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Robot Drives Itself to Deliver Packages

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 13:30
Delivery robots could one day be part of the landscape of cities around the world. Among the latest to be developed is an Italian-made model that drives itself around town to drop off packages. Since the machine runs on electricity, its developers say it is an environmentally friendly alternative to fuel powered delivery vehicles that cause pollution. VOA's Deborah Block has more.

Fashionable and Able: Designers Strive to Help the Disabled

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 13:23
A new exhibit showcases gadgets and inventions by designers striving to make disabled people's lives easier — in style. Faith Lapidus reports.

Facebook Forges Ahead With Kids App Despite Expert Criticism

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 09:47
Facebook is forging ahead with its messaging app for kids, despite child experts who have pressed the company to shut it down and others who question Facebook’s financial support of some advisers who approved of the app. Messenger Kids lets kids under 13 chat with friends and family. It displays no ads and lets parents approve who their children message. But critics say it serves to lure kids into harmful social media use and to hook young people on Facebook as it tries to compete with Snapchat or its own Instagram app. They say kids shouldn't be on such apps at all — although they often are. "It is disturbing that Facebook, in the face of widespread concern, is aggressively marketing Messenger Kids to even more children,” the Campaign For a Commercial-Free Childhood said in a statement this week. Lukeward reception Messenger Kids launched on iOS to lukewarm reception in December. It arrived on Amazon devices in January and on Android Wednesday. Throughout, Facebook has touted a team of advisers, academics and families who helped shape the app in the year before it launched. But a Wired report this week pointed out that more than half of this safety advisory board had financial ties to the company. Facebook confirmed this and said it hasn't hidden donations to these individuals and groups — although it hasn’t publicized them, either. Facebook’s donations to groups like the National PTA (the official name for the Parent Teacher Association) typically covered logistics costs or sponsored activities like anti-bullying programs or events such as parent roundtables. One advisory group, the Family Online Safety Institute, has a Facebook executive on its board, along with execs from Disney, Comcast and Google. “We sometimes provide funding to cover programmatic or logistics expenses, to make sure our work together can have the most impact,” Facebook said in a statement, adding that many of the organizations and people who advised on Messenger Kids do not receive financial support of any kind. Common Sense a late addition But for a company under pressure from many sides — Congress, regulators, advocates for online privacy and mental health — even the appearance of impropriety can hurt. Facebook didn’t invite prominent critics, such as the nonprofit Common Sense Media, to advise it on Messenger Kids until the process was nearly over. Facebook would not comment publicly on why it didn’t include Common Sense earlier in the process.  “Because they know we opposed their position,” said James Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense. The group’s stance is that Facebook never should have released a product aimed at kids. “They know very well our positon with Messenger Kids.” A few weeks after Messenger Kids launched, nearly 100 outside experts banded together to urge Facebook to shut down the app , which it has not done. The company says it is “committed to building better products for families, including Messenger Kids. That means listening to parents and experts, including our critics.” Wired article unfair? One of Facebook’s experts contested the notion that company advisers were in Facebook’s pocket. Lewis Bernstein, now a paid Facebook consultant who worked for Sesame Workshop (the nonprofit behind “Sesame Street”) in various capacities over three decades, said the Wired article “unfairly” accused him and his colleagues for accepting travel expenses to Facebook seminars.  But the Wired story did not count Lewis as one of the seven out of 13 advisers who took funding for Messenger Kids, and the magazine did not include travel funding when it counted financial ties. Bernstein was not a Facebook consultant at the time he was advising it on Messenger Kids. Bernstein, who doesn’t see technology as “inherently dangerous,” suggested that Facebook critics like Common Sense are also tainted by accepting $50 million in donated air time for a campaign warning about the dangers of technology addiction. Among those air-time donors are Comcast and AT&T's DirecTV. But Common Sense spokeswoman Corbie Kiernan called that figure a “misrepresentation” that got picked up by news outlets. She said Common Sense has public service announcement commitments “from partners such as Comcast and DirectTV” that has been valued at $50 million. The group has used that time in other campaigns in addition to its current “Truth About Tech” effort, which it’s launching with a group of ex-Google and Facebook employees and their newly formed Center for Humane Technology.

Could Mining, Analyzing Social Media Posts Prevent Future Massacres?

