Mice, windows, icons, and menus: these are the ingredients of computer interfaces designed to be easy to grasp, simplicity itself to use, and straightforward to describe. The mouse is a pointer. Windows divide up the screen. Icons symbolize application programs and data. Menus list choices of action.
But the development of today’s graphical user interface was anything but simple. It took some 30 years of effort by engineers and computer scientists in universities, government laboratories, and corporate research groups, piggybacking on each other’s work, trying new ideas, repeating each other’s mistakes.
This article was first published as “Of Mice and menus: designing the user-friendly interface.” It appeared in the September 1989 issue of IEEE Spectrum. A PDF version is available on IEEE Xplore. The photographs and diagrams appeared in the original print version.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, many of the early concepts for windows, menus, icons, and mice were arduously researched at Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Palo Alto, Calif. In 1973, PARC developed the prototype Alto, the first of two computers that would prove seminal in this area. More than 1200 Altos were built and tested. From the Alto’s concepts, starting in 1975, Xerox’s System Development Department then developed the Star and introduced it in 1981—the first such user-friendly machine sold to the public.
In 1984, the low-cost Macintosh from Apple Computer Inc., Cupertino, Calif., brought the friendly interface to thousands of personal computer users. During the next five years, the price of RAM chips fell enough to accommodate the huge memory demands of bit-mapped graphics, and the Mac was followed by dozens of similar interfaces for PCs and workstations of all kinds. By now, application programmers are becoming familiar with the idea of manipulating graphic objects.
The Mac’s success during the 1980s spurred Apple Computer to pursue legal action over ownership of many features of the graphical user interface. Suits now being litigated could assign those innovations not to the designers and their companies, but to those who first filed for legal protection on them.
The GUI started with Sketchpad
The grandfather of the graphical user interface was Sketchpad [see photograph]. Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Ivan E. Sutherland built it in 1962 as a Ph.D. thesis at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Mass. Sketchpad users could not only draw points, line segments, and circular arcs on a cathode ray tube (CRT) with a light pen—they could also assign constraints to, and relationships among, whatever they drew.
Arcs could have a specified diameter, lines could be horizontal or vertical, and figures could be built up from combinations of elements and shapes. Figures could be moved, copied, shrunk, expanded, and rotated, with their constraints (shown as onscreen icons) dynamically preserved. At a time when a CRT monitor was a novelty in itself, the idea that users could interactively create objects by drawing on a computer was revolutionary.
Moreover, to zoom in on objects, Sutherland wrote the first window-drawing program, which required him to come up with the first clipping algorithm. Clipping is a software routine that calculates which part of a graphic object is to be displayed and displays only that part on the screen. The program must calculate where a line is to be drawn, compare that position to the coordinates of the window in use, and prevent the display of any line segment whose coordinates fall outside the window.
Though films of Sketchpad in operation were widely shown in the computer research community, Sutherland says today that there was little immediate fallout from the project. Running on MIT’s TX-2 mainframe, it demanded too much computing power to be practical for individual use. Many other engineers, however, see Sketchpad’s design and algorithms as a primary influence on an entire generation of research into user interfaces.
The origin of the computer mouse
The light pens used to select areas of the screen by interactive computer systems of the 1950s and 1960s—including Sketchpad—had drawbacks. To do the pointing, the user’s arm had to be lifted up from the table, and after a while that got tiring. Picking up the pen required fumbling around on the table or, if it had a holder, taking the time after making a selection to put it back.
Sensing an object with a light pen was straightforward: the computer displayed spots of light on the screen and interrogated the pen as to whether it sensed a spot, so the program always knew just what was being displayed. Locating the position of the pen on the screen required more sophisticated techniques—like displaying a cross pattern of nine points on the screen, then moving the cross until it centered on the light pen.
In 1964, Douglas Engelbart, a research project leader at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif., tested all the commercially available pointing devices, from the still-popular light pen to a joystick and a Graphicon (a curve-tracing device that used a pen mounted on the arm of a potentiometer). But he felt the selection failed to cover the full spectrum of possible pointing devices, and somehow he should fill in the blanks.
Then he remembered a 1940s college class he had taken that covered the use of a planimeter to calculate area. (A planimeter has two arms, with a wheel on each. The wheels can roll only along their axes; when one of them rolls, the other must slide.)
If a potentiometer were attached to each wheel to monitor its rotation, he thought, a planimeter could be used as a pointing device. Engelbart explained his roughly sketched idea to engineer William English, who with the help of the SRI machine shop built what they quickly dubbed “the mouse.”
This first mouse was big because it used single-turn potentiometers: one rotation of the wheels had to be scaled to move a cursor from one side of the screen to the other. But it was simple to interface with the computer: the processor just read frequent samples of the potentiometer positioning signals through analog-to-digital converters.
The cursor moved by the mouse was easy to locate, since readings from the potentiometer determined the position of the cursor on the screen-unlike the light pen. But programmers for later windowing systems found that the software necessary to determine which object the mouse had selected was more complex than that for the light pen: they had to compare the mouse’s position with that of all the objects displayed onscreen.
The computer mouse gets redesigned—and redesigned again
Engelbart’s group at SRI ran controlled experiments with mice and other pointing devices, and the mouse won hands down. People adapted to it quickly, it was easy to grab, and it stayed where they put it. Still, Engelbart wanted to tinker with it. After experimenting, his group had concluded that the proper ratio of cursor movement to mouse movement was about 2:1, but he wanted to try varying that ratio—decreasing it at slow speeds and raising it at fast speeds—to improve user control of fine movements and speed up larger movements. Some modern mouse-control software incorporates this idea, including that of the Macintosh.
The mouse, still experimental at this stage, did not change until 1971. Several members of Engelbart’s group had moved to the newly established PARC, where many other researchers had seen the SRI mouse and the test report. They decided there was no need to repeat the tests; any experimental systems they designed would use mice.
Said English, “This was my second chance to build a mouse; it was obvious that it should be a lot smaller, and that it should be digital.” Chuck Thacker, then a member of the research staff, advised PARC to hire inventor Jack Hawley to build it.
Hawley decided the mouse should use shaft encoders, which measure position by a series of pulses, instead of potentiometers (both were covered in Engelbart’s 1970 patent), to eliminate the expensive analog-to-digital converters. The basic principle, of one wheel rolling while the other slid, was licensed from SRI.
The ball mouse was the “easiest patent I ever got. It took me five minutes to think of, half an hour to describe to the attorney, and I was done.” —Ron Rider
In 1972, the mouse changed again. Ron Rider, now vice president of systems architecture at PARC but then a new arrival, said he was using the wheel mouse while an engineer made excuses for its asymmetric operation (one wheel dragging while one turned). “I suggested that they turn a trackball upside down, make it small, and use it as a mouse instead,” Rider told IEEE Spectrum. This device came to be known as the ball mouse. “Easiest patent I ever got,” Rider said. “It took me five minutes to think of, half an hour to describe to the attorney, and I was done.”
The pixel pattern that makes up the graphic display on a computer screen.
The motion of pressing a mouse button to Initiate an action by software; some actions require double-clicking.
Graphical user interface (GUI)
The combination of windowing displays, menus, icons, and a mouse that is increasingly used on personal computers and workstations.
An onscreen drawing that represents programs or data.
A list of command options currently available to the computer user; some stay onscreen, while pop-up or pull-down menus are requested by the user.
A device whose motion across a desktop or other surface causes an on-screen cursor to move commensurately; today’s mice move on a ball and have one, two, or three buttons.
A cathode ray tube on which Images are displayed as patterns of dots, scanned onto the screen sequentially in a predetermined pattern of lines.
