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India, Solar Technology, and the Monkey Problem

Fri, 08/07/2015 - 00:00

As the government embarks on an ambitious renewables program, researchers seek technology solutions suited to India’s unique conditions.

In central Karnataka state, 120 miles north of Bangalore, the lush jungle of India’s west coast gives way to dry scrubland. Sunflowers, onions, chilis, and groundnuts grow in parched fields. In scattered, populous villages, concrete buildings alternate with ramshackle thatched huts. Cows nose through the garbage, and wooden carts drawn by horned oxen crowd the streets. Rough brick-producing factories belch black smoke into the air. Much of the scene appears as it did a century ago. But in a walled compound just beyond the town of Challakere sits an installation that could hold one of the keys to India’s energy future.

Teaching Machines to Understand Us

Thu, 08/06/2015 - 00:00

A reincarnation of one of the oldest ideas in artificial intelligence could finally make it possible to truly converse with our computers. And Facebook has a chance to make it happen first.

The first time Yann LeCun revolutionized artificial intelligence, it was a false dawn. It was 1995, and for almost a decade, the young Frenchman had been dedicated to what many computer scientists considered a bad idea: that crudely mimicking certain features of the brain was the best way to bring about intelligent machines. But LeCun had shown that this approach could produce something strikingly smart—and useful. Working at Bell Labs, he made software that roughly simulated neurons and learned to read handwritten text by looking at many different examples. Bell Labs’ corporate parent, AT&T, used it to sell the first machines capable of reading the handwriting on checks and written forms. To LeCun and a few fellow believers in artificial neural networks, it seemed to mark the beginning of an era in which machines could learn many other skills previously limited to humans. It wasn’t.

Teach Your Robot to Do the Dishes

Wed, 08/05/2015 - 00:00

Adaptive, responsive strategies let humans think they’re in charge when working on mundane tasks with robots.

Roomba has a new friend. Researchers have developed a robot that can help clean the kitchen.

Tech’s Enduring Great-Man Myth

Tue, 08/04/2015 - 00:00

The idea that particular individuals drive history has long been discredited. Yet it persists in the tech industry, obscuring some of the fundamental factors in innovation.

Since Steve Jobs’s death, in 2011, Elon Musk has emerged as the leading celebrity of Silicon Valley. Musk is the CEO of Tesla Motors, which produces electric cars; the CEO of SpaceX, which makes rockets; and the chairman of SolarCity, which provides solar power systems. A self-made billionaire, programmer, and engineer—as well as the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in the Iron Manmovies—he has been on the cover of Fortune and Time. In 2013, he was first on the Atlantic’s list of “today’s greatest inventors,” nominated by leaders at Yahoo, Oracle, and Google. To believers, Musk is steering the history of technology. As one profile described his mystique, his “brilliance, his vision, and the breadth of his ambition make him the one-man embodiment of the future.”

Military Robots: Armed, but How Dangerous?

Mon, 08/03/2015 - 10:13

Will artificial intelligence inevitably make warfare worse?

An open letter calling for a ban on lethal weapons controlled by artificially intelligent machines was signed last week by thousands of scientists and technologists, reflecting growing concern that swift progress in artificial intelligence could be harnessed to make killing machines more efficient, and less accountable, both on the battlefield and off. But experts are more divided on the issue of robot killing machines than you might expect.

Tiny Drones That Navigate with Insect Eyes

Mon, 08/03/2015 - 09:45

A tiny, biologically inspired motion sensor could help small drones avoid collisions as they buzz around.

A tiny artificial eye inspired by the vision systems of insects could help small flying drones navigate their surroundings well enough to avoid collisions while buzzing around in confined, cluttered spaces—a key step in making these small autonomous flying vehicles practical.

Flying Robots That Can See

Mon, 08/03/2015 - 09:45

A tiny, biologically inspired motion sensor could help small drones avoid collisions as they buzz around.

A tiny artificial eye inspired by the vision systems of insects could help small flying drones navigate their surroundings well enough to avoid collisions while buzzing around in confined, cluttered spaces—a key step in making these small autonomous flying vehicles practical.

A 3-D Display for Your Car

Thu, 07/30/2015 - 18:00

A startup has built a glasses-free 3-D screen that’s much bigger than its previous prototype, bringing it a step closer to being built into gadgets (including the one in your driveway).

Your next car could have a 3-D dashboard—no glasses required.

As Patents Expire, Farmers Plant Generic GMOs

Thu, 07/30/2015 - 00:00

Monsanto no longer controls one of the biggest innovations in the history of agriculture.

