How cool is Baxter the Robot?

Maybe not as cool as me, but pretty cool.

Robots might eventually be taking over even more of our jobs. The New York Times is carrying a story about Rethink Robotics, which is a New York based company developing highly skilled and humanistic robots who developed an enormously cute large robot named Baxter

Who is this new robot Baxter and what exactly can he do?

 

Rethink Robotics is introducing a new robot named Baxter. While Baxter is skilled, he is not quite Data of Star Trek. The large robot is clunky and clumsy, but can learn to pick up objects when trained by his co-workers when programmed to do. Baxter is also safe and not likely to intentionally or unintentionally harm his coworkers during the work day because of sensors on him and an e-stop button, which immediately turns him off. 

 

How cost-effective is Baxter in the work place?

 

The economics of Rethink Robot’s Baxter work out to be cheaper than minimum wage; Rethink is guessing that Baxter can work for less than $4 an hour. The initial cost for one Baxter unit is $22,000. Baxter units are scheduled to be available in October of this year.  

 

What are the ergonomic advantages to having Baxter in the workplace for workers?

 

Baxter can perform repetitive tasks, which in turn mean that his co-workers will be able avoid repetitive stress injuries, which will make the workplace a safer place. 

 

How big is Baxter? And more importantly, can he dunk a basketball?

 

Rethink Robotics’ Robot Baxter has a wingspan of nine feet. If you are wondering if Baxter can in fact dunk a basketball, I am guessing that the answer is yes, but I don’t have any verification of that fact. We’ll have to wait for the next slam-dunk contest to see. 

 

How cool is Baxter really?

 

From what I’ve read, he seems pretty bad-ass. Especially if he can dunk. Baxter can even show some emotions in his face which in theory will reflect what he is feeling. Plus, the idea that real workers can work alongside a robot this cute and safe is fairly impressive. 

 

(The above questions and answers are based on articles that I read from the New York Times and advice. Unfortunately, Rethink has not sent me a prototype to help me clean my living room.)

 

Business Insider: Tough on the Facebook IPO investors

Do your homework before investing.

I wasn’t one of the Facebook IPO investors, but I might have been had things been different. Business Insider just ran an interesting piece regarding the ignorance of Facebook investors and posed one basic question:

Did anyone who invested in Facebook actually read Facebook’s actual prospectus or listen to Mark Zuckerburg? 

 

As the Business Insider writer observes, it does not appear that many of the Facebook investors took the time to look carefully into the financial success of Facebook before laying out cash for their investments into Facebook. 

 

Business Insider wrote about some of the warning signs:

Facebook Insiders could cash in their stock early, which would consequently make the stock go down. 

 

Facebook’s Price-to-Earnings ratio was “absurdly high.” I believe this was a similar characteristic of many of the companies who went under in the first dot.com bubble. 

 

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerburg warned everyone to wait for long-time returns. He also apparently warned investors that he would not accept or listen to any whining from the stock holders. (Or likely anyone else for that matter if his past actions are indicative of his thinking at all.)

 

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerburg also noted that the company was founded with a “social mission” and not a “business mission.” 

 

What can ordinary investors make of this? It’s hard to say, but after reading the Business Insider article, I have a few ideas: 

 

If you did not invest in Facebook, be glad because the adaptability of Facebook in the past might not withstand the pressures of the economy or the needs of shareholders. That said, the potential of Facebook because of the tremendous amount of information that the company contains on its users and investors is huge and could make the company worth more than its advertising revenue suggests. 

 

Did anyone reading this invest in the Facebook IPO? How do you feel about the riskier Facebook investment versus the old-fashioned investments in old-school companies with brick and mortar businesses that are less likely to fold? 

 

What do you think of the Business Insider’s assessment of the Facebook investment? Will the investment that many made into the IPO pay off in the long run or will investors flee fast from Facebook before the original investors sell their stock?

 

I honestly have no idea, but the lesson from the Facebook IPO is to do your research before investing in anything. 