A cathode ray tube whose gun scans lines, or vectors, onto the screen phosphor.
An area of a computer display, usually one of several, in which a particular program is executing.
In the PARC ball mouse design, the weight of the mouse is transferred to the ball by a swivel device and on one or two casters at the end of the mouse farthest from the wire “tail.” A prototype was built by Xerox’s Electronics Division in El Segundo, Calif., then redesigned by Hawley. The rolling ball turned two perpendicular shafts, with a drum on the end of each that was coated with alternating stripes of conductive and nonconductive material. As the drum turned, the stripes transmitted electrical impulses through metal wipers.
When Apple Computer decided in 1979 to design a mouse for its Lisa computer, the design mutated yet again. Instead of a metal ball held against the substrate by a swivel, Apple used a rubber ball whose traction depended on the friction of the rubber and the weight of the ball itself. Simple pads on the bottom of the case carried the weight, and optical scanners detected the motion of the internal wheels. The device had loose tolerances and few moving parts, so that it cost perhaps a quarter as much to build as previous ball mice.
How the computer mouse gained and lost buttons
The first, wooden, SRI mouse had only one button, to test the concept. The plastic batch of SRI mice bad three side-by-side buttons—all there was room for, Engelbart said. The first PARC mouse bad a column of three buttons-again, because that best fit the mechanical design. Today, the Apple mouse has one button, while the rest have two or three. The issue is no longer 1950—a standard 6-by-10-cm mouse could now have dozens of buttons—but human factors, and the experts have strong opinions.
Said English, now director of internationalization at Sun Microsystems Inc., Mountain View, Calif.: “Two or three buttons, that’s the debate. Apple made a bad choice when they used only one.” He sees two buttons as the minimum because two functions are basic to selecting an object: pointing to its start, then extending the motion to the end of the object.
William Verplank, a human factors specialist in the group that tested the graphical interface at Xerox from 1978 into the early 1980s, concurred. He told Spectrum that with three buttons, Alto users forgot which button did what. The group’s tests showed that one button was also confusing, because it required actions such as double-clicking to select and then open a file.
“We have agonizing videos of naive users struggling” with these problems, Verplank said. They concluded that for most users, two buttons (as used on the Star) are optimal, if a button means the same thing in every application. English experimented with one-button mice at PARC before concluding they were a bad idea.
“Two or three buttons, that’s the debate. Apple made a bad choice when they used only one.” —William English
But many interface designers dislike multiple buttons, saying that double-clicking a single button to select an item is easier than remembering which button points and which extends. Larry Tesler, formerly a computer scientist at PARC, brought the one-button mouse to Apple, where he is now vice president of advanced technology. The company’s rationale is that to attract novices to its computers one button was as simple as it could get.
More than two million one-button Apple mice are now in use. The Xerox and Microsoft two-button mice are less common than either Apple’s ubiquitous one-button model or the three-button mice found on technical workstations. Dozens of companies manufacture mice today; most are slightly smaller than a pack of cigarettes, with minor variations in shape.
How windows first came to the computer screen
In 1962, Sketchpad could split its screen horizontally into two independent sections. One section could, for example, give a close-up view of the object in the other section. Researchers call Sketchpad the first example of tiled windows, which are laid out side by side. They differ from overlapping windows, which can be stacked on top of each other, or overlaid, obscuring all or part of the lower layers.
Windows were an obvious means of adding functionality to a small screen. In 1969, Engelbart equipped NLS (as the On-Line System he invented at SRI during the 1960s was known, to distinguish it from the Off-Line System known as FLS) with windows. They split the screen into multiple parts horizontally or vertically, and introduced cross-window editing with a mouse.
By 1972, led by researcher Alan Kay, the Smalltalk programming language group at Xerox PARC had implemented their version of windows. They were working with far different technology from Sutherland or Engelbart: by deciding that their images had to be displayed as dots on the screen, they led a move from vector to raster displays, to make it simple to map the assigned memory location of each of those spots. This was the bit map invented at PARC, and made viable during the 1980s by continual performance improvements in processor logic and memory speed.
Experimenting with bit-map manipulation, Smalltalk researcher Dan Ingalls developed the bit-block transfer procedure, known as BitBlt. The BitBlt software enabled application programs to mix and manipulate rectangular arrays of pixel values in on-screen or off-screen memory, or between the two, combining the pixel values and storing the result in the appropriate bit-map location.
BitBlt made it much easier to write programs to scroll a window (move an image through it), resize (enlarge or contract) it, and drag windows (move them from one location to another on screen). It led Kay to create overlapping windows. They were soon implemented by the Smalltalk group, but made clipping harder.
Some researchers question whether overlapping windows offer more benefits than tiled on the grounds that screens with overlapping windows become so messy the user gets lost.
In a tiling system, explained researcher Peter Deutsch, who worked with the Smalltalk group, the clipping borders are simply horizontal or vertical lines from one screen border to another, and software just tracks the location of those lines. But overlapping windows may appear anywhere on the screen, randomly obscuring bits and pieces of other windows, so that quite irregular regions must be clipped. Thus application software must constantly track which portions of their windows remain visible.
Some researchers still question whether overlapping windows offer more benefits than tiled, at least above a certain screen size, on the grounds that screens with overlapping windows become so messy the user gets lost. Others argue that overlapping windows more closely match users’ work patterns, since no one arranges the papers on their physical desktop in neat horizontal and vertical rows. Among software engineers, however, overlapping windows seem to have won for the user interface world.
So has the cut-and-paste editing model that Larry Tesler developed, first for the Gypsy text editor he wrote at PARC and later for Apple. Charles Irby—who worked on Xerox’s windows and is now vice president of development at Metaphor Computer Systems Inc., Mountain View, Calif.—noted, however, that cut-and-paste worked better for pure text-editing than for moving graphic objects from one application to another.
The origin of the computer menu bar
Menus—functions continuously listed onscreen that could be called into action with key combinations—were commonly used in defense computing by the 1960s. But it was only with the advent of BitBlt and windows that menus could be made to appear as needed and to disappear after use. Combined with a pointing device to indicate a user’s selection, they are now an integral part of the user-friendly interface: users no longer need to refer to manuals or memorize available options.
Instead, the choices can be called up at a moment’s notice whenever needed. And menu design has evolved. Some new systems use nested hierarchies of menus; others offer different menu versions—one with the most commonly used commands for novices, another with all available commands for the experienced user.
Among the first to test menus on demand was PARC researcher William Newman, in a program called Markup. Hard on his heels, the Smalltalk group built in pop-up menus that appeared on screen at the cursor site when the user pressed one of the mouse buttons.
Implementation was on the whole straightforward, recalled Deutsch. The one exception was determining whether the menu or the application should keep track of the information temporarily obscured by the menu. In the Smalltalk 76 version, the popup menu saved and restored the screen bits it overwrote. But in today’s multitasking systems, that would not work, because an application may change those bits without the menu’s knowledge. Such systems add another layer to the operating system: a display manager that tracks what is written where.
The production Xerox Star, in 1981, featured a further advance: a menu bar, essentially a row of words indicating available menus that could be popped up for each window. Human factors engineer Verplank recalled that the bar was at first located at the bottom of its window. But the Star team found users were more likely to associate a bar with the window below it, so it was moved to the top of its window.
Apple simplified things in its Lisa and Macintosh with a single bar placed at the top of the screen. This menu bar relates only to the window in use: the menus could be ‘‘pulled down” from the bar, to appear below it. Designer William D. Atkinson received a patent (assigned to Apple Computer) in August 1984 for this innovation.
One new addition that most user interface pioneers consider an advantage is the tear-off menu, which the user can move to a convenient spot on the screen and “pin” there, always visible for ready access.
