Saturday, October 25, 2014

Next Big Trend: Robots That Follow You Around

Next Big Trend: Robots That Follow You Around
BY TIM MOYNIHAN   10.13.14  |   6:30 AM 

Dozens of robots will descend upon the Back Bay for the RoboBusiness conference in Boston this week. A few of them may even try following you home.

Within the world of robots and drones, there is a growing trend toward tailing you—with your permission in this case. It’s great for recreational use, where unmanned aerial vehicles, equipped with GoPro cameras, create mesmerizing video selfies for far less than the cost of renting a helicopter and hiring a film crew.

3D Robotics’ Iris+ drone and its DroidPlanner 2.0 software have a “Follow Me” mode for just these kinds of shots, as do models from Hexo+ and AirDog. And this being the mobile era, the Iris+ and Hexo+ work their magic by connecting to your smartphone and using its GPS data as a flight plan. The AirDog system requires wearing or carrying a little wireless module called an AirLeash.

Such tech makes sense in a drone, but more and more terrestrial machines are adopting “follow the leader” functions. For example, the CaddyTrek schleps your clubs around the golf course by tracking a belt-mounted module that doubles as a remote control. Yes, it’s been out for a few years, but a new wave of loyal ‘bots that shadow you is right around the corner.

The use cases extend beyond entertainment. Five Elements Robotics’ Budgee, a “friendly robot assistant” designed for the elderly and handicapped, is a lightweight pack mule with a top speed of 2.4 mph. If you’re walking too fast for it to keep up, it’ll say so, with an app that lets you tailor the message. You can also program the color of its eyes, which have different sizes “inspired by my daughter’s sock puppets,” says Five Elements CEO Wendy Roberts.

Budgee is easily folded and weighs just 20 pounds, yet it lugs up to 50 pounds of stuff. The robot runs up to 10 hours on a charge, and although it’s rain-resistant, don’t take it swimming. Not that it would follow you into the pool anyway. Sensors help keep it from falling down stairs, running into obstacles or going off a cliff.

The follow function works through sonar sensors embedded in Budgee’s “ears.” To make it work, owners clip a small module onto the back of his their belt and use the app to set the distance at which their little friend follows. Roberts says the company is working on a joystick interface that will make the robot more easily controlled for those who use wheelchairs.

The robotic assistant should be available in January of next year for $1,400.

There’s a more complex tracking system within Harvest Automation’s industrial robots, which are designed for agricultural and manufacturing environments. The plant-shuttling HV-100, nicknamed Harvey, is already in use. Harvest Automation co-founder and COO Charles Grinnell says there are 100 zipping around in plant nurseries nationwide. LED sensors housed in orange cases allow it to follow patterns taped out on the floor; a LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor allows it to detect obstacles to avoid and humans to follow.

LIDAR is what makes these robots very precise and—at $30,000 apiece—much more expensive.

“We use a LIDAR for Follow Me, [because] we already have it onboard for more complex object detection tasks the robot must perform,” says Grinnell. “Our robot needs to very accurately position plants in the fields at our customers, and that requires very accurate and long-distance sensing. LIDARs that meet our requirements—accuracy, all weather, full sun—are $2,000 to $3,000 at this point.”

The sensor technology uses sweeping lasers to sense and calculate 3-D objects in front of it, and it is incredibly hard to shake once it’s following you. Despite being 20 inches tall, it’d be a nightmare playing hoops against the HV-100. It sticks to your every move like gum on hair. If you get freaked out or, more appropriately, there’s an emergency, there’s a big orange pull-stop on top. Yank it and the robot shuts down immediately.

According to Grinnell, the HV-100’s follow mode has a very practical use-case behind it. Plant nurseries use it to lead their teams of plant bots on and off the work area; it’s much easier to have a group of them follow a person rather than having to remote-control the robots individually. The LIDAR technology is also essential for the robots to detect the plants in front of them.

