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In 1976, when I was just starting Mizzou’s world-class journalism school, this amazing sci-fi movie hits the local theater in Columbia. On a tired Friday after a long day in “The Pit” writing news copy, I stumbled out into the daylight and drove my sorry old Chevy to an afternoon matinee of “Logan’s Run.”

It was one of the last old-school sci-fi flicks before “Star Wars” oft overlooked by today’s audiences because it lacked the zowie FX, soundtrack, and comic book plots that became mainstream by the end of the Seventies.  But it had some dazzling Sixties psychedelyic lighting, the cool hipster Michael York, many lovely ladies in very short skirts, and introduced the big hair beauty, Farrah Fawett before she was in the Majors.

The story was a reflection of one of the most noteworhy quotes of the Sixties by Jack Weinberg, an activist who coined the phrase “don’t trust anybody over 30.”

Weinberg, who now resides in Chicago and works for the Environmental Health Fund on international pollution issues, remains an activist to this day. “I told him (the reporter) we had a saying in the movement that we don’t trust anybody over 30. It was a way of telling the guy to back off, that nobody was pulling our strings.”  The San Francisco Chronicle zeroed in on the quote and it went viral (on paper) as dozens of papers and synidicates picked it up. 

I digress.

So the movie is about a future society where you are of no value after the age of 29.  You and your birth cohorts are eliminated. Pink slipped with extreme prejudice. Terminated.

Ironic that my generation defined one of the biggest “invisible” social issues in America, and that being age discrimination.

Full transparency here.  I was forced out of a major international non-profit after being targeted by a much younger competitor who wanted my department, my staff, my creative responsibilities — but most of all, my power, prestige, and position.  But I’m not bitter much.

Recently I was chatting with one of my BFFs who is quietly retired in the beautiful hills of Northern California near a town called Paradise.  Indeed.  Said friend told me that an acquainance recently had a conversation with his son-in-law, who is 36.  The SIL received a solid MBA from a Cali university of renown about a decade ago.  With great delight he applied for, and was hired, by Google when he was all of 25.  Young turk was thrilled and he went out for some new RayBans.  “Bright, his years would be,” said Yoda to no one. (Oops. Stay with me with the ancient movie references.)

Said SIL did his job well, receiving promotions, salary increases, bonuses, awards.  All the debris we accumulate during our ascending the corporate ladder.  

However, and there is always a however in life, at his recent ten-year anniversary party several of the senior veeps in attendance brought the buzz-kill to the celebration when they proclaimed loudly over imported guava-infused vodka that they had never attended a ten-year anniversary ever before.  

Most recently I have had the opportunity to get up close and personal with Amazon.  I truly admire their absolute dedication — no, obsession — with customer experience. Their Leadership Principles are outstanding in most ways and if you are an Amazon customer, they truly make your experience a valued one.

But, you can feel it when you visit. You can feel the urgent ascendancy of youth among their managers, directors, and other leadership. Most of their management staff are umbilically entangled with data; they pace from hither and yon with one hand clutching a laptop while the other reacts to emails, data dumps, and other digital crunches.  Few over 50 would tolerate such a culture. 

But jobs, good jobs, are a scarcity in America today.  If you are experienced, talented, motivated, loyal, yet over the threshold of 55 and unemployed your odds of returning to a responsible position in management is as rare as finding a pearl at Joe’s Crab Shack.  Actually, you will probably find your next job as a harried aging floor manager at Joe’s, or Applebee’s, or Ruby Tuesdays.

But let’s return to our uber-tech workplace.

In a December 2014 post on ANewDomain, writer and cartoonist Ted Rall took a moment to compose a very telling story of age bigotry in Silicon Valley. From Rall’s story:

Life may begin at 50 elsewhere, but in the tech biz the only thing certain about middle age is unemployment.

The tone is set by the industry’s top CEOs. “When Mark Zuckerberg was 22, he said five words that might haunt him forever. ‘Younger people are just smarter,’ the Facebook wunderkind told his audience at a Y Combinator event at Stanford University in 2007. If the merits of youth were celebrated in Silicon Valley at the time, they have become even more enshrined since,” Alison Griswold writes in Slate.


