LG might be working on a mini G6

LG released its newest flagship, the G6, in April this year. Now, it seems the company might be considering, or at least considered at one point, releasing a mini version of that device. TechnoBuffalo reports that its team viewed an internal document that depicts a 5.4-inch device with an 18:9 aspect ratio. That’s the same unique ratio LG introduced with the G6.

The document didn’t mention any specs, and it’s dated to last year. This could mean LG canceled its plans to manufacture this device, although TechnoBuffalo thinks the phone could still happen. In actuality, a 5.4-inch device isn’t much smaller than the G6’s current 5.7-inch display. I wouldn’t expect LG to release a smaller G6, but hey, you never know.

Mike Pence will now oversee US space policy

Today, President Trump signed an executive order to reinstate the National Space Council, an executive agency that will be tasked with guiding US space policy during the administration. The council, typically chaired by the vice president, is one that the US has seen before; it was first in operation during the ‘60s and ‘70s and then again under the George H.W. Bush administration, before being dissolved in 1993. Now, it’s back again, and this time with Vice President Mike Pence at the helm.

Other notable members of the executive branch will serve on the council as well, according to a draft of the order obtained by The Verge. Those include the secretary of state and the secretary of defense, as well as NASA’s administrator — though that positioned has yet to be filled permanently. The executive order lays out the main functions of the council, too, which revolve around making recommendations of space policy for the president and how to implement that guidance. It also calls for the creation of an advisory group, comprised of non-government workers and those in the industry to provide advice.

The council’s purview includes NASA, as well as the US Air Force and intelligence community, which rely heavily on satellites for national defense. “Basically this will be Pence’s eyes and ears into our government’s actions in space, whether it’s NASA or the Pentagon,” Phil Larson, a former space policy advisor for the Obama administration, tells The Verge.

The council’s resurrection has been in the works since the campaign, when one of Trump’s space advisor’s advocated for it. Pence confirmed in March he’d head the council, and a draft of the executive order to reinstate the group has been around since May, according to a report by Space News.

It’s not yet clear what policy the council will implement. Two factions appear to have formed within the space community: “old space” and “new space.” The “old space” group prefers the traditional way NASA has done business: the agency gives pricey contracts to government contractors, to develop vehicles that are ultimately overseen and operated by NASA. It’s how the agency is making its next monster rocket, the Space Launch System, which is meant to take astronauts into deep space and onto Mars.

“New space” advocates prefer a more hands-off approach, leaning on public-private partnerships. Under this model, NASA tells the private sector what service it wants and companies make pitches. This is the basic formula for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which tasks SpaceX and Boeing with building spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. These types of contracts are usually fixed-price and are often hailed for being more cost-effective ways of doing business. But NASA doesn’t own the vehicles and has less oversight in development.

It’s unclear which faction will win on the counsel. Pence and his team seem to support public-private partnerships, Larson says. But the attendees at today’s briefing about the council indicate old space may have an edge. The room was filled with legislators from Alabama, the state where the SLS is being developed. And representatives from most of the major private space companies were noticeably absent.

Of course, the council may just be an additional layer of bureaucracy that slows the making process — it just depends on how it’ll be used. “It could help break some of the log jams we’ve seen, instead of muddling through space policy right now,” says Larson. “But it will only work that way if space is a high priority for Pence.”

Google accidentally pushed Bluetooth update for Home speaker early

Google announced that it would be updating its Google Home virtual assistant / speaker with Bluetooth audio support at I/O earlier this year, and now that update has accidentally begun to roll out to some Home owners, as noted by Android Police. At this time, Google hasn’t announced when it will actually be releasing Bluetooth support for the Google Home.

When the update does roll out for real, you’ll be able to use it as a Bluetooth speaker — something that Amazon’s Echo has already been capable of for a while, although Google’s own home speaker has supported the company’s Chromecast Audio standard since launch. The new addition of Bluetooth, however, should greatly widen the number of compatible devices that will work with Home for music streaming, as well as allow it to be used as a speaker even without Wi-Fi.

