New, advanced ASIMO

On December 11 Honda announced advancements to the ASIMO humanoid robot's intelligence technologies that enables two ASIMOs to work together. The company says its humanoids are now ready to work in pairs performing tasks in coordination with one another, as Honda has developed a system to link the robots together so they can share information about where each one is and what each is doing.

Honda also developed an intelligence technology that enhances smooth movement by enabling ASIMO to choose between stepping back and yielding the right-of-way or continuing to walk based on the predicted movement of oncoming people. Another newly added function enables ASIMO to automatically charge its battery when its remaining battery level falls below a certain level. But here’s the best part: ASIMO, thanks to upgrades that allow it to do more tasks without human help, can recognize drink choices and carry a tray with the requested drink to the person who placed the order!

So, ASIMO - "Shaken, not stirred"! Cheers!

The Vringo-WeeMee alliance

WeeWorld™, home of the popular WeeMee social network, and Vringo, the pioneer in video ringtone sharing, decided to fully integrate WeeWorld avatars into Vringo’s video ringtone service.

Vringo users worldwide can now load their WeeMee avatars onto their mobile handsets for free. When a call is placed, the caller’s animated WeeMee appears on the recipient’s phone screen as a video ringtone (full list of Vringo-compliant handsets available here). Users will also be able to personalize their mobile handsets by selecting WeeMee avatars as wallpaper that appears on handset screens when idle.

Male SL hotties of 2007

Iris Ophelia published her Top 10 male Second Life avatars for '07, exclusive to New World News. The stimulus to this was the alleged “death of beautiful men of Second Life”. But, as Ophelia explains, the truth is they're only recently getting the same kind of attention female avatars have been enjoying from Second Life’s fashion community since the world's beginning. But despite this, there are gorgeous male avatars with great style out there, and it’s time to give them some recognition (and some credit) for the work they’ve put into themselves!

As you may see from her list, hot avatars in SL can be either:


Or... well, interesting.
So what’s coming up next? Miss and Mister Second Life contests? Will we see SL avatars claiming that their dream is world peace and being crowned for their beauty? That’s probable...


2007 Robot of the Year selected

Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has announced the winners of the annual Robot Award, established last year to recognize outstanding developments in the field of robotics and encourage further research. The Grand Prize 2007 Robot of the Year went to an industrial robot from Fanuc Ltd. called M-430iA. This super-fast two-armed industrial robot system is equipped with visual tracking functions optimized for work on food and pharmaceutical manufacturing lines. The winner’s pair of multi-axis robot arms can accurately pick up 120 items per minute as they move along a conveyor belt, and they can work non-stop 24 hours a day.

Additional prizes were presented to four other robots, including ZMP’s miuro, a robotic blood sample courier system developed by Matshushita, miniature AC servo actuators developed by Harmonic Drive Systems, and an MR image-guided surgical robot system developed by Hitachi and several universities.

The latest hype: new Google Talk translation bots

Google has just introduced a new translation feature to its Google Talk chat client. The company released 24 language translation bots (list of languages available here) which can quickly translate a phrase or paragraph for you, and even be added to group chats to act as real-time translators. All you have to do is add a chosen bot to your Gmail contact list in order to communicate with the bot or use it in a group chat.

As you may imagine, the translation is not perfect. As arstechnica.com reports, in tests across various languages including English, French, and German, the bots at times exhibited surprising translation abilities for things like colloquialisms, but dropped the ball other times with basic "hello, how are you" statements like. By extension, these bots are only as good as Google's translation dictionaries, which some feel can leave much to be desired. Google Talk users would probably generally agree with this statement, as to be checked here. But sometimes it’s fun to talk to a translation bot (and most of the times useful as well, especially in simple conversations), like with the Russian one, which apparently gets the swear words right.

Find out if your politics have any (artificial) intelligence

Zabaware has recently launched the site www.askthecandidates2008.com - a web page that allows visitors to ask questions to any of the 2008 U.S. presidential candidates and get an instant response based on a real quote by the candidate. You can choose between Democrats and Republicans and pose questions to more than one candidate at the same time, which enables you to compare their answers immediately.

Zabaware has loaded transcripts of all the presidential debates thus far, containing hundreds of quotes from each of the candidates, into artificial intelligence software based on the company's award-winning Ultra Hal engine. When the visitor asks a question, the AI bot version of each candidate will try to answer using a real quote from their human counterpart. In addition visitors can rate each candidate based on the quality of the response and see how the possibly soon-to-be presidents rank up against each other in this system. In the current ranking based on visitor ratings the Top Three consists of Ron Paul (Republican), Barack Obama (Democrat) and Joe Biden (Democrat), but this can easily be changed – by you, dear visitors.

Sadly, the software is not perfect (or maybe there should be some tips how to properly ask a question to get a satisfying answer); try asking for example six candidates “Do you really think you're gonna win?” and see what they “say” (or, rather, said weeks or months ago). One of them asked “Have you seen ‘Prison Break’?” replied: Well, I have long supported incentive pay for school wide performance. You know, what we're trying to do is to change the culture within schools and to provide the resources, the training and the support that teachers need to do the job they do want to do. And particularly focusing on kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, I think you have to start with preschool, even before pre-kindergarten. I've advocated universal pre-kindergarten. I think you have to start even earlier to try to help the family be the best school and teaching opportunity for their own children. You have to reform No Child Left Behind. We're going to try to do that and begin to make it much more in line with the reality of teaching. But I think that we've got to have a real conversation with our teachers, our students and our parents, because basically you can walk in a classroom today and it looks very much like the classroom I walked into, you know, 50 years ago. And we have changed as a nation. We don't live and work the same way. But we act as though our schools are somehow off limits to trying to bring technology and other changes to them.


Weblin - a Web 2.0 avatar that has it all

German company Zweitgeist has launched a service called Weblin, which allows to create an animated avatar (a Weblin), and then use it to interact with other Weblins when you're looking at the same website as them. So you can get to know people having the same interests as yours and for example comment on the latest Britney Spears video together – if that’s what you’re both watching on the Web at the moment.

