Robots Get Manipulative

Artificial intelligence-powered robots seem to intimidate all kinds of intelligent people, from Stephen Hawking to Elan Musk. But how scary are pieces of machinery? They can be powered down. They are programmed by humans. As far as we know the robots at work in the world today, and not the ones of science fiction, aren’t greedy, or vindictive, or even ethically benign. They are inanimate. On another level, robots aren’t able to navigate space very well. Even autonomous cars rely on the vehicle to attain motion. There doesn’t seem to be much of a threat. However these physical limitations also impede the potential for robots to adapt to environments and solve physical problems. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is about to change that.


Nikhil Chaven-Dafle, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, is developing ways for robotic arms to manipulate objects and make use of their environment. For example, we humans take for granted our ability to screw a light bulb into a socket with one hand, while tightly gripping a ladder with the other. We are able to adapt our grip, orient objects and correct mistakes, like threading the light bulb incorrectly, and starting over. We interact with our environment and we use our environment to assist us in manipulating objects.


Certainly robots are capable of performing physical tasks. Car manufacturing assembly lines prove that robotic arms are highly efficient and capable of completing repetitive tasks. What Chaven-Dafle is developing is something new. He is working on ways for robotic arms to solve physical, not virtual, problems. Chaven-Dafle explained his project to TechCrunch saying, “We basically developed a formulation that allows robots to estimate how the forces and motions and contacts are going to be involved, and use this underlying model, it can predict how the object is going to move in the grasp.”


No word yet on whether robots are capable of manipulating objects in space, or even if that skill poses a threat to humanity. But robots have been safely handling all kinds of tools for quite some time in limited and highly fixed ways.

Company Security is Turning to Robots for Extra Eyes and Ears

With security being a serious issue these days, the cost of security personnel for businesses and schools is significant. To address this situation, Cobalt Robotics Inc., based in Palo-Alto, California, created a robot that will enhance building security without needing to cut more weekly paychecks or deal with other personnel issues.


The approximately 4-foot tall robots, which look something like large blue and silver bishop playing pieces from a chessboard, are not capable of replacing human security guards. Instead, these little buddies glide around a floor of the building looking for things that might be out of the ordinary, such as people in the office after hours, the sound of a window breaking or possible water leaks.


These units are designed for indoor use only. Using a microphone and cameras, audio is detected and people can be videotaped. Whereas wall-mounted security cameras are stationary, these robots with artificial intelligence are mobile. Again, they are not created to replace existing security camera systems but to complement them.


The Cobalt Robot has 60 sensors, including daytime, nighttime and wide-angle cameras, ultrasound, lidar and depth sensors. This is the same technology found in  self-driving cars used to sense the vehicle’s external environment.


The 2-way video chat and text screen allows a security guard in another part of the building to communicate with the person that the robot has approached. Often, the security guard will ask the person to scan his employee ID badge using the RFID technology found on the front of the robot.


Cobalt’s target market is companies with large or complex buildings, such as hospitals, museums, warehouses, office buildings and schools. The company expects to get a portion of the physical security market, which is expected to reach $110 billion within three years.


Currently, these innovative devices are in pilot-program mode. Plans for future development include flagging changes in the building and tagging assets, such as computers, TVs, inventory and other devices of value.


Investors in this project like the fact that that add additional technology can be added to future models. The robots will not become obsolete because the designers will be able to incorporate new features and keep up with demands of businesses’ growing and changing security needs.


Companies that need more security but need to keep the costs under control will find the Cobalt Robots can patrol floors and examine corners, freeing up security personnel for tasks that only humans can do, such as escorting someone from the building or investigate something that the robot communicates as unusual activity.

Google’s Perspective is an Unexpected AI Tool

When Google says it is making Artificial Intelligence software available to the public, it is hard not to be excited. We know that AI will change things in a big way in the next few years, and there is little doubt that Google will be on the cutting edge. But Google’s release of Perspective might not be the kind of AI users expect.

Jigsaw, a unit of Google, is releasing Perspective, a software tool that detects trolling (e.g., harassment) on the internet. According to The Verge, the software has successfully identified ISIS members online. Online publishers plan to use the tool to police the comments section of their articles. Users will use an API to interact with the software service.

Why would an online publisher want to use Perspective to identify trolls? Presumably, the publisher would identify trolls and then ban them or discipline them in some other way. For non-trolls, that might sound like a pretty great service. If only we all agreed on what constitutes a troll.