The company’s new robot, currently a prototype, is designed for warehouses and manufacturing plants. It’s expected to be cheaper: Harvest Automation has ditched the line-following LED sensors in favor of LIDAR alone. Grinnell says factory-friendly bots don’t need the same taped-off guide lines.

Budgee and Harvey will be on display alongside robots and related tech from 80 other companies at the 10th annual RoboBusiness 2014 conference. As robotic development has evolved and become more affordable, that show has grown quickly. According to Rich Erb, general manager of show-organizer Robotics Trends Media Group, attendance has grown more than threefold in the past three years. In 2011, there were 300 attendees of the show. This year, more than 1,000 people from 22 countries are registered.

The conference takes place in Boston’s Hynes Convention Center from Wednesday, October 15 through Friday, October 17. It’s not open to the public, but if you hang around outside the convention center, you may be able to catch one of the robots following someone out.

Can a headband app calm you down?

Can a headband app calm you down?


Mashable's senior tech correspondent sits alone in the newsroom. On Samantha Kelly Murphy's forehead sits a $300 headband. It restrains none of her hair but connects wirelessly to an app on her phone. That app professes to calm Murphy's breathing, body, and brain as much as 30 minutes of yoga in just three minutes of headband time.

"It kind of looks like Google Glass when you put it on," she says.

While its app tells me to think of as many languages or presidents as I can, Muse says the sensors on this headband monitor my brain waves to determine how I think.

"I was kind of skeptical what would happen in just three minutes, but I did actually feel a noticeable difference afterwards," Murphy says.

While Muse asks Murphy to stare at a beach scene and count her breaths, it also may represent the next wave of wearable technology.

"A new trend in wearables that help you relax," Murphy says.

But that is if you don't stress yourself out waiting for your phone to connect to your headband.

"Everybody wants to get on you -- whether it's your wrist or your brain now or your head," Murphy says.

Tesla's Elon Musk: ‘With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.’

Elon Musk: ‘With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.’

By Matt McFarland October 24 at 2:37 PM

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk warned that artificial intelligence could be our biggest existential threat and believes there should be some regulatory oversight at the national and international level, while speaking at the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics department’s Centennial Symposium Friday. (MIT Dept. of Aeronautics and Astronautics)

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk has warned about artificial intelligence before, tweeting that it could be more dangerous than nuclear weapons. Speaking Friday at the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics department’s Centennial Symposium, Musk called it our biggest existential threat:

I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess like what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful with the artificial intelligence. Increasingly scientists think there should be some regulatory oversight maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out.

Musk was so caught up on artificial intelligence that he missed the audience’s next question. “Sorry can you repeat the question, I was just sort of thinking about the AI thing for a second,” he said.

Musk spoke expansively for over an hour, at one point even asking a MIT student what his favorite sci-fi books were. He left to a standing ovation.

You can watch the entire interview here.....

FEC Democrats push for controls on Internet political speech

FEC Democrat pushes for controls on Internet political speech

Opponents: ‘Nothing short of a Chinese censorship board’

By Stephen Dinan - The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2014

The FEC deadlocked in a crucial Internet campaign speech vote announced Friday, leaving online political blogging and videos free of many of the reporting requirements attached to broadcast ads — for now.

While all three GOP-backed members voted against restrictions, they were opposed by the three Democratic-backed members, including FEC Vice Chair Ann M. Ravel, who said she will lead a push next year to try to come up with new rules government political speech on the Internet.

It would mark a major reversal for the commission, which for nearly a decade has protected the ability of individuals and interest groups to take to engage in a robust political conversation on the Internet without having to worry about registering with the government or keeping and reporting records of their expenses.

Ms. Ravel said she fears that in trying to keep the Internet open for bloggers, they've instead created a loophole for major political players to escape some scrutiny.

"Some of my colleagues seem to believe that the same political message that would require disclosure if run on television should be categorically exempt from the same requirements when placed in the Internet alone," said FEC Vice Chair Ann M. Ravel in a statement. "As a matter of policy, this simply does not make sense."

She said the FEC should no longer "turn a blind eye to the Internet's growing force in the political arena," and she vowed to force a conversation next year on what changes to make.