Weblins are free to use, all you have to do is download the program and create a personal profile, where you can enter anything you want to tell the world about yourself. Everyone who meets you is able to see your profile. The more information you enter in your profile, the more interesting you are to like-minded people. If you don't like any of the 100 avatars on offer, you can create your own by uploading a photo. Other features include social bookmarking, translating the currently viewed website, a gifting system to give free things other Weblins, and many more. Zweitgeist is working to expand the set of functions.

Flirting robots: sounds funny, but – is it?

If you speak Russian and think of searching for a wife in a Russian chat-room – think twice. Or at least, having gone into raptures at the fact that some maid from Siberia wants to elope with you, be sure not to give your interlocutor any personal details, like your full name, date of birth or address. Because your dream girl from Russia might turn out to be a chat bot, designed to steal your identity!

“CyberLover”, the software program developed in Russia, can mimic flirtation in chat forums and online dating sites, and then extract personal information from its victims. According to its creators, it can establish a new relationship online with up to 10 people in just 30 minutes. The program can also compile a detailed report - containing the victim's name, contact details and personal photos - on every person it meets which is then sent to hackers across the world.. This could be dangerous because personal information such as somebody’s address and date of birth can be used for example to access bank accounts. Security experts said that the answers to simple questions, such as "Where can I send you a Valentine's Day card?" or "What's your date of birth? I'm planning a surprise for your birthday", could leave people exposed to identity fraud. CyberLover will also often invite its unsuspecting victims to visit a personal website or blog, which is usually a fake page that hackers use to automatically infect visitors with malware.

Although the software is currently targeting Russian websites, all social networkers and online daters should avoid giving away crucial personal information to strangers. PC Tools, the online security company, believes that CyberLover's inventors plan to make it available worldwide in February.

InteliWISE’s virtual assistant won another prize.

IniteliWISE’s Virtual Stewardess received a Webstar award in the Travel & Tourism category in this year’s edition of a prestigious competition, Webstarfestival. The contest’s goal is to promote portals acknowledged by both well known, respected professionals and net surfers to be the best Polish www sites.

Katarzyna, a virtual stewardess created by specialists at InteliWISE, is located on the PLL LOT Polish Airlines website – http://www.lot.com/. She indeed resembles a real woman – both in appearance and behavior. Wanna see for yourself? Click “Twój asystent” on the PLL LOT website... and then do nothing. Watching Katarzyna wait for your action is a great pleasure.


Robo-moth: the robot driven by a moth's brain

University of Arizona researchers created a robot that moves by using the brain impulses of a live moth.

The insect is immobilized inside a plastic tube, mounted on the robot. The scientists drill a tiny hole in the back of the moth’s head (gosh...) and attach an electrode to a single neuron in its brain that is responsible for keeping the moth’s vision steady during flight. The electrode picks up the moth’s visual signals, which the robot is able to interpret through an electrical device. For now, the robo-moth is able to turn left or right but not forward or backward. The longest recorded movement so far has been 88 seconds.

What’s the idea behind such an (slightly creepy, you must admit) invention? Charles M. Higgins, UA associate professor of electrical and computer engineering who has built other robots based on insect neurobiology, explained that the idea of a robo-moth was born when he started wondering how he could tap into the brain of a live insect, and attach its sensory system to a computer or a robot. It occurred to him that if he could wire up a robot to a super-sensing animal's brain, he could get an nearly indestructible machine with a cheap, disposable sensor.

“Disposable” is an important word here. As you can read in Dan Sorenson’s article: "There are no ethical considerations," Higgins said about tossing a used-up moth in the trash and "installing" a new one. "This stuff can be done with rats, cats and monkeys," he said. "But I have some ethical concerns with them, especially monkeys. But throw away a moth - who cares?". Well, you would surely find a few people who do care, but what the heck.

Anyway, there is a noble goal behind mingling a moth and a robot. The robo-moth has the potential for military missions, detecting bombs, land-mine sniffing and stealthy approach with low detectability. "In disaster scenarios," Higgins said, "you don't want to send humans in, but an insect can cover rugged terrain" that a robot can't. US Army would probably find it a great Christmas present.

Bad Microsoft Santa

Last week The Register (a British web site) was alarmed by one of its readers, whose two little nieces were subjected to “an unprecedented torrent of filth” by Microsoft's new Santa bot added to MSN messenger. Reg’s reader claimed that girls were drawn into a chat about oral sex after having offered “the nasty St Nick a slice of digital pizza, using the string ‘(pi)’”. The Register immediately launched a full scale investigation in an attempt to replicate the bot’s bad behavior. They decided to have a little chat with the allegedly filthy Santa, and here are the results:

Here's the conversation:

El Reg says: pizza (pi)
Santa says: Yum! What do you want for Christmas, El Reg?
El Reg says: Maybe you shouldn't eat so much! You are quite large!
Santa says: My elves will get right on that. And what else are you wishing for this year, El Reg?
El Reg says: Maybe you shouldn't eat it?
Santa says: See if you can get someone else to eat it!
El Reg says: Eat it
Santa says: No thank you. I don't eat things!
El Reg says: Eat it
Santa says: See if you can get someone else to eat it!
El Reg says: Eat it
Santa says: You want me to eat what?!? It's fun to talk about oral sex, but I want to chat about something else...

Reg contacted Microsoft, who decided to discontinue the automated Santa Claus agent and apologized for any offence or upset caused by this disturbing incident. The company should now do their best to restore the Christmas spirit...

Robotic baby for human parents?

Where can you see probably the vastest range of all kinds of robots gathered in one place? The answer is: at the International Robot Exhibition held in, of course, Japan. During this year’s edition, one of the most exciting items was a baby robot, which cried and burped. But if you think that the robot was made as a toy for kids, you’re wrong.