Update June 30th, 6:30PM: Google appears to have accidentally pushed out the update to some users early by accident, this post has been updated to reflect that.

Casino ATMs are using facial recognition to spot money launderers in Macau

Casino destination Macau is requiring facial recognition and identification card checks for withdrawals made by Chinese UnionPay cardholders at all ATMs, as reported by Bloomberg. Customers who make a withdrawal from the updated cash machines will be asked to stare into a camera for six seconds so the facial-recognition software can verify them against their identity card.

The move is a three-fold effort to reinforce Macau’s existing anti-money laundering rules, increase banking security, and enable China to try and dampen the outflows pushing down the value of its currency (which, last year, topped $816 billion). Casinos are a classic way to launder money, as individuals can withdraw significant amounts for chips, gamble very little, and then cash out to move the remainder.

This follows Macau’s ban on proxy betting by telephone, which aimed to restrict bets from Chinese gamblers, and a limit on ATM withdrawals from 10,000 patacas to 5,000 patacas per transaction.

The Macau Monetary Authority says the facial recognition software will initially be installed in China UnionPay’s existing 1,200 ATMs in Macau. Other payment providers, including Visa and Mastercard, will be required to adopt the technology at a later date.

Facial recognition software is already used in a number of countries with various applications. In the US, the Biometric Exit project plans to use facial recognition to verify travelers as they leave the country, eventually bringing the technology to every international airport in America. In the UK, British police will use a facial recognition system to scan the Cardiff train station and surrounding areas when the Champion’s League Final happens on July 3rd.

Bloomberg says this is the “first widespread consumer application of facial-recognition security programs in Greater China,” a country with very different expectations of what is acceptable for privacy. The Chinese government regularly removes online content that “propagate[s] negative speech,” and censors messages on group chat platforms like WeChat without letting users know.

Enforcement of a one-to-one match against ID cards at ATMs won’t stop money laundering entirely, but locking down identity is the first step toward any enforcement. As Bloomberg notes, it’s not uncommon in Macau for people to use multiple bank cards for withdrawals, or for friends and family of an account member to make a withdrawal without them being present.

The best gardening apps for the green-fingered

It doesn’t matter whether you’re green-fingered or horticulturally hopeless, the best gardening apps can help you to create wonderful gardens, grow delicious food, and become a brilliant botanist. Even if you have an apartment with no outdoor space, there are plenty of great gadgets for indoor gardens available to those who have no intention of stepping outside.

Below, we’ve put together a list of handy gardening apps that will help you identify plants, get expert advice, deal with pests, and plan a garden than will be the envy of your neighbors. You can also find more great app suggestions in our comprehensive roundups of the best Android apps and best iPhone apps, along with our guide on how to grow herbs indoors.

Garden Tags

Best gardening apps - Garden Tags

This popular gardening app is home to a large community of friendly gardeners who are quick to offer care advice, identification help, and handy tips. You can keep a photographic journal of your garden and get reminders about pruning, or advice on the best spots for growth. You can also search the encyclopedia, see what’s popular, and follow other gardeners when you find plants and gardens that you really like. This is a great app for design inspiration.

Download now for:

Android iOS

GrowIt!

Best gardening apps - GrowIt!

GrowIt allows you to join an enthusiastic community of gardeners, helping you to find inspiration, gather information, and share your own cultivations with the world.  This gardening app is good if you want to find out what plants will grow well in your local area. You’ll also find useful advice catalogued in projects and you can add your own, too. You can even ask the community to help you identify specific plants, and you can rate other people’s gardens and check out the cream of the crop if you’re in need of some ideas.

Download now for:

Android iOS

Garden Answers Plant Identifier

Best gardening apps - Garden Answers Plant Identifier

With Garden Answers Plant Identifier, you can snap a photo of a plant you want to identify and submit it to find out what it is. This is easily one of the best free gardening apps in existence, namely because it can automatically recognize more than 20,000 plants. If it can’t identify the plant in question, then you can also pay $2 to get an expert identification from a botanist with additional information and advice on its care. This app also identifies pests and has a robust Q&A section that covers more than 200,000 of the most common gardening queries.