Many of the giants of tech are cited in Rall’s posting.  And many examples show the true fabric of high-tech age discrimination.  From his December 2014 piece:

A 2013 BuzzFeed piece titled “What It’s Like Being The Oldest BuzzFeed Employee” (subhead: “I am so, so lost, every workday.”) by a 53-year-old BuzzFeed editor “old enough to be the father of nearly every other editorial employee” (average age: late 20s) reads like a repentant landlord-class sandwich-board confession during China’s Cultural Revolution: “These whiz-kids completely baffle me, daily. I am in a constant state of bafflement at BF HQ. In fact, I’ve never been more confused, day-in and day-out, in my life.” It’s the most pathetic attempt at self-deprecation I’ve read since the transcripts of Stalin’s show trials.

A few months later, the dude got fired by his boss (15 years younger): “This is just not working out, your stuff. Let’s just say, it’s creative differences.


Back to my BFFs story about his friend’s son-in-law.  The SIL heard the words of the senior veeps loud and clear. The 30-something Google employee later told his father he felt he had had “a good run.” 

 A Logan’s Run.

PS.  Hollywood is evidently working on a remake of Logan’s Run.  Wonder how old the protangonist will be in this new flick?

Douglas Arnold’s upcoming book, “Ingenuity!” will be out later this year. Follow this blog and you may qualify for a free copy upon publication.  Arnold, The Ingenuity Guru, is a writer, workshop leader, and speaker on ingenuity, imagination, and creativity. His upcoming book focuses on sparking greater innovation in the workplace and community. His weekly tweets, blogposts, and podcasts inform and entertain. You are invited to follow this blog and on Twitter @DouglasArnold.

Recognition to Mr. Ted Rall, a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist, writer and occasional war correspondent best known for his coverage of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. A Pulitzer finalist and twice the winner of the RFK Journalism Award, Ted is the author of 17 books including “Revenge of the Latchkey Kids,” about Gen Xers, “To Afghanistan and Back,” the noted comix journalism work, and, most recently, “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). He is working on a biography of Edward Snowden.




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Familiar with Rayton Solar?

This was originally from a December 2014 blog entry published by Inhabitat, but I felt this was worth reposting:

Striking another blow to the oil and gas industries, an American solar company has developed technology that can produce super-efficient solar power that’s cheaper than fossil fuels. Rayton Solar’s new solar panel manufacturing technology uses 50 to 100 times less silicon than other technologies, cutting out large amounts of the most costly component of solar panels. The company says its patent-pending process uses just four microns worth of silicon, leaving no waste – while boosting the efficiency of their panels to 24 percent. According to the company that’s 25 percent greater than the industry standard efficiency, which currently tops out at about 15 percent.

Rayton claims their patent-pending solar PV modules can be manufactured in the United States at a cost of 60 percent less than the industry average, which is based on prices from places like China where the majority of solar panels are made.

The Los Angeles-based company currently has an Indiegogo campaign underway that’s seeking funding to help put the final touches on the technology so it can get UL certification and then be launched for sale to the general public. Launched on Dec. 16, 2014, the campaign is working toward a $250,000 goal.

The development of solar PV technologies like this is one of the main factors behind an marked increase in global renewable energy production, which went up by 8.5 percent in 2013.



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Originally published on RenewEconomy.

It’s been one of the big themes at the World Energy Future Conference here in Abu Dhabi. Solar, and other technologies such as wind power, are no longer more expensive than traditional fossil fuels in many parts of the world. Indeed, they are cheaper.

The big oil and gas players recognise this. Dr Adaba Sultan Ahmed al Jabber, the minister of state of the United Arab Emirates, said at the lavish opening on Monday that the cost of solar was competing with traditional sources of energy, and would not be derailed by the plunge in the oil price.

He saw that as an opportunity to call for the removal of fossil fuel subsidies, which he noted outstripped those of renewables by a factor of 5:1 in 2013. “If we have courage and opportunity to saying yes to thinking differently, could deliver better future,” he told the conference. This from a country which is in the top eight oil producers in the world, and the top seven in gas reserves.

A day earlier, the International Renewable Energy predicted that solar costs would fall substantially in coming years, underlying its competitiveness with fossil fuels. If government policy makers did not understand this, IRENA said, then they risked making bad decisions about their energy future.

Last week, the Saudi Arabian power company ACWE, with some $24 billion in assets, set a world record low for the price of solar in the world’s largest tender. Its CEO, Paddy Padmanathan, told RenewEconomy in an interview on Monday that the price of solar will fall by at least a third in coming years. He expects at least half of the 140,000GW of power capacity to be installed in the Middle East and north Africa in the coming decade to be solar.

