Bad Robot

In these days of constant technological innovation, you almost expect to read about new marvels in robotics and “smart” technology on a daily basis.  But sometimes technological advancements aren’t really advancements at all.

russia-fake-robotConsider Boris the Robot, lauded on Russian TV as a cutting-edge development in robotics with the ability to walk, talk and dance.  Boris appeared on a broadcast, spoke in a robotic voice about his desire to learn to draw, and then danced to a song called Skibidi.  The broadcast said Boris’ dancing was “not that bad.”

But skeptics of Boris abounded.  How in the world could Boris move around without any observable external sensors, they wondered.  And why did the robot make so many “unnecessary movements” while dancing?  (A standard one hopes is never applied to human dancers, incidentally.)  And it also was suspicious that Boris just happened to be configured in a way that would have allowed a human being to be inside.

And then the illusion all came crashing down when a photo of Boris from behind showed a clearly visible section of human neck between Boris’ head and body.  Alas, Boris was in fact a guy in a robot suit — a robot suit specifically designed to give people “the near total illusion that before you stands a real robot.”

It just goes to show that it pays to retain a bit of skepticism about claimed technological advancements.  Before you buy that touted “smart” appliance, consider whether it’s really all that “smart” after all.  And before you go ga ga over a robot doing a twitching dance to modern music, be sure to check the neck area.

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Smarter Than The Average Fridge

Recently I came downstairs in the morning, opened the refrigerator to get my customary glass of orange juice, and noticed that the juice was warmer than usual.  My internal sensors started sounding, and after a little checking I realized that the refrigerator didn’t seem to be cooling anything — or for that matter, working at all.

So, how to try to fix the problem?  The refrigerator is one of those big, multi-section units that was installed by the people who lived in this house before we bought it three years ago.  Given the constant advances in “smart appliance” technology, our refrigerator therefore isn’t at the head of the class, but it’s not like the simple old Norges or Amanas of my childhood, either.

It was a situation that called for some careful analysis.  After an initial examination of the device, I realized that the front display screen, which allows you to set the desired temperatures for the different sections, select cubed ice or crushed ice, and use a “power cool” feature, was illuminated.  I reasoned that that meant that the refrigerator was connected to a power source — which was a good thing because the refrigerator is much too heavy to actually move to visually check whether it was plugged in.  After feeling an initial flush of pride at my deductive powers, I then realized that the “0” in one temperature monitor part of the screen and the “FF” in an adjacent part of the screen were together spelling “0FF,” and I felt like an idiot.

I shook off the embarrassment.  A thorough examination of the interior and exterior of the refrigerator did not identify any switch or other method for turning the refrigerator back on, so the next step involved calling customer service — which was unavailable because it was a Saturday, and who would need to have a working refrigerator on the weekend?  Then it was on to the manufacturer’s website to see if it had any useful information.  There were dozens of tips on the website, but of course none that addressed our problem.  The best guess was to try to cut power to the unit, restart it a few minutes later, and see if it cycled back to the “on” position.  This allowed me to become better acquainted with the circuit breaker in the basement, but it didn’t work either.  At that point, we decided the best course was to just accept that the refrigerator wasn’t working, remove the food that was now at room temperature, and just wait until Monday to call for servicing.

On Monday, Kish called customer service, and was told that there probably had been some unnoticed overnight power surge or brief cutoff that caused the refrigerator to cycle to “off” mode, and she could restart the unit by pushing two of the buttons on the front panel simultaneously.  It worked, and we were back to having a functional refrigerator again.  I was a bit miffed, however.  Would it really have been so hard to have the two buttons to be pushed illuminated and blinking in some fashion, so we would have some clue about how to restart the device, or to have a message flash on the panel that gave us useful instruction?  Or, have clear guidance on the website advising what to do if your refrigerator is showing “0” and “FF” on the panel?  Shouldn’t a “smart” appliance provide such information under the circumstances?

Maybe I’m just mad because my refrigerator apparently is smarter than I am.

 

Think Before You Write

The on-line world once seemed like a fun, open place where you could easily and happily keep track of your friends’ trips, kids, and birthdays.  But as it has developed it seems to get angrier, and weirder, and creepier every day — to the point where many of the thoughtful people I know have decided to retreat completely from “social media” and avoid the on-line world like it’s a dangerous dark alley in the low-rent part of town.

7c7c8b97667c29573fc3c794bc33d0ca-night-time-night-photographyWhy have they decided to abandon Facebook and remove themselves from the internet to the maximum practicable extent in today’s on-line world?  Consider this story, about a woman who posted a negative on-line review of a local tavern where she’d gone for a bachelorette party.  She says she and her friends were well behaved and were inexplicably treated rudely by the bartender, so she gave the bar a bad rating, and some highly critical comments, on Yelp.  Other patrons of the bar, and the bartender, say the bachelorette party group was drunk and disruptive.

If we simply had a disagreement about what actually happened at the bar when the bachelorette party arrived, there would be no story here — we all know that there are two sides to every story and people’s perceptions of events can differ.  But this story took a sick and twisted turn when some people started reacting to the bad review by posting ugly, sexually explicit comments about the reviewer, found her Facebook page and where she worked, and even went on her wedding website and RSVP’d that they would be attending.  It’s a classic example of over-the-top, alarming cyberbullying that, unfortunately, has become increasingly common on-line.  And you never know what might trigger such behavior; a comment that you consider to be fair under the circumstances might push a cyberstalker over the edge and make you their target.