Download now for:

Android iOS

SmartPlant

Best gardening apps - SmartPlant

This app has an enormous plant library, but the real attraction is the ability to snap and upload a picture of a plant or pest and have an expert gardener identify it on your behalf. It also allows you to add your plants and generate a care calendar, which will send you notifications and remind you of what you need to do each month to order to keep your plants healthy. You can submit a couple of photos for free, but unlimited use of the app, expert care advice, chat functions, and regional notifications require a subscription ($6 a month or $35 for the year). This app was formerly known as PlantSnapp, prior to merging with Garden Compass.

Download now for:

Android iOS

Gardenate ($1)

Best gardening apps - Gardenate

If you’re looking for a simple calendar for planting garden vegetables that comes with an assortment of useful hints and tips, then you should take a look at this app. With Gardenate, you can plan your garden, set a schedule, access detailed information on different vegetables, and use the “Planting now” tab to see what to plant each month. It’s minimalist and straightforward, making it a good alternative to many of the social media-style gardening apps on our list. Vegetable growers with Android devices should also check out Gardroid.

Download now for:

Android iOS

Facebook is targeting jerks who spam your News Feed

Image: brittany herbert/mashable

Facebook is taking new steps to fight spam.

The social network will now weed out posts from spammers who fill their friends’ feeds with “vast amounts” of links to “low quality content.” 

“We want to reduce the influence of these spammers and deprioritize the links they share more frequently than regular sharers,” writes Facebook’s VP of News Feed Adam Mosseri. 

In this case, Facebook is setting a pretty high bar for what it considers a “spammer.” The update was designed to address the “tiny group” of users who share 50 or more public posts a day.

This latest update is only meant to address spam that comes from individual accounts.

Mosseri notes that the change will only affect links, since “research further shows that the links they share tend to include low quality content such as clickbait, sensationalism, and misinformation.”

The update is the most recent step in a series of changes the company has made to combat fake news since the election. Earlier in the week, Facebook announced it would no longer allow users to manually change the headlines and descriptions of links they share. 

While Mark Zuckerberg and other executives have in the past insisted that Facebook so-called “fake news” problem is one that’s perpetuated by only a tiny fraction of Facebook’s 2 billion users, the reality is that these spammers are increasingly savvy at figuring how to game Facebook’s algorithms to have the greatest possible impact.

Importantly, this latest update is only meant to address spam that comes from individual accounts, not pages, so publishers or others that share dozens of links to less reputable sources won’t be affected. It also does nothing to address people who frequently share spammy clickbait, but at a frequency of less than 50 times a day (though Facebook has taken other steps to reduce the spread of fake news in its News Feed). 

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Naming the Ephemeral

So much is happening as we approach the end of Q2 — our industry’s busiest quarter, at least by some measures. I’m flying around seeing things but not always able to comment from a middle seat on a red-eye. So this piece is an attempt to catch up and set some markers for the traditionally slower summer.

I’ve been searching for a word to describe a new category I see. You can call it various things, like “on-demand services” or even “Service as a Service,” which somewhat distinguishes it from “Thing as a Service,” such as SaaS, but it’s confusing.

Here Now, Gone Tomorrow

SaaS has led the way in Things as a Service. While it’s a perfectly good descriptor, the rapid evolution of the IoT — that is, Internet of things — has introduced some confusion. Things as a Service describes any traditional goods delivered as a service, such as software or a car or a cellphone. Services delivered as services often don’t have a physical component — or that component is of a different type, perhaps not even human.

For instance, you can get Software as a Service, but the training or consulting that needs to go with it is very different. First, it’s delivered by people who show up, do a job and disappear. You don’t employ them, and you certainly don’t own them, and their work product is pure service. Often, they leave behind only thoughts in others’ minds or software code.

Another example — my favorite right now — is earthmoving. Various makers of things like excavators and bulldozers now offer Earthmoving as a Service, obviating the need to purchase a big device. The difference is that the service is intentionally and decidedly temporary.