Padmanathan’s prediction accords with our story from Deutsche Bank last week, which said that solar could extend its reach of “grid parity” to 80 per cent of global markets within the next two years, assuming a 40 per cent cut in solar costs by the end of 2017.

We will have more from the Padmanathan interview in coming days. But first, since our story about Deutsche Bank’s predictions of solar grid parity attracted such interest, we thought we would go into more detail about where Deutsche Bank analysts see the 40 per cent fall in solar.

The prediction is not really that outlandish, because of most manufacturers talk of efficiency and cost improvements all the time, and the likes of Padmanathan talk of economies of scale and the fall in financing costs.

So here’s a summary of what Deutsche Bank’s Vishal Shah, one of the leading and best connected analysts in the industry, says about the future of solar module costs. Much of it is focused on the rooftop market, but many of the learnings are the same for utility scale. And, in any case, most of the solar installed in developing countries with no grids will be distributed solar, and the big turning point in established energy markets in the arrival of parity for rooftop installations. (All $ are $US).

The cost of production today

Deutsche notes that total module costs of leading Chinese solar companies have decreased from around $1.31 a watt in 2011 to around $0.50/W in 2014. It says this was primarily due to the reduction in processing costs, the fall in polysilicon costs and improvement in conversion efficiencies.

That represents a fall of around 60 per cent in just three years. Deutsche Bank says total costs could fall another 30-40 per cent over the next several years, with the greatest cost reductions are likely to come from the residential segments as scale and operating efficiencies improve.

It sees a precedent for this in the oldest major solar market in the world – Germany. “Costs today are well below costs in the United States and other less mature markets, and total installed costs have declined around 40 per cent over the last 3 years in the country. The exact drivers behind cost declines may vary between countries, but we believe the German example continues to prove that overall system costs have yet to reach a bottom even in comparatively mature markets.”

Total cost reduction will not come from polysilicon

While much of the cost reduction over the last 5-10 years has resulted from polysilicon price reductions, future cost reductions will necessarily come from non panel related balance of system costs. Polysilicon price reductions have accounted for significant portions of cost reductions, and were once the largest single cost component in panels, but this has changed drastically and rapidly over the last decade. It now represents no more than 10- 11 cents per watt so even if costs are halved, the effect on the total system cost would be incremental – not revolutionary.

Panels to fall in price to $US0.50/watt

Deutsche Bank says that while overhangs like trade cases or minimum price agreements could cloud the near term, market inefficiencies will be worked out over the long term and the clearing price will reach $0.50 or lower within the next several years.

Companies like SunEdison have publically targeted $0.40 cent per watt panels by the end of 2016, and many Tier 1 Chinese manufacturers are achieving sub $0.50/w already in 2014. :Given that most manufacturers are improving 1-2 cents per quarter, less than ten cents improvement (to reach $0.40) over the next 12 quarters is likely conservative.

If panels are sold at a 10 cent gross margin for a total cost of $0.50/w, manufacturers would achieve 20% gross margin – well above recent historic averages. Furthermore, transportation costs and ‘soft costs’ which inefficiently raise the price of panels should gradually improve as governments work through trade issues

Inverter and racking cost are also declining

Inverter prices typically decline 10-15 per cent per year, Deutsche Bank says, and it expects this trend to continue into the future. Large solar installers are already achieving $0.25/w or lower on large supply deals, and additional savings will be found over the next several years. Component cost reduction, next generation improvements, and incremental production efficiencies will drive savings on the manufacturing side, while new entrants and ongoing price competition will keep margins competitive.

Racking and other balance of system costs are often overlooked as a source of cost reduction, ongoing efficiency improvements, streamlining, and potential advances in materials to lead to incremental improvements, from around $0.25/w to around $0.17/w.

Installation costs will fall by one third in the US

Cost reduction on the installation side will come primarily from scale benefits, and could fall from $0.65/w to $0.45/w. In fact, solar installation jobs are likely to increase substantially to keep pace with demand, but more experienced installers using better tools and techniques on larger systems are likely to more than offset any wage growth through efficiency gains,” Deutsche Bank says.

Sales/Customer Acquisition Cost will fall even further

Deutsche Bank sees substantial room for improvement over the longer term in cost per watt terms – from $0.50/w to $0.20/w – as solar gains mainstream acceptance, is recognized as a cost competitive source of electricity, and companies develop new/improved methods to interact with customers.

