In today’s Bulldog wrapup of technology and science news:
- New NASA robots could help colonize Mars
- Oculus talks privacy and VR
- Apple is rethinking retail
- Computers don’t make the grade as poets at Dartmouth
- NASA’s Valkyrie robots set the table for human life on Mars
Four sister robots built by NASA could be pioneers in the colonization of Mars, part of an advance construction team that sets up a habitat for more fragile human explorers. But first they’re finding new homes on Earth and engineers to hone their skills.
The space agency has kept one Valkyrie robot at its birthplace, the Johnson Space Center in Houston. It has loaned three others to universities in Massachusetts and Scotland so professors and students can tinker with the 6-foot-tall, 300-pound humanoids and make them more autonomous.
One of the robots, nicknamed Val, still hasn’t quite harmonized its 28 torque-controlled joints and nearly 200 sensors after arriving at a robotics center at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
Engineering students let the electricity-powered robot down from a harness and tried to let it walk, only to watch as Val’s legs awkwardly lurched and locked into a ballet pose.
“That doesn’t look good,” said Taskin Padir, a professor at Northeastern University, noting Val’s $2 million price tag. Northeastern and UMass-Lowell are partnering on a two-year project to improve the robot’s software and test its ability to manipulate tools, climb a ladder and perform high-level tasks.
NASA originally designed Valkyrie several years ago to compete in the disaster-relief robotics contest hosted by the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but now it’s looking for outside expertise to craft her into a kind of space mechanic. NASA shipped two other Valkyries to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
This is not yet the stuff of “The Martian,” the Hollywood blockbuster about surviving on the Red Planet. For one thing, the tiny holes that prevent Val from overheating could get clogged up by spiraling Martian dust. But a sturdier exterior will come later.
There are still another two decades before NASA aims to land humans on Mars in the mid-2030s, said Johnson Space Center spokesman Jay Bolden. Now is the time, he said, to build the computer code that will make the robots useful in hostile environments. If not the Valkyries, it will be their descendants serving as the android vanguard that could make human life possible on Mars.
“It needs to be able to communicate back to Earth, very clearly and concisely, what’s going on,” said Holly Yanco, a computer science professor who directs UMass-Lowell’s robotics center and is an expert on human-robot interactions.
A time delay between communications from Earth to Mars means humans won’t be able to remotely control robots that will need to build structures and do emergency repair work.
There’s a huge step between NASA’s robotic rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, and the capabilities of a robot such as Valkyrie, said Robert Platt, an assistant professor at Northeastern University who is part of the research team.
“The rovers get their instructions uploaded at the beginning of the day,” Platt said. “Those instructions amount to, ‘Go over there,’ or, ‘Check out that rock.’ It’s a completely different ballgame when the job for the day is to assemble a couple of habitats.”
A number of technological advancements, from faster computers to better machine-learning algorithms, will soon make it possible for a robot such as Valkyrie to perform such tasks, Platt said.
- Oculus responds to Sen. Al Franken’s VR privacy questions
The virtual reality company Oculus relies heavily on Facebook for security and shares information about its users with VR creators.
Those details were among the insights Oculus provided in response to Sen.Al Franken’s questions about consumers’ privacy when using Oculus’ VR systems.
Franken posted the response from the Facebook-owned company Thursday detailing howOculus collects and stores user data.
Oculus’ head-mounted Rift system features a pair of high-definition screens that surrounded users’ visions with views of virtual worlds. The headset is worn on users’ heads and can detect movement, location and sound.
Oculus said collecting the physical movements of users is a necessary tool to deliver “a safe, comfortable and seamless VR experience.”
The company also said it relies on Facebook’s data centers and technical infrastructure to host its VR platform, as well as over 200 security professionals from Facebook to help keep the data secure.
“We believe VR has the power to change the world by enabling people to experience anything, anywhere, with anyone, and know that this will only be possible if we invest in the security of our community,” Jordan McCollum, Oculus’ general counsel, wrote in the letter dated May 13.
Oculus noted that it shares information with Facebook and aggregated data about users with VR developers but stopped short of indicating whether it has sold such information to third parties.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., wrote an open letter to Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe on April 7 asking for details about user data collected by the new VR system. He asked the company to respond by May 13.
Franken called Oculus’ response detailed and said he plans to continue working with the company to ensure that users know how data is being collected, used and shared.
- Apple’s stores getting new look as other retailers struggle
Apple is getting ready to unveil a stylish new product that’s not for sale — a new look for its stores.
The iPhone maker is overhauling its nearly 480 stores worldwide, starting with its newtwo-story location in San Francisco.
Apple provided a glimpse of its revised approach to retailing on Thursday, the 15th anniversary of the company’s first stores in Virginia and California. Since then,Apple’s stores have become renowned for their elegant design and employees roaming the floor offering assistance, helping make them among the most profitable in retailing.
Despite their success, the stores have been growing stale, said longtime Apple analyst Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies.
“This is a chance to reimagine a retailing concept that Apple had already nearly perfected,” Bajarin said.
Apple could use a boost. Although it remains the world’s most valuable company, sales of both its iPhones and iPads have been falling as consumers increasingly hang on to the devices that they already own and hold off on upgrading. The slowdown is the main reason Apple’s stock has fallen by nearly 30 percent during the past year.
The San Francisco store, scheduled to open to the public Saturday, is supposed to conjure the ambiance of a town square where people can gaze through giant windows to savor views of the city as they stroll through spacious aisles.
It also features a 42-foot-tall sliding glass door that opens up to San Francisco’s busiest shopping district.
“This is a company statement, not just a retail store,” Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s retailingchief, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
- Dartmouth contest shows computers aren’t such good poets
Computers are pretty good at stocking shelves and operating cars, but are not so great at writing poetry.
Scientists in a Dartmouth College competition reached that conclusion after designing artificial intelligence algorithms that could produce sonnets. Judges compared the results with poems written by humans to see if they could tell the difference.
In every instance, the judges were able to find the sonnet produced by a compute rprogram.
The yearlong competition was a variation of the “Turing Test,” named for British computer scientist Alan Turing, who in 1950 proposed an experiment to determine if computers could have humanlike intelligence. Results were announced Wednesday night.
A three-judge panel that included Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Menand was asked to read 10 submissions — six produced by humans and four by two different algorithms. The machines were given nouns — including “wave,” ”tourist” and “floor”— and programmed to produce a sonnet. The software packages didn’t have the flow or narrative of a good poem.
Some also had “idiosyncrasies of syntax and diction, uses of language that were just a little off,” Menand said in an email interview.
Competition co-founder Dan Rockmore, a Dartmouth professor, said he was surprised at the computers’ poor showing. But he wasn’t that surprised.
“The judges were hunting for machines so they are not looking at a Hallmark card and reading the poem inside,” he added.