 

 

 

 

SodaStream Machines

Gotta love the bubbly.

This past year has been such a lucky one for my family in terms of many things—including technology. The techie fairies must know that we’ve been struggling financially, so they’ve sent us all kinds of gadgets for free via our friends! I’m not kidding; via my best friend I’ve been given a Kindle and a cell phone (so my husband and I finally have one each rather than sharing a single one); my husband won a Blu-ray player out of a $1 raffle (OK, so we spent a buck on it!), and a buddy of his recently gave us his SodaStream since he doesn’t use it anymore. Can I say our cups runneth over here?

I have been happy with all of these gifts (how could you not be when they’re free, right?), but my new favorite must be the SodaStream. I can have sparkling water whenever I want! This is a huge deal because that’s something that I love but we no longer buy due to cost (I used to buy cans of orange and lemon-flavored sparkling water), so now I can have it. I just have to figure out the flavoring part…

My husband’s friend also gave us two flavors of soda to try. We haven’t had the Cranberry yet but we’ve had the Half-and-Half tea/lemonade combination from Country Time and I love it. I am a big Arnold Palmer fan anyway, so that’s no surprise. It’s very strong stuff, though, so some people may want to use less than a full capful when loading the machine.

The first two bottles we made were awesome, but lately they have not been holding their fizz. You can see the fizz when you pump it into the bottles, but once you have them in the fridge they start to lose it—I mean immediately! They are supposed to hold their fizz for up to two weeks or something like that, so I don’t understand why when I first open them they go flat. Perhaps we’re not doing it correctly; we followed the directions on the website. Maybe it’s out of carbon—my husband’s friend said it was pretty much brand new, but maybe it’s out or something. Any ideas?

If you’re going to buy this machine, I’d say go for it if you love carbonated beverages and want to spend less money overall (especially on carbonated water). You can only add the carbon to water itself, then mix with the mixers—so if you are planning on using it with, say, Crystal Lite, just mix up a tiny batch of the mixture (a whole liter with a small amount of water) to use as your own “concentrate.” If you don’t drink a lot of carbon—or if you’re a soda drinker and you find out that you don’t like the flavors available—you may not like it.

Nothing shrimpy about this crustacean

The peacock mantis shrimp's biology may actually lead to better body armor for soldiers and law enforcement.

The peacock mantis shrimp may be one of the most amazing creatures on the planet. Featured in a recent article in The LA Times, the mantis shrimp has two large claws that are capable of delivering 500 Newtons of force. This is sufficient to punch through the shells of the snails and crabs that it eats; even enough to crush aquarium glass, and accelerates faster than a speeding bullet (literally). Of course, there is one interesting question to the puzzle of this small creature (which is, coincidentally, neither a shrimp nor a mantis).

One of the physical impossibilities of a human possessing super human strength is that our physiology would not stand up to the forces created by that strength. Our muscles would tear, our bones would break. The peacock mantis shrimp, however, has developed a structure for its claws that can withstand the tremendous forces. The structure actually makes its claws tougher than any synthetic material that we’ve made.

Researchers studying the animal have found that the exoskeleton of the creature is actually made oup of several structures that each guard against the catastrophic failures of the others. There are three integrated areas of the structure, “each contain different mineral compositions and capabilities.” The impact zone of the claw is made of hydroxyapatite, which is found in vertebrates bones and teeth. However, it’s very thin ( 50 – 70 nanometers) which would normally be very brittle. However, two other composite structures of chitosan, a softer spongy material, absorb impact, prevent cracks from spreading, and disperse force.

Designers believe they could use this design to create body armor that would be significantly lighter and stronger than present synthetic varieties such as Kevlar. In addition, the use of a kind of hybrid armor, one that makes use of traditional ceramics as well as organic materials (such as the chitosan), may improve upon the design as well.