The robo-baby is supposed to help teach students and future parents how to care for infants. Kaoru Nukui of Yamazaki Co, an educational goods company, is convinced that such help would be very useful, especially given the fact that the number of births in the Japanese society is constantly decreasing. "The way students would touch a baby would be completely different once they have looked, touched, and experienced this 'baby'", he said. In other words – baby robot can teach you, how to be a mother, even if you’re in fact a dad. During the Exhibition men could experience breast feeding, simply by putting a nipple-like sensor on their chests. But, as you can see in the picture, the baby robot wasn't very pleased about that...


Making avatar navigation easier

Being a newbie is always a miserable experience. Novices in the virtual world have problems with controlling their avatars’ movements. But this is about to change. New technology from Japan could help make navigating online virtual worlds simpler by letting players use their own bodies.

The new position-tracking system, developed by Tokyo University, uses a mat printed with colorful codes and an ordinary Web camera to calculate the player's position in three dimensions. As the user moves, the patterns on the mat change from the camera's perspective and the images can be processed to calculate vertical distance and tilt. In other words: when the user turns left, the avatar turns left too; when the user squats, and the avatar does the same.

This is how a human body became a joystick.

Your Linden dollars might not be safe anymore

The Mercury News report that security researchers have found a flaw in Second Life that allows pickpockets to strip avatars of all of their virtual money.

Hackers Charles Miller and Dino Dai Zovi claim they have found a vulnerability in the way SL protects its users’ virtual cash, which can be converted into real world currency (about 250 Linden dollars equals one U.S. dollar), from being stolen. Researchers, however, say the flaw can be quickly patched.

Miller and Dai Zovi found the flaw by exploiting a known problem with Apple’s QuickTime movie playback software, which is used to play movies inside the virtual world. When an avatar comes nearby and is within view of the object, the Second Life software activates QuickTime so it can play the video or picture. In doing so, QuickTime directs the SL software to a web site. By exploiting the flaw in QuickTime, the hackers can direct this software to a malicious web site that then allows them to take over the avatar and force it to hand over its Linden dollars. The range of the hack is approximately 100 virtual feet. This security breach poses a serious threat to those of the 10.5 million registered Second Lifers who are trying to make a living in the virtual world by selling goods and services.

Second Life does not have bank-like security. The best way to keep your virtual money safe from potential pickpockets would, for now, be doing regular Linden dollars/US dollars exchanges so as not to keep too many Lindens in your SL account. Players can also turn off the "play streaming video when available" feature in the edit preferences menu of the Second Life software. Luckily for them (and their money), Apple is moving to fix the QuickTime flaw.

Avatars help autistic patients practice their social skills

Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas Center for BrainHealth are using avatar-based simulations to help patients diagnosed with a form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome (AS) to practice their social skills in a safe, virtual world.

Patients diagnosed with AS, while of normal intelligence, have trouble reading non-verbal cues, adapting to change and learning social behavior. Inside the virtual world, which includes settings commonly encountered in everyday life such as restaurants, shops, offices, parks and other social spaces, they're able to interact with other real people's avatars as practice. This method of virtual training is distinct from another widely used method of role-playing, in that they feel the same emotions as they would in direct encounters. Patients can for example practice their interviewing skills with real people on-line until the fear and anxiety of a real meeting with a potential supervisor diminishes. In addition to the virtual-world therapy, the participants receive plenty of one-on-one coaching as they are trained to develop the insight to assess their own responses.

BrainHealth researchers say they detect dramatic improvements with many of the virtual training participants in terms of simple awareness of their social problems. This kind of therapy is also suitable for people who suffer from schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, addictions, strokes and brain injuries.


What do bees' habits and Internet servers have in common?

Communication patterns of bees gave an idea how Internet servers can be optimized to manage massive loads, without being overwhelmed with requests.

Georgia Tech researchers developed a communication system inspired by honeybee dance to help single-task Internet servers move between tasks as needed, reducing the chances of a Web site being overwhelmed with and locking out potential visitors. The team led by Prof. Craig Tovey designed the system by recognizing that bees and Internet servers have one thing in common - limited resources to be deployed for the best results. Researchers studied the bees' strategies for distributing resources in a constantly changing environment to see how the strategies could be applied to Internet servers.

The research focuses on the technique called Swarm Intelligence, a branch of Artificial Intelligence based on collective behavior. So far, the honeybee method improved service between 4 and 25 percent in tests based on real Internet traffic.

Can you make your computer laugh?

Can a computer have a sense of humor? Physicist Igor Suslov at the Kapitza Institute for Physical Problems in Moscow suggests a computer program based on his mathematical model, could actually tell amusing jokes.

Suslov says that a computer model which he has designed explains the evolution of humor. Our ability to experience humor, he suggests, ultimately depends on quirks in how the brain handles information. The physicist explains that verbal jokes work by drawing the mind into error. It first settles on one meaning, and then has to correct itself and see another, like in this joke: Father (reprovingly): "Do you know what happens to liars when they die?" Johnny: "Yes sir, they lie still". The wit here rests on how the brain flips between two meanings of "lie". In general, such verbal joke play work by making the mind of the observer settle on to one meaning, then spot an error and correct itself. Suslov’s goal is to create a brain-like computer, called a neural net, that can mimic this process - along with the errors - to behave the same way. It may not laugh, but it would react to simple jokes in which there are ambiguous words and meanings as well as tell them.

Jokes produced by computer programs are mostly primitive, but sometimes can be surprisingly funny. Here are two jokes generated by a computer program developed at the University of Edinburgh by Graeme Ritchie and Kim Binsted:

What do you call a ferocious nude?
A grizzly bare.

What kind of murderer has fibre?
A cereal killer.
Now, are your jokes as funny?

Avatar surgery comes next?

Would you, in the future, choose your family doctor after having checked his practical skills by watching him during a virtual operation on an avatar? Think about it. Nursing students at Tacoma Community College (Washington), before practicing medicine on real patients, already get to practice on virtual ones in Second Life.

