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The robots walk among us

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Almost exactly a century after the term ‘robot’, was coined in fiction, the automatons have finally gone mainstream. In the first of a series, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK meets a trio of humanoid consumer robots.

I first met Pepper the life-sized robot waiter at a conference in Hungary last year, and was smitten. As soon as he/she/it greeted me with the words, “Hello, human”, I was captivated. However, I knew it would be many years before I would meet my new friend in a local restaurant.

But what about Pepper’s smaller relatives? What about humanoid robots designed for education, entertainment and service in the home, office and school? Back then, they seemed just as distant. But suddenly, they walk among us.

It was almost exactly a century ago, in 1920, that the term was first coined by Czech writer Karl Capek in his science fiction play, R.U.R. – short for Rossum’s Universal Robots. Since then, fiction has mostly treated these constructions as a threat to humanity. Now, the tide has finally turned.

Today, one can buy robots off the shelf, or online. It seems that only budget dictates the limitations of what the gadgets can do, say or sing. Here are some of the models I’ve recently tested, previewed, or encountered:

Cady Will

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If there’s such a thing as an entry–level for robots, this is the starter model, but you’d have to go online to bring it under your control. It costs a mere $42 from Gearbest, although shipping adds $14, but for a total that is still under R1000.

For that, you get an “Intelligent combat robot with multi-control modes”.  These modes include sending instructions via a handheld remote control device,  touching its head, shaking its body and – most startling of all – gesture control. While that is expected in higher-end robots, it is rare to find a gesture sensor in a budget robot.

The clue that this is about fun rather than education lies in the word “combat”, but Cady Will accepts rudimentary programming. One can set sequences of movements, sounds, and actions, ranging from walking and sliding to dancing and singing. This means that, even while used exclusively as a toy, it exposes one to the principles of basic programming.

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This doesn’t mean one needs a thinking cap for engaging with Cady Will, though. The remote control is clearly labelled, with instructions like Right hand Up, Turn Left, Speed Up, Dance, and Music.

You would quickly get tired of hearing it perform Gangnam Style but, in reality, it is more of a demo of the moves the robot can make.  It comes with a set of missiles that can be launched from one hand, while the other sports a “laser cannon” that is probably going to scare a good few pets.

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Cady Will probably personifies the phrase, “bang for your buck”. Buy it here:

https://www.gearbest.com/rc-robot/pp_924336.html?lkid=11958179

Alpha 1 Pro

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At the opposte end of the scale, a robot that is both taller and sleeker than Cady Will, Alpha 1 Pro, will set you back R8 499, or the price of a mid-range smartphone. For that, however, you get a delightful educational and entertainment tool. Controlled via an app – Android or iOS – it features numerous built-in modes, moods and content.

Yes, the obligatory Gangnam Style puts it through its dance moves, but then it features a collection of songs, an action-version of the story of Troy, and bedtime stories. If those aren’t enough, music can be played through the Alpha 1 via Bluetooth. Demonstrations of exercises, yoga moves and martial arts turn the robot into a coach and gym partner.

The key to a robot’s movements is its servo motors, and Alpha 1 packs in 16 high precision servos, and can rotate 180 degrees,

As with Cady Will, basic programming comes in the form of recording actions in sequence. However, true programming is also introduced, using a visual programming language called Blockly. One chooses a code module in the app and adjusts the parameters to program the robot to dance, demonstrate specific moves or go off on a secret mission.

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Manufactured by UBTech, it is dsitributed in South Africa by branded technology specialist Gammatek. For more information on Alpha 1 Pro, visit: http://gammatek.co.za/product/ubtech-alpha-1-smart-toys/

UBTech Cruzr

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At the distant high end of the scale, a corporate answer to Pepper has arrived in the form of Cruzr. It is described by UBTech as “a cloud-based intelligent humanoid robot” designed for both industrial applications and domestic environments. Taller than the average human, its key features include an 11.6” touch screen, flexible arms, facial recognition, video recording, navigational mapping, video conferencing, and surveillance capabilities.

That makes it ideal for anything from security to remote employee interaction and data collection. Combined with customisable artificial intelligence business applications, including big data analysis and question and answer libraries,  it also becomes a tool for collaboration, sales and customer support.

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A two-channel stereo speaker and a camera with depth perception rounds out the multimedia features. A sensor array in the head, along with one one Lidar sensor, six sonar sensors and 12 infrared sensors, make it not only good at aviding obstacles, but position the Cruzr as the state of the interactive robot art.