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 03:15
In multiple online comments and posts, Nikolas Cruz, 19, the suspect in the Valentine's Day high school shooting in Florida, apparently signaled his intent to hurt other people. I want to "shoot people with my AR-15," a person using the name Nikolas Cruz wrote in one place. "I wanna die Fighting killing…ton of people." As investigators try to piece together what led to the school shooting that left 17 people dead and many others wounded, they are closely examining the suspect's social media activity, as well as other information about him. The focus on Cruz's digital footprint highlights a question that law enforcement, social scientists and society at large have been grappling with: If anyone had been paying attention to his postings, could these deaths have been prevented? The FBI was contacted about a social media post in which the alleged gunman says he wants to be a "professional school shooter." However, though the commenter's username was "Nikolas Cruz" — the same name as the shooting suspect — the FBI couldn't identify the poster, according to the Associated Press. But what if an algorithm could have sifted through all of Cruz's posts and comments to bring him to the attention of authorities? Data mining In an era where data can be dissected and analyzed to predict where cold medicine will most likely be needed next week or which shoes will be most popular on Amazon tomorrow, some people wonder why there isn't more use of artificial intelligence to sift through social media in an effort to prevent crime. "We need all the tools we can get to prevent tragedies like this," said Sean Young, executive director of the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology. "The science exists on how to use social media to find and help people in psychological need," he said. "I believe the benefits outweigh the risks, so I think it's really important to use social media as a prevention tool." Despite the 2002 movie Minority Report, about police apprehending murderers before they act based on knowledge provided by psychics known as "precogs," the idea of police successfully analyzing data to find a person preparing to harm others is still a far-off scenario, according to experts. Predictive policing Increasingly, police departments are turning to "predictive policing," which involves taking large data sets and using algorithms to forecast potential crimes and then deploying police to the region. One potential treasure trove of data is social media, which is often public and can indicate what people are discussing in real time and by location. Predictive policing, however, comes with ethical questions over whether data sets and algorithms have built-in biases, particularly toward minorities. A study in Los Angeles aims to see if social media postings can help police figure out where to put resources to stop hate crimes.  "With enough funds and unfettered data access and linkage, I can see how a system could be built where machine learning could identify patterns in text [threats, emotional states] and images [weapons] that would indicate an increased risk," said Matthew Williams, director of the social data science lab and data innovation research institute at Cardiff University in Wales. He is one of the Los Angeles study researchers. "But the ethics would preclude such a system, unless those being observed consented, but then the system could be subverted." Arjun Sethi, a Georgetown law professor, says it is impossible to divorce predictive policing from entrenched prejudice in the criminal justice system. "We found big data is used in racially discriminating ways," he said. Using Facebook posts Still, the potential exists that, with the right program, it may be possible to separate someone signaling for help from all the noise on social media. A new program at Facebook seeks to harness the field of machine learning to get help to people contemplating suicide. Among millions of posts each day, Facebook can find posts of those who may be suicidal or at risk of self-harm — even if no one in the person's Facebook social circle reported the person's posts to the company. In machine learning, computers and algorithms collect information without being programmed to do so. The Facebook system relies on text, but Mark Zuckerberg, the company's chief executive, has said that the firm may add photos and videos that come to the attention of the Facebook team to review. Being able to figure out if someone is going to harm himself, herself or others is difficult and raises ethical dilemmas but, says Young of UCLA, a person's troubling social media posts can be red flags that should be checked out.

Belgian Court Orders Facebook to Stop Collecting Data

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 22:18
Belgian media say a Brussels court has ordered Facebook to stop collecting data about citizens in the country or face fines for every day it fails to comply. The daily De Standaard reported Friday that the court upheld a Belgian privacy commission finding that Facebook is collecting data without users' consent. It said the court concluded that Facebook does not adequately inform users that it is collecting information, what kind of details it keeps and for how long, or what it does with the data. It has ruled that Facebook must stop tracking and registering internet usage by Belgians online and destroy any data it has obtained illegally or face fines of 250,000 euros ($311,500) every day it delays.

When Will Robots Work Alongside Humans?

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 14:16
Most analysts and economists agree, robots are slowly replacing humans in many jobs. They weld and paint car bodies, sort merchandise in warehouses, explore underground pipes and inspect suspicious packages. Yet we still do not see robots as domestic help, except for robotic vacuum cleaners. Robotics experts say there is another barrier that robots need to cross in order to work alongside humans. VOA's George Putic reports.