The three Republican-backed commissioners, though, said in a joint statement that Ms. Ravel's plans would stifle what's become the "virtual free marketplace of political ideas and democratic debate."

FEC Chairman Lee E. Goodman said what Ms. Ravel is proposing would require a massive bureaucracy digging into the corners of the web to police what's posted about politics.

"I cannot imagine a regulatory regime that would put government censors on the Internet daily, culling YouTube video posts for violations of law — nothing short of a Chinese censorship board," Mr. Goodman said.

The case disclosed Friday involved a group Checks and Balances for Economic Growth, which produced two advertisements it ran online in 2012 accusing President Obama of lying about a Mitt Romney campaign event, and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown of lying about the "war on coal."

Initially, news reports had said the group was paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to broadcast the ads on television, but the group says they were only shown on the Internet.

FEC lawyers said the ads don't expressly push for the election or defeat of a candidate, and said the commission's own rules say the costs of posting videos to the Internet doesn't trigger disclosure requirements. Meanwhile, an FEC precedent from 2008 says the costs of producing an Internet-only video also don't trigger disclosure.

Mr. Goodman said those rules have protected any number of popular political videos, from ObamaGirl's posts during the 2008 campaign to the spoof videos produced by JibJab.

"We're talking about everyone who's not a political committee who wants to post, for free, videos on YouTube, blog content, chat room content, create their own website expressing their political opinions," he said.

Political committees and individuals or groups who pay to have their ads run online are still subject to disclosure requirements.

Despite the 3-3 vote, only Ms. Ravel released a statement signaling discomfort with the existing rules.

The other two Democratic-backed commissioners did not release statements, and did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment Friday night.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Caring For Relatives By Robot

10/20/2014 @ 12:47PM
Caring For Relatives By Robot

The days of extended independent living, where a robot could allow you to have a quasi-physical presence with a distant relative, talk to them, perform chores for them and possibly even have physical contact with them, is around the corner. At the Internet of Things (IoT) World Forum last week in Chicago, I caught a glimpse of the future and it isn’t far off.

Even though conference sponsor Cisco admits that the IoT is overhyped, the progress is real and the effect on industries and society will be profound. Goldman Sachs is predicting by 2020 there will be 28 billion connected devices. 300,000 devices per hour are being connected to the Internet according to Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s Executive Vice President of the Industry Solutions Group and Chief Globalization Officer—he’s the visionary for IoT. According to Elfrink the IoT is being adopted faster than any technology in history. Essentially what he and everyone else is saying is that in the future, anything that can be connected to the Internet will be.

The sense I got from walking around the conference was that only a tiny sliver of the IoT market consists of the sexy and buzzworthy devices like the Nest Thermostat or the gadgets from SmartThings (just acquired by Samsung). Most of what I saw are really hairy and exceptionally complex networking and data analysis tools. Very geeky stuff.

I spent some time talking to Youssef Saleh, Sr. Vice President and General Manager of the Remote Presence Business Unit for iRobot Corporation. iRobot recently announced their Ava 500 video collaboration robot. Initially I wasn’t too impressed because I saw a prototype of something very similar at the AT&T Foundry Innovation Center in Palo Alto, California nearly three years ago. But I’m glad I spoke to Youssef because what wasn’t apparent was the way iRobot has combined their robotic navigation technology with a telepresence system. Imagine the offspring of the Roomba and Skype and you’ll picture the Ava 500.

Video conferencing systems are static, and they require someone on the receiving end to do something to complete the connection…whether that’s entering a passcode, logging on to a website, or whatever. The Ava 500 does what you’d expect it to do. If you’re an executive in New York and you want to participate in a meeting in San Jose, the Ava 500, like other telepresence robots on the market, let’s you have a presence in the meeting, see and listen to what is going on and contribute.

