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He Wants To Be Steve Jobs of Robotics

What will it take for robots to end up as regular in our homes and day by day lives as cell phones, TVs, and PCs? Ask roboticist Tomotaka Takahashi. The famous Tokyo professor aims to be “the Steve Jobs of robotics,” he aims to build smartphones in the humanoid form, more charismatic and stylish. And he is putting all his work to build world’s first humanoid smartphone.

How? Basically, by making robots charming, little, and informative. What’s more, internet-enabled; picture a smartphone but with a face and limbs. To achieve this, Takahashi has his secret weapon: He’s getting ready to debut a pocket-sized smart robot with all the features of Siri, designed to look, act, and feel like it’s your close friend.

“It should be fun,” Takahashi says. “Not like Terminator.”

The greater part of our trepidation for the AI ought to be credited to Terminator series. Robots getting self-awareness is also a major concern among many, however it doesn’t prevent Takahashi who plans to build a lovable Astroboy type friendly humanoid smartphone bot.

Takahashi has built a few brilliant machines that are into the Guinness World Records, the longest separation secured by a battery-worked remote-controlled model car, the first friendly robot in space, and the highest altitude for a robot to have a conversation.

“As the entertainment industry in Japan was creating robots as ultra cool toys for boys and girls, [America’s] was creating robots that would take over the world and kill us all,” says roboticist Richard Alan Peters, a professor at Vanderbilt University.

“The new robot is a phone, sold as a phone from a phone company. It is a little bigger than the iPhone 6 Plus,” says Takahashi. “We would like it to be a major hardware platform, just like Nintendo or iPhone.”

It’s still unnamed, and Takahashi declined to give much information about the product. Huffington Post has a few more details.

Tech companies and enthusiasts are giving their best efforts to make safe and cost effective robots, so now we can say without doubt that we will soon have robots in our society, but the important question should be, is humanity ready for them?


RightEye’s portable eye-tracking test catches concussions and reading problems in five minutes

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, but physiologically speaking, they’re really windows to the brain.

RightEye looks through that window to detect common but often subtle vision issues resulting from concussions and other brain troubles. Its quick, portable eye-tracking station can tell in minutes whether you should see a doctor — or look into becoming a pro ball player.

It turns out there’s quite a lot you can tell from how someone’s eyes move. We may not notice it ourselves, but we all vary in how and how well we execute a number of basic tasks, from flicking our eyes back and forth to smoothly tracking a moving target. For instance, your eyes may over-correct, fail to line up correctly, or track up or down when moving along a straight line.

For healthy individuals, these variations fall within a safe range, just part of the ordinary differences between bodies. But certain patterns well outside the baseline can be strong indicators of things like concussions and eye muscle problems — and even Parkinson’s and Autism-spectrum conditions.

RightEye tracks these movements with a custom device that looks a bit like an all-in-one desktop; it uses a Tobii eye-tracking module built into a single-purpose computer loaded with a library of simple tests. A basic EyeQ (as they call it) test takes five minutes or so, with more specialized tests adding only a few more, and results are available immediately.

To give you an idea: one test in game form has you defending a space station, destroying incoming ships by looking at them. But certain colored ships you must not destroy — meaning you have to detect them in your peripheral vision and avoid looking at them. In another test, you flick your eyes rapidly between two targets appearing on opposite sides of the screen, demonstrating accuracy and functioning saccades (micro-corrections made by your eye muscles).

Each eye is tracked independently, and their performance as a matched pair is evaluated instantly. An easy-to-understand results sheet shows their actual movements and how (if at all) they deviate from the baseline.

It’s compact and can run on battery for some 8 hours, making it ideal for deployment outside hospitals or the like: anywhere from school nurse’s office to the sidelines of an NFL game, even in the home.

I tested the device out myself at CES (my vision is just OK, but I want a rematch), and later chatted with Barbara Barclay, RIghtEye’s President. The two most exciting applications of the technology, as judged by her enthusiasm anyway, are in identifying vision-related cognitive problems in kids and in creating a sort of eye fitness test for sporting persons.