It has between five and eight hours active battery life and, best of all, when it runs low, it automatically returns to its self-charging dock.

Local distributors Gammatek doesn’t have pricing for the Cruzr, as it is individually customised and priced for corporate clients.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.

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Kenya tool to help companies prepare for emergencies

After its team members survived last week’s Nairobi terror attack, Ushahidi decided to release a new preparedness tool for free, writes its CEO, NAT MANNING

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On Tuesday I woke up a bit before 7am in Berkeley, California where I live. I made some coffee and went over to my computer to start my work day. I checked my Slack and the news and quickly found out that there was an ongoing terrorist attack at 14 Riverside Complex in Nairobi, Kenya. The Ushahidi office is in Nairobi and about a third of our team is based there (the rest of us are spread across 10 other countries).

As I read the news, my heart plummeted, and I immediately asked the question, “is everyone on my team okay?”

Five years ago Al-Shabaab committed a similar attack at the Westgate Mall. We spent several tense hours figuring out if any of our team had been in the mall, and verifying that everyone was safe. We found out that one of our team member’s family was caught up in the attack. Luckily they made it out.

At Ushahidi we make software for crisis response, including tools to map disasters and election violence, and yet we felt helpless in the face of this attack. In the days following the Westgate attack, our team huddled and thought about what we could build that would help our team — and other teams — if we found ourselves in a similar situation to this attack again. We identified that when we first learned of the attack, nearly everyone at Ushahidi had spent that first precious few hours trying to answer the basic questions, “Is everyone okay?”, and if not, “Who needs help?” 

People had ad-hoc used multiple channels such as WhatsApp, called, emailed, or texted. We had done this for each person at Ushahidi (their job), in our families, and important people in our community. Our process was unorganised, inefficient, repetitive, and frustrating.

And from this problem we created TenFour, a check in tool that makes it easier for teams to reach one another during times of crisis. It is a simple application that lets people send a message to their team via SMS, Slack, Voice, email, and in-app, and get a response. It also works for educational institutions, companies with distributed staff, as well as part of neighbourhood networks like neighbourhood watches.

This week when I woke up to the news of the attack at Riverside, I immediately opened up the TenFour app.

Click here to read how Nat quickly confirmed the safety of his team.

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Kia multi-collision airbags

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The world’s first multi-collision airbag system has been unveiled by Hyundai Motor Group subsidiary KIA Motors, with the aim of improving airbag performance in multi-collision accidents.

Multi-collision accidents are those in which the primary impact is followed by collisions with secondary objects, such as other vehicles, trees, or electrical posts, which occur in three out of every 10 accidents. Current airbag systems do not offer secondary protection when the initial impact is insufficient to cause them to deploy. 

However, the multi-collision airbag system allows airbags to deploy effectively upon a secondary impact, by calibrating the status of the vehicle and the occupants.

The new technology detects occupants’ positions in the cabin following an initial collision. When occupants are forced into unusual positions, the effectiveness of existing safety technology may be compromised. Multi-collision airbag systems are designed to deploy even faster when initial safety systems may not be effective, providing additional safety when drivers and passengers are most vulnerable. By recalibrating the collision intensity required for deployment, the airbag system responds more promptly during the secondary impact, thereby improving the safety of multi-collision vehicle occupants.

“By improving airbag performance in multi-collision scenarios, we expect to significantly improve the safety of our drivers and passengers,” said Taesoo Chi, head of the Hyundai Motor Group’s Chassis Technology Centre. “We will continue our research on more diverse crash situations as part of our commitment to producing even safer vehicles that protect occupants and prevent injuries.”

According to statistics by the National Automotive Sampling System Crashworthiness Data System (NASS-CDS), an office of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in USA, about 30% of 56,000 vehicle accidents from 2000 to 2012 in the North American region involved multi-collisions. The leading type of multi-collision accidents involved cars crossing over the centre line (30.8%), followed by collisions caused by a sudden stop at highway tollgates (13.5%), highway median strip collisions (8.0%), and sideswiping and collision with trees and electric poles (4.0%). 

These multi-collision scenarios were analysed in multilateral ways to improve airbag performance and precision in secondary collisions. Once commercialised, the system will be implemented in future new KIA vehicles. 

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