TIME technology

This Robot Would Very Much Like to Play a Game of Connect Four With You

Game on

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When the singularity finally hits and artificial intelligence takes over everything, at least we know some of the robots will know how to have a good time — like this Connect Four-playing bot, programmed by MIT student Patrick McCabe.

Users can choose between four levels of difficulty and can even ask for a hint if needed. Head over to McCabe’s website for a detailed breakdown of how the machine works. In the meantime, watch here as the bot beats McCabe in the first round — and even taunts him a little bit before clinching the game.

TIME robotics

That Jibo Robot Does the Same Stuff as Your Phone, but People Are Freaking Out Anyway

jibo
Jibo

Jibo promises to be a lovable robot assistant, but it's unclear why you'd actually need one.

A crowdfunding campaign for a “family robot” called Jibo is picking up steam, blowing through its fundraising goals within the first day.

What is Jibo? It’s a little pod with a motorized swivel, equipped with cameras, microphones and a display. It recognizes faces and voices, and can act as a personal assistant by setting reminders, delivering messages and offering to take group photos. It also serves as a telepresence robot for video chat.

As of now, Jibo has raised more than $200,000 on IndieGogo–well beyond its $100,000 goal–and has racked up plenty of breathless coverage. Early bird pricing of $100 sold out long ago, but you can still claim a unit for $499, with an estimated December 2015 ship date.

Sorry to burst the hype bubble, but I’m not seeing how Jibo will more practical than a phone, a tablet or even a wearable device. Most of the things Jibo promises to do can be done better by the handset in your pocket–which, by the way, you don’t have to lug around from tabletop to tabletop.

To see what I mean, let’s deconstruct the scenario in Jibo’s pitch video, in which a man gets home from a long day at work. Jibo, perched on a nearby counter, turns on the lights, records an order for Chinese take-out, then starts reading back a voicemail from his girlfriend. The man then doubles the take-out order on the fly.

It’s the kind of demo that makes perfect sense unless you think about it too much. If home automation goes mainstream, a dedicated robot won’t be necessary, because our phones will do a better job of signaling when we’ve walked through the front door. The idea of having your messages read to you when you get home is a throwback to answering machines, which are obsolete now that we can check our messages from anywhere. As for the take-out order, you’ve got to be the dullest person in the world to order “the usual” every time you get home, and I’m not sure the man’s girlfriend will take kindly to having no input on what food she gets.

There is something to be said for a device that can persistently listen for your commands and act on them, but this is the same problem that wearable devices are trying to solve, and they’re better-suited to being wherever you are. While group photos and telepresence are potentially useful, now we’re getting into some very specific situations that don’t really justify a $500 purchase, regardless of how endearing Jibo tries to be. The only way Jibo makes sense as a robot is if it gains more physical capabilities, like a way to clean your windows or cook dinner, but it’s far too early to say whether that’s going to happen.

Maybe it’s unfair for me to judge at such an early stage, but that’s exactly what Jibo is trying to do through crowdfunding. The creators are asking people to throw money at something they’ve never seen, that has only been shown to the press in limited demos, and that won’t even ship until the tail end of next year. All we have to go on right now is a slick-looking pitch video and a whole bunch of promises. As talented as the folks behind Jibo seem to be, I’ve seen enough undercooked crowdfunded projects to know that some skepticism is in order.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 16

1. To upgrade the reliability of the wisdom of crowds, look instead to the wisdom of the confident.

By the Editors of the MIT Technology Review

2. Marketing departments for technology firms should take the radical step of functioning like an outside agency, complete with their own engineers.

By First Round Review

3. According to Peter Orszag, the radical financial relief from the falling cost of health care in America means “everything you think you know about the nation’s long-term fiscal gap would be wrong.”

By Adrianna McIntyre in Vox

4. Robots writing dead simple news stories means journalists can use human intelligence on real, robust news that are worth reading.

By Kevin Roose in New York magazine

5. Is the bottomless thirst for Wall Street profits driving the soaring cost of higher education?

By Lisa Wade in Sociological Images

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME World

Introducing the World’s First Torah-Writing Robot

Robot Begins Writing Torah
An industrial robot, an installation work called 'bios [torah]' by the artist group robotlab, begins writing a Torah on July 10, 2014 in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany. Adam Berry—Getty Images

A testament to the power of machinery

On display now at Berlin’s Jewish Museum is a robot that acts as a sofer, a.k.a a specially trained scribe who very carefully writes the words on the scrolls of a Torah.

