It’s not really clear just what “humanoid” robots are actually for. I’ve seen them do all kinds of things, but almost none of them well; at our recent Robotics event in Boston, several leading experts in the field questioned their necessity. But we grew up with Data and Robby and Cylons, and so now we have Pepper. Pepper, performing funeral rites for cash-strapped people in Japan. Really?
This week is ENDEX, the Tokyo International Funeral and Cemetery Show and Life Ending Industry Expo — which, sure, isn’t for everyone, but honestly is a very important industry and one in which technology plays an increasing role.
But while I can get behind the idea of robotic grave cleaners, epitaph etchers, urn retrievers and things along those lines, this seems like a step in the wrong direction.
According to the Japan Times, “Kanagawa-based Nissei Eco Co. will offer Pepper — billed as the world’s first robot that can read emotions — to chant Buddhist sutras at funerals, providing a cheaper alternative to human priests.”
(Just as a quick aside, I don’t buy that Pepper actually reads emotions — no robot or computer vision system can do that. Hell, neither can I most of the time.)
It’s meant to help bring down the costs of funerary services in Japan, where (as elsewhere) they can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. But this is just a bad, dumb idea.
And it’s a dumb idea because Pepper specifically isn’t good at this job! Humanoid robots are created with the idea of existing and interacting with human spaces. There’s nothing about a human-shaped machine that makes it better at praying. If anything, it’s a mockery of the devotion and care that prayer is meant to embody. Not to mention the whole no-souls thing.
Mechanically it’s no better than playing an MP3 of the sutras on repeat, though it’s a great deal more expensive.
We have to consider with care how we integrate robots, AI, the internet and other technological advances into our lives and cultures. Dull, dirty, and dangerous work (the “three Ds”) are a perfect fit. Shoehorning them in where people are vulnerable like this and need a human touch is distasteful and bizarre.
Markforged, a 3D printer manufacturer based in Boston, has just announced two new models — the X3 and the X5. Both of these printers are designed to create carbon fiber-infused objects using a standard filament printing system and both can produce items that can replace or are stronger than steel objects.
Both printers have auto-leveling and scanning systems to ensure each printed object is exactly like every other. Further, the printers use Markforged’s special thermoplastic fiber filament, while the X5 can add a “strand of continuous fiberglass” to create objects “19X stronger and 10X stiffer than traditional plastics.” This means you can print both usable parts and usable tools using the same machine and, thanks to the fiberglass weave, you can ensure that the piece won’t snap on use. For example, one customer printed a custom valve wrench in 10 minutes using one of these printers.
Now for the bad news. The X3 costs a mere $36,990, while the X5 costs $49,900. These are aimed at what Markforged calls “local manufacturers.” Luckily you’re not stuck with the printer if you outgrow it. The X3 can easily be upgraded to work with X5’s filament and both are aimed at manufacturing shops that need to produce finished products on the fly.
“Customers can now, with ease, print same-day parts that optimize strength and affordability for their specific needs,” said CEO Greg Mark.
These printers are part of Markforged’s effort at creating a real “teleporter.” Thanks to the complex scanning and measurement systems built into these units, users can receive a 3D printer model and print it to exacting specifications. The system also has a failsafe mode that restarts at any time as the laser scanner can check to see exactly where the print stopped. The company is also hard at work on some impressive metal printing technologies that turn out parts that are usable in complex machines.
Microsoft is about to share the last details on the Xbox One X with a press conference ahead of the Gamescom in Cologne, Germany. You can watch it live right here at 12 PM on the West Coast, 3 PM on the East Coast, 8 PM in the U.K., 9 PM in Germany.
The company already said on Twitter that we can expect to hear more details about pre-orders for the Xbox One X:
Microsoft should also share new trailers for upcoming games, such as Forza Motorsport 7, Sea of Thieves, maybe another extension for Halo Wars 2, etc.
The Xbox One X is Microsoft’s upcoming gaming console. It’s a more powerful Xbox One that should work better with demanding games. You’ll be able to buy it on November 7 for $499. Microsoft says that you can expect 4K games with an acceptable framerate.
And yet, based on specs, the console should be more or less as powerful as a gaming PC with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070. If you have a 4K TV, games should definitely look better with an Xbox One X. But the existing Xbox One S is going to remain available after the release of the Xbox One X.