On a related note, this represents a further shift from pursuing primary synthetics in the solving of our problems to adapting natural design. Researchers are attempting to use spider silk, which is lighter, stronger, and more elastic than any synthetic alternative, to be economically viable. Spider silk may be useful in applications as varied as body armor to prosthetic limbs and construction materials. In addition, scientists have looked at the structures and behaviors of plants to make engineering and architecture more energy efficient and stable in residential and commercial buildings.

We seem to have moved beyond a kind of human-centered pretense for advancing technology, and have returned to looking at nature for our designs. Afterall, we’ve only been at it a few thousand years. Nature’s been working on it for billions.

Are pop-up buttons coming to a touchscreen near you?

Probably not, but somebody's working on it.

We've kind of ground to a standstill regarding our cell phones. And by "kind of," I mean "seriously, is anybody going to invent anything that's not just an iPhone or a bigger iPhone?" The Samsung Galaxy Note tried to bridge the well-needed gap between phones and tablets by being huge and including completely obsolete technology in the package. Seriously, a stylus? No one is nostalgic for the Palm Pilot. Not one guy. 

So what's next, mobile innovators? Are we just going to keep swiping at monoliths for the rest of our lives? The iPhone is reaching dangerous levels of saturation within the general populous (hint: when your mom and her mom and the mom of the kid you always hated in high school all have the same phone, it's officially no longer cool). But touchscreen technology seems to be kind of the end-all when it comes to mobile computing, and now that Steve Jobs is no longer with us, the world might just be struggling to come up with the next big "it."

 But maybe Tactus Technologies is on to something. They've picked up on an important limitation of the touchscreen: it only operates in two dimensions. What about that whole third plane out there in the world? Are we going to pretend it never existed as we experience life through the lens of a three by five-inch screen?

Maybe not anymore. Maybe our touchscreens are about to get a lot more touchable. This startup is working on something called the Tactile Layer, which would replace your traditional Gorilla Glass on the surface of your phone. Instead of a rigid slab, your screen would be a movable, distortable membrane. You could have actual, tangible buttons appear and disappear on your phone instead of just icons designed to look like the real thing.

 

The buttons run on fluid technology; a small amount of liquid sits just underneath the screen. When you need a button to appear in a particular spot, the fluid is pumped up through microchannels to create a rectangle. Simple stuff, and it doesn't pop or leak. But if I had to guess, I'd say it's probably not very precise at the moment. How sharp of a corner can you build out of water, after all? And because device manufacturers would have to pre-program all the screen's activity, it doesn't lend itself well to third-party app development.

That is to say, you might be able to have transient tactile buttons in your built-in text messaging app, but no aspiring designer would be able to come up with a game for the same phone. Given that the mobile world is built on the contributions of independent developers, it doesn't seem likely that this tactile tech will take off until they've pumped a lot more science into it.

Still, it's good to see that somebody's trying to move beyond the monolith. iPhones are about six months away from becoming passe. Somebody's got to rush in and fill that void, whether it's Apple again or a wild card like Blackberry or somebody you've never even heard of. 

The Quantifiable Man

The "quantified self" movement makes me think the singularity may look more like a line graph than a robot.

The Vitruvian Man is one of the most widely recognized depictions of human anatomy. A sketch by the great painter, inventor, and thinker Leonardo Davinci. It’s also worth knowing that DaVinci has been called the last man to know the most about everything. In other words, since DaVinci, human knowledge has so splintered and specialized that no one person can know it all. In the 21st century there are entire fields of study so large and complex that no one individual can understand its entirety. Knowledge is only what can be gleaned from data, which is only as credible as the size of the sample population from which it was taken. The result? The wise man is no longer a vessel for knowledge, but a collector of data.

One of the largest stockpiles of data, currently, is Facebook. With over 900,000 users interacting with one another and publicly publishing personal information from sexual preference to shoe size, Facebook stands to make major money from selling that data to advertisers, marketers, and even law enforcement. What’s more is that this fascination with data, with the ability to precisely quantify trends and statistical probabilities within a range of universal unknowns, is becoming a fairly run-of-the-mill interest. It’s almost common practice anymore.