“Already, we are seeing domestic US firms develop automated online systems for customer sourcing, and these systems alone should allow substantial further automation as solar begins to ‘sell itself’. Although adoption is still in the early stages in most markets, we think costs could reach the level in the next several years where homeowners begin to recognize inherent value of solar self generation.

“We believe this will have two effects: 1) customers who prefer to own their own systems and have the ability to do so could finance their solar installation through multiple types of solar loans which are already gaining in popularity and 2) customers who focus on the monthly electricity bill will continue to sign PPA’s for solar priced below the retail electricity price curve.

“Furthermore, the wild card for a third prong of the solar explosion lies in the regulatory environment. If utilities begin to offer competitive solar installations regardless of credit quality (under a third party ownership model), this would open the market to another vast source of potential customers.”

Originally published on RenewEconomy




From lifesaving implants to cutting edge fashion, 3D printing is the gift that keeps on giving. What will this additive technology do next? Well, 3D print a steel bridge in mid-air, of course.
MX3D, a research and development startup company, will use robots to 3D print a pedestrian bridge across one of Amsterdam’s canals. The versatile six-axis robotic arms will ‘draw’ steel structures in 3D, starting from one side of the canal and building across until it reaches the other end. The robot will also print its own support, which allows it to work autonomously. The location of the bridge will be announced soon and construction is set to commence in 2017.
“This bridge will show how 3D printing finally enters the world of large-scale, functional objects and sustainable materials while allowing unprecedented freedom of form,” designer Joris Laarman said on the project Web page. “The symbolism of the bridge is a beautiful metaphor to connect the technology of the future with the old city, in a way that brings out the best of both worlds.”
The team has been able to overcome the shape and size restrictions of conventional 3D printing. MX3D engineers spent a lot time perfecting the robotic printer, which they say first started off as “worm-like blobs.” A few things did go wrong along the way, “a welding machine exploded, nozzles got stuck and the robot got destroyed.” Eventually—after “endless testing”—MX3D engineers were able draw complex sculptures in mid-air and then speed up the process.
“What distinguishes our technology from traditional 3D printing methods is that we work according to the ‘printing outside the box’ principle,” said Tim Geurtjens, chief technology officer at MX3D. “By printing with six-axis industrial robots, we are no longer limited to a square box in which everything happens. Printing a functional, life-size bridge is of course the ideal way to showcase the endless possibilities of this technique.”
MX3D will work with the construction firm Heijmans and software company Autodesk.



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You’ve heard this story, but it still rings true. Man walks into a hardware store and asks for a 1/2 inch drill bit.

Clerk smiles and walks him over to the appropriate aisle.

“Here’s just what you need, my friend! A 1/2″ bit for your power drill,” crooned the clerk with a bit more enthusiasm than needed.
The customer smirked and replied. “what I really need is a hole that is one half inch wide.”

A lesson taught for $4.98 plus tax.

So your colleagues, board of directors, partners, are crying for greater innovation from your operations. You need to create products and services that have more more dynamic benefit for your customers. But is innovation the drill bit — or the hole?

You need shazam, whiz-bangery and you need it now, Inspector Gadget.

Everyone hails innovation. But, truthfully, an innovation is the end product, too often undefined or vaguely conceived by the development team on the front end of a project. iPod was the innovation, but the reality was the consumer had 1,000 favorite songs on 100 CDs requiring time-consuming sorting and spacetaking storage. The user wanted all his music available with immediacy at the touch of a single button (or, screen) and would pay handsomely for the convenience.

A genius named Jobs recognized sorting + storage + ubersimple commands = high value product. That was ingenuity ignited.

Ingenuity is the act that yields clever, resourceful, and inventive solutions to a specific need or desire — often to a public that does not yet realize the need or desire. Ingenuity may sprout from an individual or a team working towards a collective goal. As when MacGuyver needs to escape a fiberglass cage suspended by a rope over a vat of man-eating acid and said rope is on fire. Our man fashions a lock pick from a broken eyebrow pencil, a zipline from a bent Romanian flagpole, and a fire extinguisher from a guava, an Alka-Seltzer, and a Slushie cup straw. Voilà.

Ingenuity is the ignition of imagination, insight, intuitiveness and other dimensions of creative thinking that ultimately yields beneficial solutions or innovation.