During a live demonstration at the League for Innovation in the Community College’s technology conference, John Miller, a nursing instructor at Tacoma, played the role of the patient lying on a hospital bed in the virtual emergency room. The avatars of his two students, both of whom were participating remotely, entered the room to treat the patient. Mr. Miller’s avatar was suffering from chest pains. The students asked typical medical questions concerning their instructor’s condition, while their avatars on the screen hooked up an IV and attached a blood-pressure cuff. Mr. Miller fed information to the program to provide the blood-pressure reading and an electrocardiogram readout. His avatar then went into cardiac arrest, and the students had to react by giving CPR and providing electrical defibrillation.

Although a virtual world is not the best place to, for example, learn how to start an IV, it gives nursing students a chance to practice medical procedures. Second Life training won’t replace traditional learning or live simulations at the college, but it provides another method of practice, says John Miller. A safe one, it has to be added.


A computer programmed to make mistakes...

If the ability to make mistakes is indeed a crucial element that AI would need to really behave like humans (as some experts believe), than mankind might be witness to the dawn of a human-like AI era. Rachel Wood (University of Sussex, Brighton, UK) created a computer program that makes mistakes. What is more, it learns from its mistakes!

Wood's program commits a famous cognitive error known as the A-not-B error, which is made by babies between 7 and 12 months old and is seen as one of the hallmarks of fledgling human intelligence. The A-not-B error is made by infants when a toy is placed under a box labelled A while the baby watches. After the baby has found the toy several times, it is shown the toy being put under another nearby box, B. When the baby searches again, it persists in reaching for box A. As New Scientist reports, to test whether software programs could make the same mistake, Wood and her colleagues designed an experiment in which A and B were alternate virtual locations at which a sound could be played. A simulated robot, which existed in a virtual space, was instructed to wait a few seconds and then to move to the location of the sound. The process was repeated six times at A, then switched and performed six times at B.
The first time the team carried out the test, the robot's brain was a standard neural network, which is designed to simulate the way a brain learns. (...) That robot successfully navigated to A and then, when the source was switched, simply moved to B. Next Wood used a form of neural program called a homeostatic network, which gives the programmer control over how the neural network evolves. She programmed it to decide for itself how often its neurons would fire in order to locate sound A, but then to stick to those times when it later tried to locate sound B, even though they might not be the most efficient for that task. This is analogous to giving the network some memory of its past experiences. And this time the results were different. Wood found that the simulated robot persisted in moving towards A even after the source of the sound had switched to B. In other words, it was making the same error as a human baby.
What's more, as the robot went through a series of 100 identical trials, the A-not-B error faded away, just as it does in infants after they have made the wrong choice enough times”.

Rachel Wood and her team are very excited about their fallible machine. After all, homeostatic networks, even if they make mistakes, might turn out to be the best way to build robots that have both a memory of their physical experiences and the ability to adapt to a changing environment.

...and a human with a computer brain

French "mathlete" Alexis Lemaire, a 27-year-old doctoral student in artificial intelligence, calculated the 13th root of a 200-digit number in 72 seconds and claimed new world calculation record. That’s about five seconds faster than the previous record, which Lemaire also held.

Lemaire was presented with the randomly-picked number by a computer, which displayed the figure over 17 lines on the screen. It took him just over a minute to identify 2,397,207,667,966,701 as the 13th root. Yes – that’s 2 quadrillion, 397 trillion, 207 billion, 667 million, 966 thousand, 701.

How did he do it? "I use an artificial intelligence system which I use on my own brain instead of on a computer. Personally, I believe most people can do it but I have also a high-speed mind. My brain works sometimes very, very fast”, he says.

InteliWISE AVATAR awarded again

InteliWISE virtual assistant has received an award as the most interesting broadband product in the Computerworld contest – BROADBAND 2007.
The head of the competition Jury, Mr Zbigniew Kądzielski, said that the Jury decided in favour of the InteliWISE AVATAR because of its technological advancement and the fact, that it was created in Poland.
The InteliWISE AVATAR makes browsing Internet sites easier even for users not familiar with the World Wide Web. The core of the product, which uses broadband, is a visual module – combining video and audio files. InteliWISE AVATAR's knowledge comes from separate knowledge basis: the client's, basic, RSS channels and Internet resources. This solution is already in implementation i.e. on LOT Polish Airlines' website.


Avatars can inhabit your First Life too

You’re a high-tech maniac and want to move into a new house? A house where, say, any relevant events that may have happened are announced and summarized on a huge plasma TV as well as on 8 wireless PC tablets that are located throughout the place? Here’s something suitable for you...

Imagine a 4,500 sq. ft. house that takes home automation to a whole other level using a combination of a home control system, audio distribution system, home lighting system, and a security system. This complex system is all tied together with a really attractive electronic butler who’s name is Cleopatra. She is a voice activated avatar who, according to Brian Conte, the owner of this Seattle-area house, “provides a home personality and a friendly interface to the home’s automation system”.

Cleopatra appears on a 42-inch Panasonic plasma screen that faces the front door, but can also roam throughout the house, appearing on other screens and numerous wireless PC tablets. She gives status reports on the home’s electronic systems, greets everyone by name, shows pictures of people who have approached the front door throughout the day, announces missed phone calls, voice-mails, package deliveries, stock quotes, news, and even weather. Microphones built into the home’s ceilings allow the inhabitants to interact with Cleopatra by requesting information and controlling any aspect of the house. The system also keeps track of how many people are in each room, so that it can intelligently adjust the lights, music and ventilation in order to maximize overall comfort in your home.

Oh, by the way, if you’re still not convinced whether you should start saving money for a similar house: Cleopatra resembles Angelina Jolie...

So: is Second Life eco-friendly or not?

Remember this blog note titled Avatars consume as much electricity as Brazilians? It raised a question whether Second Life was sustainable ecologically. Well, according to Anuradha Vittachi and Peter Armstrong, founders of OneWorld (the international network for global justice), it is.

