Category Archives: food

Vertical solar farms, the next perpetual motion machine

I am a big fan of hydroponics. LED lighting allows growers to deliver a spectrum optimised for plant growth and they can get many times the productivity from a square metre inside under lighting than outside. In the right context, it’s a great idea. Here is a nice image from GE Reports , albeit with pointless scanning.

I don’t think much however of the various ‘futuristic’ artist impressions of external vertical farms with trees likely to fall on pedestrians from 20 floors up. Like this one, described as an ‘environmental alternative’. No it isn’t, its a daft idea that makes a pretty picture, not an alternative.

But as far as silliness is concerned, I suspect I can see one that is coming soon: the vertical solar farm. Here is how it will work, cough. Actually two ways.

PLEASE DON’T TAKE THE FOLLOWING SERIOUSLY!

A lot of external solar panels on a building will gather solar energy (or solar paint, whatever), and that wonderful renewable energy will then be used to power super-efficient LED lights, illuminating highly efficient solar panels inside. The LED banks and solar panels will be arranged in numerous layers to make lots of nice clean energy. The resultant ‘energy amplifier’ will appear.

A more complex version will use hydroponics instead, converting the externally gather solar energy into plant material to make biofuel to make energy to power the lights during the night.

Some clever-clogs will then work out that the external panels are not needed since the internal panels will make the light to power the LEDs 24/7. People will object, but they’ll just point at the rapidly growing efficiencies of both LEDs and solar panels, especially coupled to other enhancements such as picking the right spectrum for the LEDs. How can it not work?

You know as well as I do, I hope, that this is total nonsense and will remain so. However, you also know as well as I do that some people are very easily taken in. Personally, I can’t wait to see the first claims from some Green company. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if they manage to get a development grant. It would be hilarious if something like this makes it through a patent office somewhere. Perpetual machines don’t go extinct, they just evolve.

Actually, I’m more upset that it isn’t April 1st.

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Can we automate restaurant reviews?

Reviews are an important part of modern life. People often consult reviews before buying things, visiting a restaurant or booking a hotel. There are even reviews on the best seats to choose on planes. When reviews are honestly given, they can be very useful to potential buyers, but what if they aren’t honestly give? What if they are glowing reviews written by friends of the restaurant owners, or scathing reviews written by friends of the competition? What if the service received was fine, but the reviewer simply didn’t like the race or gender of the person delivering it? Many reviews fall into these categories, but of course we can’t be sure how many, because when someone writes a review, we don’t know whether they were being honest or not, or whether they are biased or not. Adding a category of automated reviews would add credibility provided the technology is independent of the establishment concerned.

Face recognition software is now so good that it can read lips better than human lip reading experts. It can be used to detect emotions too, distinguishing smiles or frowns, and whether someone is nervous, stressed or relaxed. Voice recognition can discern not only words but changes in pitch and volume that might indicate their emotional context. Wearable devices can also detect emotions such as stress.

Given this wealth of technology capability, cameras and microphones in a restaurant could help verify human reviews and provide machine reviews. Using the checking in process it can identify members of a group that might later submit a review, and thus compare their review with video and audio records of the visit to determine whether it seems reasonably true. This could be done by machine using analysis of gestures, chat and facial expressions. If the person giving a poor review looked unhappy with the taste of the food while they were eating it, then it is credible. If their facial expression were of sheer pleasure and the review said it tasted awful, then that review could be marked as not credible, and furthermore, other reviews by that person could be called into question too. In fact, guests would in effect be given automated reviews of their credibility. Over time, a trust rating would accrue, that could be used to group other reviews by credibility rating.

Totally automated reviews could also be produced, by analyzing facial expressions, conversations and gestures across a whole restaurant full of people. These machine reviews would be processed in the cloud by trusted review companies and could give star ratings for restaurants. They could even take into account what dishes people were eating to give ratings for each dish, as well as more general ratings for entire chains.

Service could also be automatically assessed to some degree too. How long were the people there before they were greeted/served/asked for orders/food delivered. The conversation could even be automatically transcribed in many cases, so comments about rudeness or mistakes could be verified.

Obviously there are many circumstances where this would not work, but there are many where it could, so AI might well become an important player in the reviews business. At a time when restaurants are closing due to malicious bad reviews, or ripping people off in spite of poor quality thanks to dishonest positive reviews, then this might help a lot. A future where people are forced to be more honest in their reviews because they know that AI review checking could damage their reputation if they are found to have been dishonest might cause some people to avoid reviewing altogether, but it could improve the reliability of the reviews that still do happen.

Still not perfect, but it could be a lot better than today, where you rarely know how much a review can be trusted.

Smart packaging: Acoustic sterilisation

I should have written this on the ides of March, but hey ho. I was discussing packaging this morning for an IoT event.

Imagine a bacterium sitting on a package on a supermarket shelf is called Julius Caesar. Now imagine Brutus coming along with a particularly sharp knife and stabbing him hundreds of times. That’s my idea, just scaled down a bit.

selfsterilising

This started as a slight adaptation of an idea I developed for Dunlop a few years ago to make variable grip tires. (Still waiting for Dunlop to make those, so maybe some other tire company might pick up the idea).

The idea is very simple, to use tiny triangular structures embedded in the surface, and then pull the base of the triangle together, thereby pushing up the tip. My tire idea used electro-active polymers to do the pulling, and sharp carbon composites to do the grip bit, or in this antibacterial case, the sharp knife. Probably for packaging I’d use carbon nanotubes or similar as the sides with which to stab the bacteria, but engineers frequently come up with different nanostructure shapes so I’m pretty agnostic about material and shape. If it ruptures a bacterium, it will be good.

An easier to use alternative for widespread use in packaging would be to ditch the electro-active polymer and associated electronics, and instead to use a tuned acoustic wave to move the blades in and out of the surface. All that is needed to activate them is to put out that frequency of sound through a speaker system in the supermarket or factory. The sound needed would likely be ultrasonic, so it doesn’t irritate all the shoppers, and in any case, nano-structures will generally be associated with high frequencies.

So the packaging would include tiny structures that act as the dagger attached to a particular acoustic mass acting as Brutus, that would move when the appropriate resonant frequency is broadcast.

This technique doesn’t need any nasty chemicals, though it does need the nanostructures and sound and if they aren’t designed right, the nanostructures could be just as harmful. Anyway, that’s the basic idea.