Reading _Soonish_, part 2: friendly nuclear power and robots

Today we continue our reading of Soonish, a look at some future technologies, written and illustrated by Kelly and Zack Weinersmith.  In this post we’ll explore and discuss chapters 4-6, covering new forms of power, robots, and construction.

If you’re just joining us, here’s the reading schedule.  And here are all posts about Soonish to date.

Reader activity has started to appear across the web.  If you’re new to our online book club, people contribute various reactions and thoughts in various venues.  For example, a bunch of folks responded to last week’s post in comments.  Many applauded the book’s pedagogy, citing examples with approval.  Others poked into the science, wondering how applications might play out.  Delightfully, one of Soonish‘s authors, Kelly Weinersmith, wrote generously in response to other commentators.

On Twitter many comments popped up.  My favorite was this one from Joe Murphy (Kenyon College):

Please add your thoughts, questions, answers, and more in comments, on Twitter, on your blog, Google+, or wherever else you like.


4: Fusion Power

With this chapter the book shifts from technologies for space travel to those for manipulating stuff mostly on Earth, starting with a dive into what could be the next major transformation of power generation.  It takes time to explain how fusion works, using a hilarious metaphor of nerds dating, and then to show different ways that primordial power could be harnessed productively.

Projects include (“welcome to the wonderful world of ‘table top nuclear fusion'”) (!), ITER, the National Ignition Facility (NIF), and General Fusion, plus the historically fascinating Project Plowshare.  The conclusion?  Fusion is very, very hard to control, but could, if successfully wrangled, offer a wide range of benefits.

Here’s one of the videos they recommend about a successful Soviet use of an atomic weapon to create a lake:

5: Programmable Matter


Here the Weinersmiths take us into the world of being able to add software logic to physical objects.  This is one way of talking about robots, of course, but also a way of rethinking other objects as robots: paper, furniture, houses.  It’s also a different way of thinking about the Internet of Things.

Projects mentioned include Interactive Robogami, Roombots, the Animated Work Environment (AWE),  swarming little robots, Kilobots, and the splendidly named Bucket of Stuff.

Assessment: the authors seem to see a lot of work being done in this field, with some fascinating benefits, but also a large number of scary downsides.

6: Robotic Construction

This builds on (ahem) the previous chapter by emphasizing the use of software and robots to construct buildings.  Some projects here are extensions of 3d printing, such as Contour Crafting.  Others involve purpose built machines, such as robotic bricklayers, tiny robots, and drones plus tiny robots.  The chapter closes with an exploration of food printing.

Concerns about robot building tie into other concerns about automation and inequality, in addition to worries about 3d printing and waste.  The advantages connect with the refugee crisis, among other benefits.

Thoughts and questions

  1. Have you seen any academic work on these subjects, either by faculty, students, or both?
  2. Do these chapters seem more optimistic than those from last week?
  3. ” ” ” ” ” likely to be realized ” ” ” ” ” ?
  4. What questions do you have for the authors?

Next week we’ll move on to chapters 7 (Augmented Reality), 8 (Synthetic Biology), and 9 (Precision Medicine).

Remember that all blog posts on Soonish, including this one, are available under the single tag  That way you can check out previous posts and discussion for reference, and also if you come late to the schedule.

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10 Responses to Reading _Soonish_, part 2: friendly nuclear power and robots

  1. Joe Murphy says:

    We’ve got a major construction project coming up at Kenyon, and I’m about to get a lot more involved in learning space design. And now, I’m really hoping that Steelcase or one of their competitors will get into programmable matter.

    The issue of re-arranging classrooms seems small, but it’s real. Furniture and layout can keep faculty from trying new classroom activities, and heaven help you if you’re the person who consistently leaves the seats in a circle when the next prof wants them in straight little rows. We might be able to smooth out a lot of aggravation if profs had an app on their phone where they could order the seats to rearrange into 10 groups of 3 students each even as they were walking to class… and then just issue a “back to default” command on the way out.

    There’s also an accessibility issue here. Existing classroom furniture is built for “average” bodies, whatever those are. If every student could push a button to get their seat raised or lowered, made more or less snug, until it’s not fighting their bodies, that’s a potentially significant reduction in cognitive load. (I mean, you could also do that with regular levers and hydraulics today, but if the seat could also have varying sizes of desk space, or none at all, et cetera…)

    And I haven’t even mentioned moving the walls and projection surfaces…

    Of course, failsafe is an issue… wouldn’t want to reconfigure the seats while the students are still in them!

  2. Vicky Romano says:

    I do feel that robotics/classroom environment issues will be addressed through student accommodations. One of my first thoughts while reading was can robotics be used to provide some services such as video recording and note taking. Can robotics also aid faculty in providing accommodations more easily such as proctoring exams that require more time and more attempts?
    I hate to be a “Negative Nancy”, but I think the first lawsuit will decide a lot of what this will mean moving forward. I did not personally know anyone at the University of Montana who has done lots of work for making the moodle accessible to students with visual challenges after dealing with an OCR investigation.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Great thoughts, Vicky.
      Are you imagining bots that could wheel into a class alongside a student who needs them?

      Totally right about lawsuits. I remember what happened with Kindles.

      • Vicky Romano says:

        I see a central “parking” area and they can be dispatched to be in a classroom when needed. Students usually need in certain classes so I see more dispatching to a classroom then “sending” the notes or video to students with identified needs.

      • Joe Murphy says:

        That’s an interesting reference to Kindles, Bryan. I’m largely with Vicky in thinking of robots which primarily assist accessibility, but what about the possibility of robots which aren’t equally accessible? I’m having trouble coming up with a concrete and plausible example, but I’m wondering about things like electromagnetic interference (either from or to other assistive devices), or materials allergies, or maybe bug phobias.

        I’m not sure I find any of those terribly plausible, but an accessibility lawsuit could really set back adoption.

  3. Harry Baya says:

    Fusion Power: I inferred that we won’t see fusion power any time soon. The ideas that struck me were
    (1) What would it mean if we did find a source of extremely cheap power, by today’s norm, that did not hurt our environment. It would change the world. The impact would be at least as significant as what Moore’s law has given us so far.
    1) The idea that powerful nuclear blasts may indeed, somewhere, somehow, be a wonderfully useful tool of progress for the human race.
    Programmable Matter seems like artificial intelligence given physical form. It probably will happen, someday, but that someday may be far in the future. If true programmable matter did not come into being for 10,000 years – that would be quick compared to the time for consciousness to evolve from the earliest life.
    Swarm intelligence has its own aura of inspiration. Non-biological swarm intelligence exists, primitively, and it’s evolving, NOW. One view of this is swarms of robots, of any size, each with limited ability, somehow cooperating to form an evolutionary path toward higher levels of intelligence. I infer from this section that we have taken a step on a new path. AlphaGo is very impressive – but somehow seems limited to what swarm intelligence may become. Are human communities a form of swarm intelligence? I see increasing complexity, but I don’t see long term progress – I see the doomsday clock.

  4. This was an interesting week to read these chapters. Swarm robots became a little more real after watching 1200 drones in the Olympics opening ceremony –

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