If we want drones to do our dirty work for us, they’re going to need to get pretty good at hauling stuff around. But due to the pesky yet unavoidable restraints of physics, it’s hard for them to muster the forces necessary to do so while airborne — so these drones brace themselves against the ground to get the requisite torque.
The drones, created by engineers at Stanford and Switzerland’s EPFL, were inspired by wasps and spiders that need to drag prey from place to place but can’t actually lift it, so they drag it instead. Grippy feet and strong threads or jaws let them pull objects many times their weight along the ground, just as you might slide a dresser along rather than pick it up and put it down again. So I guess it could have also just been inspired by that.
Whatever the inspiration, these “FlyCroTugs” (a combination of flying, micro and tug presumably) act like ordinary tiny drones while in the air, able to move freely about and land wherever they need to. But they’re equipped with three critical components: an anchor to attach to objects, a winch to pull on that anchor and sticky feet to provide sure grip while doing so.
“By combining the aerodynamic forces of our vehicle and the interactive forces generated by the attachment mechanisms, we were able to come up with something that is very mobile, very strong and very small,” said Stanford grad student Matthew Estrada, lead author of the paper published in Science Robotics.
The idea is that one or several of these ~100-gram drones could attach their anchors to something they need to move, be it a lever or a piece of trash. Then they take off and land nearby, spooling out thread as they do so. Once they’re back on terra firma they activate their winches, pulling the object along the ground — or up over obstacles that would have been impossible to navigate with tiny wheels or feet.
Using this technique — assuming they can get a solid grip on whatever surface they land on — the drones are capable of moving objects 40 times their weight — for a 100-gram drone like that shown, that would be about 4 kilograms, or nearly 9 pounds. Not quickly, but that may not always be a necessity. What if a handful of these things flew around the house when you were gone, picking up bits of trash or moving mail into piles? They would have hours to do it.
As you can see in the video below, they can even team up to do things like open doors.
“People tend to think of drones as machines that fly and observe the world,” said co-author of the paper, EPFL’s Dario Floreano, in a news release. “But flying insects do many other things, such as walking, climbing, grasping and building. Social insects can even work together and combine their strength. Through our research, we show that small drones are capable of anchoring themselves to surfaces around them and cooperating with fellow drones. This enables them to perform tasks typically assigned to humanoid robots or much larger machines.”
Unless you’re prepared to wait for humanoid robots to take on tasks like this (and it may be a decade or two), you may have to settle for drone swarms in the meantime.
The market for Chromebooks is generally growing this year despite recent pandemic-related slowdowns, and it looks like more PC vendors are interested in releasing Chrome OS devices. The next in line may be LG.
On October 18, a filing was listed with the Bluetooth SIG, the special interest group that awards Bluetooth certifications, for an “LG Chromebook.” The listing, spotted by Chrome Unboxed, doesn’t give us much further information. The device’s model number is “11TC50Q,” and the machine should have some version of Bluetooth 5.
Without any official word from LG, we can’t be sure that the product exists. But since the company went through the effort of getting Bluetooth certification from Bluetooth SIG, an LG-branded Chromebook is far from a pipe dream. Plus, it would make sense for LG to release a Chromebook.
LG has its hands in many pots, from kitchen appliances to high-end TVs, audio solutions, and even solar panels. LG’s current PC lineup is centered on its Gram series of ultralight laptops. Since Chromebooks employ low-power parts, heat can be more manageable, allowing for thin and fanless designs. This also makes them a good option for travel.
As noted by Chrome Unboxed, LG made a Chrome OS-based all-in-one PC, aka a Chromebase, in 2014 but couldn’t compete with Windows and macOS rivals.
If LG does release a Chromebook, it will be interesting to see if it gets LG’s Gram branding. Currently, all of LG’s Gram laptops are thin-and-lights with Intel chips. The brand also makes a couple of AMD Ryzen-powered clamshells with LG Ultra PC branding. An LG Gram Chromebook would imply Intel chips.
Alternatively, LG could end the idea of its Gram laptops needing to be part of the Intel Evo certification program for ultrabooks and let the Chromebook stand on the names of LG and Chromebook alone—or even launch a new brand just for Chrome OS devices. LG’s AMD PCs start at an MSRP of $800, while the cheapest Gram-branded PC starts at $1,000.