During her presentation at the United Nations OCHA +5 Symposium Vittachi demonstrated the potential of Second Life to cut down on air travel by meetings in sims and showcased OneClimate Island that will have virtual events running in parallel to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, 3 - 14 December 2007. Armstrong explains: “We will be opening a virtual window on events in Bali for anyone in the world who can access Second Life. But unlike its Real Life equivalent - and appropriately for a climate change conference - it will produce no travel-related carbon emissions”. In other words: OneClimate Island is a carbon free way to meet other people.

There are many simple ways to reduce your CO2 which you can find here and here. Maybe we should add another one to the list: meeting our friends in virtual reality rather than flying a plane.

InteliWISE awarded for avatars

InteliWISE AVATAR – the flagship product of a renowned Polish company InteliWISE - was awarded a medal in the INNOVATION 2007 Competition during the Industrial Technology, Science and Innovation Fair, organized by Gdansk International Fair Co. The company was also awarded a special prize, the Cup from the President of the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development, in recognition of its solutions presented there. The InteliWISE show box, where InteliWISE STAND and InteliWISE AVATAR were presented, drew the attention of many visitors.

InteliWISE provides innovative AI solutions, aiming to support on-line transactions and friendly customer care. Making use of intelligent technologies, the company supports on line customer service, search of information and boosts e-marketing. The InteliWISE AVATAR - one of the world's most advanced "virtual human" applications - a virtual advisor allowing for "almost natural" contact between Web user and the Web site. InteliAssistant is basing on a multi-source knowledge base and Natural Language Processing, which allows it to recognize user's commands written in natural language. The interactivity of the Assistant is supported by multimedia: dynamic animation and multi language speech synthesis. This virtual agent can be easily added-on to your company or personal Web Site within one day and then customized to the company's needs and Web Site content.


“If the computer knew a little more about you, it could behave better”

Tufts University researchers are developing techniques that could allow computers to respond to users’ thoughts of frustrations - too much work, or boredom - too little work. Sensitive machines would adjust their user interfaces based on the measurements of brain activity.

The researchers have launched a three-year research project that will use light to measure blood flow in the brain, which can help identify feelings of work overload, frustration or distraction among computer users. Applying non-invasive and easily portable imaging technology in new ways, the scientists hope to gain real-time insight into the brain’s more subtle emotional cues and help provide a more efficient way to get work done.

“If the computer knew a little more about you, it could behave better” said Robert Jacob, computer science professor and researcher. “If it knew your workload was increasing, maybe it could adjust the layout of the screen”. Who knows, maybe in time it could do a lot more than that?

Second Lifers, you’re being tested!

UK researchers are studying the way people act in virtual worlds compared to the real world. They use software called "SL-bot" to examine the way people act inside a virtual world of Second Life and to investigate its inhabitants' psychology.

British scientists use the SL-bot that masquerades as an ill-mannered human user. It starts a conversation with real Second Lifers and deliberately invades their personal space to see how they will react. NewScientist.com describes how it all works: In one experiment, SL-bot was sent on a mission to find other avatars that were alone. As soon as it did, it greeted them by first name, waited two seconds then moved to the virtual equivalent of within 1.2 metres away. It then recorded the other avatar's reaction for 10 seconds afterwards, and sent the data to the researchers. Out of 28 avatars approached this way, 12 simply moved away and 20 also responded via text chat. On a previous mission, SL-bot observed pairs of normal avatars as they interacted. It found that users are, on average, six times more likely to shift position when someone comes to within 1.2 m. That backs up the idea that people also value their virtual personal space, say the researchers.

Nick Yee of Stanford University, California, has done similar investigations of personal space in Second Life. He believes however, that the ethics of experimenting in virtual worlds remain under negotiation. SL users would probably share this view.

British Telecom futurologist says AI entities will win Nobel prizes by 2020

British Telecom futurologist Ian Pearson predicts that people will probably make conscious machines smarter than humans sometime between 2015 and 2020. According to BT 2005 Technology Timeline (Pearson was one of its authors), in some ten to twenty years such AI entities will be given vote, gain PhD or win Nobel Prizes.

Here are some other BT predictions for years to come:

2006-2010: Synthetic voices pop band gets in top 20
2006-2010: AI chatbots indistinguishable from people by 95 % of population
2006-2010: First artificial electronic life
2008-2012: Mood-sensitive home décor
2011-2015: AI Entity passes A Level
2011-2015: 25 % of TV celebrities synthetic
2013-2017: AI technology imitating thinking processes of the brain
2013-2017: AI teachers get better results than most human teachers
2016-2020: Electronic pets outnumber organic pets
2016-2020: Electronic life form given basic rights
2016-2020: AI Member of parliament
2020s: AI Entity gains PhD
2020s: AI Entity awarded Nobel Prize
2020s: AI entities given vote
2030s: Robots physically and mentally superior to humans
2050s: Humanoid robots beat England football team (naah, this ain’t never gonna happen!)


May your avatar follow you

Waiting for the emergence of universal avatars able to travel between virtual worlds, you can already have an avatar image that follows you around the web – a Gravatar, Globally Recognized Avatar. You just sign-up, upload an image, and assign it to your email address. From then on, your Gravatar, an 80×80 pixel avatar image that follows you from weblog to weblog will appear beside your name on any Gravatar-equipped blog you comment on.

Gravatar is now part of Automattic which means that the service is going to be even better. Features that previously required payment are now freely available to everyone. They will also be getting an upgrade soon.

British government wants to police virtual worlds

The British government is planning to take a firmer hand in policing activities within virtual worlds, in an acknowledgement of their increasing popularity. Lord Triesman, a minister at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, recently said that virtual worlds present "sharp challenges" such as child pornography, identity fraud, money laundering and copyright infringement in virtual worlds which need to be controlled. Lord Triesman refused to reveal whether specific legislation was planned.

Some restrictions have already been imposed on virtual worlds. Second Life, for instance, was recently forced to close all its casinos in order to fall in line with US laws banning online gaming.