Case in point, a new personal data collection app called TicTrac, reported here on Technology Review, which actually collects the quantifiable data of other personal data collection sources to create comprehensive infographics on who you are. Imagine a hub where data collected from Facebook, FourSquare, Nike Fit, Twitter, LinkedIn, RunKeeper, and any of the other personal data collection apps can be easily filtered, analyzed, and projected to show you who you are based on what you do. This growing trend, called “quantified self,” promotes a greater understanding of ourselves through careful record keeping of our every behavior; an understanding that will help us to make better health choices regarding our behavior and habits.

Of course, there’s nothing hypothetical about this idea. We all have assumptions about ourselves and our behavior that are colored by preconceptions and emotions, two variables which aren’t accounted for by these data collecting apps. However, extrapolate this movement out to our current social, political, and especially professional obsession with statistical data. In the near future are we likely to see personal electronics and clothing fuse (social trends allowing for the market), and at that point personal data collection becomes a matter of course. Imagine a future where a combination of passively monitored biofeedback and a user’s online activities can be comprehensively compiled and analyzed to give individuals a picture of their lives as objective as only data can be, and as unique as their own fingerprint. Perhaps this will be the real singularity, where people go from faces and names to undulating sets of line graphs. Me as an infographic.

 

Lifebrowser Provides Personal Timeline of Our Digital Footprint

Photos, pictures, emails, search history; everything we've done online now available for us to see in graphic format.

Data-mining, or the process or recording, analyzing, and selling information about consumers behaviors online, has been big business for search engine companies. In fact, it’s reached a the kind of levels that is now drawing some negative public feedback regarding privacy and prompting the government to pass guidelines for internet companies tracking such information. Some of that backlash may be the result of online users not knowing exactly what has been tracked, and what those companies are seeing. For that, Microsoft has recently developed Lifebrowser, an interface for you to look at your own internet imprint and locate landmark events in everything from browsing history to online photos, purchases, and emails.

The sheer amounts of personal digital data that we create, even in the short time that the internet has been available, makes it almost impossible for people to manage their online footprint. “The motivation behind Lifebrowser is that we have too much stuff going on in our personal digital spheres," says Eric Horvitz, Lifebrowser creator, told Technology review, "We were interested in making local machines private data-mining centers [that are] very smart about you and your memory so that you can better navigate through that great amount of content."

The timeline looks like a simplified, less glossy version of the Facebook Timeline, but it doesn’t require the user to create it. Upon command, Lifebrowser automatically generates the timeline using the user’s entire online footprint. However, when the program compiles all of the search histories, emails, photos, and other content, it uses artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to determine which pieces of content indicate a landmark within our person internet history. In addition, the user can use a “volume control” button that increases or decreases the significance of those landmarks, emphasizing only the most important few events and content or lowering it to include more and more of the “landmark” events.

An example provided by Horvitz includes a simple search of a person’s name. That search yields the first email from that person, as well as photos posted “somewhere” online including the person from relatively the same time period. In this way Lifebrowser literally creates a timeline around a particular users online content from the “beginning”. Lifebrowser is not yet available commercially, and is still a primary product for Microsoft Research. Horvitz sees its application in the future as a personal management tool for monitoring privacy and what can actually be “mined” by data-programs for advertising companies. In the meantime it sounds like a great way to take a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Organize Your Cables In Style

Get rid of the signature techie mess with these clever accessories

If you're anything like me, the area around your desk looks like the nest of some electronic  bird-beast; there are wires everywhere, some so tangled up with each other that they will likely never be salvaged. I don't even understand how some of the knots under my desk are physically possible, yet there they are, bunched up and irritating and keeping me from easily retrieving a USB line when I need one. I've tried making my own organizational systems by coiling up and storing cables when they're not in use, but I have so many wires that are constantly being used or semi-used that the whole area remains a mess. Luckily for me and my disorganized ilk, there are several solutions out there in the world that help keep cables neat and separate. Some of them are pretty sharp-looking, too. Here are just a few tools you can use to keep your workspace from being a cyclone of plastic-coated copper.