White House Blames Russia for ‘NotPetya’ Cyber Attack

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 07:34
The White House on Thursday blamed Russia for the devastating "NotPetya" cyber attack last year, joining the British government in condemning Moscow for unleashing a virus that crippled parts of Ukraine's infrastructure and damaged computers in countries across the globe. The attack in June of 2017 "spread worldwide, causing billions of dollars in damage across Europe, Asia and the Americas," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement. "It was part of the Kremlin's ongoing effort to destabilize Ukraine and demonstrates ever more clearly Russia's involvement in the ongoing conflict," Sanders added. "This was also a reckless and indiscriminate cyber attack that will be met with international consequences." The U.S. government is "reviewing a range of options," a senior White House official said when asked about the consequences for Russia's actions. Earlier on Thursday, Russia denied an accusation by the British government that it was behind the attack, saying it was part of a "Russophobic" campaign that it said was being waged by some Western countries. The so-called NotPetya attack in June started in Ukraine where it crippled government and business computers before spreading around Europe and the world, halting operations atports, factories and offices. Britain's foreign ministry said in a statement released earlier in the day that the attack originated from the Russian military. "The decision to publicly attribute this incident underlines the fact that the UK and its allies will not tolerate malicious cyber activity," the ministry said in a statement. "The attack masqueraded as a criminal enterprise but its purpose was principally to disrupt," it said. "Primary targets were Ukrainian financial, energy and government sectors. Its indiscriminate design caused it to spread further, affecting other European and Russian business."

EU Not Happy With Facebook, Twitter Consumer Rule Remedies

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 00:12
The European Commission says social media giants Facebook and Twitter have only partially responded to its demands to bring their practices into line with EU consumer law.   The Commission asked the two companies a year ago to change their terms of service following complaints from people targeted by fraud or scams on social media websites.   The EU's executive arm said Thursday that the firms only partly addressed “issues about their liability and about how users are informed of possible content removal or contract termination.”   It said changes proposed by Google+ appear to be in line with demands.   Europe's consumer affairs commissioner, Vera Jourova, said “it is unacceptable that this is still not complete and it is taking so much time.” She called for those flouting consumer rules to face sanctions.  

Pay-As-You-Go Service Offers Smartphone Access to the Cash-Strapped

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 17:50
Until recently, Javier, a 60-year-old line cook, couldn’t afford a smartphone. Now, thanks to a Silicon Valley company, Javier has a Galaxy S8, one of Samsung’s high-end smartphones. Javier said he relies on it for everything. Once a month, he walks into a mobile phone store near San Francisco and makes a cash payment. If he didn’t, the phone would be remotely locked. No YouTube, no Skype calls, no Facebook. He has never missed a payment.   WATCH: Pay-As-You-Go Smartphone Gives the Poor Access to Better Technology Smartphones out of many people’s reach Around the world, people rely more and more on their smartphones for connecting to the internet, and yet for many, the device is still cost prohibitive. For the roughly 1 in 10 American consumers without financial identities — no banking history or credit scores — it is difficult to get smartphones on one of the low-cost payment plans offered by the major carriers. Javier, who declined to give his last name because he is an undocumented immigrant, is on his third phone from PayJoy, a company founded by former Google employees. PayJoy offers a pay-as-you-go model for the smartphone market aimed particularly at customers with little or bad credit histories. “We work with immigrants from all over the world coming to the U.S., and we work with Americans who are just outside the financial system,” said Doug Ricket, PayJoy’s chief executive, who worked in the pay-as-you-go solar industry in Africa. “They can afford $10 a week, and they can get a great smartphone. And for PayJoy, we say, ‘Welcome to the 21st century and get all the modern apps.’” A new way to figure out a person’s credit risk PayJoy figures out a person’s risk differently than most companies. A customer provides a Facebook profile, a phone number and some sort of official government ID. PayJoy decides the person’s risk level before offering him or her credit for a phone. Then, a customer picks a payment plan and makes a down payment. PayJoy’s research has found that a Facebook profile can be useful in establishing a person’s identity. “We’re starting from this pool of people who have no traditional credit score and we’re saying for most of them, we can actually find something that the credit agencies are not finding,” Ricket said. No payment means no YouTube If a customer doesn’t pay by 5 p.m. the day payment is due, PayJoy remotely locks the phone. A customer can only make emergency calls or call PayJoy’s customer service. The customer can see that friends are texting or messaging on Facebook, but cannot open the phone to read the messages. “Now, when we look internationally, we see more people going from a flip phone to smartphones, and people upgrading from a really basic level to one that can handle Facebook, maps and Instagram,” Ricket said. If customers stop paying, they can return the phone without penalty. But if they do pay off the phone, they can qualify for an even better one. PayJoy makes its money by charging monthly interest — as high as 50 percent in some cases — on the retail price of the phone. Expanding into Africa, Asia and India The company is operating in the United States and Mexico and has plans to expand into Kenya, Tanzania, southeast Asia and India. So far, PayJoy offers only smartphones running Android, the operating system created by Google, but Ricket hopes to offer iPhones one day. PayJoy’s vision is to be not just a smartphone firm, but a financing company, offering customers a way to use their phones as collateral to pay off televisions and other household goods. “Once the customer gets the smartphone, they can potentially use that smartphone either by buying the smartphone with PayJoy or just collateralize an existing smartphone to finance a TV or a sofa,” Ricket said. If PayJoy takes off, people in emerging markets may be able to upgrade their phone choices, and have a new way to finance their purchases.