An LG Chromebook would bring Google’s OS pretty close to ubiquity among all major US PC brands, though Razer, MSI, and Microsoft don’t sell Chromebooks.
Facebook’s senior executives interfered to allow US politicians and celebrities to post whatever they wanted on its social network despite pleas from employees to stop, leaked internal documents suggest.
Employees claim in the documents that while Facebook has long insisted that it is politically neutral, it allowed rightwing figures to break rules designed to curb misinformation and harmful content, after being stung by accusations of bias from conservatives.
In September 2020, just ahead of the US presidential election, the author of an internal memo wrote that “director-level employees” had “written internally that they would prefer to formally exclude political considerations from the decision-making process.”
The author called for the company’s leadership to create a “firewall” around its content moderation teams to stop this from happening and to make sure Facebook did not keep up or take down posts because of external political and media pressure.
In another internal note, dated December 2020, an employee claimed that Facebook’s public policy team blocked decisions to take down posts “when they see that they could harm powerful political actors.”
“In multiple cases the final judgment about whether a prominent post violates a certain written policy are made by senior executives, sometimes Mark Zuckerberg,” the author added, referring to Facebook’s chief executive. Parts of the note were previously reported by BuzzFeed.
In a further example from 2019, Zuckerberg was alleged to have been personally involved in a decision to allow a video that made the false claim that abortion is “never medically necessary.”
The post, which had been taken down by a moderator, was reinstated following complaints by Republican politicians, the document said.
The documents, part of a wider cache dubbed the Facebook Papers, were disclosed to US regulators and provided to Congress in redacted form by the legal counsel of whistleblower Frances Haugen. A consortium of news organisations, including the Financial Times, has obtained the redacted versions received by Congress.
Facebook declined to respond to queries about the outcome of any discussions about separating its content team from the policy and communications teams.
Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, said: “At the heart of these stories is a premise which is false. Yes, we’re a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or wellbeing misunderstands where our own commercial interests lie. The truth is we’ve invested $13bn and have over 40,000 people to do one job: keep people safe on Facebook.”
Staff told to aim for ‘“unimpeachable neutrality”
A former Facebook executive told the FT that Zuckerberg had long told staff to aim for what he called “unimpeachable neutrality.”
This was important particularly around US political groups, employees were told, because the company did not want to be accused of breaking campaign rules by giving a donation in kind.
But three other former employees said they had observed how Facebook applied its own rules in an inconsistent and haphazard way, with special treatment for celebrities.
One former integrity team employee said: “For the people running Facebook, it seems like they care much more about not appearing biased than actually not being biased. Often their efforts at the former make the latter worse.”
This week Apple introduced a set of new MacBook Pro laptops. During the prerecorded launch event, Apple’s engineers and executives made it clear that the MVPs in these new products are the chips that power them: the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. With 34 billion and 57 billion transistors, respectively, they are the engines powering the new Mac devices’ super hi-res displays, providing blazing speed, and extending battery life. The laptops represent the apotheosis of a 14-year strategy that has transformed the company—literally under the hood of its products—in a massive effort to design and build its own chips. Apple is now methodically replacing microprocessors it buys from vendors like Intel and Samsung with its own, which are optimized for the needs of Apple users. The effort has been stunningly successful. Apple was once a company defined by design. Design is still critical at Apple, but I now consider it a silicon company.
A couple days after the keynote, I had a rare on-the-record conversation about Apple silicon with senior worldwide marketing VP Greg Joswiak (aka “Joz”), senior hardware engineering VP John Ternus, and senior hardware technology VP Johny Srouji. I had been asking Apple to put me in touch with Srouji for years. His title only hints at his status as the chip czar at Apple. Though he’s begun to appear on camera at recent Apple events, he generally avoids the spotlight. An Israeli-born engineer who previously worked at Intel and IBM, Srouji joined Apple in 2008, specifically to fulfill a mandate from Steve Jobs, who felt that the chips in the original iPhone couldn’t meet his demands. Srouji’s mission was to lead Apple in making its own silicon. The effort has been so well executed that I believe Srouji is secretly succeeding Jony Ive as the pivotal creative wizard whipping up the secret sauce in Apple’s offerings.
