News

A Friendly Backseat Driver

As someone who’s driven a number of years for hundreds of thousands of miles, I normally don't like someone telling me how to drive. I'm guiding the car at a speed I feel comfortable with, see the road obstacles ahead, and (supposedly) know where I’m going. Well, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a robotic-based, intelligent vehicle driving companion that’s supposed to help – not hinder – the driver from reaching his or her destination, both safely and happily. Called the Affective Intelligent Driving Agent or AIDA, the system was developed as collaboration between the Personal Robotics Group at the MIT Media Lab, MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, and the Volkswagen Group of America’s Electronics Research Lab. AIDA communicates with the driver through a small robot embedded in the dashboard. More advanced than existing vehicle GPS systems, AIDA is designed to analyze the driver’s mobility patterns, tracking common routes and destinations. After learning the driver’s mobility patterns and accounting for environmental conditions and events, the system would be able to help a driver steer clear of traffic jams. It could also give feedback to the driver on energy usage and safety issues. AIDA is being promoted as a "friendly" driving companion, able to sense the driver’s mood. According to MIT, the robotic-based system would over time develop a symbiotic relationship with driver and form a bond. I'd like to see how the system soothes a frazzled, irritated driver who is stuck in traffic, late for an appointment, and not in any mood for pleasant conversation. My concern regards the system's intelligence functions. How accurately can it sense impending traffic problems? Can the system's knowledge base be updated quickly enough to account for sudden changes in traffic or weather conditions that could adversely affect the driving experience? I’ve been using an aftermarket GPS for a year and have been the victim of misleading GPS instructions. Sure, the AIDA system can be a friendly companion. But can it provide the accurate, real-time information I need to get from point A to B? Would you like a friendly robot in your vehicle as a backseat driver? What do you think?

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Auto Slump Impacts Robotics Market

The declining fortunes of the U.S. automotive industry have had a direct impact on the robotics market. The latest data from the industry trade group Robotic Industries Association (RIA) saw robotic sales decline 30% in unit volume and 43% in dollar volume the first nine months of 2009. Robot sales to automotive manufacturers fell 29% in unit volume and 44% in dollar volume through September, compared with 2008. Jeff Burnstein, RIA president, noted that while automotive customers traditionally account for 60% of new robot orders in North America, they accounted for only 54% of orders through September. The study also noted that orders from non-automotive customers fell 32% in unit volume and 41% in dollar volume through September. But not all the news is bad. Tammy Mulcahy, chairperson of RIA’s Statistics Committee, said, "Orders from life science customers rose 14%, while orders from food and consumer goods customer rose 12%. While these are relatively small markets in North America at this time, they are two that hold strong growth potential and we’re glad to see them growing even during this unprecedented downtime for robotics and other capital equipment purchases." NASA Tech Briefs has been covering emerging robotic applications in markets such as biomedical and food processing in its Motion Control Technology supplement, and will continue to do so in coming months.

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Technology and Common Sense

With all the technology available to us today – iPods, smartphones, camcorders, portable computers – it is not hard to imagine people fully immersing themselves in their gadgets and various forms of media. But is technology causing people to become too self-absorbed? We asked readers this question in our Question of the Week. I would like to address this issue from another angle. Technology is giving people another excuse not to use common sense. One doesn’t have to look far to see examples of this. Take the seemingly never-ending problem of mobile phone usage in vehicles. Numerous studies have documented the correlation between vehicular accidents and talking on a mobile phone, and many states have enacted laws prohibiting hand-held mobile phone use while driving. While the laws have had some impact, I still see too many people driving and using hand-held phones. Worse yet, the problem has gone beyond drivers merely talking on phones to drivers text messaging, particularly when stopped at intersections or in slow traffic. As texting requires one to divert his or her attention off the road, it is all too obvious these drivers pose a danger to themselves and others. In New York City where I live and work, the lack of common sense among technology users is even more visible. With Blackberries and other smartphones becoming ubiquitous, I routinely see pedestrians with their eyes glued to their devices walking down crowded streets, oblivious to passing pedestrians, sidewalk obstacles, and worse - oncoming vehicular traffic. I understand the world is a faster moving, more connected place. But does it make sense for someone to endanger himself/herself and others just to “stay connected”? The obsession with technology even occurs in situations where people are face to face. One of my friends related to me the story of his 20 year-old son exchanging text messages with a date in a diner, even though both were sitting less than five feet apart at the same table. It was obviously a bad date where neither person was comfortable with the other and there was little verbal communication. But really, is text messaging going to overcome bad chemistry in a face-to-face interpersonal situation? And of course, there’s the age-old problem of people yapping on their mobile phones in public. I’m sure most of you have been subjected to someone on a bus, in a store, movie theater, or restaurant talking off the top of his or her lungs, giving myriad details about a business or personal situation that some of us do not want to hear about. What good does it accomplish for someone to loudly vent in public when no one cares and will likely not give any sympathy? I could go on, but you get the picture. Modern technology is wonderful and can do a lot, but people allow their lack of common sense to lead them to misuse their gadgets and gizmos. What are your thoughts? Feel free to respond to our Question of the Week, or respond below.