Pay-As-You-Go Smartphone Gives the Poor Access to Better Technology

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 17:45
In the U.S. and around the world, many poor people don't have access to smartphones. But a Silicon Valley company is offering phones to customers in the U.S. and Mexico who pay in installments. If they don't pay, the phone is turned off remotely. VOA's Michelle Quinn reports.

Amid Record Sales, SUV's Take Center Stage at Chicago Auto Show

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 17:45
High gas prices and poor fuel economy led to the decline of sport utility vehicle sales in the United States in the mid-2000s, a time when customers preferred smaller, more affordable cars, some with new electric motor technology. But now, SUV's have made a comeback, as VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports on the floor of the Nation's Largest Auto Show in Chicago.

Uber's Net Loss Widens to $4.5B for Tumultuous 2017

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 04:09
Ride-hailing giant Uber's full-year net loss widened to $4.5 billion in 2017 as the company endured a tumultuous year that included multiple scandals, a lawsuit alleging the theft of trade secrets and the replacement of its CEO. The results also showed that Uber cut its fourth-quarter net loss by 25 percent from the third quarter as new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi moves to make the company profitable ahead of a planned initial public stock offering sometime next year. The full-year loss grew from $2.8 billion in 2016, a year with results skewed by a gain from the sale of Uber's unprofitable business in China. Uber also said its U.S. ride-hailing market share fell from 82 percent at the start of last year to 70 percent in the fourth quarter. Uber said the share has now stabilized. Gross revenue for the year rose 85 percent over 2016, to $37 billion. For the fourth quarter, Uber's net loss was $1.1 billion, down from $1.46 billion it lost in the third quarter. Bookings from fares rose 14 percent to just over $11 billion for the quarter. While the losses are significant, the results still are positive for Uber with revenue rising and losses falling in three of four quarters in 2017, said Rohit Kulkarni, managing director of SharesPost, a research group focused on privately held companies. The numbers show that Uber under Khosrowshahi is on a path toward profitability and a sustainable economic model, Kulkarni said. "If you draw that out further, a year from now, this could be a significant IPO waiting to happen," he said. Uber considers adjusted earnings before taxes as a better indicator of its financial performance rather than net earnings based on Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, which include losses for accounting purposes. On an adjusted basis, excluding stock-based compensation, legal costs, taxes and depreciation, the company lost $2.2 billion for the full year. The fourth-quarter adjusted loss was $475 million, down from $606 million to in the third quarter. San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc.'s results are difficult to report because only pieces are released. Khosrowshahi detailed them on a conference call with investors Tuesday, and the company made some results public by giving them to a website called The Information. A person briefed on the results provided some numbers and confirmed the accuracy of The Information's story to The Associated Press on Wednesday. The person didn't want to be identified because Uber remains a private company. Last year was a particularly bad one for Uber with its reputation tarnished by the company's acknowledgement of rampant sexual harassment within its ranks, a yearlong cover-up of a major computer break-in, and the use of duplicitous software to thwart government regulators. CEO Travis Kalanick was ousted in June and replaced by Khosrowshahi in August. Earlier this month Uber ended the autonomous vehicle trade secrets lawsuit filed by Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo for a payment of Uber stock valued by Waymo at $245 million.