Other telepresence robots let the remote user control the whereabouts of the robot, but he/she needs to navigate. With the Ava 500, the robot learns the environment it is in. So a remote user could initiate a connection to the robot and then instruct it, through a mobile app, to go to the Board Room and off it would go. It would get there itself and it would do so in a safe manner (the Roomba part). And it doesn’t need to be connected to the network while it navigates.

The Ava 500 looks like a piece of office equipment. It isn’t as anthropomorphic as one would expect, but I’m sure in a product generation or two it will acquire a persona that engenders more warmth. Whereas most robots can be controlled remotely, the unique characteristic of the Ava 500 is that it knows its own environment and can wander about just by telling it where you want it to go.

When Youssef and I were together in the basement of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Chicago, he was able to virtually knock on the door of his colleague at iRobot headquarters in Bedford, Massachusetts. What impressed me about the system was that Youssef didn’t need to know where the robot was in their complex in Massachusetts. He just instructed it from Chicago to go Joe’s office and off it went. The system, like with Uber, knows where the robots are and automatically sends the one that’s available and closest.

I quickly imagined that after he got done talking to Joe in Bedford, he could have done the same thing with a colleague in Sydney. With only the slightest exaggeration, he could really be in two places at one time.

A day later, curiously, at the Chicago Venture Summit, Travis Kalanick, the CEO and co-founder of Uber gave the luncheon keynote talk. He got a chuckle out of the audience when he said, “If I press this button, I can make a car move in Beijing.” iRobot is doing the same thing in a more intimate way.

And just as Uber has to know where cars are when you request one, the iRobot system has the same intelligence within a building or campus.

My imagination quickly saw the day when the Hyatt Regency Chicago, one of the largest hotels in the U.S., would have a bevy of Ava 500s available for its clients, much like it has AV equipment and computers. If someone wanted to “attend” the next IoT World Forum, they could do so by renting an Ava 500 from the Hyatt—not by flying to Chicago and getting a room in the hotel. It wasn’t lost on me that we were having this conversation in Chicago right at the same time as the Ebola crisis was hitting the United States and the stock market was swooning over fears about what an epidemic might do to the travel industry. Youssef, without feigning any glee over other people’s misfortune, clearly understood that this was a big opportunity for telepresence.

Says Saleh, “Enterprises are global, distributed. The Ava 500 allows you to be in multiple places at once.”

Because the iRobot can navigate its space without being connected to the Internet, the myriad ways in which this technology could be used to remotely monitor and communicate with elderly people at home jumped to the forefront of my imagination. Add to it a robot’s ability to perform a task—like dispense medicine, scratch someone’s back or sweep the floor, and a Jetson’s like future doesn’t seem that far off.

Neil Kane (@neildkane) is the president of Illinois Partners which helps companies, universities and investors with innovation strategies and technology commercialization.

Inbox is Google's new killer email app

Inbox is Google's new killer email app
October 22, 2014 4:58 PM PDT / Updated: October 23, 2014 10:18 AM PDT
By Josh Miller/CNET

Gmail is getting a major makeover in Google's newest app, Inbox (iOS|Android). Announced today, the app and web service is completely separate from Gmail, and it seeks to change how your emails are organized. So far, I can say it absolutely succeeds.

It does this by categorizing every email you receive, as either an important message that deserves space in your inbox, or as less-important update that can be lumped into a label with other message like it. Google introduced this concept in the latest version of Gmail from 2013, with the tabbed inbox, where messages are automatically grouped into labels such as Promotions, Social, and Update. Inbox takes that further with a new approach and more labels, all in the name of helping remove clutter from your email.

Though I've only tested Inbox for a short time, I can already see myself ditching the regular Gmail app for it. Not only is it visually appealing, with every feature I want within easy reach, it's also full of features that let you completely tailor your email to your habits and personal organizational strategy.

Just a note that Inbox is invite-only for now, and you can email Google at to request an invitation. Google said that current users can invite friends from the app or website, but so far that feature isn't available.

Your new inbox

The app's design is clean and simple, and seemingly influenced by Android Lollipop's new Material design. Your inbox is in chronological order, with messages from today at the top, followed by older emails. Any email that shows up in your priority inbox will appear there. For each email, Inbox will show a highlight from the message, including any attached images, documents, or videos, helping give you some context.