While we usually see robotics applied to industrial or research applications, there are plenty of ways they could help in everyday life as well: an autonomous guide for blind people, for instance, or a kitchen bot that helps disabled folks cook. Or — and this one is real — a robot arm that can perform rudimentary sign language.
It’s part of a masters thesis from grad students at the University of Antwerp who wanted to address the needs of the deaf and hearing impaired. In classrooms, courts and at home, these people often need interpreters — who aren’t always available.
Their solution is “Antwerp’s Sign Language Actuating Node,” or ASLAN. It’s a robotic hand and forearm that can perform sign language letters and numbers. It was designed from scratch and built from 25 3D-printed parts, with 16 servos controlled by an Arduino board. It’s taught gestures using a special glove, and the team is looking into recognizing them through a webcam as well.
Right now, it’s just the one hand — so obviously two-hand gestures and the cues from facial expressions that enrich sign language aren’t possible yet. But a second coordinating hand and an emotive robotic face are the next two projects the team aims to tackle.
The idea is not to replace interpreters, whose nuance can hardly be replicated, but to make sure that there is always an option for anyone worldwide who requires sign language service. It also could be used to help teach sign language — a robot doesn’t get tired of repeating a gesture for you to learn.
Why not just use a virtual hand? Good question. An app or even a speech-to-text program would accomplish many of the same things. But it’s hard to think less of the ASLAN project; taking an assistive technology off the screen and putting it in the real world, where it can be interacted with, viewed from many angles, and otherwise share the physical space of the people it helps, is a commendable goal.
ASLAN was created by Guy Fierens, Stijn Huys and Jasper Slaets. It’s still in prototype form, but once it’s finalized the designs will be open sourced.
If you’re going to be decking your roof out with solar tiles, there’s a possibility that you may forgo what might be the best placement of a skylight in favor of more solar cell square footage. Luckily solar glass is fast becoming an option, and these clever glass blocks are the best option I’ve seen yet.
Other solar glass options generally harvest in the infrared range, since if you captured the full spectrum — well, that wouldn’t be a window, it’d be a wall. But the energy you can capture is limited.
Researchers at the University of Exeter thought up an interesting alternative that may be the best of both worlds (until the next breakthrough, anyway). They created these thick blocks of glass with optical features — not quite lenses or tunnels, but sort of light guides — that funnel light from a large area on the sunny side of the window onto a much smaller cell on the inside.
By concentrating the light onto a smaller point, you get considerably more energy out of the cell’s tiny surface area than if it were ordinarily illuminated. It won’t be as much as a full-on cell covering that amount of space, but at least it’s transparent! Apart from the little cells and the wires connecting them, of course, which actually make a rather cool-looking pattern.
Free light, free power, and free thermal insulation — or free after it pays for itself, anyway. That could make it attractive to larger building designers, who are always looking to integrate energy-saving, green features like this into their work.
Solar Squared is being spun off from the University as an independent business endeavor — a company called Build Solar.
Of course you can’t order these things right now — it’s still a prototype and they’re waiting on the patent to go through. But it’s a smart idea and one that seems likely to find its footing in the commercial world. If it sounds like a good match for something you’re building — and you’re in the UK somewhere convenient to Exeter — contact the team and maybe you can work together to put together a demo roof.
Duke Robotics, a military contractor, has produced a video for their unique and uniquely dangerous new tool, TIKAD. This drone platform looks fairly basic – a custom multi-rotor drone with a chassis on the bottom to hold what looks like a stripped down machine gun, sniper rifle, or grenade launcher – but what it suggests about the future of warfare is pretty scary.
A gimbal at the bottom of the drone holds the gun steady as you aim and fire remotely via a video-capable control pad. All of this is possible with current technology and there have been examples of this kind of tech over the years, most recently with the Switchblade project. The technology is basic – I suspect DJI or a similar drone manufacturer could build this in a weekend – but it’s the target market and marketing that is the most interesting.
“TIKAD allows governments to utilize completely new capabilities against terrorist groups and reduce the number of deployed ground troops, and therefore, the number of casualties,” write TIKAD’s creators and they are currently raising funds to build more of these. In short, this viral video is essentially a massive marketing effort to support the company’s equity crowdfunding plan. After all, who doesn’t love a drone with a gun attached?