Ingenuity is the act, the verb. Innovation is the noun. My intent is to focus on the action of creativity in life. As my my friend and author of great reflection on life and living, Patti Digh so wisely offers in her books and blog — “life is a verb!”

So is ingenuity.

My goal is to create and share my thoughts on the many dimensions of creative thinking after a long, award-winning career in advertising, marketing, and public affairs. This book will offer productive methods individuals and teams can engage to harness their own cerebral resources, enrich native cognitive talents, excite creativity and stimulate expressive ideation. To strike a spark and ignite ingenuity.

In the days and weeks ahead I will be posting draft chapters of my book, Ingenuity! here on my blog, mirrored on LinkedIn, Facebook, and my Twitter & Instagram feeds @douglasarnold. See all my posts to be earmarked with #IngenuityGuru.

You are invited to accompany me on this journey and I sincerely hope you will do so. There will be some surprises, some fun, a few incentives, a gift or two, and a treasury of tools you can use in your future endeavors.  

Every journey starts with one, small step. Let’s get our Neil Armstrong on.



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America’s advanced industries—characterized by their deep engagement with research and development (R&D) and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workers—drive regional and national prosperity, as we observed in a recent Brookings paradigm report.
And yet, while advanced industries do this everywhere, how they do it in one metro area can be quite different from how they do it in another.
In some places local clusters push the frontiers of advanced manufacturing. In others they focus on energy or information technology. The strongest locations do it all. So, to see some of the ways in which local regions participate in the advanced economy, we here tour the 15 densest advanced industries hubs (in terms of employment share) in the United States.

15. Salt Lake City, Utah

Mountains rise up behind the Salt Lake City skyline and the Utah State Capitol building, November 21, 2012. Picture taken November 21, 2012.
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 11.1 percent (71,500 jobs)
Salt Lake City anchors an advanced industry hot zone stretching the length of Utah’s Wasatch Front. It specializes in most everything related to information technology and medicine.

14. Ogden, Utah

Download Ogden, Utah
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 11.3 percent (26,500 jobs)
Just a half hour to the north of Salt Lake, Ogden’s advanced industries have been growing at around 6 percent per year since the recession. It’s a lonely but lively outpost of auto parts manufacturing and miscellaneous heavy industry in the Mountain West.
Photo courtesy of Scott Catron

13. Raleigh, N.C.
 U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about jobs and the economy at North Carolina State University in Raleigh January 15, 2014.
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 11.7 percent (64,500 jobs)
Raleigh’s recipe combines computing power with high-tech instruments and a hefty dose of pharmaceuticals to generate one of the highest concentrations of advanced industry activity in the South.

12. Provo, Utah
 A student runs past the entrance of Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo February 16, 2012.
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 12.0 percent (25,000 jobs)
Perhaps Utah really is the place, as its state song says. Provo slips ahead of Ogden and Salt Lake City with the state’s fastest-growing advanced industry sector. Only somewhat facetiously dubbed the “Next Silicon Valley” by the New Yorker, heavily tech-oriented Provo is home to two of the world’s 73 venture-backed firms with valuations of $2 billion or more.
11. Austin, Texas
 The skyline of downtown Austin, Texas, November 5, 2009.
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 12.1 percent (106,500 jobs)
Tech-centric Austin is apparently weird in all the right ways—the 13 advanced industries in which it specializes pay, on average, over $100,000 per year.
10. San Diego, Calif.
 The skyline of San Diego, California is seen October 7, 2014. 
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 12.3 percent (176,000 jobs)
Sunny San Diego sits at the sweet spot of technological convergence: R&D in cross-cutting disciplines like nanotechnology and genomics fuels innovation—and synergies—in life sciences, communications, microelectronics, and more.
9. Houston, Texas
 Buildings in downtown Houston reflect the light of a setting sun (REUTERS/Mike Blake). 
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 12.8 percent (361,000 jobs)
The world’s energy capital has diversified upstream, downstream, and sideways from its core expertise into an advanced industry powerhouse. From deep sea and horizontal drilling to hydraulic fracturing, technologies engineered in Houston are reshaping global energy markets and represent quintessential advanced industry breakthroughs.
8. Boston, Mass.
 The lights are on at Fenway Park for the MLB American League baseball game between the Texas Rangers and the Boston Red Sox in Boston, Massachusetts April 17, 2012.
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 13.3 percent (339,000 jobs)
The future arrives early in Boston, where a variety of companies in diverse fields operate at the technological frontier and defense, biotech, and software blend into robotics, genomics, and the Internet of things.
7. Palm Bay, Fla.
 Space shuttle Atlantis nears touchdown on Runway 33 at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 13.4 percent (26,500 jobs)
A Sun Belt oasis of high-tech production, Florida’s “Space Coast” boasts a small but potent portfolio of advanced industries primarily engaged in aerospace and defense.
6. Washington, D.C.
 Downtown Washington is seen in an aerial view, May 19, 2011
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 13.7 percent (503,500 jobs)
The D.C. region is the quintessential advanced services economy. With over 300,000 residents providing technology and consulting services to mainly government clients, no metro area except Austin has increased the size of its advanced sector faster in recent decades. However, federal cutbacks will now test the resilience of the region’s model. Can Washington shift from .gov to .com?
5. San Francisco, Calif.
 The Bay Bridge is shown in San Francisco, California September 4, 2009.
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 14.0 percent (297,000 jobs)
The Bay Area’s urban core boasts burgeoning specializations in web portals and software as well as traditional strengths in civil engineering and consulting. But with advanced industry wages at nearly twice the metro area average and growing 5.3 percent per year, inequality is going to remain an issue for the foreseeable future.
4. Detroit, Mich.
 A view of the Detroit skyline is seen looking south up Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan July 19, 2013
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 14.8 percent (279,500 jobs)
Underneath the prevailing narrative of Detroit as a Rust Belt ghost town is a busy metro area marrying its industrial past to a digital future. As cars become devices, Detroit is cultivating specializations in electronics, computing, and R&D services. The result: Advanced industry employment is growing rapidly, split evenly between manufacturing and services.