These companies calculate the amount of earth moved (to draw a simple example) and charge by a meaningful metric, such as tons or cubic yards moved. These are short-term services; the equipment and people to run it show up one day, do a specific task, and then are gone. Or perhaps they are idle for one week per month — how do you charge for this?

In a SaaS model, you might buy a specific number of seats per month and that’s it. If your people don’t use the system, too bad. However, in the earth-moving example, an idle machine still has overhead for a vendor. How does the vendor capture revenue when the device is idle?

It’s not hard to do, but it gets into some branching logic that typical billing systems might not cover. So, very quickly, we see that a Service as a Service is different from a Thing as a Service. What do you call it? And what’s the name of the business model? And how do you account for these services?

My thoughts include words like “precision services” or “discrete services.” Each conveys a sense of the ad hoc, a temporary, specialist thing that won’t become part of the status quo in the sense that it will be gone at some point. Just think of the earthmoving equipment required to build a tall building and understand that it’s not there any more once the building is completed.

So that’s one thing I’ve been noodling on. Send me a note with your thoughts.

Oracle’s Infrastructure Business

Also on the docket are Oracle’s results for the last quarter. It’s only important to look at the direction, which is up and to the right of the graphs, to know that the company has hit its stride on cloud computing.

I am happy for Oracle and previously have written that its model is suited uniquely to its customer base. It includes all phases of cloud computing — infrastructure, applications and platform — to support customers in various stages of the move.

Oracle’s big footprint attracts lots of competition — from Amazon’s AWS at the infrastructure end to Microsoft, Salesforce and SAP on applications and platform. I am not even sure if they all agree on what platform is, which is important. It tells us that the tip of the spear is platform and that it’s the competitive landscape. It’s also the metric that we need to use to analyze and understand the quality of any software vendor’s earnings.

Infrastructure is heading toward pure commodity status, and if it has not yet arrived there, it’s getting close. Ironically, however, you can’t be wildly successful in the other phases of the game if you don’t have a credible infrastructure offering.

So you have to look with great interest at Oracle’s infrastructure number which equals just north of US$400 million on what I believe is a $1 billion cloud base. Is it a good thing? I think it’s a necessary thing, and it might set up the company to do well in other phases. That jury is still out, though.

Who’s Afraid of AI?

Finally, I am in complete disagreement with a piece on artificial intelligence in The New York Times Sunday Review: “The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence” by Kai-Fu Lee. I’ve seen the argument before: AI will swallow up jobs, leaving a large and unemployable group of people who will require some form of guaranteed income support. Rather than offer an opinion, let me supply an analysis and some data.

Massive income assistance never has worked well in human history. You might go all the way back to the Roman Empire and recall the idea of bread and circuses as an example of such welfare — but if you do, you also need to factor in that it didn’t work out well for guys named “Caesar.” In modern times the top earners always have objected to the confiscatory taxes needed to make such a scheme work.

This kind of analysis is too dependent on straight-line thinking. What’s missing is any sense of the dynamism of free markets in a democracy. Free markets enable innovation and entrepreneurship, and with them come new industries and new jobs.

I know things look kind of bleak for people with high school educations or even people with BAs in literature or philosophy. Still, the fact of the matter is that since the Industrial Revolution there have been five ages when an industry or a clutch of them took off and did really well for a few decades, only to fall back to earth later, killing some of the jobs it created in the name of efficiency and commoditization.

What we’re going through with AI is cyclical and not one of a kind. I just wrote a book about it, and it will be out in September — a time when we come back from the beach, put our game faces on, and rediscover that a machine really can’t do what we do.


Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry researcher, strategist, writer and speaker. His new book, You Can’t Buy Customer Loyalty, But You Can Earn It, is now available on Amazon. His 2015 book, Solve for the Customer, is also available there. He can be reached at
denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com.

Manufacturing civility

Facebook’s task is unenviable. Two billion people, all yammering on about literally everything in the world. And hidden in that unending torrent are an unknown number of abhorrent, hateful utterances that would be better off unuttered.

