Light Friday: Robot Comedian Has Funny 'Bits'

August 16, 2013

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Of all the people in the world to fear that robots will someday take their job, stand-up comedians have historically felt pretty safe. But that may change sooner than later.

At the Barbican Centre in London, audiences got a glimpse of Robothespian, a humanoid robot, made by British company Engineered Arts. The robot told preprogrammed jokes written by seasoned British comedian Tiernan Douieb, who also performed before his mechanical colleague.

The performance was as much an experiment as entertainment. Researchers from Queen Mary University of London and colleagues, who conceived of the idea, used cameras to track facial expressions during both human and robot routines. The goal is to find out what makes live events compelling and entertaining to audiences.

According to reporters from New Scientist, Robothespian had a few funny bits (Ha! Get it? “Bits”?), including one of his earliest jokes (“I never really know how to start. Which is probably because I run off Windows 8.”) and a shtick about dating a MacBook (“...she was all “i, i, i”). But aside from a few gems, the performance was a tad, well, robotic.

Robothespian is not the first robot comedian either. He is preceded by Data, a foot-and-a-half tall android devised by Carnegie Mellon research Heather Knight. Data, unlike Robothespian, can actually mix up his routine on the fly based on audience responses.

Whether robots will take comedy by storm has yet to be seen. I, for one, welcome our hilarious new robot entertainment overlords.

[embed]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40GW_3djKXo&;[/embed]

Prosthetic Limbs Offer a Sense of Touch

Those with prosthetic limbs face the difficulty of judging their grip or footing because, while prosthetic limbs provide a close simulacrum of the lost appendage, they do not provide the user with a true sense of touch. However, scientists at the University of Chicago recently published a study demonstrating the possibility of providing prosthetic limb users with a synthesized sense of touch.

In “Behavioral Demonstration of a Somatosensory Neuroprosthesis,” Sliman Bensmaia, University of Chicago researcher and assistant professor of organismal biology and anatomy, and his team explain the possibility of providing prosthesis users with sensory feedback via electronic signals from the limb surface.

“Without sensor feedback, you might as well not have an arm or hand because your ability to use it is so severely compromised,” he told The Institute, a publication managed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). He further explained the need for improving the technology: “The sense of touch is critical to motor control, the sense of embodiment, and emotions. Without it, you cease to feel this limb as your own.”

Bensmaia and his team were able to prove that constant electric stimulation of the brain posed no risks or lasting consequences to humans. With FDA approval for human testing, the group will now connect sensors to prosthetic limbs and connect them to electrical nodes surgically implanted in patients. Hopefully, the result will provide the test subjects with a constant “feeling” of where the prosthetic is and what it is touching.

However, the process will be complicated, as the team must devise a sensor that provides sensations for shape, texture, motion, and temperature. Users will need to know the difference between cotton and sandpaper.

How Much Does Birth Order Really Affect Your Success?

Your birth order may have something to do with your career interests, achievement drive, and even health. While numerous extensive studies have been dedicated to finding the correlation between birth order and personality type, others link these hundreds of studies together and suggest that first-borns, for instance, tend to achieve high success and achievement, while their later-born siblings are more sociable.

Io9, a daily publication that covers science, provides examples of numerous studies that link birth order to personality, noting that while some research shows that biological impact of birth order from the womb can determine health, others show that parental influence may have to do with our leadership skills.

One of the most modern extensive studies, for example, was by psychologist Daniel Eckstein, who, with his colleagues, found by looking at 200 birth-order studies that while only-childs desire achievement, youngest children have the highest “agreeableness,” and middle-children are more sociable. Meanwhile, the oldest have the highest academic and intellectual success and the tendency to be the high achievers. Io9 also points to a 1998 Canadian study of 1,022 families that indicate that firstborns are most conscientious, more conservative, and more achieving. This study also suggested that later-borns were more agreeable, albeit more rebellious.

While it may seem that first-borns get the better end of the deal in these studies, their birth order ranking fortune does not hold true when it comes to health. The downside is that studies point to a link between first-borns and a higher-susceptibility to health issues such as food allergies, a predisposition to Asperger Syndrome, and even weaker respiratory systems -- a reminder that, regardless of birth order, no one is perfect.

U.S. Experiments with the World’s Smallest Drone

Controversy abounds over governments using drones for surveillance and spying (and occasionally shooting innocent civilians). That controversy is about to hit high gear as the U.S. military has begun testing the world’s smallest drone: The Black Hornet.

Developed by Prox Dynamics A.S. of Norway, the Black Hornet weighs only 16 g (the same as three sheets of paper), is completely silent, and is equipped with three high-resolution cameras. At the low price of only $70,000 per unit, the tiny, 8-in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can hit a top speed of around 10 mph with an effective range of about 1,000 m before needing a recharge.

For now, the U.S. is in early testing stages, using the drones for reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan, and it is unknown if they will become an official part of the America’s military bag-of-tricks. But British soldiers have been employing Black Hornets in the area for several months, and they have been very impressed.

“The Black Hornet is really cool,” one British soldier told The Mirror. The pictures are amazingly clear and we can see who is a local civilian and who is a Taliban fighter and whether any weapons are being stored there. We can then make our plans accordingly. It saves a lot of time and prevents a lot of mistakes.”

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