3. Wichita, Kan. 
 Cessna employee Lee York works on an engine of a Cessna business jet at the assembly line in their manufacturing plant in Wichita, Kansas March 12, 2013.
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 15.5 percent (47,000 jobs)
What Wichita lacks in advanced industry breadth it makes up for in depth. The metro area’s renowned aerospace industry makes it something of a one-cluster town, although Wichita retains secondary specializations in heavy machinery and other manufacturing, too.
2. Seattle, Wash.
 The Space Needle is seen as snow flurry clouds surround downtown Seattle (REUTERS/Anthony Bolante). 
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 16.0 percent (295,000 jobs)
In the hometown of Amazon, Boeing, and Microsoft, manufacturing meets software, consumer-facing meets enterprise support, and production and innovation go hand-in-hand. Thanks to caffeine and stock options, the metro area has a thriving startup scene, too.
1. San Jose, Calif.
  bank of Bloom Energy servers named “Bloom Box” are shown at the headquarters of eBay in San Jose, California February 25, 2010.
Advanced industry share of total metro area employment: 30.0 percent (292,000 jobs)
An astonishing three out of every 10 jobs in San Jose fall within the advanced industries sector. The metro area specializes in a remarkable 18 different advanced industries, nearly half of which are manufacturing. That’s right: Silicon Valley actually makes things. In fact, the convergence of atoms and bytes may be the secret to its success.
Kenan Fikri

Senior Policy Analyst, Metropolitan Policy Program


HUMANS, Robots, And AMC


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AMC announced today HUMANS, an eight-part TV science-fiction thriller that takes place in a parallel present featuring sophisticated, life-like robot servants and caregivers called Synths (personal synthetics).  The show explores conflicts as the lines between humans and machines become increasingly blurred.

The series is set to premiere on AMC June 28 with HUMANS 101: The Hawkins family buys a Synth, Anita. But are they in danger from this machine and the young man Leo who seems desperate to find her. 

The show features Oscar-winning actor William Hurt, Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd), Colin Morgan (Merlin), and Gemma Chan (Secret Diary of a Call Girl).




Robots learning to use hammers. What could go wrong?

UC Berkeley researchers have developed new algorithms that enable robots to learn motor tasks by trial and error, using a process that more closely approximates the way humans learn.

They demonstrated their technique, a type of reinforcement learning, by having a robot complete various tasks — putting a clothes hanger on a rack, assembling a toy plane, screwing a cap on a water bottle, and more — without pre-programmed details about its surroundings.

A new AI approach

“What we’re reporting on here is a new approach to empowering a robot to learn,” said Professor Pieter Abbeel of UC Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences. “The key is that when a robot is faced with something new, we won’t have to reprogram it. The exact same software, which encodes how the robot can learn, was used to allow the robot to learn all the different tasks we gave it.”