US Postal Service Enters Digital, Virtual, Augmented Worlds to Attract Customers

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 06:28
Even though the U.S. Postal Service delivers about 46 percent of the world's total mail, competition is getting tougher every day. The post office is turning to technology to stay current. VOA's Elizabeth Lee shows how the USPS is using virtual and augmented realities, along with email, to attract business.

US Social Media Firms Step Up Help on Security Efforts, Intelligence Leaders Say

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 05:55
Leaders of U.S. national security and law enforcement agencies said Tuesday the U.S. private sector has been helpful in efforts to keep the country safe. While the leaders did not name companies, industry sectors or what specific help has been provided, they did discuss the challenges of monitoring social media. The comments may reflect a shift in what law enforcement has seen as the technology industry's adversarial approach when it comes to fighting crimes and addressing national security issues. The most notable example of this tension was support by tech industry groups for Apple's battle with law enforcement over breaking the encryption of an iPhone used by the man who killed 14 people in the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. 'Forward-leaning engagement' At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday, Dan Coats, director of National Intelligence, said the U.S. government has received more support from those in the private sector "who are beginning to recognize ever more the issues that are faced with the material that comes through their processes." Christopher Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, referred to the help from the private sector as a "more forward-leaning engagement." "So, it's teamwork within the intelligence community and then partnership with the private sector, which is, I think, the other big change I've noticed — is a lot more forward-leaning engagement with the private sector in terms of trying to share information and raise awareness on their end," said Wray, also speaking at the hearing. "Because at the end of the day, we can't fully police social media, so we have to work with them so that they can police themselves a little bit better as well," Wray added. Gates: Be careful of arrogance Separately, Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, said in an interview that tech firms need to be careful of being too arrogant when working in realms outside their businesses or they'll face the kind of government intervention his firm experienced in its antitrust dispute. "The tech companies have to be careful that they're not trying to think their view is more important than the government's view, or than the government being able to function in some key areas," said Gates in an interview with Axios. Gates cited Apple's iPhone battle with the government, criticizing "their view that even a clear mass-murdering criminal's communication should never be available to the government." "There's no question of ability," he said about unlocking the iPhone. "It's the question of willingness." He also cited companies' "enthusiasm about making financial transactions anonymous and invisible." Microsoft's consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department came to an end in 2011, a result of the government's settlement with the software giant in its antitrust case. Remarks on Trump administration On Tuesday, Gates and his wife, Melinda, issued their foundation's annual letter. In terms of the Trump administration, Gates wrote that while "we disagree with this administration more than the others we've met with, we believe it's still important to work together whenever possible. We keep talking to them because if the U.S. cuts back on its investments abroad, people in other countries will die, and Americans will be worse off." Melinda Gates wrote that the president is a role model of "American values in the world." She continued, "I wish our president would treat people, and especially women, with more respect when he speaks and tweets."

US Postal Service Rolls Out Virtual Mail

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 03:22
A new service that sends virtual images of the day's mail to inboxes, before snail mail arrives in actual mailboxes, is now a reality in the United States.   "Informed Delivery" is the latest way the United States Postal Service (USPS) is trying to stay competitive.   “Informed Delivery is a way for you to receive an email every single day of all the digital images of all your mail," explained David Rupert, media relations specialist at USPS.  Rupert said his digital images arrive around 9 a.m. each day. Though the USPS delivers about 46 percent of the world’s total mail, it is battling email, text messages, online advertising, television and other delivery services for consumers' attention and business.   "In a digital world, more and more people are having their bills delivered online, paying them on line. And that’s starting to cut into the overall letter volume, as well as the handwritten letter and the notes that we used to send. The reality is, we’re not doing that anymore. That’s not just a U.S. trend, that’s a worldwide trend," Rupert said. Battling that trend also means using virtual and augmented technology in advertising, often called "junk" mail. “What you can do is to take your cellphone, and you can take a mail piece, and it will interact with that mail piece,” Rupert described. If there is a special digital code on an ad, consumers can scan it with their mobile device and an animated, augmented reality ad will appear.  An advertiser can also send a cardboard virtual reality headset along with a code for mobile phone users to scan.  What shows up is a VR ad that can be inserted into the headset for a 360-degree experience. Virtual and augmented reality advertising are getting mixed results from consumers. “Not all junk mail [pieces] are junk mail. You can find some good [things] within the junk mail. It’s a good idea. We’ll see how it works out,” said consumer Victor Teah.   “For some, that might be fun. But for me, I wouldn’t have any use for it," consumer Jocelyn Coatney said. Informed Delivery has broader appeal. “I think I would like that a lot, especially with checks and things coming in, and things coming in from grandkids. That would be a nice service,” said Coatney.   Rupert added: "We don’t want to be a world leader on technology, but we certainly want to make our services relevant to you — in your home and in your neighborhood."