Cordies Cable Organizers: These might look more like brass knuckles or some other handheld weapon than a device for keeping your wires in place, but they'll actually hold USB and charging cables wherever you want them. No more hunting for that iPod cable; just insert the tip into one of four loops and you'll always know where it is. Not only does this organizer keep cables in place, it also protects them from the unnecessary damage incurred when you pull one wire out of a whole nest of them. 

Command Adhesive Cord Clips: These versatile little guys give you essentially unlimited control over where your cords go. Not only can you coil up your unused cords and loop them through these hooks on the edge of your desk, your wall, wherever, you can also thread cables through multiple hooks to keep them in place while you're using them. Create a whole network of wires if you like. Divert them wherever you want. 

Ballou Projects Power Lines: These are pretty much the classiest option for organizing cables ever in the history of all things. Instead of hiding your wires away where you can't see them, embrace their display by looping them across two miniature pylons. Suddenly, your desk isn't just a mess of cables and gadgets. It's a tiny landscape complete with tiny power lines. Complete the look with a city built from your Lego collection if you like. It's your desk.

I Need Your Help: Tablet or PC?

I think I already know the answer, but I wanted to get the opinion of some fellow tech junkies.  My husband’s budget laptop, the very one I complained about recently, is on its way out.  The thing is driving us nuts, and it isn’t worth fixing.  Since we will have the opportunity to replace it, we have been debating whether or not to get a tablet instead of another laptop.

My husband doesn’t use his computer that much.  He checks Facebook, looks at Craigslist, and occasionally watches a movie from DVD.  He would like to have photos on  his machine, and play games once in a while. 

For all of his needs except the DVD watching, a tablet would probably work just fine.  He rarely types, and is a hunt and peck kind of guy anyway, so the lack of a keyboard wouldn’t be an issue.  In fact, he might prefer the onscreen keyboard anyway – autocorrect is very handy when you’re not a fast typist.

I know you can get software to burn DVDs to a drive, but that costs a lot of money, doesn’t it?  Watching online is an option now, but we may be moving to a new place where Internet could be limited for a while, and I’d hate to deny him the occasional movie by choosing a tablet.

So, what are the options for DVDs?  Is there a way to connect an external DVD player to a tablet?  I just know he would love a tablet, except for that minor detail.  Any suggestions?
 

Light Therapy for Adjusting to Daylight Savings Time

The Philips Wake-Up Light Simulates the Sun Rise


Daylights savings time is upon us again. Sunday we spring forward and turn our clocks ahead. That is, we lose one hour of our precious sleep. Well, all of us, except for those who live in Arizona or Hawaii. For some of us, however, it is difficult to adjusting to this hour time change difference. Fortunately, there is help with the following sleep gadgets.

Philips Wake-Up Light

Back in the day, do you think cavemen used alarm clocks to wake up? Not a chance. They used the good ole sun to wake, and rose as soon as the sun did. Well, there's a new-fangeled gadget that purports to simulate the rising of the sun.

 It's called the Philips Wake Up Light, which you use in your bedroom to simulate the sunrise. As dawn approaches, it gradually increases the light intensity. The benefits of this is that it prepares your body to wake up gently beginning 30 minutes before your alarm is scheduled to go off. In addition, the Philips Wake Up Light has a feature to give you background noise -- whether it is sounds of nature or just an FM radio. The Philips Wake Up Light is also backed by the National Sleep Foundation.

In addition to waking up in a more natural and gentle way, the light is said to improve not only your energy level, but also your mood. Although winter is practically over, the light can also help combat those winter blues.  The bedside lamp comes with 20 light brightness settings.

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