Many windowing interfaces now offer command-key or keyboard alternatives for many commands as well. This return to the earliest of user interfaces—key combinations—neatly supplements menus, providing both ease of use for novices and for the less experienced, and speed for those who can type faster than they can point to a menu and click on a selection.
How the computer “icon” got its name
Sketchpad had on-screen graphic objects that represented constraints (for example, a rule that lines be the same length), and the Flex machine built in 1967 at the University of Utah by students Alan Kay and Ed Cheadle had squares that represented programs and data (like today’s computer “folders”). Early work on icons was also done by Bell Northern Research, Ottawa, Canada, stemming from efforts to replace the recently legislated bilingual signs with graphic symbols.
But the concept of the computer “icon” was not formalized until 1975. David Canfield Smith, a computer science graduate student at Stanford University in California, began work on his Ph.D. thesis in 1973. His advisor was PARC’s Kay, who suggested that he look at using the graphics power of the experimental Alto not just to display text, but rather to help people program.
David Canfield Smith took the term icon from the Russian Orthodox church, where an icon is more than an image, because it embodies properties of what it represents.
Smith took the term icon from the Russian Orthodox church, where an icon is more than an image, because it embodies properties of what it represents: a Russian icon of a saint is holy and is to be venerated. Smith’s computer icons contained all the properties of the programs and data represented, and therefore could be linked or acted on as if they were the real thing.
After receiving his Ph.D. in 1975, Smith joined Xerox in 1976 to work on Star development. The first thing he did, he said, was to recast his concept of icons in office terms. “I looked around my office and saw papers, folders, file cabinets, a telephone, and bookshelves, and it was an easy translation to icons,” he said.
Xerox researchers developed, tested, and revised icons for the Star interface for three years before the first version was complete. At first they attempted to make the icons look like a detailed photographic rendering of the object, recalled Irby, who worked on testing and refining the Xerox windows. Trading off label space, legibility, and the number of icons that fit on the screen, they decided to constrain icons to a 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) square of 64 by 64 pixels, or 512 eight-bit bytes.
Then, Verplank recalls, they discovered that because of a background pattern based on two-pixel dots, the right-hand side of the icons appeared jagged. So they increased the width of the icons to 65 pixels, despite an outcry from programmers who liked the neat 16-bit breakdown. But the increase stuck, Verplank said, because they had already decided to store 72 bits per side to allow for white space around each icon.
After settling on a size for the icons, the Star developers tested four sets developed by two graphic designers and two software engineers. They discovered that, for example, resizing may cause problems. They shrunk the icon for a person—a head and shoulders—in order to use several of them to represent a group, only to hear one test subject say the screen resolution made the reduced icon look like a cross above a tombstone. Computer graphics artist Norm Cox, now of Cox & Hall, Dallas, Texas, was finally hired to redesign the icons.
Icon designers today still wrestle with the need to make icons adaptable to the many different system configurations offered by computer makers. Artist Karen Elliott, who has designed icons for Microsoft, Apple, Hewlett-Packard Co., and others, noted that on different systems an icon may be displayed in different colors, several resolutions, and a variety of gray shades, and it may also be inverted (light and dark areas reversed).
In the past few years, another concern has been added to icon designers’ tasks: internationalization. Icons designed in the United States often lack space for translations into languages other than English. Elliott therefore tries to leave space for both the longer words and the vertical orientation of some languages.
The main rule is to make icons simple, clean, and easily recognizable. Discarded objects are placed in a trash can on the Macintosh. On the NeXT Computer System, from NeXT Inc., Palo Alto, Calif.—the company formed by Apple cofounder Steven Jobs after he left Apple—they are dumped into a Black Hole. Elliott sees NeXT’s black hole as one of the best icons ever designed: ”It is distinct; its roundness stands out from the other, square icons, and this is important on a crowded display. It fits my image of information being sucked away, and it makes it clear that dumping something is serious.
English disagrees vehemently. The black hole “is fundamentally wrong,” he said. “You can dig paper out of a wastebasket, but you can’t dig it out of a black hole.” Another critic called the black hole familiar only to “computer nerds who read mostly science fiction and comics,” not to general users.
With the introduction of the Xerox Star in June 1981, the graphical user interface, as it is known today, arrived on the market. Though not a commercial triumph, the Star generated great interest among computer users, as the Alto before it had within the universe of computer designers.
Even before the Star was introduced, Jobs, then still at Apple, had visited Xerox PARC in November 1979 and asked the Smalltalk researchers dozens of questions about the Alto’s internal design. He later recruited Larry Tesler from Xerox to design the user interface of the Apple Lisa.
With the Lisa and then the Macintosh, introduced in January 1983 and January 1984 respectively, the graphical user interface reached the low-cost, high-volume computer market.
At almost $10,000, buyers deemed the Lisa too expensive for the office market. But aided by prizewinning advertising and its lower price, the Macintosh took the world by storm. Early Macs had only 128K bytes of RAM, which made them slow to respond because it was too little memory for heavy graphic manipulation. Also, the time needed for programmers to learn its Toolbox of graphics routines delayed application packages until well into 1985. But the Mac’s ease of use was indisputable, and it generated interest that spilled over into the MS-DOS world of IBM PCs and clones, as well as Unix-based workstations.
Who owns the graphical user interface?
The widespread acceptance of such interfaces, however, has led to bitter lawsuits to establish exactly who owns what. So far, none of several litigious companies has definitively established that it owns the software that implements windows, icons, or early versions of menus. But the suits continue.
Virtually all the companies that make and sell either wheel or ball mice paid license fees to SRI or to Xerox for their patents. Engelbart recalled that SRI patent attorneys inspected all the early work on the interface, but understood only hardware. After looking at developments like the implementation of windows, they told him that none of it was patentable.
At Xerox, the Star development team proposed 12 patents having to do with the user interface. The company’s patent committee rejected all but two on hardware—one on BitBlt, the other on the Star architecture. At the time, Charles Irby said, it was a good decision. Patenting required full disclosure, and no precedents then existed for winning software patent suits.
The most recent and most publicized suit was filed in March 1988, by Apple, against both Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard Co., Palo Alto, Calif. Apple alleges that HP’s New Wave interface, requiring version 2.03 of Microsoft’s Windows program, embodies the copyrighted “audio visual computer display” of the Macintosh without permission; that the displays of Windows 2.03 are illegal copies of the Mac’s audiovisual works; and that Windows 2.03 also exceeds the rights granted in a November 198S agreement in which Microsoft acknowledged that the displays in Windows 1.0 were derivatives of those in Apple’s Lisa and Mac.
In March 1989, U.S. District Judge William W. Schwarzer ruled Microsoft had exceeded the bounds of its license in creating Windows 2.03. Then in July 1989 Schwarzer ruled that all but 11 of the 260 items that Apple cited in its suit were, in fact, acceptable under the 1985 agreement. The larger issue—whether Apple’s copyrights are valid, and whether Microsoft and HP infringed on them—will not now be examined until 1990.
Among those 11 are overlapping windows and movable icons. According to Pamela Samuelson, a noted software intellectual property expert and visiting professor at Emory University Law School, Atlanta, Ga., many experts would regard both as functional features of an interface that cannot be copyrighted, rather than “expressions” of an idea protectable by copyright.
But lawyers for Apple—and for other companies that have filed lawsuits to protect the “look and feel’’ of their screen displays—maintain that if such protection is not granted, companies will lose the economic incentive to market technological innovations. How is Apple to protect its investment in developing the Lisa and Macintosh, they argue, if it cannot license its innovations to companies that want to take advantage of them?