The work is part of a new People and Robots Initiative at UC’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS). The new multi-campus, multidisciplinary research initiative seeks to keep the advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and automation aligned to human needs.

“Most robotic applications are in controlled environments where objects are in predictable positions,” said UC Berkeley faculty member Trevor Darrell, director of the Berkeley Vision and Learning Center. “The challenge of putting robots into real-life settings, like homes or offices, is that those environments are constantly changing. The robot must be able to perceive and adapt to its surroundings.”

Conventional, but impractical, approaches to helping a robot make its way through a 3D world include pre-programming it to handle the vast range of possible scenarios or creating simulated environments within which the robot operates.

Instead, the UC Berkeley researchers turned to a new branch of artificial intelligence known as deep learning, which is loosely inspired by the neural circuitry of the human brain when it perceives and interacts with the world.

“For all our versatility, humans are not born with a repertoire of behaviors that can be deployed like a Swiss army knife, and we do not need to be programmed,” said postdoctoral researcher Sergey Levine. “Instead, we learn new skills over the course of our life from experience and from other humans. This learning process is so deeply rooted in our nervous system, that we cannot even communicate to another person precisely how the resulting skill should be executed. We can at best hope to offer pointers and guidance as they learn it on their own.”

In the world of artificial intelligence, deep learning programs create “neural nets” in which layers of artificial neurons process overlapping raw sensory data, whether it be sound waves or image pixels. This helps the robot recognize patterns and categories among the data it is receiving. People who use Siri on their iPhones, Google’s speech-to-text program or Google Street View might already have benefited from the significant advances deep learning has provided in speech and vision recognition.

Applying deep reinforcement learning to motor tasks in unstructured 3D environments has been far more challenging, however, since the task goes beyond the passive recognition of images and sounds.

A little nightcap? BRETT learns to put a cap on a bottle by trial and error, calculating values for 92,000 parameters. (credit: UC Berkeley)

In the experiments, the UC Berkeley researchers worked with a Willow Garage Personal Robot 2 (PR2), which they nicknamed BRETT, or Berkeley Robot for the Elimination of Tedious Tasks.

They presented BRETT with a series of motor tasks, such as placing blocks into matching openings or stacking Lego blocks. The algorithm controlling BRETT’s learning included a reward function that provided a score based upon how well the robot was doing with the task.

BRETT takes in the scene, including the position of its own arms and hands, as viewed by the camera. The algorithm provides real-time feedback via the score based upon the robot’s movements. Movements that bring the robot closer to completing the task will score higher than those that do not. The score feeds back through the neural net, so the robot can learn which movements are better for the task at hand.

This end-to-end training process underlies the robot’s ability to learn on its own. As the PR2 moves its joints and manipulates objects, the algorithm calculates good values for the 92,000 parameters of the neural net it needs to learn.

With this approach, when given the relevant coordinates for the beginning and end of the task, the PR2 could master a typical assignment in about 10 minutes. When the robot is not given the location for the objects in the scene and needs to learn vision and control together, the learning process takes about three hours.

Abbeel says the field will likely see significant improvements as the ability to process vast amounts of data improves.

“With more data, you can start learning more complex things,” he said. “We still have a long way to go before our robots can learn to clean a house or sort laundry, but our initial results indicate that these kinds of deep learning techniques can have a transformative effect in terms of enabling robots to learn complex tasks entirely from scratch. In the next five to 10 years, we may see significant advances in robot learning capabilities through this line of work.”

The latest developments will be presented on Thursday, May 28, in Seattle at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA). The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Office of Naval Research, U.S. Army Research Laboratory and National Science Foundation helped support this research.


Navy researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), Materials Science and Technology Division, demonstrate proof-of-concept of novel NRL technologies developed for the recovery of carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen (H2) from seawater and conversion to a liquid hydrocarbon fuel.