This technological scribe is the brainchild of of the German artists’ group robotlab. It takes three months to complete the 260-foot long scroll, compared to the full year it takes for a human to finish the job, the Associated Press reports.

“While the Sofer guarantees the sanctity of the Scripture, the installation highlights its industrial reproducibility,” the museum explains on its website. “It simulates a centuries-old cultural technique that has long since been overtaken by media developments.”

No matter how authentic the robot’s work may seem, though, its scrolls cannot be used in a synagogue.

“In order for the Torah to be holy, it has to be written with a goose feather on parchment, the process has to be filled with meaning and I’m saying prayers while I’m writing it,” Reuven Yaacobov, a rabbi and sofer, told the AP.

If you’re curious, and have plans to be in Berlin, the robot is on display now through January 15.

TIME Photos

34 Most Surprising Photos of the Month

From naked bike rides to twin tornadoes, each photograph will surprise you, as TIME shares the most outrageous images from June 2014

TIME Tech

These Human Robots Will Haunt Your Nightmares

Japan hopes lifelike robots will be as common as laptops

Meet Otonaroid and Kodomoroid, two eerily lifelike robots who can read fluently, recite tongue twisters, blink, move and twitch their eyebrows (natch).

Japanese android expert Hiroshi Ishiguro unveiled the female cyborgs on Tuesday at the National Museum of Merging Science and Innovation. The two will be on display at the Museum for visitors to interact with.

Ishiguro’s robotics are the latest confirmation of the uncanny valley hypothesis, which posits that humans find discomfort when robotic and animated humans approach a natural human appearance.

With Softbank’s commercialization of robots, Ishiguro—who’s previously designed his own doppelgänger robots—hopes that robots will soon become a part of everyday life in Japan.

TIME robots

Scientists Believe Mystery Behind Balls of Ants May Inspire Robotic Designs

Fire ants link together to form a structure. Getty Images—Anders Boman

The methods in which ants link themselves together could inspire new robots to help with disaster response and materials that respond to changes in environment

Scientists have long known that colonies of fire ants will join themselves into a collective ball during floods to better their chances of survival, but their ability to form this structure has largely remained a mystery. Now, though, a team of engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology has studied the properties of the ant ball to discover that the insects strategically placed themselves in the formation depending on their size — findings that could inspire new design methods for material scientists and robotic technicians.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, revealed that the ants use adhesive pads on their legs to link together. They then position themselves perpendicularly in the formation, with the smaller ants lodging between bigger ants to maximize efficiency of space.

Radhika Nagpal, a robot designer at Harvard University, believes that the discovery could help inspire simple robots that link together to solve a problem. She adds that the responsive robots could come in handy in extreme situations when there are limited resources. “Imagine robots that need to construct a barrier or patch a hole during a disaster response,” Nagpal explains in the journal Nature.

The team of researchers thinks that along with helping in disaster responses, the discovery could also contribute to the design of “smart” materials that are able to respond to changes in the environment such as temperature and light.

TIME robotics

Meet Pepper, the Robot Who Can Read Your Emotions

A company in Japan has created a robot that can interact with humans on an emotional level

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A robot designed to read—and more importantly, respond to—users’ moods was unveiled this week by Softbank, a Japanese internet company.

Pepper, who stands 4 feet tall and weighs about 62 pounds, is equipped with facial-recognition technology and a number of cameras, audio recorders and sensors. That technology allows the robot to learn how to behave over time, instead of being programmed for specific tasks, Softbank said.

“Our aim is to develop affectionate robots that can make people smile,” said Masayoshi Son, the billionaire behind Softbank.

The humanoid, which is set to go on sale in Japan in February 2015, will cost about 198,000 yen ($1,900).

 

 

TIME robotics

How to Make Driverless Cars Behave

As self-driving cars become more advanced, auto makers may have to answer centuries-old philosophical debates -- and they're starting to realize it.

Imagine you’re winding through the Pacific Coast Highway in one of Google’s self-driving cars, with the ocean on your right and the hills of Malibu across the opposite lane to your left. Just as you’re turning one of the road’s blind corners, another car whips around the bend in the opposite direction. Its brakes have failed, and it’s headed for your lane.