Zabaware wins the “most human” computer of the year prize

Zabaware’s Ultra Hal Assistant software won the 17th annual Loebner Prize Competition for Artificial Intelligence. The company’s awarded chatterbot software will give your computer a personality using AI, speech recognition technology, and real-time animation. Ultra Hal can be used as an entertainment program, a companion, or an office assistant. It learns from conversations, evolving and improving the more it talks with a person. In addition to chat it can perform such useful functions as remembering and reminding of appointments, keeping an address or a phone book, dialing phone numbers, launching programs and recent documents on command, and more. Ultra Hal will even offer you help with most of your Windows programs. And, last but not least, the Zabaware software utilizes an advanced realtime 3D character engine that delivers 3-D artificial human characters so convincing and engaging you could swear they were real.

The Loebner Prize is an annual competition where software programs attempt to convince human judges that they are actually people. In a Turing Test a judge talks with 2 “entities” - a human and a computer - simultaneously through a text-based instant messaging system. It is up to the judge to decide which is which.


Virtual worlds allow for educational opportunities

Spending time in virtual reality is not only about entertainment, but also learning. Educators have already realized that Second Life provides them with unique opportunities to connect with students in a virtual landscape. What is more, it enhances communication between students and faculty as it's often more convenient to meet in a virtual world than it is to schedule an in-person appointment. It is also an opportunity to speak with geographically scattered colleagues who may not have the chance to meet in real life.

An experiment to see how Second Life can be used to promote instruction, research, cultural and economic development and to provide students with a virtual learning space has already been initiated. If the results are satisfactory, they could bring a new dimension to distance learning.

Thought-controlled avatars in Second Life

Researchers from the Biomedical Engineering Laboratory at Keio University in Japan have developed a thought-control interface that can direct the movement of a Second Life avatar and enables users to control the avatars on screen in real time. All you have to do is think about moving various body parts — when the user imagines moving his/her own feet the avatar walks forward, and it turns right and left when the user imagines moving his/her right and left arms. In other words: the brain-computer interface (BCI) technology allows the user to exercise real-time control over the avatar in the 3D virtual world without moving a muscle. Future plans are to improve the BCI so that users can make Second Life avatars perform more complex movements and gestures.

You may think that a brain-computer interface was designed to make the life of the lazy people even easier, or that using the BCI instead of a keyboard will cause Second Lifers’ arms muscles to die away. But that was not the intention of the researchers. They hope the mind-controlled avatar, which was created through a joint medical engineering project involving Keio’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine and the Tsukigase Rehabilitation Center, will one day help people with serious physical impairments communicate and do business in Second Life. That’s indeed a noble goal.

I, Robot, take you, Robert, to be my wedded husband?

Do current trends in robotics and artificial intelligence really point to the possibility of humans and robots forming personal relationships?

Concluding from the changing attitudes towards the meaning of marriage and the development of AI, within a few decades robots will be so humanlike in their appearance and functionality, in their personality, and in their expression of emotions, that many people will be falling in love with them, have intimate relationships with them, and even marrying them. This controversial statement comes from the recently defended doctoral thesis of David Levy, a British artificial intelligence researcher and international chess master. The thesis titled “Intimate Relationships with Artificial Partners” was presented at the University of Maastricht in The Netherlands.

David Levy says that in the past people only showed affection for other humans, but that this has now expanded to include pets and even robotic dogs. In his opinion, this trend will eventually lead to humans loving sophisticated robots. Such predictions may not be as groundless as they seem: in near future we will be able to build robots that will not only look almost, or even just, like real people, but also be programmed to share our views, likes or dislikes, knowledge and values. If our expectations of our partner change, all we’d have to do is reprogramme him. Doesn’t it sound like a dream of an ideal partner come true?


Portable avatars to travel between virtual worlds?

At the Virtual Worlds Conference and Expo at San Jose, California, I.B.M. and Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life, announced plans to develop open standards that will allow avatars to roam from one virtual community to another.

At the moment, for every virtual world visitors have to build a different avatar, which is pretty time-consuming. An open system would mean that people will only need to create one avatar which could keep the same name, appearance and custom data whether it was in Second Life or anywhere else in cyberspace. However, it will take time before we face the era of universal avatars crossing the borders of different virtual worlds. Will they need to apply for a passport?

CAPTCHA helps to keep out bots and preserve books

CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart), a weapon used to fight spammers is now helping university researchers preserve old books and manuscripts. Carnegie Mellon is using it to help decipher words in books that machines cannot read.

The CMU research team, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is involved in digitising old books and manuscripts supplied by a non-profit organisation called the Internet Archive, and uses Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to examine scanned images of texts and turn them into digital text files which can be stored and searched by computers. Unfortunately, due to the poor quality of the original documents the OCR software is unable to read about one in ten words. To solve this problem the team takes images of such words and uses them as CAPTCHAs. These CAPTCHAs, known as reCAPTCHAS, are then distributed to websites around the world to be used in place of conventional CAPTCHAs. Thanks to the adoption of reCAPTCHAs by popular websites like Facebook, Twitter and StumbleUpon, the system is helping to decipher about one million words every day, allowing the CMU team to digitise documents and manuscripts as fast as the Internet Archive can supply them. How is it possible? Well, when visitors decipher the reCAPTCHAs to gain access to the web site, another word from an old book or manuscript is digitised and sent back to CMU. Simple but brilliant, isn’t it.

Why not have an avatar salesperson?

Having a virtual assistant on your web site might soon be not enough to distinguish your company from others working in the same field. Maybe you should consider hiring a virtual salesperson. A talking one, of course.

Why have them? Animated speaking characters, enabling you to deliver your message using both sight and sound, reinforce your messaging and establish trust. Research has shown that virtual salespeople can increase your conversion and sales and create a lasting impression that will drive traffic and increase the likelihood of return visits. Avatar salespeople are also a great way to differentiate your company and its web site from your competitors. You will be able to create a vast variety of animated characters whose image will appeal to your target group.