If the Apple-Microsoft case does go to trial on the copyright issues, Samuelson said, the court may have to consider whether Apple can assert copyright protection for overlapping windows-an interface feature on which patents have also been granted. In April 1989, for example, Quarterdeck Office Systems Inc., Santa Monica, Calif., received a patent for a multiple windowing system in its Desq system software, introduced in 1984.
Adding fuel to the legal fire, Xerox said in May 1989 it would ask for license fees from companies that use the graphical user interface. But it is unclear whether Xerox has an adequate claim to either copyright or patent protection for the early graphical interface work done at PARC. Xerox did obtain design patents on later icons, noted human factors engineer Verplank. Meanwhile, both Metaphor and Sun Microsystems have negotiated licenses with Xerox for their own interfaces.
To Probe Further
The September 1989 IEEE Computer contains an article, “The Xerox ‘Star’: A Retrospective,” by Jeff Johnson et al., covering development of the Star. “Designing the Star User Interface,’’ [PDF] by David C. Smith et al., appeared in the April 1982 issue of Byte.
The Sept. 12, 1989, PC Magazine contains six articles on graphical user interfaces for personal computers and workstations. The July 1989 Byte includes ‘‘A Guide to [Graphical User Interfaces),” by Frank Hayes and Nick Baran, which describes 12 current interfaces for workstations and personal computers. “The Interface of Tomorrow, Today,’’ by Howard Reingold, in the July 10, 1989, InfoWorld does the same. “The interface that launched a thousand imitations,” by Richard Rawles, in the March 21, 1989, MacWeek covers the Macintosh interface.
The human factors of user interface design are discussed in The Psychology of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman (Basic Books Inc., New York, 1988). The January 1989 IEEE Software contains several articles on methods, techniques, and tools for designing and implementing graphical interfaces. The Way Things Work, by David Macaulay (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1988), contains a detailed drawing of a ball mouse.
William Atkinson received patent no. 4,464,652 for the pulldown menu system on Aug. 8, 1984, and assigned it to Apple. Gary Pope received patent no. 4,823,108, for an improved system for displaying images in “windows” on a computer screen, on April 18, 1989, and assigned it to Quarterdeck Office Systems.
The wheel mouse patent, no. 3,541,541, “X-Y position indicator for a display system,” was issued to Douglas Engelbart on Nov. 17, 1970, and assigned to SRI International. The ball mouse patent, no. 3,835,464, was issued to Ronald Rider on Sept. 10, 1974, and assigned to Xerox.
Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.
CoRL 2022: 14–18 December 2022, AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND
Enjoy today’s videos!
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science and the University of California, Berkeley, have designed a robotic system that enables a low-cost and relatively small legged robot to climb and descend stairs nearly its height; traverse rocky, slippery, uneven, steep and varied terrain; walk across gaps; scale rocks and curbs, and even operate in the dark.
This robot is designed as a preliminary platform for humanoid robot research. The platform will be further extended with soles as well as upper limbs. In this video, the current lower limb version of the platform shows its capability in traversing uneven terrains without an active or passive ankle joint. The underactuation nature of the robot system has been well addressed with our locomotion-control framework, which also provides a new perspective on the leg design of bipedal robots.
Inbiodroid is a startup “dedicated to the development of fully immersive telepresence technologies that create a deeper connection between people and their environment.” Hot off the ANA Avatar XPrize competition, they’re doing a Kickstarter to fund the next generation of telepresence robots.
A robot that can feel what a therapist feels when treating a patient, that can adjust the intensity of rehabilitation exercises at any time according to the patient's abilities and needs, and that can thus go on for hours without getting tired: It seems like fiction, and yet researchers from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Imec have now finished a prototype that unites all these skills in one robot.
Pickle robots unload trucks. This is a short overview of the Pickle Robot Unload System in action at the end of October 2022—autonomously picking floor-loaded freight to unload a trailer. As a robotic system built on AI and advanced sensors, the system gets better and faster all the time.
Learning agile skills can be challenging with reward shaping. Imitation learning provides an alternative solution by assuming access to decent expert references. However, such experts are not always available. We propose Wasserstein Adversarial Skill Imitation (WASABI), which acquires agile behaviors from partial and potentially physically incompatible demonstrations. In our work, Solo, a quadruped robot, learns highly dynamic skills (for example, backflips) from only handheld human demonstrations.
NASA and the European Space Agency are developing plans for one of the most ambitious campaigns ever attempted in space: bringing the first samples of Mars material safely back to Earth for detailed study. The diverse set of scientifically curated samples now being collected by NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover could help scientists answer the question of whether ancient life ever arose on the Red Planet.
The Canadian Space Agency plans to send a rover to the moon as early as 2026 to explore a polar region. The mission will demonstrate key technologies and accomplish meaningful science. Its objectives are to gather imagery, measurements, and data on the surface of the moon, as well as to have the rover survive an entire night on the moon. Lunar nights, which last about 14 Earth days, are extremely cold and dark, posing a significant technological challenge.
Covariant Robotic Induction automates previously manual induction processes. This video shows the Covariant Robotic Induction solution picking a wide range of item types from totes, scanning bar codes, and inducting items onto a unit sorter. Note the robot’s ability to effectively handle items that are traditionally difficult to pick, such as transparent polybagged apparel and small, oddly shaped health and beauty items, and place them precisely onto individual trays.
The solution will integrate Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot; the ExynPak, powered by ExynAI; and the Trimble X7 total station. It will enable fully autonomous missions inside complex and dynamic construction environments, which can result in consistent and precise reality capture for production and quality-control workflows.
Our most advanced programmable robot yet is back and better than ever. Sphero RVR+ includes an advanced gearbox to improve torque and payload capacity; enhanced sensors, including an improved color sensor; and an improved rechargeable and swappable battery.
Complexity, cost, and power requirements for the actuation of individual robots can play a large factor in limiting the size of robotic swarms. Here we present PCBot, a minimalist robot that can precisely move on an orbital shake table using a bi-stable solenoid actuator built directly into its PCB. This allows the actuator to be built as part of the automated PCB manufacturing process, greatly reducing the impact it has on manual assembly.
Drone-racing world champion Thomas Bitmatta designed an indoor drone-racing track for ETH Zurich’s autonomous high-speed racing drones, and in something like half an hour, the autonomous drones were able to master the track at superhuman speeds (with the aid of a motion-capture system).
Moravec’s paradox is the observation that many things that are difficult for robots to do come easily to humans, and vice versa. Stanford University professor Chelsea Finn has been tasked to explain this concept to 5 different people: a child, a teen, a college student, a grad student, and an expert.
AI advancements have been motivated and inspired by human intelligence for decades. How can we use AI to expand our knowledge and understanding of the world and ourselves? How can we leverage AI to enrich our lives? In his Tanner Lecture, Eric Horvitz, chief science officer at Microsoft, will explore these questions and more, tracing the arc of intelligence from its origins and evolution in humans to its manifestations and prospects in the tools we create and use.
Dad used to criticise us children when we said we “loved” certain foods, as it sounded discordant to his Italian ears. Love was reserved for people. But it is with actual love that my father tends to some 100 Tuscan olive trees and makes the olive oil our whole family eats all year. He also delivers three special bottles of olive oil to our house for the kids with printed labels that say something like: “This bottle of olive oil is made for the sole enjoyment of my grandchild…” Elsa says it just clicks (her words) with everything. Even food she doesn’t like, such as broccoli. She’s not wrong.
My brother and his children have helped with this year’s harvest and rushed a few first bottles of the thick green oil to us. The typical tasting notes are cut-grass, raw artichokes and a hot peppery finish in the throat that can take your breath away. All the recipes here lend themselves to being drenched with this, but an extra grind of black pepper or sprinkle of dried chilli is what I add if I don’t have it to hand.