With little room to maneuver and no time for human intervention, your robot car faces a decision. It could turn inward and slam the brakes to avoid a head-on collision, but this would potentially let the other car sail over the cliff wall. Alternatively, your car could brace for impact, keeping both cars on the road but potentially injuring you, along with the other car’s passengers.

In a crash situation, we don’t have time to think about morality, and studies show we act more on instinct. But for a computer, a fraction of a second is plenty of time to ponder an ethical decision–provided it’s been programmed to think that way.

The problem is that the answers aren’t always clear-cut. Should a driverless car jeopardize its passenger’s safety to save someone else’s life? Does the action change if the other vehicle is causing the crash? What if there are more passengers in the other car? Less morbidly, should a Google-powered car be able to divert your route to drive past an advertiser’s business? Should the driver be able to influence these hypothetical decisions before getting into the vehicle?

As driverless cars get closer to hitting the road, moral dilemmas are something the auto industry will need to consider. And while it’s still early days for the technology, a conversation about ethics is starting to happen.

The Daimler and Benz foundation, for instance, is funding a research project about how driverless cars will change society. Part of that project, led by California Polytechnic State University professor Patrick Lin, will be focused on ethics. Lin has arguably thought about the ethics of driverless cars more than anyone. He’s written about the topic for Wired and Forbes, and is currently on sabbatical working with the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS, of course), a group that partners with auto industry members on future technology.

Over the last year, Lin has been convincing the auto industry that it should be thinking about ethics, including briefings with Tesla Motors and auto supplier Bosch, and talks at Stanford with major industry players.

“I’ve been telling them that, at this very early stage, what’s important isn’t so much nailing down the right answers to difficult ethical dilemmas, but to raise awareness that ethics will matter much more as cars become more autonomous,” Lin wrote in an e-mail. “It’s about being thoughtful about certain decisions and able to defend them–in other words, it’s about showing your math.”

In a phone interview, Lin said that industry representatives often react to his talks with astonishment, as they realize driverless cars require ethical considerations.

Still, he said that it’s early days for driverless cars–we’re a long way from having computers that can read a situation like a human can–so manufacturers don’t yet have to worry too deeply about solving ethical scenarios. “We’re not quite there yet where we can collect a lot of the information that goes into some of these ethical dilemmas,” Lin said.

Perhaps that explains why auto makers aren’t eager to have the discussion in public at the moment. BMW, Ford and Audi–who are each working on automated driving features in their cars–declined to comment for this story. Google also wouldn’t comment on the record, even as it prepares to test fully autonomous cars with no steering wheels. And the auto makers who did comment are focused on the idea that the first driverless cars won’t take ethics into account at all.

“The cars are designed to minimize the overall risk for a traffic accident,” Volvo spokeswoman Malin Persson said in an e-mail. “If the situation is unsure, the car is made to come to a safe stop.” (Volvo, by the way, says it wants to eliminate serious injuries or deaths in its cars by 2020, but research has shown that even driverless cars will inevitably crash.)

John Capp, GM’s director of electrical and control systems research, said in an interview that getting to the point where a driverless car needs to account for ethics will be a gradual, step-by-step process. (GM plans to offer a “Super Cruise” feature for highway driving by 2018, but it’ll still require the driver to stay alert and take the wheel in emergencies.)

“It’s going to be a while before cars have the capability to completely replace a driver, and we have no intention of promising that to a driver until the technology is capable of doing it,” Capp said.

Capp has a point, in that even Google’s recently-announced city-dwelling cars have only a rudimentary ability to detect what’s around them. They can’t, for instance, distinguish an elderly person from a child, or figure out how many people are in another vehicle. But as Lin points out, it’s likely that these cars will gain more advanced sensors over time, improving their ability to make decisions on the driver’s behalf.

Once that happens, the actual programming should be easy. Stanford’s CARS group, for instance, has already developed tools so that auto makers can code morality into their cars. It’s one part of a larger framework that CARS is offering to auto makers, covering all aspects of driverless car software.

“These are mathematical problems that we can describe and solve,” Chris Gerdes, a Stanford engineering professor and the program director at CARS, said in an interview. “And so it’s really up to manufacturers, then, if they are interested in adopting some of these ideas, in whole or in part.”