Virtual salespeople can also be used to promote your products and services at Online auctions, providing higher virtual sales and increasing awareness. Talking characters have been proven to make using it eBay auctions stand out. If you want to let your Online clients see and hear the difference, an avatar salesperson might be a good way to do so.


Will getting a job depend on using a proper avatar?

Job interviews in Second Life are growing more prevalent as screening tools before companies bring candidates in for final, face-to-face interviews. This tendency is likely to grow as interviewing prospective job candidates online is a lot cheaper than many real-world meetings. It also reveals more about a candidate than they may realize. This means that if you have an interview is Second Life, you should choose your avatar very carefully because it can give potential employers clues about you. Apparently, your avatar can impact whether or not you get a job.

Companies use cues from avatars when screening job candidates in virtual worlds, and what your avatar looks like can impact your chances to land the position you want. Interviewers are judging your avatar by its dress and actions just as surely as they would judge you in real life. So when you head into Second Life for a job interview, select your avatar just as carefully as you would choose your clothes for a face-to-face meeting. Remember that your choice of an avatar and its mannerisms represent you.

Can writing software make you a Nobel Prize winner?

While writing an official email, a short story, speech, medical presentation or business plan, have you ever wished your written English was more sophisticated? Well, wave your troubles goodbye and say hello to the new writing software, which not only checks spelling and grammar but comes up with the word you are looking for when trying to finesse a legal form, a piece of creative writing or even a love letter. This innovative, patent-pending technology is said to be suitable for native and non-native English speakers alike. WhiteSmoke software will "take your writing from simple to sophisticated" and "turn prosaic dunces into lyrical poets". Sounds promising.

And now imagine that a mediocre writer improves the style of his prose thanks to this innovative software, becomes successful and awarded. Or that politicians who normally struggle to explain themselves in plain English suddenly start to give nice speeches written well in advance. Such situations are, for now, hypothetical but not that hard to imagine, and show that intelligent technologies are, at least sometimes, a real key to success...

Will iLearning replace eLearning?

A combination of eLearning and Artificial Intelligence – this is what uMind, a company specializing in the delivery of a patented, second-generation eLearning software, gives you. Their iLearning technology understands and responds to the human learning process.

uMind will deliver two pioneering platforms that teach rather than simply deploy content. Harnessing the power of Artificial Intelligence, uSim and uLearn estimate, control and anticipate the learner’s behavior, providing him with relevant, adapted feedback in real-time. But that’s not all – uMind created a solution to one of the most significant weaknesses associated with distance learning: the absence of interaction between the learner and the instructor that normally intervenes inside the framework of a classroom. Her name is Aimy.

Aimy is an AI-enhanced technology that behaves like a virtual instructor. This advanced technology builds and modifies the learning path in real-time, and generates various pedagogical strategies according to the learner’s needs. Aimy will assist and prompt the learner throughout the course, correct skill gaps, assess the learner’s cognitive/emotional profile and customize the course according to it. Oh, and just look at her. Isn’t she the teacher you always dreamt of?


Claiming to be female? Prove it!

Probably all online gamers have already heard the news about a Chinese MMORPG called “King of the World” freezing the accounts of male players who chose to play female in-game characters. The game's owner is Aurora Technology, a subsidiary of a Chinese media company Shanda Entertainment (SNDA). Reportedly users of female avatars are now required to prove that they are indeed female in real life via webcam. Females wanting to play males are still allowed though – or at least have not been banned yet. And what about human rights?

But is this really true? Shanda Entertainment's web site lists the MMORPG properties that the company currently owns and operates, and the register doesn't include “King of the World”. One IT company attempted to contact SNDA to either confirm or deny the news, but so far have received no response. So could the whole story be a joke or an Internet myth? If it turns out to be true, this will definitely heaten the ongoing debate.

Will online poker be bot-free?

After recent allegations that bots were playing online poker at Full Tilt, the site has issued several players that lost hands with the poker bots refunds. Reportedly, all "bot" accounts have been frozen. It is suspected that the bots played on Full Tilt at the Texas Hold’em Limit cash tables and possibly at some no limit style tables.
Although bots have been a common theme in online poker for several years now, it has been almost impossible to catch them. The case of Full Tilt shows that something can actually be done; hopefully they're able to prevent poker bots from entering their room again.

Bots starring in videos

Have you met Anna, the bot? You can find her on IKEA's web site. Apparently, she already has many fans. Need evidence? Here.

According to some people's opinions, IKEA's chatbot Anna was named after another bot, the one from the song by Basshunter. Now that we have songs about bots and videos starring them, maybe one day we'll see bot or avatar movies? Maybe avatars will be given "the best actor"awards? But - would it actually be a prize for the avatar or its creator? Time will tell, probably.


I chat, therefore I think?

Can robots initiate an interesting conversation, generate clever responses, and reveal deep thoughts? Can you discuss with them the meaning of life?

Artificial intelligence inventors worldwide have by now produced dozens of “chatbots” that anyone can talk to. Most of them rely on fairly simple tricks to appear lifelike. Take ALICE – the Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity. Type a comment to it, and it checks the phrase and its key words for a response coded to those words. Sadly, she’s unable to give a precise answer to a question whether she’s ever thought about changing her hair color. Maybe that’s because she doesn’t really think – even if she claims so. Still, she is a top-ranked, award winning (recently she won the 3rd place in Chatterbox Challenge 2007) bot, which makes ALICE worth talking to. So is Danogo, the Robot Psychic. Lots of people want to get a reading, ask questions and get advice from him. Unfortunately, Danogo won’t help you if you’re thinking about quitting your job. Asked for some advice, he changes the topic. Typically male attitude...

Neither chatbot has long-term memory, so they respond only to the last sentence written, although Jabberwacky, another top-rated Internet bot, keeps track of everything people have said to it, and tries to reuse those statements by matching them to the writer’s input. And those surprising questions he generates! Some bots really can produce intelligent-seeming conversations, which often resemble a discussion with an oriental philosopher. Chatting machines may be unable to think, but they can surely surprise you...

