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.