At the bottom of the screen, there's a new simple compose button, and when you tap it, it will show the three people you've emailed the most in recent memory. There's an option to add a new reminder (more on that later) and compose a new message.

If you're like me, you get a mixture of personal messages, promotional emails, account updates, and social alerts every day. Currently, Google is smart enough to recognize these emails and put them into corresponding tabs in my inbox. The Inbox app takes this idea a bit further with bundles.

Now similar emails are lumped together into a bundle, or a themed label. Then, you'll see a collapsed folder in your inbox of those messages, and you can tap it to expand and view the emails. This is designed to cut down on clutter, by keeping similar, likely less-important messages grouped together, so they don't get in the way of more important emails.

The pre-made bundles in Inbox are Travel, Purchases, Finance, Social, Promos, Updates, Forums and Promos. You can move emails in an out of these bundles to help Inbox learns what should go where for your account. You can choose to remove any bundle, but keep in mind that if you do, each individual message that would otherwise be bundled will now show up in your inbox.

You can create your own bundle by giving it a name and selecting what kind of messages you want included in that bundle. The setup process is very similar to creating a new Gmail filter, and it can be very helpful if you get many emails from a specific sender or with certain keywords.

Bundles are a very powerful part of Inbox, you can use them to organize your messages and control what emails show up in your inbox. Within each bundle, you can even choose what time of day a bundle appears, and choose if the bundle triggers a notification or not.

Swipe it all away

Inbox uses gestures to help you manage your mail faster, and they are dead-simple to use. You swipe right to mark a message as done, archiving it away, or swipe left to snooze it, which I'll explain below. Compared to other gesture-based email apps, Inbox is easy to use.

Tap and hold any message to bring up the bulk edit controls, where you can batch delete, archive or snooze messages. With those bulk edit controls, you can also pin a message to your inbox, which keeps it in your inbox and prevents it from getting cleared away accidentally. If you pin a message, you can also toggle the tiny switch at the top of the screen, with a pushpin icon on it, to view only your pinned emails and reminders.

Taking a cue from apps like Mailbox, Inbox lets you clear out messages from your inbox and have them reappear later, when you're ready to deal with them. This is the Snooze feature, and it hides away a message in your Snoozed inbox and then puts in back in your main inbox at the time you designate. That could be tomorrow, next week, "someday," or you can pick a specific time or place for it to reappear.
I really like this feature for travel-related emails, such as a reservation confirmation. You can hide it away until you go to check into your hotel, and then the information you need is handy, instead of buried in your email account.

Reminders at the top

The reminders you create with Google Now can now coexist with your email inbox, and they show up at the top of the screen. If you scheduled a reminder for a specific time or place, it will appear when it's supposed to, while reminders that aren't time-sensitive will stay at the top at all times.

Within Inbox, you can create new reminders by tapping the compose button. Then, as you type your reminder, Inbox will suggest what it thinks you want. The suggestion feature is smart, as it can pull in phone numbers from your contacts, suggest bill reminders from your email, or find movie listings. There's also an option to create a new reminder when you're viewing any email, which is really useful.


Inbox by Gmail is a totally new take on email from Google, with tons of powerful features. While a lot of the backbone of Gmail is still here, such as archiving and labels, Inbox introduces a new way of thinking about organizing and dealing with your emails. You get the freedom to compartmentalize every single message, or let them all flow into a single inbox. You can control when emails show up in your inbox, letting you save social updates from the end of the day, or get all of your important work emails when they come in.

I've only scratched the surface here, but I can already see how powerful the app can be. For many, it will replace Gmail, either on Android or iOS. Gmail isn't going anywhere for the time being, but I look forward to using Inbox everywhere I go, on my phone, tablet, and computer.