My grandmother used to say, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  It’s not bad advice to keep in mind the next time you’re tempted to write something negative on-line.  These days, who knows where a few harsh words might lead?

Toilet Technology

Technology has moved forward by leaps and bounds in many areas, but there’s one device that really hasn’t changed all that much:  the toilet.  And in many areas of the world, even the standard toilet found in American bathrooms in the year 1900 would be a huge leap forward.

Proper waste disposal is crucial if the human hopes to deal with disease and health areas in underdeveloped areas that don’t have toilets and sewage systems and water treatment plants and other waste-related infrastructure that Americans take for granted.  So I applaud Bill Gates for taking the lead in trying to spur new approaches to toilet design and sludge disposal, with the goal being to break waste down into its constituent entities, conserve water in areas where potable water is scarce, and deal with the bacteria, microbes, and other disease carrying entities that are associated with human waste.  You can read about some of the new approaches, and the efforts made by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in this area, here.

The linked article suggests that advancing toilet technology could save the world more than $200 billion every year.  I’ll let others do the math, but I think the key is to use technology for more than just room-sweeping robots and better selfie quality.  I’m glad to see that people are trying to tackle a basic problem that could produce immeasurable benefits in the quality of life of people who live in underdeveloped parts of the world.

The Rifle Of The Future?

The Army adopted its current battle rifle, the M-16, in 1963.  That’s 55 years ago — the year JFK was assassinated.  That’s an awfully long time by any measure, but an eternity when you consider how much technology has changed and developed since then.

1vjjxjmThe Army has been looking for a new gun for quite some time, and it may just have found it in an inventor’s garage.  The inventor, Martin Grier of Colorado Springs, calls it a “ribbon gun.”  It looks a space age weapon, and it’s clearly a technologically advanced device with a radically different design that would offer soldiers different firing options that could be used depending on the situation.  The article linked above states:  “The specifications are incredible, four 6 mm barrels cut side by side within one steel block. New ammunition blocks fired by electromagnetic actuators that could theoretically give the weapon a firing rate of 250 rounds per second.”  The gun also has a shotgun feature called a “power shot” that would allow soldiers to shoot four bullets simultaneously at the enemy.

The Army has ordered a military grade prototype of the gun for study purposes.  In the meantime, Grier has patented his ribbon gun, which involves inventions that change the nature of the ammunition and the bores through which the ammunition is fired and the method for machining the bores.  It also uses electromagnetic devices to fire the rounds rather than mechanical firing pins and gunpowder.

Inventions in garages are the stuff of American legend, and I’m all for developing new weapons that give our soldiers an edge when they are out protecting our country.  But if the new ribbon gun is the gun of the future, I sure hope its technology stays solely in the hands of the military and doesn’t get out into the civilian population.  Given the mass shootings we’ve endured lately, it’s hard to imagine the kinds of havoc that could occur if a few lunatics got their hands on “ribbon guns.”

Do Laptops Help Students — Or Hurt?

An economics professor at the Ohio State University named Trevon Logan decided to ban laptops from his class.  The results surprised him: student grades improved significantly.  What’s more, the professor reported that student reaction to the laptop ban was very positive, with students stating that the policy “(1) encouraged them to focus, (2) helped them take better notes, (3) kept them engaged, and (4) increased their enjoyment of the course.”

laptops-lectureProfessor Logan’s experiment is part of a budding movement against student laptop use in favor of old-fashioned pen and paper note-taking.  He was motivated to adopt his ban after reading a New York Times article from a University of Michigan professor, Susan Dynarski, who concluded that “a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them.”

Professor Dynarski thinks there is a cognitive reason for the apparent negative effect of laptops on academic performance.  She has written:  “Learning researchers hypothesize that, because students can type faster than they can write, a lecturer’s words flow straight from the students’ ears through their typing fingers, without stopping in the brain for substantive processing. Students writing by hand, by contrast, have to process and condense the material if their pens are to keep up with the lecture.”  (And these comments do not even mention the other issue with laptops — with the internet a few keystrokes away, how many students are tempted to check on their email and their favorite social media websites during lulls in the lecture?)

I think these Ohio State and Michigan professors are on to something.  Trying to take verbatim notes of a lecture on a laptop, which is apparently what many students do, is more of a typing exercise than a learning exercise.  Handwritten notes, in contrast, require the student to make judgments about what is really important, which in turn requires the student to listen more carefully and assimilate the material.  The combination of active listening and the use of hand and eye to create notes on a piece of paper all facilitate retention — and therefore better grades.

This doesn’t mean laptops are bad, it just means that they aren’t especially well-suited to the unique process of learning.  We should keep that in mind the next time an educational initiative announces, with great fanfare, that every targeted student will be receiving a laptop.  It might be better to hand them notebook paper and a pen instead.

AC Outage

We’re doing a long-distance drive today and — wouldn’t you know it! — mid-trip the air conditioning has gone on the fritz. No matter how longingly I look at the vent, hoping for the arctic blast to which I’m accustomed, only warm, moist air emanates. And, of course, it had to happen on a warm, humid day.

What is this — the ’50s? Time to roll down the windows and hope for a rain shower and a cool breeze.