But the method Facebook has applied to this problem, a tangled system of ethical arithmetic revealed in a report from ProPublica, seems unsuited to the task — even absurd.

I wrote back in 2013 that Facebook’s “categorial imperative,” by which the company assembles personas from political and social breadcrumbs in haphazard jigsaw style, fundamentally limits its understanding of users. As the social network has become more deeply embedded into our lives, this limitation has become more acute and more consequential.

This week’s consequence is a set of rules, comprising a secret philosophical lens through which Facebook’s global team of content reviewers are instructed to view content. The rules are not simple (they run, reportedly, to about 15,000 words) because the topic is not simple. But just because something is complex doesn’t mean it can’t be simplistic.

Sure, it’s a noble idea, to create a universal guide to civilized human interaction. It’s just impractical. Not least because Facebook’s goals of accuracy and efficiency (or indeed automation) are at odds with each other.

Absurd machine

The trouble starts immediately, with the attempt to build a set of rules from the ground up that determine which bucket to put speech in — “censor” or “allow.” Starting with what would appear to be strong pillars like “promote free speech and discussion on every topic” is destined for failure because before long, those pillars are eaten away at and built onto by countless exceptions.

So it is with the “protected categories” set out in Facebook’s training. Race, religion, disability — it’s a great list of things that are frequently targets of hate speech or otherwise uncivil communication.

But things immediately start to go off the rails when they attempt to systematize exactly how to protect them — an equation where you put the information in one end and out the other comes an action, like any other data-driven application. The moral math they use is intended to make things perfectly clear, but instantly produces situations that are, on their face, incorrect.

For instance, as the slides show, the equations produce the guideline that “white men” are a protected category but “black children” aren’t — a distinction as clear as it is clearly wrong. Is it a national controversy that black children are killing innocent white men and getting away with it?

A system created with the sole purpose of detecting and preventing hate speech has accomplished the exact opposite effect: excluding a marginalized group from protection and definitively protecting a group that not only has fundamental protections and privileges, but is arguably the group most responsible for the behavior being proscribed!

Absurd.

In practice this looks like where the system allows a person in a position of power, like a white United States Representative, to call for the slaying of people of a particular religion. But a black woman who explains her view of systematic racism by saying that one must assume all white people are racist has her account suspended. (That happened, and we talked with Leslie Mac about it at TechCrunch’s recent Justice event.)

The context required to see that this is wrong is that there are inequalities in power that produce complex and shifting social dynamics, and it is when these dynamics are treated to violation that we consider harm to have been done. The simple logic governing Facebook’s protected categories is unaware of these national and global conversations and their subtleties, and indeed is fundamentally incapable of accommodating them.

Instead, we have amazingly complex systems of exceptions. For example, migrants, despite the overwhelming connotation of certain races and religions, are only a “quasi protected category.” You can call them lazy and filthy, because those are not “dehumanizing,” and you can accuse them of certain crimes but not others. You can claim the superiority of your country, but not the inferiority of theirs.

No one is saying Facebook thinks white men are more important than black kids. That’s not what the rules are about. But it is an inescapable consequence of the way these rules are structured that white men are given protections that black children aren’t. The system is internally consistent, but does not reflect reality.

Of course, Asian transgender persons would be given protections that Spanish plumbers aren’t, too — sometimes the way the system orders things seems innocuous, but clearly it isn’t always. As a system that is meant to accomplish something fundamentally humanitarian, it’s deeply flawed because it is fundamentally inhuman.

What’s the alternative?

I don’t envy Facebook here. This is a hell of a hard problem, and I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t appreciate Facebook’s efforts in this direction. Nor am I going to pretend they’re sufficient when they clearly aren’t.

There are three basic problems that Facebook’s moderation system attempts to solve:

  • Volume. Millions upon millions of comments and photos posted every day, and an unknown proportion must be removed.
  • Locality. The rules governing what posts will be removed must include context from the region and culture in which they are to be applied.
  • Awareness. People need to understand what the rules are, why they are that way, and who made them.

The current system is focused on volume, with lip service to locality and awareness. That is why it fails: it doesn’t reflect the social dynamics in the context of which people already communicate, and the rules themselves are obscure — secret, even.

