they use or human language they speak and regardless of whether they have a wired or wirless Internet connection.”
  • Decentralisation: “You do not have to get approval from any central authority to add a page or make a link.”
  • Separation: “This separation is fundamental. The Web is an application that runs on the Internet, which is an electronic network that transmits packets of information among millions of computers according to a few open protocols.”

By maintaining these principles he argues that we get to make the best link of all – to the future.

The question of course is how do we value and uphold principles in a world where power and territory is what really matters? In one part of the essay, Tim Berners-Lee describes how a company in 2008 was able to read information in information packets. This is not technology that is going to be unlearned. There is only one way of being open, but there seems to be a gazillion ways to pry, spy and build walls and then pry, spy and build walls again.

In a recent Guardian article on the importance of information for journalists. it was very evident that the biggest issue was not the availability of data. It was the lack of journalists trained in accessing and interpreting this information.

Tim Berners-Lee makes it clear, “Journalists need to be data-savvy. It used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you’ll do it that way some times.

“But now it’s also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what’s going on in the country.”

We cannot be passive in the face of the threats outlined by Tim Berners-Lee in his article. They are real.

  • Facebook, and sites like it, want your data to share, but don’t want to let you share your own data.
  • Companies want to track your every move to sell you more things.
  • Governments simply want to control you.

Lack of basic technical know, which can be fairly easily acquired, may not be a good enough excuse for citizens to turn away and say, “It’s someone else’s problem. Leave it for the nerds to sort out.”

The only possible way to preserve what we have and allow the space for future generations to build a better world is to take individual responsibility for what we can contribute to the Web, increase our knowledge and ensure openness and transparency wherever we can.

Mobile Phones: Frontier of Possibility

Mobile telephony represents the single biggest opportunity for new business while at the same time being one of the most significant enablers for growth available today. One of the more interesting aspects of the market is how the the law of unintended consequences comes into play. Text function was originally an afterthought and was only left in as an expensive option for business. It is now the world’s most widespread data service. Developing world mobile banking systems not only helped to give the world’s poorest and most ill-served people the opportunity to access the benefits of having a bank account but the technology has proven to be so effective that we may start seeing it in more technically developed societies.

It is a reminder that we are all living globally now and that changes and developments in one part of the network whether it is social or technical, have ramifications for all parts of the network.

(1) Most important fact about mobile phones – there are billions of them!

The figures are phenomenal. There are over 4.426 billion subscribers to mobile services around the world. China Mobile is the largest with 500 million subscribers. Since there are just over 6bn people on the planet it would seem we would be close to saturation point but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Nokia and Apple, for instance, are shipping their devices by the millions and there is no sign at all of a let up in demand. According to Gartner mobile sales grew 35% in the last financial quarter. Over 417 million units were sold worldwide in a three month period. 81 million of those handsets were smartphones.

(2) Smartphones are very popular but regular phones still sell very well.

According to these figures only roughly twenty percent of phones being sold are smart. That is that they can be used in the way a computer can be used to run applications that are more advanced than can be found on a phones with regular features.

Cost is one inhibitor but access to wifi is another. Even in the developed countries many rural areas have difficulty accessing broadband and consequently a lot of the capability of a smartphone is reduced. 3G works but most times it is much slower than wifi. Some apple iphone apps are inhibited from downloading on the network due to their size and wifi has to be accessed. In the remoter areas of the world which includes large parts of Europe and America this can be a problem.

Smartphones are built on smart platforms.

  • Symbian OS: is used mainly by Nokia and has the largest footprint by far.
  • Android: Which is owned by Google and is probably the most developer friendly.
  • Windows Phone: Microsoft software which has been retargeted at the consumer market.
  • Blackberry OS: Which originally targeted its phones at corporate use but is slow in finding a wider appeal.
  • iOS: The Apple platform and is highly integrated into many other Apple products.

Combining the opportunity for development apps for different platforms and across different platforms with the variety of handsets available all sorts or permutations and possibilities exist.

Although most of these operating systems are quite tied in tightly with manufacturers the scope for third party developers to make a contribution is huge.

(3) All sorts of opportunities to play for

With such a variety of devices and platforms the opportunity for the “killer app” to arise is very limited. But the opportunity to create niche apps that do specific tasks very well. Apple has over 300,000 apps available in its store now with Android having over 100,000 apps available for download.

In a previous article “The Collective Brain App” we described how by bypassing the browser and allowing users to directly access what they specifically want a whole new network of interactions becomes possible. We can become genuinely networked as individuals with our own array of apps reflecting how we see the world and what we want from it.

(4) There is still plenty of change to come

For the entrepreneurial opportunity exists in growing chaotic markets. The mobile telephony market is far from reaching maturity and there are still some massive game changing possibilities around the corner.

One such is the possible introduction of embedded SIMs. This means that companies like Apple or Nokia can take over the billing and service responsibilities from the main carriers and establish a direct an intimate relationship with the customer. This would leave the carriers as the providers of ‘dumb pipes.’

Embedded SIM technology also allows the smartphone to act as a wallet by allowing users to pay with their handsets.

The carriers are not going to cede easily but whatever the outcome the mobile phone market will have shifted in its space and with that there will come even more opportunities.