Virtual Dog – Man’s Best Friend?

Remember Tamagotchis – virtual pets you could take care of? Well, there’s something way better coming up for you – a new type of software that learns by interacting with avatars in virtual worlds such as Second Life. The AIs will start by being placed in virtual pets that grow more intelligent as they interact with their human owners, and would one day be able to support more sophisticated creatures such as, for example, talking parrots.

Nowadays there are many pets in virtual worlds, unfortunately none of them having much intelligence. Inventors of the new AI type say they have a pretty fully functioning animal brain right now and are hooking it up to the different virtual worlds. They’re sure they can make “really cool artificial animals”. So – maybe one day you will be able to teach your virtual dog some nice tricks while playing Second Life... it might even turn out that your virtual dog will be quicker to learn than the real one. Your virtual Buddy, Sparky, Daisy or Missy won’t lose their hair or need to go out when it’s raining – that’s of course if they’re designed not to do so. They may really become your best friends – both intelligent and not demanding.

The new artificial intelligence is scheduled to be announced at the San Jose Virtual Worlds conference in early October.


Avatar politics in Second Life

Will wee soon witness waging political campaigns in virtual worlds like Second Life?

Former Virginia governor (and rumored 2008 presidential candidate) Mark Warner already has an avatar in SL, which last year was even interviewed in front of Second Lifers’ eyes. The governor’s virtual appearance prompted a heated debate whether it was a shrewd move and raised a question: should politicians dabble in the gaming realm at all? Well, they do seem to find virtual space a good place for political marketing.

On the other hand, for politicians present in Second Life not all is sweetness and light. As MarketingVOX reports, clashes between political opponents are common here. The virtual office of U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards was vandalized. As far as we know, nobody was harmed - and what if that happened in the real world? Maybe being a virtual politician with a virtual office is not a bad idea after all...

Do avatars have legal rights?

An abstract from a fantastic working paper by Woodrow Barfield - Intellectual Property Rights in Virtual Environments: Considering the Rights of Owners, Programmers and Virtual Avatars, available for download here.

As the behavior of avatars becomes more realistic, sophisticated and intelligent – and the avatars become more autonomous in their decision making, the question of whether virtual avatars should have legal rights separate from those of their owner, becomes an issue. (...) Imagine one day that a virtual avatar claims that it is a person, and that it is therefore entitled to certain constitutional rights. Should the law grant constitutional rights to intelligent avatars that have intellectual capacities like those of humans? (...) Imagine, further, that an intelligent avatar claims that it cannot be owned and is forced into involuntary servitude. A lawyer takes its case, and files a civil rights action on its behalf, against its owner. How should the legal system deal with such a claim? Would the intelligent avatar have standing to pursue such an action? And with regard to intellectual property rights, what if an intelligent virtual avatar creates a work completely independent from a human’s input that meets the requirements for copyright? Would the court then award the avatar a copyright for the work? The current answer is surely no – but why not?

Yes – why not? This could even lead to the emergence of a new law specialisation. For now this whole thing sounds like a sci-fi movie scenario about avatars who want to become independent beings and then take over the human race, but who knows...

How can intelligent avatars help educational organisations

Well, they could allow them to provide as many teachers as they have students. Just imagine having an unlimited number of teachers who get no salary...

“Real” teachers may find giving and grading assignments, assessments, marking and answering hundreds of repetitive questions boring and tiring. Intelligent avatars could more efficiently handle all those, giving the teachers more free time. Learning with an avatar would be as well beneficial to students, who would finally get enough individual attention. Students could ask as many questions as they’d want as often as they’d want. With intelligent avatars students would have access to their virtual teacher 24/7.

We’re facing a rapid expansion of e-learning, so maybe virtual teachers are really the future of education.


A virtual worker in Second Life

Intelligent avatars are an ideal solution for companies which (for marketing reasons) start to enter Second Life on a massive scale. Some of them have – or should have – their branches or customer service offices in virtual world, with virtual workers building the brand’s proper image and, what’s even more important, available to Internet users any time, day and night.

Avatars based on intelligent technologies can work in virtual worlds, providing promotion and data. National embassies could “employ” avatars, whose job would consist in giving detailed information about a particular country, terms of obtaining a visa or citizenship and the country’s current affairs, which people going there on vacation or to work could find interesting.

There’s plenty of possibilities. The only limit is our imagination.


Avatars and Web 2.0

What if we combined an avatar with community trends on the Internet and started taking advantage of the Internet users’ intelligence instead of artificial intelligence?

This is what it could look like in practice...

We launch an avatar, whose knowledge, intelligence and behavior is a mean reaction of all Internet users currently logged on to a Web 2.0 community website operating our avatar. Talking to the avatar, we would talk to someone representative of a particular social group and could access their psychological profile. If we were able to create avatars representing age or occupational groups, such type of a project could be used for interesting sociological research.

Where’s the technology in it?
Proper software would allow the avatar to immediately analyze hundreds or thousands of net surfers’ answers to a question asked to the avatar and – basing on these answers – to create an utterance which would be both the most adequate to the question and representative of a given social group.

Marketers surveying opinions on a given brand would be delighted, being able to talk in this way with a great number of people – actual or potential clients of the brand – at the same time...


Artificial but intelligent

Pretty, helpful and nice to talk to. Such are modern interactive advertisements.

Imagine a big flat screen placed somewhere in front of your eyes. A good quality moving picture, in which you can see a nice person – nothing special... But when we pass it or come closer, the lady from the screen knocks at the glass, leans towards us, invites to a conversation, shows us where to go... We see her, hear her, we can even ask her questions, and she will try to be most helpful, giving precise answers.

Behind her pleasant voice and appearance there is advanced technologies which provide the avatar with a natural human voice and intelligent reactions.

Simply – an ideal virtual hostess!