Continue reading... Match ID: 0 Score: 50.00 source: www.theguardian.com age: 0 days qualifiers: 30.00 food, 20.00 recipes
7 easy recipes for when you don’t feel like cooking (much) Sat, 26 Nov 2022 10:00:37 EST When you're just trying to get something on the table, these easy recipes can help you cross the finish line. Match ID: 1 Score: 50.00 source: www.washingtonpost.com age: 1 day qualifiers: 30.00 food, 20.00 recipes
Twelve years of decaying public services mean any sensible conversation about much-needed new housing is impossible
In the corner of Somerset where I have lived for nearly 15 years, life in late-Tory England grinds on. Our MP is David Warburton, the formerly Conservative backbencher who was recently found to have broken the parliamentary code of conduct amid allegations of sexual harassment and drug use, which he denies. He has not been seen for eight months. Our new unitary county council faces a financial black hole of £38m before it has even come into being, so cuts are being readied. The town’s GP service is completely overstretched, bus services are a constant worry, trains to Bristol and Bath run at inexplicable times of the day, and the roads are regularly jammed with traffic. Use of the local food bank is at an all-time high. Meanwhile, a lot of local angst is now focused on an ever-increasing number of new housing developments: a huge local story that reflects one of the ever-growing number of internal Tory conflicts eating away at Rishi Sunak’s government.
The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto promised that the government would trigger the building of 300,000 new homes a year, which inevitably entailed a sizeable loosening of the planning system. But proposals for drastically changing the rules and introducing new liberalised “development zones” were dropped after revolts led by Tory MPs, largely from the south of England.
Continue reading... Match ID: 5 Score: 30.00 source: www.theguardian.com age: 0 days qualifiers: 30.00 food
Look at the record, from Lawson to Osborne – they have consistently overseen rises in poverty and falls in the pound
By placing a photo of Nigel Lawson behind his desk, artfully positioned to be caught by the official photographer, Jeremy Hunt shows himself to be a keen student of previous Tory chancellors. But if he is guided too much by them, that can only be a problem: for him, for his party and for all of us.
Tory chancellors have held the purse strings for 30 of the past 43 years, and from Geoffrey Howe through Norman Lamont to Rishi Sunak, they have nearly all left the UK economy in a worse state than they found it. Of the 11 previous Conservative chancellors since 1979, most left office with poverty rates higher or unchanged from when they started. Although these figures are not yet available for Rishi Sunak, Nadhim Zahawi or Kwasi Kwarteng, the extremely high use of foodbanks during their stints is surely a bad sign, and no Conservative chancellor has managed to reduce inequality anywhere close to pre-1979 levels.
Continue reading... Match ID: 6 Score: 30.00 source: www.theguardian.com age: 0 days qualifiers: 30.00 food
Wine might be widely drunk, but there is still an idea, however old-fashioned, that it’s bourgeois to drink it
Mixed news last week for wine drinkers. Research by scientists at Rush Medical Center in Chicagoclaims thata glass of red with dinner could slash your risk of developing dementia. Just don’t start too young, say rival researchers at the Uniformed Services University in Maryland, who claim that children who are given even a sip of l’eau rouge – water reddened by wine – are more likely to end up with addiction problems.
Perhaps the answer, then, is for the children to drink natural wine, which might be at least good for their digestive system, according to another study. Or barolo, the preferred grape of “emotionally stable” drinkers, according to an investigation into links between wine preference and personality by researchers at Italian universities. Either way, if you are among the 60% who are now “sober curious” – intention, rather than action, being the operative here – the chances are you’ll be decanting your cellars into your moisturiser, as Brad Pitt does with his new wine-inspired skincare line, Le Domaine. So long as everyone avoids Buckfast wine. Sales are up in Scotland, leading some to (incorrectly) fear an increase in crime. Happy fortified wine season, one and all.
Continue reading... Match ID: 7 Score: 30.00 source: www.theguardian.com age: 0 days qualifiers: 30.00 food
Yulia and Roma* were a young couple in love when Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. They saw panic unfold in their southern city of Kherson, as food and medicine quickly disappeared from shelves and cancer patients – including Yulia’s grandfather - died from a lack of essential drugs.
The couple organised deliveries from friends and family, taking food and medicine around the city to those in need – people they found via word of mouth and social media. On their route they saw terrible things. A young teenage boy and an old man, who had died from the wave of an explosion after a strike on a shopping centre, lying face down, with no one who could collect them; a soldier who had been reduced to flesh strewn across the windshield of an army truck.
Continue reading... Match ID: 8 Score: 30.00 source: www.theguardian.com age: 0 days qualifiers: 30.00 food
Gourmet Fadi Kattan wants to give the UK capital an authentic taste of his homeland’s cuisine with a new restaurant venture
Akub, also known as gundelia, is an unruly plant that blossoms across the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East after the winter rains. Some believe that the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’s head during the crucifixion was made from this long-lasting, sweet-smelling thistle.
It is foraged everywhere, from the Kurdish highlands and Cyprus to the Sinai peninsula, for its earthy, tender stems and delicate-tasting flower buds, but is most highly prized in Palestinian cuisine. Each spring, people defy the Israeli authorities – who say the plant is in danger of overcollection – to bring as many bags of prickly akub as they can carry back to their kitchens to throw into meat stews or fry with eggs and lemon.
Continue reading... Match ID: 9 Score: 30.00 source: www.theguardian.com age: 0 days qualifiers: 30.00 food
The Black Bull Inn, 44 Main Street, Sedbergh LA10 5BL (015396 20264, theblackbullsedbergh.co.uk). Snacks £4.50-£6.50, sandwiches £6.95-£14.95, starters £9.95-£10.9, mains £18.50-£27.95, desserts £7.50-£8.50, wines from £28
It would be easy to misread the Black Bull at Sedbergh, located in that part of the Yorkshire Dales which offers a lofty wave to the Lake District. On a weekday lunchtime, the dining rooms fill quickly with parents in expensive waxed outerwear, grabbing lunch with their kids from the eponymous boarding school that dominates the town. A parade of burgers and sandwiches, precision stabbed with cocktail sticks, alongside soups with doorstep slabs of bread, troop out of the kitchen. And a pint please for the pink-cheeked, broad-chested chap with the Range Rover outside.
Continue reading... Match ID: 10 Score: 30.00 source: www.theguardian.com age: 0 days qualifiers: 30.00 food
Here are the best original photographs from the Observer commissioned in November 2022
Continue reading... Match ID: 12 Score: 30.00 source: www.theguardian.com age: 2 days qualifiers: 30.00 food
The best wine books of 2022 get up close and personal Fri, 25 Nov 2022 13:00:20 EST The year’s best wine books include biographies from established authorities as well as a must-have reference book for anyone who wants to learn more. Match ID: 13 Score: 30.00 source: www.washingtonpost.com age: 2 days qualifiers: 30.00 food
Sparkling wine for just $15 that tastes good? Sign us up. Fri, 25 Nov 2022 13:00:08 EST Sparkling wine is popular around the holiday season, and these three bottles are great now — and year-round. Match ID: 14 Score: 30.00 source: www.washingtonpost.com age: 2 days qualifiers: 30.00 food
How to freeze pie and pie crust Fri, 25 Nov 2022 10:00:45 EST What you need to know about freezing pies — baked or unbaked, whole or sliced — as well as pie crust to cut food waste and save time. Match ID: 15 Score: 30.00 source: www.washingtonpost.com age: 2 days qualifiers: 30.00 food
We would like to speak to people who have been forced to give up their pet amid rising costs
The deepening cost of living crisis is forcing people in the UK to rehome their pets, according to figures from the Dogs Trust.