Fuel From Sea Concept - First Demonstrated FlightFlying a radio-controlled replica of the historic WWII P-51 Mustang red-tail aircraft—of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen—NRL researchers (l to r) Dr. Jeffrey Baldwin, Dr. Dennis Hardy, Dr. Heather Willauer, and Dr. David Drab (crouched), successfully demonstrate a novel liquid hydrocarbon fuel to power the aircraft’s unmodified two-stroke internal combustion engine. The test provides proof-of-concept for an NRL developed process to extract carbon dioxide (CO2) and produce hydrogen gas (H2) from seawater, subsequently catalytically converting the CO2 and H2 into fuel by a gas-to-liquids process. 
(Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory) 

Fueled by a liquid hydrocarbon—a component of NRL’s novel gas-to-liquid (GTL) process that uses CO2and H2 as feedstock—the research team demonstrated sustained flight of a radio-controlled (RC) P-51 replica of the legendary Red Tail Squadron, powered by an off-the-shelf (OTS) and unmodified two-stroke internal combustion engine.

Using an innovative and proprietary NRL electrolytic cation exchange module (E-CEM), both dissolved and bound CO2 are removed from seawater at 92 percent efficiency by re-equilibrating carbonate and bicarbonate to CO2 and simultaneously producing H2. The gases are then converted to liquid hydrocarbons by a metal catalyst in a reactor system.

“In close collaboration with the Office of Naval Research P38 Naval Reserve program, NRL has developed a game changing technology for extracting, simultaneously, CO2 and H2 from seawater,” said Dr. Heather Willauer, NRL research chemist. “This is the first time technology of this nature has been demonstrated with the potential for transition, from the laboratory, to full-scale commercial implementation.”

CO2 in the air and in seawater is an abundant carbon resource, but the concentration in the ocean (100 milligrams per liter [mg/L]) is about 140 times greater than that in air, and 1/3 the concentration of CO2 from a stack gas (296 mg/L). Two to three percent of the CO2 in seawater is dissolved CO2 gas in the form of carbonic acid, one percent is carbonate, and the remaining 96 to 97 percent is bound in bicarbonate.

NRL has made significant advances in the development of a gas-to-liquids (GTL) synthesis process to convert CO2 and H2 from seawater to a fuel-like fraction of C9-C16 molecules. In the first patented step, an iron-based catalyst has been developed that can achieve CO2conversion levels up to 60 percent and decrease unwanted methane production in favor of longer-chain unsaturated hydrocarbons (olefins). These value-added hydrocarbons from this process serve as building blocks for the production of industrial chemicals and designer fuels.

Fuel From Sea Concept - Carbon Capture SkidE-CEM Carbon Capture Skid. The E-CEM was mounted onto a portable skid along with a reverse osmosis unit, power supply, pump, proprietary carbon dioxide recovery system, and hydrogen stripper to form a carbon capture system [dimensions of 63″ x 36″ x 60″]. 
(Photo: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory) 

In the second step these olefins can be converted to compounds of a higher molecular using controlled polymerization. The resulting liquid contains hydrocarbon molecules in the carbon range, C9-C16, suitable for use a possible renewable replacement for petroleum based jet fuel. 

The predicted cost of jet fuel using these technologies is in the range of $3-$6 per gallon, and with sufficient funding and partnerships, this approach could be commercially viable within the next seven to ten years. Pursuing remote land-based options would be the first step towards a future sea-based solution.

The minimum modular carbon capture and fuel synthesis unit is envisioned to be scaled-up by the addition individual E-CEM modules and reactor tubes to meet fuel demands.

NRL operates a lab-scale fixed-bed catalytic reactor system and the outputs of this prototype unit have confirmed the presence of the required C9-C16 molecules in the liquid. This lab-scale system is the first step towards transitioning the NRL technology into commercial modular reactor units that may be scaled-up by increasing the length and number of reactors.

The process efficiencies and the capability to simultaneously produce large quantities of H2, and process the seawater without the need for additional chemicals or pollutants, has made these technologies far superior to previously developed and tested membrane and ion exchange technologies for recovery of CO2 from seawater or air.

Navy researchers demonstrate proof-of-concept in first flight of an internal combustion powered model aircraft fueled by a novel gas-to-liquid process that uses seawater as carbon feedstock.

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About the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory is the Navy’s full-spectrum corporate laboratory, conducting a broadly based multidisciplinary program of scientific research and advanced technological development. The Laboratory, with a total complement of approximately 2,500 personnel, is located in southwest Washington, D.C., with other major sites at the Stennis Space Center, Miss., and Monterey, Calif. NRL has served the Navy and the nation for over 90 years and continues to meet the complex technological challenges of today’s world. For more information, visit the NRL homepage or join the conversation on TwitterFacebook, and YouTube.

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