Perspective is destined to collide with free speech in a big way. Last year, Twitter’s banning of conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, received mixed reviews; some saw it as a victory for civility, while others saw it as a violation of free speech. It is difficult to imagine a use of Perspective that will not result in the same sort of outcome.

Is Perspective a censorship tool? Google seems to have designed it with good intentions, but it could obviously be used to identify and silence dissenting voices. While companies might use the tool to avoid hostile user comments, governments might find ways to use it to identify citizens with anti-government points of view.

Perspective will, undoubtedly, be a technological breakthrough, but it is unclear whether its service will be a net win for society. Let’s hope that web developers use their new Google-aided powers for good, and not for evil.


Beneficial Deception Keeps Users Happy

Software developers and designers employ various tactics to optimize user experience, but one seemingly devious tactic is quite helpful to both users and brand websites. The practice of beneficial deception isn’t new but tech writer Kaveh Waddell recently investigated the phenomenon after experiencing it himself. While filing his taxes he noticed that the Turbo Tax progress bars seemed a little quirky. They were running too smoothly and taking their time. He wondered if the program was actually double and triple checking his returns like it promised. He also wondered if it should take that long, considering that the program must have been processing the return as he was filling it out. Waddell was correct. The Turbo Tax progress bar was faking it.


After consulting with fellow techie Andrew McGill, the two looked through the program’s source code and found that it ran separately from the actual tax processing portion of the program. It also ran for the same length of time and in the exact same manner for every single Turbo Tax user. According to Turbo Tax, the delay and the bright animations help ease users’ tax anxieties. The graphics provide a bit of time for users to calm down, build confidence and trust the software. Although most other uses of beneficial deception hide faults or delays, the Turbo Tax program developers purposefully create a waiting period.


Not all of this is placed squarely on the developers, of course. User experience experts, test studies, control groups and human behavioral scientists also provide insight into optimal user experiences. This particular tactic, of extending a wait period, also serves to heighten user suspense and creates a more satisfying conclusion to an otherwise easily automated and instantaneous result. It seems people like feeling a little bit nervous, but only a little bit and for only a little while.


Firefox To Support Netflix

Firefox 49 is currently in development. Among the most recent news is that Firefox is able to support the Content Decryption Module from Google. This makes it possible for people to be able to watch Netflix. In other words, people will be able to watch some of their favorite shows and movies as well as some exclusives on one of the most famous and successful streaming services. People who have devices that use the Linux operating system will be able to enjoy the streaming service. This is not only good news for Firefox users, but also for Netflix in that they will get more subscribers.

These days, streaming is all the rage. Streaming is how people get to watch some of their favorite videos and other forms of media. Streaming has come a long way since the days of Real Player when people had to watch lower resolution videos with choppy motion and a constant need to buffer. While streaming services still have the buffering problem, the quality and presentation has vastly improved. People can watch their favorite shows in high definition from any device. They don’t have to buy a DVD or watch it on TV. Also, they could watch full length movies now, compared to the time when one had to settle for two minute clips. The online based streaming services could also be integrated to TV for full viewing enjoyment.

However, the ability to stream Netflix might not happen right away. As usual, there may be some bugs to work out with the new Firefox. However, there is the ability to play Netflix if one is able to manipulate the agent to Google Chrome so that it is possible to watch the shows on Netflix. However, either sooner or later, Chrome users will be able to enjoy the streaming services as well as the content that is offered by the likes of Netflix and Amazon Video. With the advent of devices like smartphones and tablets, streaming has quickly become the way to watch media.

Creators of Sense Hub Looking into New Software

Home Hub Sense Company Turns Towards Software

The workers who were once part of the Mozilla team have been busy with their own special projects. Software is what that kind of project is about.

Andreas Gal, who was a former Mozilla worker and co-founder of a company called Silk Labs, decided to turn some attention towards the smart home market by founding a hub called “Sense.” The hub works by operating with all of the connected devices inside a home while also learning the patterns and behavior of the home owners over time. Sense was funded heavily by way of a Kickstarter campaign which helped develop community interest.

As of this Wednesday, however, Sense has decided to back out of selling its own hardware and is now focusing on marketing its software to the world. The company decided to refund money to any Kickstarter backers who were originally lending their support to Sense’s hardware. Kickstarters have donated $164,885 towards the project but this was proven to not be enough in order to maintain it. The fact that Amazon expanded its Echo Line of speakers, the competition for interactive home technology has only gotten stiffer since Sense hit the ground in February of this year.

Sense has now decided to take an approach on marketing new software, including data processing with the Silk platform that would help generate interest in making and buying the hardware and licensing it for their own products.