The charity received 42,000 inquiries from pet owners about rehoming between 1 January and 31 October – a rise of almost 50% on the same period in 2021. Meanwhile, pet food banks have also opened across the country.
Continue reading... Match ID: 18 Score: 25.71 source: www.theguardian.com age: 3 days qualifiers: 25.71 food
The World Needs Processed Food Wed, 23 Nov 2022 14:00:00 +0000 The stigma against processed food is growing, but there's no way to sustainably feed 8 billion people without it. Match ID: 21 Score: 21.43 source: www.wired.com age: 4 days qualifiers: 21.43 food
The Big Picture features technology through the lens of photographers.
Every month, IEEE Spectrum selects the most stunning technology images recently captured by photographers around the world. We choose images that reflect an important advance, or a trend, or that are just mesmerizing to look at. We feature all images on our site, and one also appears on our monthly print edition.
Enjoy the latest images, and if you have suggestions, leave a comment below.
Shot of Nuclear Fusion
An old saw regarding the multitude of dashed hopes about fusion energy’s promise goes “Fusion is 30 years away—and it always will be.” After decades of researchers predicting that fusion was just around the corner, a team at the UK Atomic Energy Authority (which hosts the Joint European Torus [JET] plasma physics experiment) did something that suggests scientists are homing in on exactly which corner that is. In February 2022, the JET experimenters induced the single greatest sustained energy pulse ever created by humans. It had twice the energy of the previous record-setting blast, triggered a quarter century earlier. A doubling every 25 years is far behind the pace of the microchip improvements described by Moore’s Law. But that hasn’t dampened enthusiasm over an alternative energy source that could make fossil fuels and their effect on the environment relics of a bygone era. In the foreground of the picture is a trainee learning how to use the systems involved in accomplishing the feat.
What has two wings, can reach a person stranded in a disaster zone, and doubles as a source of precious calories when no other food is available? This drone, designed and built by a team of researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), has wings made entirely of laser-cut rice cakes held together with “glue” made from gelatin. The EPFL group says it plans to keep refining the edible aircraft to improve its aeronautics and enhance its nutritional profile.
Creating the quantum mechanical state of entanglement (in which paired atoms influence each other from across vast distances) has heretofore been reminiscent of the story of Noah’s ark. The tried-and-true method for entangling photons (by shining light through a nonlinear crystal) puts them in this state two by two, the way the animals are said to have boarded the ark. The ambition of quantum researchers has been to expand these connections from pairs to parties. And it seems they’ve figured out how to reliably entangle multiple photons in a complicated web, using half-millimeter-thick metasurfaces covered with forests of microscopic pillars. This, say experts, will not only greatly simplify the setup needed for quantum technology but also help support more-complex quantum applications.
In a world obsessed with miniaturization, it’s almost shocking when, every now and then, a big deal is made of something, er, big. That is certainly the case with the new camera being built for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. When the camera is delivered and set up in May 2023, its 1.57-meter-wide lens will make it the world’s largest device for taking snapshots. The gargantuan point-and-shoot instrument will capture images of a swath of the sky seven times the width of the moon.
Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
When we’re carrying out our quotidian activities, most of us rarely stop to think about what marvels of engineering our arms and hands are. But for those who have lost the use of a limb—or, like Britt Young, the woman pictured here, were born without one—there’s hardly ever a day when the challenges of navigating a two-handed world are not in the forefront of their thoughts. In Young’s October 2022 IEEE Spectrum cover story, she discusses these challenges, as well as how the bionic-hand technology intended to come to the rescue falls short of designers’ and users’ expectations.
Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for Mac Cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
Match ID: 23 Score: 17.14 source: spectrum.ieee.org age: 5 days qualifiers: 17.14 food
Ingredient-Substitution Guide for Thanksgiving Recipes Wed, 23 Nov 2022 11:00:00 +0000 For one can of pumpkin purée, steal three rotting jack-o’-lanterns from your neighbors’ front steps. Match ID: 24 Score: 14.29 source: www.newyorker.com age: 4 days qualifiers: 14.29 recipes
The 100th anniversary of the invention of the transistor will happen in 2047. What will transistors be like then? Will they even be the critical computing element they are today? IEEE Spectrum asked experts from around the world for their predictions.
What will transistors be like in 2047?
Expect transistors to be even more varied than they are now, says one expert. Just as processors have evolved from CPUs to include GPUs, network processors, AI accelerators, and other specialized computing chips, transistors will evolve to fit a variety of purposes. “Device technology will become application domain–specific in the same way that computing architecture has become application domain–specific,” says H.-S. Philip Wong, an IEEE Fellow, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University, and former vice president of corporate research at TSMC.
Despite the variety, the fundamental operating principle—the field effect that switches transistors on and off—will likely remain the same, suggests Suman Datta, an IEEE Fellow, professor of electrical and computer at Georgia Tech, and director of the multi-university nanotech research center ASCENT. This device will likely have minimum critical dimensions of 1 nanometer or less, enabling device densities of 10 trillion per square centimeter, says Tsu-Jae King Liu, an IEEE Fellow, dean of the college of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of Intel’s board of directors.
"It is safe to assume that the transistor or switch architectures of 2047 have already been demonstrated on a lab scale"—Sri Samavedam
Experts seem to agree that the transistor of 2047 will need new materials and probably a stacked or 3D architecture, expanding on the planned complementary field-effect transistor (CFET, or 3D-stacked CMOS). [For more on the CFET, see “Taking Moore’s Law to New Heights.”] And the transistor channel, which now runs parallel to the plane of the silicon, may need to become vertical in order to continue to increase in density, says Datta.
AMD senior fellow Richard Schultz, suggests that the main aim in developing these new devices will be power. “The focus will be on reducing power and the need for advanced cooling solutions,” he says. “Significant focus on devices that work at lower voltages is required.”
Will transistors still be the heart of most computing in 25 years?
It’s hard to imagine a world where computing is not done with transistors, but, of course, vacuum tubes were once the digital switch of choice. Startup funding for quantum computing, which does not directly rely on transistors, reached US $1.4 billion in 2021, according to McKinsey & Co.
But advances in quantum computing won’t happen fast enough to challenge the transistor by 2047, experts in electron devices say. “Transistors will remain the most important computing element,” says Sayeef Salahuddin, an IEEE Fellow and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. “Currently, even with an ideal quantum computer, the potential areas of application seem to be rather limited compared to classical computers.”
Sri Samavedam, senior vice president of CMOS technologies at the European chip R&D center Imec, agrees. “Transistors will still be very important computing elements for a majority of the general-purpose compute applications,” says Samavedam. “One cannot ignore the efficiencies realized from decades of continuous optimization of transistors.”
Has the transistor of 2047 already been invented?
Twenty-five years is a long time, but in the world of semiconductor R&D, it’s not that long. “In this industry, it usually takes about 20 years from [demonstrating a concept] to introduction into manufacturing,” says Samavedam. “It is safe to assume that the transistor or switch architectures of 2047 have already been demonstrated on a lab scale” even if the materials involved won’t be exactly the same. King Liu, who demonstrated the modern FinFET about 25 years ago with colleagues at Berkeley, agrees.
But the idea that the transistor of 2047 is already sitting in a lab somewhere isn’t universally shared. Salahuddin, for one, doesn’t think it’s been invented yet. “But just like the FinFET in the 1990s, it is possible to make a reasonable prediction for the geometric structure” of future transistors, he says.