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Predicting the Weather on Mars

Over the years, I have learned not to place too much trust in weather forecasters. On a number of occasions, the forecasters have either underestimated or overestimated the severity or timing of predicted storms, or failed to predict weather events altogether. So I read with interest a story discussing NASA awarding a grant to Texas A&M University professor Istvan Szunyogh to analyze and forecast weather on the planet Mars. Mars has always been characterized as the planet most closely resembling Earth in composition. There’s ice at the Martian polar regions, and dust storms encircle the planet periodically. According to the story, the ability to predict the occurrence and location of these dust storms and monitor wind and temperature conditions will become increasingly important as more missions to Mars – unmanned robotic probes and eventually manned spacecraft – are planned. "All weather forecasts, including those on TV, are based on model forecasts of the different physical parameters of the Earth’s atmosphere such as temperature, wind, and pressure," Szunyogh was quoted as saying. "The main goal of the project is to explore the possibility of obtaining accurate quantitative estimates of these parameters in the Martian atmosphere." Given the high cost and risks of space exploration, I hope Martian weather forecasting turns out to be a more exact science than weather forecasting here on Earth.

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Software Obsolescence

I have never rushed out to purchase the latest version of a software release. As long as my current software is running my programs smoothly and not experiencing constant freeze-ups, I’d rather not bother with the arduous process of backing up my data and hoping the new software does not stall midway through installation due to some incompatibility with my programs or hardware. With that in mind, I am nevertheless keeping one eye on Microsoft’s new Windows 7 operating system, given the fact that I am running an eight year-old operating system – Windows XP – on a four year-old Toshiba laptop PC at home. I am concerned that future software programs I use may be incompatible with the aging operating system, forcing me to upgrade. But hold on, upgrading won’t be that easy. On its website, Microsoft recommends that users running Windows XP download the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor to determine whether the PC can accept the upgrade. The company has stated that PCs running Vista – the buggy, slow-selling predecessor to Windows 7 – should readily accept the new software. The IT administrator in my workplace confirmed this is the case, adding that Windows XP users not only have to back up their data, but also wipe their hard disks clean, install Windows 7, and then – assuming everything is running smoothly – reinstall programs and restore data. In other words, be ready to give up an evening or afternoon to deal with the trials and tribulations of installing new software. There’s nothing unusual with how Microsoft is phasing out its older software. An eight year-old operating system is a relic in the fast-moving PC world, and I guess there needs to be a reason for the cutthroat PC industry to sell new laptop and desktop machines, hard drives, and graphics cards. Still, no one should be surprised that Microsoft does not show up on any lists of the "most admired companies". Our Insider blog is addressing Windows 7 in this week’s Question of the Week. We’d like you to chime in with your thoughts by clicking here.

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Robots as Personal Assistants

The increasing presence of robots in industrial applications has been well documented. But robotic technology advances are also trickling down into the consumer market, creating a similar boom in the demand for personal robots. That is the conclusion of a new study by ABI Research titled “Personal Robotics 2009: Task, Security & Surveillance/Telepresence, Entertainment and Education Robot, and Robotic Component Markets Through 2015.” The study projects the personal robotics market to reach a global value of $1.16 billion in 2009, quadrupling to $5.26 billion by 2015. According to the study, North America is the largest market for personal robots. The Asia-Pacific region is the second largest market, fueled mostly by Japan embracing robots. These personal robots will incorporate enough intelligence and sensing capabilities to perform chores, security functions, entertainment, or be used as an educational tool. “Telepresence is a big buzzword in the personal robot market,” said study author Marc Liggio. “Robots with telepresence capabilities facilitate the interaction of a remote user with people and environment through the robot. Telepresence is a coming business solution which, while probably not sufficient in itself, may become a necessary component of personal robots.” As the population ages, I can foresee the increasing deployment of robots to help elderly or physically handicapped people perform tasks, such as cleaning or lifting objects, and communicate any news of illness or health emergencies to friends or relatives. Such robots could also help developmentally challenged children or adults learn and perform tasks.

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A Smarter Electric Grid

A stark reminder of our country’s outdated infrastructure is the sight of uniformed utility company personnel canvassing neighborhoods to read electric and gas meters in homes and businesses. For many residents, this means having to arrange access for meter readers. I have circumvented this issue by doing my own readings and telephoning them into the utility company, but this process adds a couple of steps on my end. President Obama is trying to change the long-outdated meter reading process as part of the economic stimulus program. Earlier this week, the Obama Administration announced 100 grants, totaling $3.4 billion, to install smart electric meters in several American cities, including Houston. The intelligent meters would monitor electric usage in real time, making it possible for customers to more easily gauge utility usage and take corrective action, saving energy. Smart meters have been talked about for several years, but only now is implementation is starting to occur in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. The benefits go far beyond not having to perform manual meter readings. Armed with real-time data on utility usage, individuals and businesses can more readily adjust their consumption patterns to take advantage of varying utility rates during peak and slack demand periods. Smart metering could also enable utility companies to allocate electricity resources more effectively during periods of high consumption, and more accurately record instances of outages. The path to widespread smart meter usage won’t be easy, however. There’s the ever-present concern over security and other network interruptions that could potentially throw the system into chaos. In New York City where I live, the process of implementing smart meters would require a massive, time-consuming effort to replace hundreds of thousands of meters, many of them decades old. The local utility companies would need to invest huge sums of time and money to upgrade the hardware and software infrastructure to support smart meters. There’s no indication that the raw demand for electricity will decrease anytime soon, given society’s ever-increasing reliance on electrical power. While nations search for ways to generate additional electricity, anything to improve utilization of the existing electrical grid is welcome. Smart meters are the way to go.

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