Say a child is having trouble learning to read, or perhaps can’t pay attention in class. The immediate thought these days is frequently ADD. But it’s more than a little possible that it’s a vision problem. A subtle difference in how the eyes track, perhaps one going off the horizontal when tracking a line of text, could easily make reading on the page or blackboard frustrating or even painful. What 3rd-grade kid would keep at it?

A reading-focused test tracks how the eyes move along a line of text.

This isn’t some groundbreaking new idea — but reliably and objectively evaluating individual eye movements was only something you could do if you went to see a specialist, perhaps after other explanations for a behavior didn’t pan out. RightEye’s test practically runs itself and can detect or eliminate the possibility of vision problems in minutes. Honestly, I think a kid might even find it fun.

Barclay has personal experience with this, her own daughter having had health issues that only after multiple false starts were found to have their root in a relatively simple vision problem the system indicated.

In 2016, RightEye acquired the rights to a pair of tests based on research linking eye movement patterns to Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, as well as Autism spectrum conditions. It’s not a magic bullet, but again, the quick and easy nature of the tests make them ideal for routine screening.

The Autism spectrum test is for children aged only 1 to 3, and watches eye movements between images of people and images of geometric shapes. Lingering on the shapes more than the people, it turns out, is a good indicator that at the very least the kid should receive further testing.

The Parkinson’s and Huntington’s tests watch for the more well understood patterns that accompany the motor degeneration found in those afflictions. They can be administered to people of any age and have (using earlier eye-tracking setups) contributed to many identifications of the diseases.

On a very different, but perhaps more immediately remunerative, note, Barclay told me that the test also works as a way to find outliers on the other end: people with what amounts to super-vision.

It’s entirely possible that someone could take the test and their results will show that they have faster, more accurate saccades, quicker target acquisition, and better continuous object tracking than the baseline. That’s a heck of an asset to have if you’re batting, fielding, goalkeeping, playing tight end — pretty much anything, really.

Examples of a healthy eye movement report (left) and concussed one (right).

It’s also a heck of an asset to have if you’re a scout or coach. If Lopez is catching great on the left side of the field but not the right, you can look into the possibility that he’s having trouble tracking the ball when looking over his left shoulder, his eyes all the way to the right.

Not only that, but you can test for effects of concussions or other traumas right there on the field if they’re having trouble. Given how widespread such injuries are and the immense danger of repeated concussions, testing early and often could literally save lives.

Right now, Barclay told me, 7 MLB teams are using RightEye tech for player assessments. As for the medical side of things, she said the company currently has 200 clients. The new hardware should help boost that number.

Perhaps more importantly, it has the backing (and therefore clout) of VSP, the country’s largest vision insurance company. That’s both a tremendous vote of confidence and a major in — nothing gets people using a system faster than knowing it’s covered by their existing insurance.


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SpaceX aims to make history 3 more times in 2018

Tuesday’s Falcon Heavy launch made history, not only becoming the highest-capacity rocket platform since the Saturn V but accomplishing the first double autonomous booster landing. And that’s just the start of what could prove to be an epic year for SpaceX — if Elon Musk’s ambitious timeline isn’t delayed, say by high winds.

There are three major events in the works for 2018 — two likely in the summer and one at the end of the year.

First there’s the next Falcon Heavy launch, which after multiple delays will hopefully be taking off in June with a handful of satellites both military and private. This could set a couple of records — heaviest commercial payload, for instance, and if things go well it might even get that triple autonomous booster landing that was hoped for yesterday.

The June launch, by the way, will carry a couple interesting payloads. You may remember the test flight of Lightsail, a prototype solar sailing spacecraft that launched in 2015. The new version should launch this year, built by the Planetary Society; Bill Nye is one of the project’s most outspoken advocates. And there’s also the Deep Space Atomic Clock, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, keeping hyper-accurate time that spacecraft can check with for navigational purposes.