Billy Maddox planted 100 acres of Roundup Ready soybeans this year. The big news is he didn’t pay Monsanto a dime.

How to Help Self-Driving Cars Make Ethical Decisions

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 00:00

Researchers are trying to program self-driving cars to make split-second decisions that raise real ethical questions.

A philosopher is perhaps the last person you’d expect to have a hand in designing your next car, but that’s exactly what one expert on self-driving vehicles has in mind.

Lessons from the Digital Classroom

Mon, 07/27/2015 - 00:00

Technologists and venture capitalists are betting that the data online learning generates will reshape education.

India Loves MOOCs

Mon, 07/27/2015 - 00:00

In a country of rigid teaching styles and scarce university slots, students and professors are exploring what online learning can be.

How does a talented Indian teenager like Gaurav Goyal make his mark on the world? Ordinarily, his destiny would have been set on the morning in 2008 when he took his country’s toughest college placement exam: the IIT Joint Entrance Exam. More than 300,000 students attempted the test that year; only 8,652 qualified for a spot at one of the ultra-elite Indian Institutes of Technology.

Personal Robots: Artificial Friends with Limited Benefits

Fri, 07/24/2015 - 00:00

Several companies are developing appealing robot companions, but they aren’t yet capable of helping out around the house.

If you visit Softbank’s flagship store in downtown Tokyo, you may be greeted by a charming, slightly manic new member of the staff: a gleaming white humanoid robot that gestures dramatically, cracks odd jokes, and occasionally breaks out dancing to music emanating from its own body. If you laugh at these antics, and the robot can see your face, it will quite likely giggle along with you.

Inside Amazon

Thu, 07/23/2015 - 00:00

Inside Amazon’s new fulfillment center in New Jersey, humans and robots work together in a highly efficient system.

Some of the secrets behind Amazon’s phenomenal success as an online retailer can be discovered inside a million-square-foot warehouse that sits amid bucolic scenery in the town of Robbinsville, New Jersey. The building is one of Amazon’s most advanced fulfillment centers, and it houses technologies that allow the company to deliver products to customers at amazing speed. Goods are identified, sorted, and packaged with computer-assisted precision, while employees work in tight collaboration with the plant’s automated systems in shifts that run around the clock.

Will Football Players Someday Take a Concussion Pill?

Wed, 07/22/2015 - 00:00

New research provides a potential pathway to a drug to save people from the progressive damage of severe or repeated concussions.

An experimental treatment helps restore normal brain structure and function in mice that have sustained severe concussions, and could lead to a drug that would do the same in humans, according to new research.

Cars May Soon Understand More of What You Say

Tue, 07/21/2015 - 00:00

It should soon be possible to give your car more complicated and natural verbal commands.

Many cars now come with voice control, but you can’t really talk normally to such systems, and you often have to repeat a phrase to get the job done. That could change, however, with the introduction of voice interfaces that allow for a more natural back-and-forth between driver and dashboard.

Weather Forecasting Enters a New Era

Mon, 07/20/2015 - 00:00

As solar and wind gain wider use, rapid advances in climate forecasting could save money for utilities and ratepayers.

Solar power was the fastest-growing form of electricity generation in the United States in 2014. As renewable energy continues to expand, demand is growing for a better way to predict just how much power from these intermittent sources will be available for the grid.

Smart-ish Glasses That Don’t Look Dumb

Fri, 07/17/2015 - 00:00

An eyewear and vision-insurance company is building activity-tracking glasses that look a lot like regular specs.

Why wear a special activity-tracking wristband if you can get the same features from the glasses you’ve already got on your face?

The Exoskeletons Are Coming

Thu, 07/16/2015 - 00:00

Some workers could soon strap on a power-assist suit before maneuvering heavy objects.

Even if you lack the resources of Tony Stark, you can obtain a high-tech suit to enhance your natural abilities, or at least help you avoid a backache. Mechanical outfits, known as exoskeletons, are gaining a foothold in the real world.

Self-Charging Phones Are on the Way, Finally

Wed, 07/15/2015 - 00:00

A handful of companies are coming up with ways to extend your phone’s battery life when you’re far from a power outlet.

The case that Will Zell slides onto his iPhone doesn’t look that unusual, but it’s doing something pretty out of the ordinary: capturing some of the radio waves that the phone transmits when connecting to cell-phone towers and Wi-Fi routers, converting them to electricity, and feeding that power back to the phone’s battery.