Bill and Melinda Gates Talk Trump, Taxes

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 21:54
Bill and Melinda Gates say they're concerned about some of President Donald Trump's policies and statements. Here are some excerpts from their recent interview with The Associated Press: Giving pledge Bill Gates says he's met with Trump twice since he took office. The Microsoft co-founder hasn't asked Trump to sign "The Giving Pledge," a movement Gates founded that asks billionaires to commit to donating most of their wealth to charity. "We've never had a direct conversation about that," Gates said. "It's always a voluntary thing, and as I do dinners, I meet with a lot of people but never discussed it with him." Women, minorities Melinda Gates, who left her job at Microsoft to raise their three children before turning to the foundation full-time, has lately embraced her role as a public figure more boldly. She called out Trump's behavior, including what she described as his habit of using Twitter to attack women and minority groups. "Those kinds of comments just don't belong in the public discourse," Melinda Gates said. Tax overhaul Bill Gates is among the billionaires who have advocated for more taxes on the wealthy. He says Trump's tax overhaul mostly benefits corporations. "We've in a broad sense said taxes should be more progressive, and this was not a move toward being more progressive." Feminism Melinda Gates says some of Trump's comments about women have troubled her, but his rejection of the "feminist" label has not. "Some men have trouble — and some women, quite frankly — have trouble embracing that term and what it means, so that honestly doesn't bother me. It's more the specific comments he's made over and over again about specific people or minorities or women that just do not reflect the values I see across the United States."

A New Weapon In The Fight Against Poachers

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 12:57
In the dense tropical rainforests of the Minkebe national park in northern Gabon, conservationists are hoping a new weapon can help them win a war against elephant poaching. VOA’s Mariama Diallo reports.

Disposable Delivery Drone Service Goes Where Other Services Do Not

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 05:30
It has been called a delivery drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle or even a glider. It can be used to deliver essential supplies to areas traditional shipping and delivery companies cannot go to. Elizabeth Lee has details from Los Angeles.