So far, Stanford’s partners–including Audi, Volkswagen, Ford and Nissan–have been more interested in other aspects of the software, Gerdes said. But that’s starting to change now, as Gerdes and Lin have been raising awareness about ethics.

Gerdes noted that the framework doesn’t actually define what’s morally right and wrong. In other words, the dirty work of answering centuries-old philosophical debates would still have to be done by auto makers. “The question of what ethical framework is right is something that we don’t really have an answer for,” he said. “That’s where I think the discussion needs to take place.”

Noah Goodall, a researcher at the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research, has started thinking about how cars might actually distinguish right from wrong. In a paper due to be published this year, Goodall proposes a series of steps for programming robotic cars, designed to get more complex as technology advances.

In the first phase, driverless cars would simply try to minimize overall damage, guided by some basic principles. Cars may, for instance, prioritize multiple injuries over a single death–perhaps answering the anecdote at the top of this story–and property damage over human harm. If a car faces a choice between inflicting two similar injuries, it may be able to take inspiration from the medical field, which, for instance, assigns allocation scores to organ transplant recipients.

But Goodall said in an interview that these rules probably won’t cover every circumstance. That’s why he’s proposed a second phase, in which driverless cars learn ethics through simulations of crashes and near-crashes. “Humans would score potential actions and results as more or less ethical, and would be allowed to score outcomes without the time constraint of an actual crash,” Goodall writes in his paper.

In the final phase, Goodall expects that computers would be able to explain their decision-making back to us with natural language, so we can tweak their thinking accordingly. It’d be a lot like teaching morality to a child as it grows into an adult.

Even with enough supporting research, it’s unclear who would be responsible for coming up with ethical rules. Auto makers could devise their own standards, or pass the buck onto the insurance industry or lawmakers. In any case, experts agree that the industry will eventually have to conform to standards for how vehicles behave.

“Is it possible that there will be some mandatory code that makes certain decisions uniform or consistent across vehicle types? I would say that’s very likely,” said Robert Hartwig, President and Chief Economist for the Insurance Information Institute.

Hartwig believes public policy makers will ultimately be the ones to require ethical standards. He noted that the aviation industry already relies on similar standards for things like crash avoidance, as defined by international regulations.

“Will there be tussles in terms of what auto makers want to see, what software manufacturers want to see, maybe even what drivers want to see? Possibly, yes,” Hartwig said. “This is not going to be a smooth process, but … in the end, the benefit is going to be clear: fewer accidents, fewer injuries, fewer deaths on the road.”

It’s possible that some of these ethical concerns are overblown, and that as long as the net number of lives saved goes up significantly, most people won’t care about a few fringe disasters. The risk, Lin said, is that just a handful of unfortunate cases could equal major payouts by auto makers in liability lawsuits. In turn, these could become setbacks for further developments.

And on a broader level, driverless cars will be the first instance of robots navigating through society on a large scale. How we end up perceiving them could have a huge impact on whether robots become a bigger part of our lives.

“These are going to be driving next to your family and through your streets,” Lin said. “This industry is really going to set the tone for all of social robotics, so they really need to get it right.”

TIME Japan

This Japanese App Is Literally Just a Girl Staring at You 

Never be lonely again, or is it too late?

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Forever alone? More like never alone! “Watching Cute Girl” is a free Japanese app that’s pretty much what it sounds like. Launch the app on your iPhone, and a cute girl looks out at you from the screen, periodically saying something charming or offering to give you a (virtual) hug.

Watching the demo video, it’s clear that the app is the latest in a long line of Japanese inventions that attempt to solve the enduring problem of social isolation. These range from anime body pillows (often used as “girlfriends”) to the hugging coat that automatically hugs its wearer and the ramen bowl with an iPhone mount (actually a great idea for anyone).

It’s another step toward the technology featured in Spike Jonze’s Her: virtual people that we can interact (and possibly fall in love, or at least obsession) with. It also brings to mind Japan’s hostess culture, in which women are paid to idly flirt and spend time with solo businessmen. This app seems slightly less exploitative, but still more than a little strange. Do you really want a spruced-up Tamagotchi to be your girlfriend?

Reviews of the app show that the answer is actually, yes, people do. “It makes for good company for whenever I’m busy studying or doing work on the computer,” reviewer Moylan writes. “And it runs very smoothly!”

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