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Category Archives: Technology

Could humans replace robots? (That’s not a typo)

When we teach students about robotics, it’s important to give them the big picture of why robotics is important. To do that it’s best to steer clear of the cliché that ‘Robotics are replacing people.’

So don’t you love this story that humans are being given back jobs that robots are not good at? Mercedes and Toyota have begun this, which is a surprise considering Toyota set the standard for automation in its factories. Remember ‘Lexus and the Olive Tree‘ in which Thomas Freedman described how cars were being manufactured by industrial robots?

Turns out humans, though easy to lay off, are better at keeping pace with changes and problem-solving.”The variety is too much to take on for the machines,” observed the head of production at Merc. They realize that humans are better at individualization, and dealing with variations. Robots, on the other hand, while they never need a lunch break of a sick day, work appear to be unable “to keep pace with changes.”

The point is not to teach young people to design robots that will replace human input but to manage them, and work alongside them.

If you subscribe to the opposite view, that robots are replacing humans, this story proves your point. It is a robot called Eve, a ‘robotic scientist’ that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the University of Manchester.

 

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Two networks our children may never know

Networks today mean something intangible. They almost always don’t involve human intervention. But there was a time when networks functioned because of people throwing switches and pulling levers.

I ran into these when visiting the old mining town of Jerome, Arizona yesterday. Take a look at two different networks, and appreciate old tech for a moment.

This model railroad, of the adjoining town of Cottonwood where we stayed in, incorporates the school, saloon, and the ‘company town’ where miners lived.  (If you are old enough to remember Johnny Cash’s song ‘Company Store,’ this is where that sentiment began. As in “St. Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go; I sold my soul to the company store.”)

Railroad Network

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This other network, telephones, were something else entirely. The switchboard ‘networked’ someone to another, thanks to an operator like this.Telephone Exchange

 

 
 

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The Chatbots are coming! The Chatbots are coming!

You are not imagining. Suddenly there is a lot of talk about these things called Chatbots.

And, um, what exactly is a Chatbot? It’s probably not what you might imagine at first. It’s not an App that you use to talk to someone – thought that evolution might just happen. A Chatbot is a virtual information assistant that uses artificial intelligence to provide answers you may ask of it. Yes, like SIRI, but better.

A Chatbot may predict what you are looking for (say weather in Colombo, as opposed to weather in San Francisco), and provide you with some insight it gleans from past interactions with you.

Amazon and Microsoft have been early out of the gate with these AI assistants. Amazon, for instance has Alexa, and is used with the Amazon Echo speaker. It’s basically a piece of hardware you talk to (as opposed to an App like SIRI). And it this networked speaker provides you with things such as sports scores, places you are looking up such as restaurants etc.

What’s the big deal about Chatbots?

Let me answer this from the perspective of my book (conveniently titled) Chat Republic. The big deal is that we humans fully immersed in a Web 2.0 world are moving towards having deeper, richer, and dare-I-say commercially-infused conversations. For whatever reason, we sometimes prefer technology over humans (which is why we are often politely asked to text someone not call!), so the market is giving us what we show preference to.

Artificial Intelligence has developed to the point that it can deliver information that was once curated, created or thought through by humans. Oddly enough, some Chatbots do have humans working behind the scenes! I’m not against Chatbots. They have a role to play, after all.

Side note: Many moons ago, before smart phones (c. 1998), I used a phone-based service to find movie times, demographic information and such. That data was saved on servers we now call the ‘Cloud’, and that database has evolved into AI.

Supreme irony: Chatbots do the work once done by humans. Humans also do the work done by Chatbots.

 

 
 

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Baxter, Sawyer, Tina, SIRI. Is this our future?

Baxter and Sawyer are brothers in arms, so to speak. They are collaborative, follow instructions, and adaptable to their surroundings.

They also happen to be robots. I find it interesting that they have human names, although they are industrial bots. No mistake they are meant for the factory floor, and not cute or friendly robots that are also coming of age elsewhere. Rethink Robotics, which manufactured them says they are “trained not programmed.” It quotes a professor who says his “long range aim is to try to achieve human level artificial intelligence. So the Baxter would be like a person, maybe not a full-fledged adult.”

  • Baxter is a 2-armed bot, and is described as “the safe, flexible, affordable alternative to outsourced labor and fixed automation.”  It weighs 165 pounds.
  • Sawyer is a one-armed fellow, and is called a “collaborative robot designed to execute machine tending, circuit board testing and other precise tasks.” It weighs just 42 pounds

Why I find this interesting is that we have begun to look at robots in humanistic terms, and this paves the way for them to be ‘invited’ into our homes some day soon. If you don’t believe me ask those who love their Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner.

How long will it be before we have a Homework robot, and an automated, (two-armed, hopefully) Personal Assistant? Low maintenance, too –no need for company benefits. Some people who use SIRI may say they already have one of those! Chat bots are also in the news now – like the Iranian bot, endearingly known as Tina.

Humanoid devices are also the stuff I have begun writing about elsewhere.

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2016 in Book, Ed-Tech, Robotics, STEM, Technology

 

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Virtual Reality meets Happy Meals meets Education

Is Virtual Reality going to become the next toy? It was going to happen, when marketers rediscover the immersive experience that they never got to realize when the wonders of Second Life never materialized.

Now that McDonald’s has got into the game, letting children re-fold the Happy Meal box into a VR headset (just like the Google cardboard model, but a different template), you could expect many to follow. WIRED reports that these ‘Happy Goggles’ (ugh! I just don’t dig this name), will be available at 14 McDonald’s restaurants across northern Sweden.

Coke has also experimented with similar headsets.

Now, to be sure the Golden Arches says they want to be in the education space. How that will go is left to be seen. Edutainment might be more appropriate.

Nevertheless, VR is well suited for educational experiences like we have never known. Unlike a computer screen, the wearable experience could be used differently. We don’t need ‘toys’ in class, though. Just tools.

 

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Drones meet Parachutes in Google’s new ‘Delivery’

Amazon must have quaked at this news today. Google, the folks who have given us Project Loon which will seen create a local Wi-Fi service in countries such as Sri Lanka, is now launching Parachute.

And yes the parachute can deliver anything to you.

Yes, it’s April 1st, folks.

There’s a line in the video that goes “Parachutes are like minds. They work best if they’re open.” Hey, minds are like parachutes – they easily catch a passing drift…!

While you’re enjoying it, check out the Google self-driving…. bicycle. (25 years ago a self-driving car would have seemed like an April Fool’s joke.)

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2016 in Media, Technology

 

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Was Apple v Justice iPhone battle feigned?

So, did Tim Cook win? Or did law enforcement fight a fake battle over a back-door to an iPhone? A few weeks ago I wondered why they even bothered asking Apple.

Given that there are dozens of websites that provide back-door services, and there being ‘ethical hackers’ who could unlock phones, I’m surprised no one has offered to do it for Apple, thereby freeing them of the PR nightmare.

A lawyer for the ACLU seems to think the battle is far from over. As a friend mentioned in response to this post, this legal tussle could have been a set-up, just to cover the fact that the surveillance program can snoop into phones – locked or otherwise.

But no worries, 60 governments already do it, as reported in Wired magazine two years ago.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2016 in Disruptive, Technology

 

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