Nov 21, 2014

Tommy Flowers: the forgotten father of computing?

posted by Laura Domela

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Imagine spending years of your life working on a cutting-edge new invention for the government - which incidentally you have to part-pay-for out of your own pocket - only to be told to smash it to pieces and burn all evidence. This is exactly what happened to Tommy Flowers and even now, nearly 70 years later, his first computer, Colossus, is still far more well-known than he is. 

A dapper man walks down an institutional corridor, turns right into a room, flicks on the light switch and shuts the door: “This was our Battersea Bridge Laboratory,” he says, making his way into the large grey and white space.

“And [this is] where we assembled the first Colossus…”

This is Tommy Flowers, father of computing, and under-celebrated hero of World War II code-breaking. In recent years the fame of Colossus has grown exponentially - a quick Amazon search reveals numerous books on the subject. Yet far less is generally known about Flowers himself, the man behind the idea, who put both his back and his cash into the project.
via IDG Connect

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Image credit: BT via Flickr

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Nov 21, 2014

Researchers turn to cats to help soften robot landings

posted by Larra Morris

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Cats have an innate ability to orient themselves as they fall so that they land on their feet. This ability, called the cat righting reflex, is thanks to their unusually flexible backbone and lack of a functional collarbone. While it is theoretically possible for us humans to change our body poses in mid air, the researchers say that joint limits and muscle strength constraints prevent us from doing so in practice.

Robots, on the other hand, could in the future be constructed to mimic a cat's righting ability and this is just what Karen Liu, an associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing (IC) at Georgia Tech, and her team are looking to facilitate by studying the physics of not only falling cats, but also the mid-air orientation of divers and astronauts.
via Gizmag

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Nov 21, 2014

Gadget fires foamy 3-D pandas into your lattes

posted by Larra Morris

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Two-dimensional artwork has graced the foamy heads of Guinnesses and coffee drinks for decades. But over in Japan, they’re taking beverage-top sculptures to another level entirely. If you go to the right coffee shop, you’ll get 3-D foam sculptures and froth giraffes right on top of your drink.

Now there’s an in-home machine that you can use once then put away forever to pull off the same foam feats. The Awa Taccino, made by everyone’s favorite water-gamesmith Takara Tomy, is basically a frosting gun that doles out foamy milk instead. It’s designed to be used with non-fat milk for cold beverages and soy milk for hot beverages.
via Wired

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Image: Tomy Takara

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Nov 21, 2014

Revamped Turing test expects computers to show imagination

posted by Larra Morris

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Here's how Lovelace 2.0 works:

"For the test, the artificial agent passes if it develops a creative artifact from a subset of artistic genres deemed to require human-level intelligence and the artifact meets certain creative constraints given by a human evaluator. Further, the human evaluator must determine that the object is a valid representative of the creative subset and that it meets the criteria. The created artifact needs only meet these criteria but does not need to have any aesthetic value. Finally, a human referee must determine that the combination of the subset and criteria is not an impossible standard."

Okay, so that official description is pretty hard to parse. Thankfully, Riedl's recently published paper about the subject gives us an easy sample test. One could, for instance, ask a computer/software to "create a story in which a boy falls in love with a girl, aliens abduct the boy, and the girl saves the world with the help of a talking cat." The story doesn't have to read like an instant classic, but it has to be able to fulfill those conditions and convince a human judge that its tale of alien abduction and female-feline heroism was written by a person in order to pass. That's just one possibility, though -- testers could also ask the computer to create other types of artwork (painting, sculpture, etc.) while fulfilling a set of conditions. These conditions need to be outrageous or unique enough to prevent the computer from finding possible results to copy through Google. In comparison, a machine merely has to convince someone that it's talking to another person in order to pass the Turing test.
via Engadget

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Image: Alfred Edward Chalon/Wikimedia

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Nov 20, 2014

Stanford University makes its own Gecko-inspired wall climbing pads

posted by Larra Morris

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Military types are obsessed with the Gecko because of the unique structure of its feet, which enable it to climb walls like Spider-man. Earlier this year, DARPA told the world that one of its labs had built a pair of pads that would enable a 218-pound person wearing 50 pounds of gear to pretend that they're Tobey Maguire. Of course, the method for building the pads was a closely guarded secret, but a team at Stanford University believes that it's cracked the formula. In essence (really paraphrasing here), the group started with PDMS --polydimethylsiloxane -- a composite more commonly found in water-repellant coatings, skin moisturizers and at least one franchise burger joint's chicken nuggets. The substance was then molded into microwedges to increase the surface area, and crammed into a hexagonal plate with a handle.
via Engadget

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Nov 20, 2014

Floating off-grid greenhouse can feed two families

posted by Larra Morris

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Italian design office Studiomobile has teamed up with the University of Florence's Professor Stefano Mancuso, who is the director of the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, to produce a prototype floating greenhouse in a bid to improve food security in areas with little arable land. The Jellyfish Barge operates off-grid and produces its own clean water via an onboard system of solar distillation.
via Gizmag

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Image:  Matteo de Mayda


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Nov 19, 2014

Will your next best friend be a robot?

posted by Laura Domela

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The Japanese crowd sits hushed and somber as the character on stage turns away from his co-star, an actress seated on the floor in front of a small table. He lowers his head, then turns to face the audience with a look that is both blank and inscrutable, yet somehow conveys a profound sense of alarm. Something here is very wrong.

The dimly lit theater somewhere on the outskirts of Tokyo is packed. Young couples on dates, elderly theater connoisseurs, and even a few teenagers have crammed into the rickety building to catch a glimpse of the future, as visualized by playwright and director Oriza Hirata. They entered in good humor, chatting and laughing. But now they’re quietly transfixed.

The character at the center of the tension is a three-foot-tall robot with an oversize plastic head faintly reminiscent of a giant kewpie doll. He is one of two robots in the play. The other has just rolled off the stage wearing a floral print apron.

“I’m sorry,” the robot says, lifting a pair of orblike eyes to address the actress. “I don’t feel like working . . . at all.”

The robot is depressed.
via Popular Science

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Image: Pepper, courtesy Softbank. 
Pepper, Japan's first affordable social robot, goes on sale in February.
It can read emotions and will be a platform for new apps.

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