Srouji, of course, won’t cop to that. After all, the playbook for Apple executives is to expend their hyperbole on Macs, iPhones, and iPads, not themselves. “Apple builds the best silicon in the world,” he says. “But I always keep in mind that Apple is first and foremost a product company. If you’re a chip designer, this is heaven because you’re building silicon for a company that builds products.”
Srouji is clear on the advantages of rolling out your own chips, as opposed to buying from a vendor like Intel, which was summarily booted from MacBook Pros this week in favor of the M’s. “When you’re a merchant vendor, a company that delivers off-the-shelf components or silicon to many customers, you have to figure what is the least common denominator—what is it that everyone needs across many years?” he says. “We work as one team—the silicon, the hardware, the software, the industrial design, and other teams—to enable a certain vision. When you translate that to silicon, that gives us a very unique opportunity and freedom because now you’re designing something that is not only truly unique, but optimized for a certain product.” In the case of the MacBook Pro, he says, he sat with leaders like Ternus and Craig Federighi several years ago and envisioned what users would be able to get their hands on in 2021. It would all spring from the silicon. “We sit together, and say, ‘Okay, is it gated by physics? Or is it something we can go beyond?’ And then, if it’s not gated by physics and it’s a matter of time, we go figure out how to build it.”
Think about that—the only restraint Apple’s chipmakers concede to is the physical boundary of what’s possible.
Srouji explained how his journey at Apple has been one of conscious iteration, building on a strong foundation. A key element of the company’s strategy has been to integrate the functions that used to be distributed among many chips into a single entity—known as SOC, or system-on-a-chip. “I always fundamentally felt and believed that if you have the right architecture, then you have a chance to build the best chip,” he says. “So we started with the architecture that we believe would scale. And by scaling, we mean scaling to performance and features and the power envelope, whether it’s a watch or iPad or iMac. And then we started selectively figuring the technologies within the chip—we wanted to start owning them one by one. We started with the CPU first. And then we went into the graphics. Then we went into signal processing, display engine, etcetera. Year over year, we built our engineering muscle and wisdom and ability to deliver. And a few years later, when you do all this and you do it right, you find yourself with really good architecture and IP you own and a team behind you that is now capable of repeating that recipe.”
Ternus elaborates: “Traditionally, you’ve got one team at one company designing a chip, and they have their own set of priorities and optimizations. And then the product team and another company has to take that chip and make it work in their design. With these MacBook Pros, we started all the way at the beginning—the chip was being designed right when the system was being thought through. For instance, power delivery is important and challenging with these high-performance parts. By working together [early on], the team was able to come up with a solution. And the system team was actually able to influence the shape, aspect ratio, and orientation of the SOC so that it can best nest into the rest of the system components.” (Maybe this helped convince Apple to restore the missing ports that so many had longed for in the previous MacBook.)
Clearly these executives believe the new Macs represent a milestone in Apple’s strategy. But not its last. I suggest that a future milestone might be silicon customized to enable an augmented reality system, producing the graphics intensity, precision geolocation, and low power consumption that AR spectacles would require. Predictably, the VPs did not comment on that.
Before the conversation ends, I have to ask Joswiak about the now discontinued Touch Bar, the dynamic function-key feature that Apple launched with great fanfare five years ago but that never caught on. Not surprisingly, his postmortem spins it as a great gift to new users. “There’s no doubt that our Pro customers love that full-size, tactile feel of those function keys, and so that’s the decision we made. And we feel great about that,” he says. He points out that for lovers of the Touch Bar, whoever they may be, Apple is still selling the 13-inch—now obsolete—version of the MacBook Pro with the soft keys intact.
The tale of the Touch Bar reminds us that even the best silicon can’t guarantee designers will make the right choices. But as Srouji notes, when done right, it can unleash an infinite number of innovations that could not otherwise exist. Maybe the most telling indicator of Apple’s silicon success this week came not from the launch of the MacBook Pro, but in Google’s unveiling of the Pixel 6 phone. Google boasted that the phone’s key virtues sprang from a decision to follow the path Apple and Srouji forged 14 years ago in building the company’s own chip, the Tensor processor.
“Is this a case of ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?’” I ask the Apple team.
“You took my line!” says Joswiak. “Clearly, they think we’re doing something right.”
“If you were to give Google or some other company friendly advice on their silicon journey, what would it be?” I ask.