People are socially intelligent: They adjust their speech, personalities, and appearance to the situation or population they’re with. We know not to crack jokes at (most) funerals, to be polite with the S.O.’s parents, and to relax our moral standards around friends we trust. We’ll adjust likewise if Facebook becomes just another space where certain behaviors are expected and others prohibited.

But in order for that to happen, the space and its rules need to be defined. Unfortunately for Facebook, doing that at a global scale is a non-starter. While a few carefully worded rules may be a starting point for both the U.S., China, Russia and Morocco, there are simply too many differences to share a rulebook.

That means each of those places needs its own rulebook. Who has the time and capacity for that? Facebook, of course! Facebook is the most popular forum for public and semi-public discourse in the world. That is a position of great power, and incurs the great responsibility of administrating that forum in an ethical and reasonable way.

Right now I believe Facebook is avoiding the inevitable step of creating a much more comprehensive and locally informed set of rules, both for pragmatic and idealistic reasons. Pragmatic because it will be complicated and expensive. Idealistic because the idea is to build a global community, and the more they try, the more they find that’s not how things work. The best they can hope for is to build a global community of communities, each policing themselves with a set of rules that are as flexible as the people they are meant to rein in.

The technological aspects of that are up to Facebook, but something it must not shirk on is the human aspect. Having 7,500 moderators is better than 5,000, but is one for every quarter-million users enough? I don’t think it will be once a system is developed that meets the standards that people deserve. That will necessitate numerous, permanent and highly skilled staff all over the world, not bulk eyeballs offering a barebones ground truthing service.

When will Facebook hire social workers, activists, psychiatrists, grief counselors, local officials, religious leaders, and others with long histories navigating ethical problems and communication barriers? If the goal is to engineer civility, it’s unavoidable that those who engineer it in real life.

If Facebook really is serious about connecting the world, or whatever its new slogan is, this has to be a priority. The threat of hate speech, live murders, abuse and everything else is part and parcel with the grand vision of a universal communication platform.

The privilege of making the platform a safe and well-defined one for everyone is a task Facebook should be tackling with pride and passion in open air forums, not treating like a dark secret to be optimized by engineers drawing Venn diagrams behind closed doors.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Sony is bringing vinyl back, but the truth is it never went away

The old time favorites are back.
The old time favorites are back.

Image: matt cardy/Getty Images

Vinyl records are truly a thing of beauty. They were the first thing to bring personal music libraries to the masses, and that’s something we’ll never forget. While cassette tapes, CDs, and streaming services have all succeeded the format, there’s just something about vinyl records that keeps them living on.

Sony Music understands this and has decided to start pressing vinyl records again at a Japanese factory by next March. This comes after a 25-year high in record sales, where we bought more than 3.2 million LPs in 2016. 

Some people might dismiss Sony’s move as faddish. But fads come and go without a lot of rhyme or reason; the vinyl record, on the other hand, has proven to be as much of a classic staple as the little black dress. While sales have crept up and down, vinyl records have never left our sight. And we’ll probably never see them completely disappear.

At least for me, the first band that comes to mind when I picture a record is The Beatles. Love Me Do was released in the early 1960s — 30 years before I was born. And that shows you exactly why records are still around today. They helped music’s biggest legends become the superstars that they were, and they can never be forgotten for that.

It’s something lost on today’s Streaming Generation™️: Paying for music means it has real value. 

There are a couple of other qualities that put records in the “we’re never going away” club. If you actually were alive when record sales were booming, taking them out of their covers is a reminiscent experience that can bring you back to when they were originally released. And for the younger generations like myself, records can remind you of stories your dad used to tell about listening to his favorite band with buddies when they were young. Records somehow have the ability to connect people across multiple generations that a lot of other mediums just don’t have. 

And the great thing about records is that memories aren’t the only thing they give us. Unlike a lot of our music today that we just have stored in a digital library on our phones, records are something we can actually touch. You can keep your collection filed away in your basement or hang it on the wall. But either way, you know you’ve always got a physical copy you can play and look at whenever you want. 