Duke is saying they are currently in testing with the Israeli army and they are also doing a sort of online crowd sale for investment which is why they produced such a titillating video. Given the current state of drone technology a product like this would be dangerous for use in real situations but with a bit of engineering and improvement you could have something that could launch from a distant location, move in for the kill, and then fly back. It could also, like so many drones on the market, explode when it hits a tree.
So take TIKAD with a grain of salt. This is an investment strategy, not a final product and, I suspect if it were that easy to stick a gun onto a drone we’d have something smaller than the Predator flying around. However if you want some good old-fashioned war footage with rendered drones flying in to destroy enemies of freedom, look no further than Duke’s video below.
As 3D printers grow smarter and continue to embed themselves in manufacturing and product creation processes, they are exposed to online malefactors just like every other device and network. Security researchers suggest a way to prevent hackers from sabotaging the outputs of 3D printers: listen very, very carefully.
Now, you’re forgiven if someone hacking a 3D printer doesn’t strike you as a particularly egregious threat. But they really are starting to be used for more than hobby and prototyping purposes: prosthetics are one common use, and improved materials have made automotive and aerospace applications possible.
The problem, as some security researchers have already demonstrated, is that a hacker could take over the machine and not merely shut it down but introduce flaws into the printed objects themselves. All it takes is a few small air gaps, a misalignment of internal struts or some such tweak, and all of a sudden the part rated to hold 75 pounds only holds 20. That could be catastrophic in many circumstances.
And of course the sabotaged parts may look identical to ordinary ones to the naked eye. What to do?
A team from Rutgers and Georgia Tech suggests three methods, one of which is easy and clever enough to integrate widely — a bit like Shazam for 3D printing. (The other two are still cool.)
I don’t know if you’ve ever been next to a printer while it works, but it makes a racket. That’s because many 3D printers use a moving print head and various other mechanical parts, all of which produce the usual whines, clicks and other noises.
The researchers recorded those noises while a reference print was being made, then fed that noise in bits to an algorithm that classifies sound so it can be recognized again.
When a new print is done, the sound is recorded again and submitted for inspection by the algorithm. If it’s the same all the way through, chances are the print hasn’t been tampered with. Any significant variation from the original sound, such as certain operations ending too fast or anomalous peaks in the middle of normally flat sections, will be picked up by the system and the print flagged.
It’s just a proof of concept, so there’s still room for improvement, lowering false positives and raising resistance to ambient noise.
Or the acoustic verification could be combined with other measures the team suggested. One requires the print head to be equipped with a sensor that records all its movements. If these differ from a reference motion path, boom, flagged.
The third method impregnates the extrusion material with nanoparticles that give it a very specific spectroscopic signature. If other materials are used instead, or air gaps left in the print, the signature will change and, you guessed it, the object flagged.
Like with the DNA-based malware vector, the hacks and countermeasures proposed here are speculative right now, but it’s never too early to start thinking about them.
“You’ll see more types of attacks as well as proposed defenses in the 3D printing industry within about five years,” said Saman Aliari Zonouz, co-author of the study (PDF), in a Rutgers news release.
And like the DNA research, this paper was presented at the USENIX Security Symposium.
CellSavers, the on-demand smartphone and tablet repair service, is rebranding its business to Puls and expanding its suite of services to include most smart devices in a home.
The San Francisco-based company also rounded up $25 million in new financing to help support its new marketing push and services.
In all, the company has raised $43 million in financing; that cash will help the company in its efforts to expand beyond cell phone and tablet repair to include flat screens, security cameras and voice-control and home-automation products from any manufacturer, the company said in a statement.
Despite rebranding with a name that sounds like a skin condition, Puls is smart to expand its suite of services. As the number of gadgets proliferate, consumers will need more help in demonstration, installation, setup, integration, support, repairs and trade-ins — all services that one can catch from Puls.
So far, the company has a network of roughly 1,000 vetted technicians in 40 markets, according to a statement. Puls guarantees service within 60 minutes to any covered location and includes a lifetime coverage for all repairs.