Stay tuned for a full review and plenty of more coverage of Inbox.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hungary plans new tax on Internet traffic, public calls for rally

Hungary plans new tax on Internet traffic, public calls for rally
October 22, 2014 8:47 AM

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary plans to impose a new tax on Internet data transfers, a draft 2015 tax bill submitted to parliament late on Tuesday showed, in a move that could hit Internet and telecoms providers and their customers hard.

The draft tax code contains a provision for Internet providers to pay a tax of 150 forints (60 US cents) per gigabyte of data traffic, though it would also let companies offset corporate income tax against the new levy.

Within hours of the tax provision being published over 100,000 people joined a Facebook group protesting the levy, which they fear providers will pass on to them. Thousands said they would rally against the tax, which they said was excessive, outside the Economy Ministry on Sunday.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government has in the last few years imposed special taxes on the banking, retail and energy sectors as well as on telecommunications providers to keep the budget deficit in check, jeopardizing profits in some sectors of the economy and unnerving international investors.

Economy Minister Mihaly Varga defended the move on Tuesday, saying communications technology has changed the way people use telecom services and therefore the tax code needed to be changed. His ministry said it expects the tax to generate annual revenue of 20 billion forints.

However, fixed-line Internet traffic in Hungary reached 1.15 billion gigabytes in 2013 and mobile internet added 18 million gigabytes, which would generate revenue of 175 billion forints under the new tax according to consultancy firm eNet.

Traffic has probably grown since, eNet partner Gergely Kis told Reuters, so the tax could hit Internet providers by more than 200 billion forints, if left unaltered.

The entire internet service sector's annual revenue came to 164 billion forints at the end of 2013, according to the Central Statistics Office (KSH).

The government's low estimate of revenue suggests it will impose a cap on the amount of tax any single Internet provider will have to pay, and in view of the public reaction the ruling Fidesz party asked the government to set a maximum level on the tax payable by individuals.

"The Fidesz parliament group insists that the data traffic tax be paid by service providers, therefore we propose changes to the bill," Fidesz parliament group leader Antal Rogan said in an emailed statement.

"We think it is practical to introduce an upper limit in the same fashion and same magnitude that applied to voice-based telephony previously."

Under the current tax code private individuals' tax payments are maximized at a monthly 700 forints ($2.9) while companies cannot pay more than 5,000 forints a month.

A government spokesman was not immediately available for comment.


Analysts at Equilor Securities said on Wednesday that the Internet service market leader, Deutsche Telekom's subsidiary Magyar Telekom could expect to pay about 10 billion forints if there was no limit on the proposed tax.

"Although corporate taxes offset this amount Magyar Telekom has paid only 200-300 million forints worth of such tax in recent years because its parent company used tax breaks," Equilor noted.

"The company could theoretically pass on the burden to its clients but that requires a business policy decision so it's too early to say much about that. The tax could, however, boost uncertainty about a resumption of dividend payments at Magyar Telekom."

Magyar Telekom recently said it would pay no dividend for 2014 in order to keep its debt in check.

The company said the "drastic" new tax threatened to undermine planned investments in broadband network infrastructure, and called for the proposal to be withdrawn. It said industry players were not consulted about the idea.

Magyar Telekom shares were down 2.9 percent at 1221 GMT (0821 EDT), underperforming the blue chip index, which was down 0.3 percent.

The Association of IT, Telecommunications and Electronics Companies said in a statement on Wednesday that the tax would force them to hike prices, which would reflect in consumer prices in general and hinder economic growth.

"The real losers of the Internet tax are not the Internet companies but their clients, users, and all Hungarians who would now access the services they have used much more expensively, or in an extreme case, not at all," the Association said.

Balazs Nemes, one of those who began the Facebook page protesting the move, said: "In more developed nations, broadband Internet access is considered part of human rights.

"Only the darkest dictatorships want to control the Internet either financially or with raw power," he said.

"We pay VAT, the Internet service providers pay corporate taxes, so what justifies making web use a luxury when we do basic things like arranging medical appointments, university applications or banking online?"

(1 US dollar = 240.75 Hungarian forint)

(Reporting by Marton Dunai and Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Hugh Lawson)