SciTechBlog
April 17, 2009

Robot servants, and the end of the Internet?

Posted: 04:59 PM ET

Here are a few technology stories CNN.com is watching today:

ROBOTS: BBC News reports that two (likely unrelated) trends are driving robotics these days: older people and violent conflict. One expert in the story sees it this way: "Even just having robots do lightweight transport of objects from one room to another, whether it's grandma's knitting or a cup of coffee, could be tremendously valuable."

INTERNET: Is there an end to the Internet? Maybe, if your cable company says so. Nielsen Online says Internet service providers and cable companies are putting caps on how much bandwidth their customers can use. That comes as Internet users are downloading more video, particularly from Hulu, the site says.

CLOUD COMPUTING: There's been a bunch of news about cloud computing lately, and a lot of it may be hype, ars technica writes today. The notoriously vague concept generally refers to the process of hosting computer programs online. Many companies are interested, but that may not make financial sense, the site says.

FACEBOOK: Finally, what blog would be complete these days without a Facebook reference. A CNET writer wonders today whether or not the uber-popular social networking site should charge users $1 per month to avoid financial stress. What would you pay?

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Filed under: Facebook • robotics • social-networking sites • technology


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March 5, 2009

OCD hamsters, iFarts and texting through Lent

Posted: 10:04 AM ET

Here are some some tech and science stories we found interesting today:

1. Let a hamster clean the carpet: Gizmodo reports that some inventor (possibly with a case of OCD) found a way to let pet hamsters control the direction of Roombas, those robotic floor-cleaning machines. A video shows a green hamster ball poised atop the UFO-shaped device. If the hamster decides to run a different direction, a different piece of your floor gets vacuumed. Notes the site:

I'm sure it's quite liberating for the hamster, but I wouldn't count on your floors getting too clean.

2. Low-tech Lent: As the LA Times and others report this morning, some Roman Catholic bishops are calling on followers to give up text messaging for the holy period of Lent, which precedes Easter. The paper's story begins:

They say idle hands are the devil's tools. But this Lent, it may be texting thumbs doing the dirty work.

3. Commemorating the iFart: CNet has a story looking back at the year in iPhone applications. Some, like the iFart, were unexpected successes , the publication writes. From the story:

Apple has since made iPhone applications the centerpiece of its marketing campaign for the device, with pitches tailored to consumers and business users showing off the breadth and depth of iPhone applications. The rest of the industry has noticed; virtually every other major smartphone company is scrambling to set up their own App Store-like experience.

4. Hope for the bionic eye: The BBC writes that another man has been fitted with a bionic eye and can now see "flashes of light" after surgery at a London hospital. The eyes are designed to help people with a degenerative eye disease. The eye "uses a camera and video processor mounted on sunglasses to send captured images wirelessly to a tiny receiver on the outside of the eye," the station writes on its Web site.

5. Facebook copies Twitter? The New York Times and others wrote about changes unveiled by Facebook, the popular social media site, that some say make it function more like Twitter, another popular site. Facebook is replacing the "status update" box at the top of its pages with a "What's on your mind" box. Twitter prompts its users to enter posts with a similar and perhaps simpler question: "What are you doing?"

By John Sutter, CNN.com

Filed under: robotics • social-networking sites • technology


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June 30, 2008

Spy Bugs: The next generation of surveillance?

Posted: 02:18 PM ET

  

The technology has been around for years to control animals' movements by implanting electrodes into their brains. The concept is tried and true on things from rats to sharks. At one point it was proven that rats could be used to help on search and rescue missions by adding a backpack camera to the equation. Larger animals can handle heavier equipment, but if placed in a sensitive situation, they could be easily detected. The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking for a solution.DARPA    HIMEMS Program Logo shows the fly that may someday be on your wall

DARPA is continuing to harness natural animal motor skills in combination with artificial control systems, but is now looking into using smaller test subjects. The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) project is how DARPA plans to achieve this. The premise is to take a small, ordinary organism and transform it into a robot of sorts. By using insects, DARPA hopes to be able to hold greater control over a final destination, while at the same time utilizing the insects' natural fluid movements. The trick will be making control mechanisms and other equipment small and light enough for the insects to be able to handle them. The ability to guide the insects to a location with precision could allow them to accomplish tasks deemed too dangerous for humans. DARPA says on its web site that insects could be outfitted with sensors capable of transmitting information about air quality, or even devices to transmit sound. The insects could get close enough to a target to relay data otherwise unavailable.  The proverbial "fly on the wall" might actually turn out to be a fly on the wall.