“We know how frustrating it is when your digital devices stop working, and at Puls we’re here whenever you need us, to get you up and running in no time, to keep your digital heart beating at all times,” said CEO and co-founder, Eyal Ronen in a statement.
The company’s round was led by the Singapore sovereign wealth fund-backed later-stage investor Red Dot Capital Partners, and included new investors Samsung Next, Maverick Ventures and Kreos Capital. Previous investors Sequoia Capital and Carmel Ventures also participated.
DJI is working on a “local data mode” for its apps that prevents any data from being sent to or received from the internet. The feature will be welcomed by many, but it’s hard not to attribute the timing and urgency of the announcement to the recent ban of DJI gear by the U.S. Army over unspecified “cyber vulnerabilities.”
“We are creating local data mode to address the needs of our enterprise customers, including public and private organizations that are using DJI technology to perform sensitive operations around the world,” said Brendan Schulman, the company’s VP of Policy and Legal Affairs, in a press release. The new feature should arrive before the end of September.
The Army memo, first published at Small UAS News and dated August 2, said that “due to increased awareness of cyber vulnerabilities associated with DJI products, it is directed that the U.S. Army halt use of all DJI products.”
It’s not clear what these vulnerabilities actually are, or whether the mere possibility of sensitive information being transmitted was enough to spook someone at HQ.
DJI’s flight control apps, from which users can launch and control drones, does indeed regularly phone home to make sure it is up to date, using current maps and so on. And if the user chose to, it would back-up flight logs and media to DJI’s servers. But the online functions aren’t necessary for ordinary operation and flight, so local data mode doesn’t affect airworthiness or anything like that.
Although DJI was not made aware of the Army’s concerns ahead of time, the new mode has been in development for several months, according to the press release. So either a little bird told the company this was a possibility, or more likely it’s just a smart option to include when your craft and apps are being put into national security and life-and-death type situations.
A DJI representative told TechCrunch that today’s announcement isn’t in response to the memo. Schulman, however, told The New York Times that “the Army memo caused customers to express renewed concern about data security.”
These statements may seem contradictory, but it’s not hard to imagine that when a major client like the Army raises security concerns, others will join the chorus. So DJI can say the announcement today wasn’t in response to the memo — not directly, anyway. But chances are we wouldn’t be hearing about the feature until later had the memo not been publicized.
“We’re not responding to the Army, which has never explained its concerns to us,” explained Adam Lisberg, DJI’s corporate comms director for North America, in response to my inquiries along these lines. “We’re accelerating the rollout of something we’ve been working on for a while. We announced it today because enterprise customers with serious data security have made clear they need something like this for a while, and the Army memo reinforced that concern for them. So we’re addressing it quickly as part of our commitment to delivering what our enterprise customers need.”
It matters because DJI isn’t a military-specific drone maker, like General Atomics, which makes Predators — though the chances of a Chinese company ever being so are slim to say the least. It’s also a matter of public image: they’re a company looking out for consumers and the occasional government contract, not a major participator in the military-industrial complex.
Clearly the company wants to signal that it takes its feature requests not from foreign governments, but from its valued users all over the globe, of which the Army happens to be one.
Everything that’s old is new again. That’s how the tech game is played. Products evolve and leave vacuums for new startups to rush in and fill. For Mighty, the long, slow death of the MP3 player presented just such an opening.
The company launched a Kickstarter last year with the promise of “streaming music without your phone,” delivering the still-tangible benefits of devoted music hardware for the Spotify generation. The startup built up enough excitement to hit $300k on the crowdfunding site, and the recent end of the iPod shuffle and nano have only furthered that interest among consumers.
CEO Anthony Mendelson tells us that company has embraced the media’s christening of the devices as an “iPod shuffle for Spotify.” While much of the underlying technology is different, the principle is basically the same: a screenless, clip-on player for taking music on the go.
It’s a small niche in the overall music listening market, and clearly Apple didn’t see enough value in continuing to produce the things.
But there are certain scenarios that aren’t served by phones alone. Fitness is probably the largest — going for a run with a smartphone is a pain. There’s also an opening for users with an underground commute and people who frequently have to switch into airplane mode. Parents have expressed interest in the device so they don’t have to hand kids their phone to listen to music and people have also picked a Mighty up for elderly parents.
