When kids talk to robots: Enhancing engagement and learning

Conversational robots and virtual characters can enhance learning and expand entertainment options for children, a trio of studies by Disney Research shows, though exactly how these autonomous agents interact with children sometimes depends on a child’s age.

Is Universal Basic Income a Solution to Tech Unemployment?

This spring, the Canadian province of Ontario announced that about 4,000 of its citizens will receive money as part of their “no strings attached” basic income experiment. The goal is to explore how universal basic income can improve both the lives of the individuals receiving it and the nation at large.

This isn’t the first time someone started giving away free money and studied its effects. Historically, many organizations and government bodies have run some sort of universal basic income experiment on a small scale, and their outcomes have been notably positive.

Over the next few decades, as technological automation takes over our jobs, governments may need to provide basic income to their citizens in order to ensure their well-being.

A powerful tool against poverty

In Utopia for Realists, Rutger Bregman asks, “Why have we been working harder and harder since the 1980s despite being richer than ever? Why are millions of people still living in poverty when we are more than rich enough to put an end to it once and for all? And why is more than 60 percent of your income dependent on the country where you just happen to have been born?”

In the 1970s, about 1,000 residents in Dauphin, a small farming town of Manitoba, Canada started participating in a program called Mincome. This was a three-year federal-provincial experiment that sent unconditional monthly payments to low-income families.

In 2011, a research study revisited the effects of Mincome and found many positive outcomes, particularly on population health. Hospital use in the area, admissions for accidents and mental health problems dropped. The rate of high school completion also increased compared to similar towns at the time.

This year, the Canadian province of Ontario is about to run the experiment once again with low-income citizens. In the pilot project, single people will receive almost $17,000 per year and couples will receive up to $24,000 per year.

Canada isn’t the only place where this is happening. Givedirectly, considered the largest experiment in UBI, is giving away free money to villagers in Kenya. Meta-analysis of such cash donations found that they cause a decrease in healthcare costs, decline in the purchase of alcohol or tobacco, increases in the hours worked, decreases in domestic violence, improvements in child-rearing and much more.

Individual lives aside, universal basic income may actually save governments money. In 2009, 13 homeless people in London received £3,000 (about $4,500), in cash, with no strings attached. What happened next? A year later, 11 of the 13 recipients had roofs over their heads.

Instead of using the money on drugs or booze—as many would assume—most of the homeless used the cash to expand their prospects, such as by enrolling in classes or getting treatment for drug abuse.

Take into account that the British government is estimated to spend £26,000 annually on each homeless person and multiply that throughout the lifetime of every homeless person. The math is staggering—this could save the government billions of dollars. Above all, it challenges the common assumption that giving the poor money will de-incentivize them to find jobs. “Poverty is fundamentally about a lack of cash. It’s not about stupidity,” says the economist Joseph Hanlon. “You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.”

Basic income allows individuals from low-income or poverty-stricken backgrounds to have their basic needs met, so that they focus on growth and the future. Instead of being in survival mode, where their energy is directed towards where their next meal will come from or whether or not they will have a roof over their heads, they can focus on long-term goals.

How do we implement it?

So who will fund universal basic income at a large scale?

At the moment, it seems like it will have to come from taxes.

Some have raised concerns that this could contribute to higher taxes for a lot of people. They point out that at its core, this makes UBI a typical wealth redistribution program. This may contribute to the disincentive to work at higher levels because of the high taxation involved. There are worries that this may also translate into higher prices of everyday products, harming the finances of poor people.

Let’s not forget how providing basic income can actually save the government money and consequently cut taxes in many different ways. We’ve also seen evidence of how in practice, it can contribute to more productive citizens. Ultimately, with the rise of technological automation and its disruption on the workforce, some form of universal basic income will be necessary. This may require a complete overhaul of our economic systems—but it may just be the best way forward.

In the 1960s, ahead of his time, philosopher Alan Watts pointed out that a manufacturer who dismisses all of his workers for technology will find himself in a place where the general public can’t afford his products. If this happens at a large scale, the public needs to be provided with the means to purchase what the machine produces. To ask the question of who pays for it, Watts points out that the machine should. In fact, very recently Bill Gates made a similar suggestion when he claimed that the robots that take your job should pay taxes.