AMD’s Schultz says you can glimpse this structure in proposed 3D-stacked devices made of 2D semiconductors or carbon-based semiconductors. “Device materials that have not yet been invented could also be in scope in this time frame,” he adds.
Will silicon still be the active part of most transistors in 2047?
Experts say that the heart of most devices, the transistor channel region, will still be silicon, or possibly silicon-germanium—which is already making inroads—or germanium. But in 2047 many chips may use semiconductors that are considered exotic today. These could include oxide semiconductors like indium gallium zinc oxide; 2D semiconductors, such as the metal dichalcogenide tungsten disulfide; and one-dimensional semiconductors, such as carbon nanotubes. Or even “others yet to be invented,” says Imec’s Samavedam.
"Transistors will remain the most important computing element"—Sayeef Salahuddin
Silicon-based chips may be integrated in the same package with chips that rely on newer materials, just as processor makers are today integrating chips using different silicon manufacturing technologies into the same package, notes IEEE Fellow Gabriel Loh, a senior fellow at AMD.
Which semiconductor material is at the heart of the device may not even be the central issue in 2047. “The choice of channel material will essentially be dictated by which material is the most compatible with many other materials that form other parts of the device,” says Salahuddin. And we know a lot about integrating materials with silicon.
In 2047, where will transistors be common where they are not found today?
Everywhere. No, seriously. Experts really do expect some amount of intelligence and sensing to creep into every aspect of our lives. That means devices will be attached to our bodies and implanted inside them; embedded in all kinds of infrastructure, including roads, walls, and houses; woven into our clothing; stuck to our food; swaying in the breeze in grain fields; watching just about every step in every supply chain; and doing many other things in places nobody has thought of yet.
Transistors will be “everywhere that needs computation, command and control, communications, data collection, storage and analysis, intelligence, sensing and actuation, interaction with humans, or an entrance portal to the virtual and mixed reality world,” sums up Stanford’s Wong.
This article appears in the December 2022 print issue as “The Transistor of 2047.”
Match ID: 25 Score: 12.86 source: spectrum.ieee.org age: 6 days qualifiers: 12.86 food
Alex Hern’s look at how technology is shaping our lives, direct to your inbox
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A recent United Nations provision has banned the use of mercury in spacecraft propellant. Although no private company has actually used mercury propellant in a launched spacecraft, the possibility was alarming enough—and the dangers extreme enough—that the ban was enacted just a few years after one U.S.-based startup began toying with the idea. Had the company gone through with its intention to sell mercury propellant thrusters to some of the companies building massive satellite constellations over the coming decade, it would have resulted in Earth’s upper atmosphere being laced with mercury.
Mercury is a neurotoxin. It’s also bio-accumulative, which means it’s absorbed by the body at a faster rate than the body can remove it. The most common way to get mercury poisoning is through eating contaminated seafood. “It’s pretty nasty,” says Michael Bender, the international coordinator of the Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG). “Which is why this is one of the very few instances where the governments of the world came together pretty much unanimously and ratified a treaty.”
Bender is referring to the 2013 Minamata Convention on Mercury, a U.N. treaty named for a city in Japan whose residents suffered from mercury poisoning from a nearby chemical factory for decades. Because mercury pollutants easily find their way into the oceans and the atmosphere, it’s virtually impossible for one country to prevent mercury poisoning within its borders. “Mercury—it’s an intercontinental pollutant,” Bender says. “So it required a global treaty.”
Today, the only remaining permitted uses for mercury are in fluorescent lighting and dental amalgams, and even those are being phased out. Mercury is otherwise found as a by-product of other processes, such as the burning of coal. But then a company hit on the idea to use it as a spacecraft propellant.
In 2018, an employee at Apollo Fusion approached the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonprofit that investigates environmental misconduct in the United States. The employee—who has remained anonymous—alleged that the Mountain View, Calif.–based space startup was planning to build and sell thrusters that used mercury propellant to multiple companies building low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations.
Apollo Fusion wasn’t the first to consider using mercury as a propellant. NASA originally tested it in the 1960s and 1970s with two Space Electric Propulsion Tests (SERT), one of which was sent into orbit in 1970. Although the tests demonstrated mercury’s effectiveness as a propellant, the same concerns over the element’s toxicity that have seen it banned in many other industries halted its use by the space agency as well.
“I think it just sort of fell off a lot of folks’ radars,” says Kevin Bell, the staff counsel for PEER. “And then somebody just resurrected the research on it and said, ‘Hey, other than the environmental impact, this was a pretty good idea.’ It would give you a competitive advantage in what I imagine is a pretty tight, competitive market.”
That’s presumably why Apollo Fusion was keen on using it in their thrusters. Apollo Fusion as a startup emerged more or less simultaneously with the rise of massive LEO constellations that use hundreds or thousands of satellites in orbits below 2,000 kilometers to provide continual low-latency coverage. Finding a slightly cheaper, more efficient propellant for one large geostationary satellite doesn’t move the needle much. But doing the same for thousands of satellites that need to be replaced every several years? That’s a much more noticeable discount.
Were it not for mercury’s extreme toxicity, it would actually make an extremely attractive propellant. Apollo Fusion wanted to use a type of ion thruster called a Hall-effect thruster. Ion thrusters strip electrons from the atoms that make up a liquid or gaseous propellant, and then an electric field pushes the resultant ions away from the spacecraft, generating a modest thrust in the opposite direction. The physics of rocket engines means that the performance of these engines increases with the mass of the ion that you can accelerate.
Mercury is heavier than either xenon or krypton, the most commonly used propellants, meaning more thrust per expelled ion. It’s also liquid at room temperature, making it efficient to store and use. And it’s cheap—there’s not a lot of competition with anyone looking to buy mercury.
Bender says that ZMWG, alongside PEER, caught wind of Apollo Fusion marketing its mercury-based thrusters to at least three companies deploying LEO constellations—One Web, Planet Labs, and SpaceX. Planet Labs, an Earth-imaging company, has at least 200 CubeSats in low Earth orbit. One Web and SpaceX, both wireless-communication providers, have many more. One Web plans to have nearly 650 satellites in orbit by the end of 2022. SpaceX already has nearly 1,500 active satellites aloft in its Starlink constellation, with an eye toward deploying as many as 30,000 satellites before its constellation is complete. Other constellations, like Amazon’s Kuiper constellation, are also planning to deploy thousands of satellites.
In 2019, a group of researchers in Italy and the United States estimated how much of the mercury used in spacecraft propellant might find its way back into Earth’s atmosphere. They figured that a hypothetical LEO constellation of 2,000 satellites, each carrying 100 kilograms of propellant, would emit 20 tonnes of mercury every year over the course of a 10-year life span. Three quarters of that mercury, the researchers suggested, would eventually wind up in the oceans.
That amounts to 1 percent of global mercury emissions from a constellation only a fraction of the size of the one planned by SpaceX alone. And if multiple constellations adopted the technology, they would represent a significant percentage of global mercury emissions—especially, the researchers warned, as other uses of mercury are phased out as planned in the years ahead.
Fortunately, it’s unlikely that any mercury propellant thrusters will even get off the ground. Prior to the fourth meeting of the Minamata Convention, Canada, the European Union, and Norway highlighted the dangers of mercury propellant, alongside ZMWG. The provision to ban mercury usage in satellites was passed on 26 March 2022.
The question now is enforcement. “Obviously, there aren’t any U.N. peacekeepers going into space to shoot down” mercury-based satellites, says Bell. But the 137 countries, including the United States, who are party to the convention have pledged to adhere to its provisions—including the propellant ban.
The United States is notable in that list because as Bender explains, it did not ratify the Minamata Convention via the U.S. Senate but instead deposited with the U.N. an instrument of acceptance. In a 7 November 2013 statement (about one month after the original Minamata Convention was adopted), the U.S. State Department said the country would be able to fulfill its obligations “under existing legislative and regulatory authority.”