            Researchers have come up with a way to implant tiny controlling devices into a moth during its early developmental stages. The moth then matures around the implants, becoming one with the devices. With the implants in place, researchers can then begin the controlled movement process. Techniques to control movement could include direct muscle stimulation or neural stimulation that would tell the insect which muscles to move. GPS and ultrasonic signals are some of the technologies being investigated to guide insects to their destinations.

            HI-MEMS is a long way off from being ready to throw the robo-insects into mainstream use. Technology issues, costs, and environmental hazards have to be sorted out before the insects will be ready to go out in the field. Until then, spy bugs may be a thing of the future, but the technology coming out of the project is in the now.

 Katie Glaeser, CNN

Filed under: robotics • science


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June 26, 2008

UAVs could dominate hostile, friendly skies

Posted: 04:47 PM ET

The highly trained military aviator moves the stick right and rolls in on a target— an Al Queda training complex in Iraq somewhere near the Syrian border.

Source: Getty Images. UAVs, like the Predator, have already logged over half a million flight hours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The pilot selects Hellfire missiles, pulls the trigger, and blasts the installation into oblivion. He then pulls up, sets course for home, slides back in his rolling chair and takes a sip of coffee. He is sitting in a dark room almost 6,000 miles away from his aircraft.

Step aside Maverick and Goose. This past March, the United States Air Force announced it will be seeking an increased budget for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, from $334 million in 2008 to $540 million next year—a 60 percent increase.

If military decision-makers have their way, the heyday of aerial dogfighting performed by hot shot pilots will be a thing of the past. UAVs already play an integral role in the country’s current conflicts, having already logged over half a million flight hours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given these surprising statistics, many military pilots fear that their jobs may be in jeopardy. It’s borderline science-fiction to think that a pilot, who has trained for hundreds of hours, could be replaced by an autonomous flying machine.

A close friend of mine, a midshipman at the Naval Academy, is convinced that he’ll be among the last generation of military pilots that will actually fly an aircraft from the inside.

But are military strategists letting their enthusiasm for unmanned vehicles run wild? Some want to begin to employ autonomous robots capable of making their own kill decisions—a scary prospect for industry experts.

In friendly skies over the United States, non-military pilots are concerned about UAVs, too. During my first flying lesson, my instructor taught me the simple skills required for dodging mid-air collisions: “see and avoid” he called it.

But as UAVs take on more roles in law enforcement, border patrol, aerial surveying, and other peacetime missions, how well will they see, avoid, and communicate with other aircraft in the nation’s already busy airspace? That’s still to be determined.

The Frederick, Maryland-based Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a lobbying group for pilots of general aviation airplanes, advocates that any UAV integration into the national airspace system must be conducted without any harm to the current civilian airspace user.

As a pilot myself, sharing airspace with remote-control flying machines gives me the heebie jeebies. Still, the FAA has not outlined a definitive plan on how to deal with manned and unmanned aircraft sharing the same piece of sky.

Will the future of aviation remain human after all?

– Pete Muntean, CNN Science and Technology

Filed under: Aviation • robotics • science


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March 20, 2008

To the Batplane!

Posted: 10:55 AM ET

A robotic spy plane currently under development would be perfect for Batman – that is, if he were smaller than a paper clip.

Source: Eric Maslowski, research computer specialist in the University of Michigan 3D Lab

Researchers sponsored by the U.S. Army are not designing this small bat-like aircraft to have passengers. Instead, the six-inch-long plane will direct itself, collecting information in urban combat zones and sending signals to soldiers through radio, the University of Michigan News Service said.

Dubbed "the bat," this small autonomous aircraft would incorporate a navigation system and a tiny low-power radar to get around in the dark. Soldiers could get real-time information from the little robot as it perches on a building, for example.

The Army is joining forces with industry and academia to make the concept for the vehicle a reality. Each of four designated research centers has the mission of developing a different bat-like subsystem of the little robot.

Researchers at the University of Michigan, which received a $10 million Army grant for the project, say they expect to develop an autonomous navigation system 1,000 times smaller and more energy efficient than mechanisms currently in use. This would allow the plane to move by itself, without a third party directing it. They also expect to develop a communication system 10 times smaller than current technologies.

Live bats find their way around by generating sounds and using the echoes from those sounds to determine their distance relative to objects, as well as the size and direction of objects. This navigation system is called echolocation.

The robotic plane will also have auditory sensitivity, using small microphones to gather sound waves from different directions, that will enable sophisticated navigation in the dark. But this bat is not blind – researchers also envision the little aircraft to have stereo vision through small cameras.

The bat may also be able to determine whether there’s nuclear radiation or poisonous gas around, using special sensors.

–Elizabeth Landau, Associate Producer, CNN.com

Filed under: Animals • robotics


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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