4 Robots That Aim to Teach Your Kids to Code

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 03:01
You've seen apps and toys that promise to teach your child to code. Now enter the robots. At the CES electronics show in January, coding robots came out in force. One convention hall area was packed with everything from chip-embedded, alphabet-like coding blocks to turtle-like tanks that draw on command. Of course, no one can really say how well these coding bots teach kids, or even whether learning to code is the essential life skill that so many in the tech industry claim. After all, by the time today's elementary-school kids are entering the workforce, computers may well be programming themselves. But experts like Jeff Gray, a computer science professor at the University of Alabama and an adviser to the nonprofit coding education group Code.org, say kids can derive other benefits from coding robots and similar toys. They can, for instance, learn "persistence and grit" when the toys inevitably do something unintended, he says. So if you're in the market for a coding robot that teaches and maybe even entertains, here's a look at four that were on display at CES. But beware: None of them are cheap. CUBETTO London-based Primo Toys, the makers of this mobile wooden block, believes kids can learn coding concepts at age 3 before they can even read. And they don't even need a screen. The "Cubetto" block on wheels responds to where chip-embedded pieces are put on a wooden board. Different colors represent different commands - for example, to "go straight" or "turn left." Kids can bunch together a number of commands into what's called a function and can also make Cubetto repeat actions in a loop. Pros: Good for parents who want to avoid more screens Cons: Doesn't offer an immediate path to real coding Price: $226 ROOT Root Robotics' flattish, hexagonal droid has downward-facing scanners, magnetic wheels, touch-reactive panels, lights, motion sensors, and a pen-grabbing hole in the center of its body. Controlling it does require a screen. The Cambridge, Massachusetts, company also claims kids don't need to be able to read and can start playing with Root at age 4. Root draws, moves, sees and reacts to touch and various other commands. Kids can use Root to start drawing lines and progress to creating snowflake-like mathematical patterns called fractals. Co-founder Zee Dubrovsky says his daughter began coding with Root at age 4, and progressed up to the point where her robot drew her name on a whiteboard in school. Pros: Sturdy frame; kids can progress from graphical block-based codes to text coding Cons: Requires lots of clean, flat surface area, preferably whiteboards. Root has three difficulty levels, some of which wade into deeper math, so parental time commitment could be considerable. The Kickstarter-launched company has taken a while to ship items, so delivery could be delayed Price: $199 Shipping: June 2018 (although the company has been working to fulfill Kickstarter orders since May 2017) COZMO This bundle of personality on wheels debuted in 2016. It now comes with an app called Code Lab, which allows kids to drag and drop blocks of code that control its movements and animations. They can even access facial and object recognition functions enabled by Cozmo's front-facing camera. Cozmo, recommended for kids aged 8 and up, looks like a little tractor and can pick up interactive cubes, which are included. Part of its appeal are the twitches and tweets that make it seem like an energetic pet, according to Boris Sofman, the CEO and co-founder of Cozmo maker Anki, based in San Francisco. Pros: Its expressive eyes and movements make it seem like a little R2-D2 Cons: Because it's so full of personality, there might be a disconnect between programming it to do things and just letting it be itself Price: $180 EVO   This dome-shaped, wheeled dynamo about the height of a few fingers looks for direction right out of the box - and comes equipped to follow around any finger placed before its frontal camera.   "We want kids to immediately engage with a robot," says Nader Hamda, founder and CEO of Evo's maker, Redondo Beach, California-based Ozobot. The robot makes sounds, flashes lights, moves and can sense and react to its environment. An app helps kids - aged 8 and up - program Evo to do what they want. The bot's downward facing scanners also let it follow lines drawn on regular paper, some of which embody coding instructions. For instance, blue-black-blue gets it to speed up; green-red-green-red tells it to spin. Pros: It's cheaper than other coding bots Cons: It doesn't do quite as much as other bots Price: $89

Disposable Delivery Drone Goes Where Other Services Do Not

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 01:42
Plastic foam, plywood and some other plastic parts could make the difference between life and death. These are the materials that make up a delivery drone created by DASH Systems. The California company also describes its lightweight aircraft as an unmanned aerial vehicle or glider. It can be used to deliver up to 20 kilograms of food, medicine or other essential supplies to people in need in areas that traditional shipping and delivery companies cannot reach. And because it's made of low-cost materials, it's disposable, so there is no worry about getting it back. "Many times, we found that during times of crisis or humanitarian need, it's very, very difficult to get supplies into remote regions," said Joel Ifill, chief executive officer and co-founder of DASH Systems. "Couple that with reduced or destroyed infrastructure. Those are the areas and circumstances under which this system really shines," said DASH Systems co-founder Joe Caravella. The system's aim is targeted, precision delivery. There is a built-in Global Positioning System device that provides enough accuracy to land the vehicle in the courtyard of a hospital. "You can always fly an airplane overhead, so we help bridge that gap. Using our technology, you can throw a package out of an airplane and have it land right at the area of use," Ifill said. The DASH Systems delivery drone will go to places too dangerous or remote for other global shipping services such as FedEx or DHL. "So, for instance, a delivery in South Sudan or Puerto Rico — oftentimes every traditional carrier will say no. Organizations are willing to pay the fair market value for those trips. They just do not have the solution," said Ifill. Ifill thought of this solution while working on smart bombs at a previous job. "Actually, I felt bad about essentially making technology that was designed to harm and kill people. So, I wondered what else could I do with the technology of a smart bomb, something that can launch from an airplane and land within inches. And I thought, 'Why can't I use that same technology to deliver packages and goods?' " DASH Systems says its unmanned glider is unlike other methods of delivery to remote places that have been developed thus far. "There are a variety of parachute-type systems where you can drop things out of airplanes. We're hoping to improve the whole operation, both with deploying it at the right time and then guiding the package to where it needs to be, to be more accurate than anything currently on the market," said Caravella.

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