Bender says the difference is “weedy” but that this appears to mean that the U.S. government has agreed to adhere to the Minamata Convention’s provisions because it already has similar laws on the books. Except there is still no existing U.S. law or regulation banning mercury propellant. For Bender, that creates some uncertainty around compliance when the provision goes into force in 2025.
Still, with a U.S. company being the first startup to toy with mercury propellant, it might be ideal to have a stronger U.S. ratification of the Minamata Convention before another company hits on the same idea. “There will always be market incentives to cut corners and do something more dangerously,” Bell says.
Update 19 April 2022: In an email, a spokesperson for Astra stated that the company's propulsion system, the Astra Spacecraft Engine, does not use mercury. The spokesperson also stated that Astra has no plans to use mercury propellant and that the company does not have anything in orbit that uses mercury.
Updated 20 April 2022 to clarify that Apollo Fusion was building thrusters that used mercury, not that they had actually used them.
Match ID: 29 Score: 4.29 source: spectrum.ieee.org age: 222 days qualifiers: 4.29 food
If you want to pay online, you need to register an account and provide credit card information. If you don't have a credit card, you can pay with bank transfer. With the rise of cryptocurrencies, these methods may become old.
Imagine a world in which you can do transactions and many other things without having to give your personal information. A world in which you don’t need to rely on banks or governments anymore. Sounds amazing, right? That’s exactly what blockchain technology allows us to do.
It’s like your computer’s hard drive. blockchain is a technology that lets you store data in digital blocks, which are connected together like links in a chain.
Blockchain technology was originally invented in 1991 by two mathematicians, Stuart Haber and W. Scot Stornetta. They first proposed the system to ensure that timestamps could not be tampered with.
A few years later, in 1998, software developer Nick Szabo proposed using a similar kind of technology to secure a digital payments system he called “Bit Gold.” However, this innovation was not adopted until Satoshi Nakamoto claimed to have invented the first Blockchain and Bitcoin.
So, What is Blockchain?
A blockchain is a distributed database shared between the nodes of a computer network. It saves information in digital format. Many people first heard of blockchain technology when they started to look up information about bitcoin.
Blockchain is used in cryptocurrency systems to ensure secure, decentralized records of transactions.
Blockchain allowed people to guarantee the fidelity and security of a record of data without the need for a third party to ensure accuracy.
To understand how a blockchain works, Consider these basic steps:
Blockchain collects information in “blocks”.
A block has a storage capacity, and once it's used up, it can be closed and linked to a previously served block.
Blocks form chains, which are called “Blockchains.”
More information will be added to the block with the most content until its capacity is full. The process repeats itself.
Each block in the chain has an exact timestamp and can't be changed.
Let’s get to know more about the blockchain.
How does blockchain work?
Blockchain records digital information and distributes it across the network without changing it. The information is distributed among many users and stored in an immutable, permanent ledger that can't be changed or destroyed. That's why blockchain is also called "Distributed Ledger Technology" or DLT.
Here’s how it works:
Someone or a computer will transacts
The transaction is transmitted throughout the network.
A network of computers can confirm the transaction.
When it is confirmed a transaction is added to a block
The blocks are linked together to create a history.
And that’s the beauty of it! The process may seem complicated, but it’s done in minutes with modern technology. And because technology is advancing rapidly, I expect things to move even more quickly than ever.
A new transaction is added to the system. It is then relayed to a network of computers located around the world. The computers then solve equations to ensure the authenticity of the transaction.
Once a transaction is confirmed, it is placed in a block after the confirmation. All of the blocks are chained together to create a permanent history of every transaction.
How are Blockchains used?
Even though blockchain is integral to cryptocurrency, it has other applications. For example, blockchain can be used for storing reliable data about transactions. Many people confuse blockchain with cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum.
Blockchain already being adopted by some big-name companies, such as Walmart, AIG, Siemens, Pfizer, and Unilever. For example, IBM's Food Trust uses blockchain to track food's journey before reaching its final destination.
Although some of you may consider this practice excessive, food suppliers and manufacturers adhere to the policy of tracing their products because bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella have been found in packaged foods. In addition, there have been isolated cases where dangerous allergens such as peanuts have accidentally been introduced into certain products.
Tracing and identifying the sources of an outbreak is a challenging task that can take months or years. Thanks to the Blockchain, however, companies now know exactly where their food has been—so they can trace its location and prevent future outbreaks.
Blockchain technology allows systems to react much faster in the event of a hazard. It also has many other uses in the modern world.
What is Blockchain Decentralization?
Blockchain technology is safe, even if it’s public. People can access the technology using an internet connection.
Have you ever been in a situation where you had all your data stored at one place and that one secure place got compromised? Wouldn't it be great if there was a way to prevent your data from leaking out even when the security of your storage systems is compromised?
Blockchain technology provides a way of avoiding this situation by using multiple computers at different locations to store information about transactions. If one computer experiences problems with a transaction, it will not affect the other nodes.
Instead, other nodes will use the correct information to cross-reference your incorrect node. This is called “Decentralization,” meaning all the information is stored in multiple places.
Blockchain guarantees your data's authenticity—not just its accuracy, but also its irreversibility. It can also be used to store data that are difficult to register, like legal contracts, state identifications, or a company's product inventory.
Pros and Cons of Blockchain
Blockchain has many advantages and disadvantages.
Accuracy is increased because there is no human involvement in the verification process.
One of the great things about decentralization is that it makes information harder to tamper with.
Safe, private, and easy transactions
Provides a banking alternative and safe storage of personal information
Data storage has limits.
The regulations are always changing, as they differ from place to place.
It has a risk of being used for illicit activities
Frequently Asked Questions About Blockchain
I’ll answer the most frequently asked questions about blockchain in this section.
Is Blockchain a cryptocurrency?
Blockchain is not a cryptocurrency but a technology that makes cryptocurrencies possible. It's a digital ledger that records every transaction seamlessly.
Is it possible for Blockchain to be hacked?
Yes, blockchain can be theoretically hacked, but it is a complicated task to be achieved. A network of users constantly reviews it, which makes hacking the blockchain difficult.
What is the most prominent blockchain company?
Coinbase Global is currently the biggest blockchain company in the world. The company runs a commendable infrastructure, services, and technology for the digital currency economy.
Who owns Blockchain?
Blockchain is a decentralized technology. It’s a chain of distributed ledgers connected with nodes. Each node can be any electronic device. Thus, one owns blockhain.
What is the difference between Bitcoin and Blockchain technology?
Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, which is powered by Blockchain technology while Blockchain is a distributed ledger of cryptocurrency
What is the difference between Blockchain and a Database?
Generally a database is a collection of data which can be stored and organized using a database management system. The people who have access to the database can view or edit the information stored there. The client-server network architecture is used to implement databases. whereas a blockchain is a growing list of records, called blocks, stored in a distributed system. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, timestamp and transaction information. Modification of data is not allowed due to the design of the blockchain. The technology allows decentralized control and eliminates risks of data modification by other parties.
Blockchain has a wide spectrum of applications and, over the next 5-10 years, we will likely see it being integrated into all sorts of industries. From finance to healthcare, blockchain could revolutionize the way we store and share data. Although there is some hesitation to adopt blockchain systems right now, that won't be the case in 2022-2023 (and even less so in 2026). Once people become more comfortable with the technology and understand how it can work for them, owners, CEOs and entrepreneurs alike will be quick to leverage blockchain technology for their own gain. Hope you like this article if you have any question let me know in the comments section
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