One of the greatest features of the physical record is the cover itself. It’s wonky, artistic, wonderful, and (most of the time) has a lot of meaning behind it. We can see it up close on the cardstock, pass it around the room for our friends to enjoy, and display it proudly. Some of today’s digital album covers are exciting and unique, but it’s also pretty common to just see the musician’s face used as the cover art. And you’re probably not going to pass your phone around the room for everyone to gawk at the art and other songs on the album.

All this adds up to the clearest reason behind the format’s surprising longevity: Vinyl records are made for superfans.

Many people (especially teenagers) had to save up to buy records when they were first released. Even today, buying a vinyl record means spending money on music you could easily stream for free (or pretty close to free) on Pandora, YouTube, or Spotify. It seems obvious, but it’s something lost on today’s Streaming Generation™️: Paying for music — specific music — means it has real value. The people who are really driving fandom and love their bands more than anything are willing to shell out a couple of extra bucks to get a “hard” copy, as well they should be. With Sony’s move, that just got a little easier.

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Toyota’s new robot is a gentle, helpful companion for paralyzed veteran

The robots are coming … to help us.

Almost a decade ago, as the U.S. war in Afghanistan trudged on, Army Ranger Romulo Camargo was shot in the neck when his troop was ambushed during a humanitarian mission. He was paralyzed from the neck down and struggles with daily tasks that most people might take for granted. 

Recently, however, Camargo got a little help in the form of a pint-sized, one-armed robot from Toyota. The company announced Friday that it has completed an in-home trial of its Human Support Robot with Camargo. 

The 3 foot-tall, 81 pound robot spent time doing a handful of basic, yet useful tasks for Camargo, like opening doors and grabbing food from the pantry and delivering them to the decorated veteran.

“When they opened the box, and I saw the robot, I figured we would unfold the next chapter in human support robots helping people with disabilities — like this research is going to change the world,” said  Camargo in a release.

Toyota designed the robot to be a helpful and safe home companion. The robot can extend its body up over a foot and then the single, telescoping arm reaches deliberately out, as the on-board intelligence identifies objects. Vacuum-pad grippers help the robot grab everything from a pencil to a water bottle to a doorknob.

[embedded content]

The robot can move autonomously (thanks to obstacle avoidance) at 5 mph through the home, but can also be controlled via smartphone. It has three primary modes: pick-up with the gripper that extends from the body; fetch, which responds to voice commands; and manual control. 

It also has a small screen at its top, where people who connect to it via Skype can appear.  

In robot circles, Toyota is probably best-known for Asimo, the humanoid bot capable of walking, running, navigating stairs, and greeting people. However, the Human Support Robot joins a growing legion of Toyota home and human-assistant robots, including the wearable brace, WelWalk, and Transfer Assist Robot, which can move an adult from a bed to a chair or even to a toilet.

The Human Support Robot can identify objects, pick them up, and bring them to Camargo.

The Human Support Robot can identify objects, pick them up, and bring them to Camargo.

Image: toyota

Camargo’s robot splits the difference between the anthropomorphized Asimo and Toyota’s wearable and rideable robots. It’s short, a mixture of white and black, and relatively nondescript, but it does have a face, of sorts, and a voice. The stereo camera eyes and nose-like wide-angle camera look in your direction or the direction of its task, and a robotic voice responds to voice commands like, “open the door.”

The robot runs for about three hours on a charge, but, Toyota told us, it can’t recharge itself.

Like most of Toyota’s robots, this one is designed to assist those with disabilities and the elderly. Toyota is based in Japan where the populations is aging more quickly than in other parts of the world. 

With the two-day trial complete, Toyota, now plans to showcase the robot at Friday’s NASCAR Coke 400 pre-race in Daytona, Beach, Florida. As for Camargo, Toyota said they will continue to work with him “to understand how we can use platforms like HSR to improve mobility.”

When we asked Toyota how much this robot cost and its availability for purchase, they told us that, since it’s considered an on-going research project, it would be premature to talk about either aspect.

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