Price was alway the other key to the shuffle’s success, and Mighty has taken great pains to keep its first player under $100. That’s easier said than done for a relatively small run from a brand new company, but the device (known as the M1, internally) is priced at $86 — pricier than the last Shuffle, but at a considerably higher (8GB) capacity. Hitting that price point required some comprises on the company’s part, and there are still a fair number of wrinkles to iron out here, but the first Mighty will tick most of the important boxes for users.
The Mighty’s not a bad looking player. It’s a bit boxy and fairly reminiscent of the shuffle — the form factor, after all is fairly limiting. The startup’s industrial design lead came over form Samsung and took the necessary precautions to avoid coming too close to Apple’s design language here.
The result is a similar circular button array, with play/pause at the center. The circle sports volume and track advance options, though, oddly, there’s no fast forward or rewind yet. It’s a pretty big blindspot for a music player, but apparently the Spotify API that allows for it creates a pretty big lag. Mendelson tells me the company is working on a fix, but didn’t offer a timeframe.
Above all that is a button designed specifically cycling through playlists, the primary method for inputting music from Spotify, at present. Playlists certainly make sense as a method for grouping together music on a playing without a screen. Otherwise it’s all a big crapshoot. There’s also a robot voice that lets you know the name of each playlist before it begins.
The player is made from a plastic composite. It feels a bit cheap — one of those aforementioned cost cutting measures. Mendelson tells me the company is looking into building an aluminum model for the next go-round, but the current model is still reasonably rugged. It can withstand a quick dip water and will likely survive a couple of falls onto the harsh concrete below.
There’s also a big clip on the back, a la the shuffle, and headphone jack up top. The device will connect to Bluetooth headphones, but excluding a hardwired option doesn’t make a lot of sense on a device that counts cost among its main selling points.
Apparently Spotify was so impressed with Mighty’s Kickstarter that it decided to work closely with the startup. For Spotify, it mean a piece of hardware devoted exclusively to its service, without having to invest in any R&D. For Mighty, it means a figurative seal of approval, along with a literal one on the product’s packaging.
As far as actual integration goes, the setup requires tying a bunch of accounts together. Mighty has its own app that needs to be associated both with the Spotify app. Users can also tie it directly to Facebook for quicker account set up. Direct integration with Spotify would be nice, but the streaming service isn’t really set up for that. Instead, users drag and drop content through the Mighty app.
That means there’s a lot of switching back and forth — you make the playlists on Spotify and import them through Mighty. It feels like a bit of a workaround, but unless Spotify ends up embracing this sort of technology more fully, it’s a necessary one. At very least, it gets the job done.
Mighty’s full embrace of the Spotify SDK means offline streaming works exactly the way the service wants. The built-in WiFi means the device connects to Spotify’s server at regular intervals, ensuring that the account associated with the device is still active (up to three offline devices can be associate to one account). If it goes 30 days without checking in, the system tacks a vocal watermark to the music, telling you to sync it, and assumedly ruining the listening experience in the process.
The Mighty is a good first step for the company. And if you’ve had a shuffle-sized hole in your life since streaming conquered the music industry, this should fill it pretty nicely. But there’s still a lot of room for the product to grow, and in some ways this first product feels a little rushed. Mendelson told me during our conversation that the company worked fast to be “first to market.”
It’s odd phrasing for a device that’s essentially a streaming update to a bygone product, but Mighty clearly wasn’t the only company circling the idea. Pebble was flirting with the idea with Core before the company imploded and was subsequently swallowed up by Fitbit. If the LTE-enabled Apple Watch rumors prove true, that could potentially cut into a significant piece of Mighty’s niche, by playing to runners looking for musical accompaniment beyond the phone.
Mighty is clearly already looking beyond this initial release. Mendelson has already previewed a number of things the company is working on to both improve this first generation and offer up in the inevitable M2 device.
Some of the key things coming to this first device include:
And for the M2, we can expect some combination of the following
You can probably expect that model to arrive roughly a year from now, at a higher price point than the current version. More than likely it will exist alongside its predecessor as Mighty continues to work to improve functionality on that unit. It remains to be seen how large the market really is for these devices, but as it stands, the Mighty does a pretty admirable job filling in the gap left by the iPod shuffle and its ilk.