SpaceX may also attempt the first water landing of its fairing, Musk hinted in the press conference following the Falcon Heavy launch. We can expect it in the next six months, he said, but the problem is that it’s not a guided landing and the fairing tends to drift on its way down.

“Fairing recovery has proven surprisingly difficult. You pop the parachute and you’ve got this giant awkward thing — it tends to interfere with the air flow on the parachute,” he said. “My guess is next six months we’ll figure out fairing recovery. We have a special boat to catch the fairing; it’s like a giant catcher’s mitt in boat form.”

That would be the “Large Barge,” though it hasn’t been put into play yet. Catching a falling fairing before it hits the water would be another historic feat, further reducing the cost of launch and recovery. (Clearly they’re saving the capsule catch record for another year.)

“I think we might be able to do something similar for Dragon,” he added, half-jokingly.


SpaceX’s Crew Dragon

The last major item planned for this year is a crewed flight of the new Dragon capsule. Musk said at the press conference that “After Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy Block 5 [the next revision of the platform], it’s all hands on deck for Crew Dragon. We’re aspiring to fly a crew orbit by the end of this year. I think the hardware will be ready.”

Commercial crewed missions are the next major area of interest of commercial space industry, and SpaceX is competing with Boeing for the glory of it and, as a secondary consideration, the lucrative government contracts. But sending actual humans up in rockets that still occasionally explode isn’t an option — the reliability of the launch platform has to be rock-solid and any issues causing failures need to be addressed.

SpaceX’s record has been clear for over a year; the last real failure was in 2016, when on September 1 a Falcon 9 exploded on the pad during launch prep, apparently caused by a pressure vessel failure. In late 2017 a Merlin engine exploded during testing, but that’s kind of what testing is for. And the mysterious Zuma payload from Northrop Grumman didn’t go right just last month, but it wasn’t actually SpaceX’s fault. Again, though, actual humans will be on this. As they say, “Failure is not an option.”

Nevertheless, Musk seemed confident that they would be ready for a crewed Dragon orbit by the end of the year.

Less clear timing-wise are early tests for the spaceship section of SpaceX’s BFR project. Musk gave a few hints about this at the press conference following the Falcon Heavy launch.

“I think we might also be able to do short hopper flights with the spaceship part of the BFR, maybe next year,” he said. “By hopper tests I mean go up several miles and come down. We’ll do flights of increasing complexity. We want to fly out, turn around, accelerate back real hard, and come in hot to test the heat shield.”

“The ship is capable of single-stage orbit if you want to fully load the tanks,” he added, but real test flights probably won’t happen for three or four years. How that all will play out is very much in flux right now. And who knows when Starlink, or whatever it’s called, will happen.

Whether the company will accomplish these three feats in the next year depends on quite a lot, but after Tuesday’s launch I’m feeling optimistic.


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Research into full-body tracking at Facebook hints at broader AR/VR ambitions

It’s no secret that Facebook is big on both AR and VR, both for entertainment and communication purposes. And new research suggests it is working on AR applications that could not just modify or replace your face, but your entire body.

A blog post today has the AI Camera Team showing off a bit of work clearly aimed at doing full-body replacement or tracking in a VR or AR context.

“We recently developed a new technology that can accurately detect body poses and segment a person from their background. Our model is still in research phase at the moment, but it is only a few megabytes, and can run on smart phones in real time,” the researchers write.

Of course, this type of research is far from unprecedented; skeletal tracking systems are commonplace in many industries. And indeed this blog post is more about how this particular system and its component neural networks operate than claiming any major advances.

That said, Facebook is clearly looking especially into keeping things efficient and easy to deploy on mobile. That means working within many hard limitations as far as sensor data, image resolution and refresh rate, processing power available, and so on. Mask R-CNN, as the technique is called, is a nice step in this direction.

We can surely expect more like this from Facebook in the future — the company is even looking for a research intern dedicated to this line of research.
Featured Image: Facebook Readmore

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