But what would “work” even mean if and when robots and AI do it all? Elon Musk, who has advocated for universal basic income in the past, says, “If there’s no need for your labor, what’s your meaning? Do you feel useless? That’s a much harder problem to deal with.” And as Watts has pointed out, what we need to do is find out how to change our psychological attitude to money, wealth, pleasure and the nature of work.

Action over theory

Theory can only get us so far. Like any other idea, the best way to explore the effects of something like universal basic income is to take the scientific approach. Implement it, control for variables, measure the outcomes and explore how it can be improved.

Small-scale experiments like Givedirectly and Mincome are an essential stepping stone to exploring the effects of universal basic income at a large scale. Economic or political theory can only take us so far; what we ultimately need is to observe and understand how it actually works in practice.

We have seen what the benefits are at such a small scale, so we can only imagine what our world would be like if each and every individual had access to a minimum basic income. Regardless of where we are born and what opportunities we have access to, each and every one of us has the right to a better future.

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For the First Time, Wind Power Will Be Profitable Without Subsidies

In Europe, new tech boosts the appeal of previously pricey offshore wind

Beyond bananas: ‘Mind reading’ technology decodes complex thoughts

New research builds on the pioneering use of machine learning algorithms with brain imaging technology to “mind read.”

Colon cancer: Greater surgical precision using robotic surgery

Up until now, the removal of bowel tumors in the lesser pelvis (rectal cancers) involved a major, generally invasive operation. This operation can now be done in a much gentler way using an innovative procedure, robotic surgery. Thanks to a better three-dimensional view of the operating area and robotic instruments that allow highly accurate surgery to be performed in the anatomically constricted space of the lesser pelvis, surgical trauma and incisions for the operation can be kept to a minimum, while, at the same time, achieving excellent surgical results.

Register Now for Tormach’s Weekend of Training and Machining Fun

Tormach Tech Days will feature a mixture of training and show and tell. Pros from the CNC machining industry will be there as teachers.

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Should robot artists be given copyright protection?

When a group of museums and researchers in the Netherlands unveiled a portrait entitled The Next Rembrandt, it was something of a tease to the art world. It wasn’t a long lost painting but a new artwork generated by a computer that had analysed thousands of works by the 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.

Retrohack Your Old Computer Terminal from Dialup to Wi-Fi

A beige Commodore 64 computer terminal on a white backdrop. The program for "Hello World" is on the screen.A long-time dream project of Hep Svadja has been trying to hack together a way to get her old computer terminal to work again.

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6 Things Quantum Computers Will Be Incredibly Useful For

Computers don’t exist in a vacuum. They serve to solve problems, and the type of problems they can solve are influenced by their hardware. Graphics processors are specialized for rendering images; artificial intelligence processors for AI; and quantum computers designed for…what?

While the power of quantum computing is impressive, it does not mean that existing software simply runs a billion times faster. Rather, quantum computers have certain types of problems which they are good at solving, and those which they aren’t. Below are some of the primary applications we should expect to see as this next generation of computers becomes commercially available.

Artificial Intelligence

A primary application for quantum computing is artificial intelligence (AI). AI is based on the principle of learning from experience, becoming more accurate as feedback is given, until the computer program appears to exhibit “intelligence.”

This feedback is based on calculating the probabilities for many possible choices, and so AI is an ideal candidate for quantum computation. It promises to disrupt every industry, from automotives to medicine, and it’s been said AI will be to the twenty-first century what electricity was to the twentieth.

For example, Lockheed Martin plans to use its D-Wave quantum computer to test autopilot software that is currently too complex for classical computers, and Google is using a quantum computer to design software that can distinguish cars from landmarks. We have already reached the point where AI is creating more AI, and so its importance will rapidly escalate.

Molecular Modeling

Another example is precision modeling of molecular interactions, finding the optimum configurations for chemical reactions. Such “quantum chemistry” is so complex that only the simplest molecules can be analyzed by today’s digital computers.

Chemical reactions are quantum in nature as they form highly entangled quantum superposition states. But fully-developed quantum computers would not have any difficulty evaluating even the most complex processes.

Google has already made forays in this field by simulating the energy of hydrogen molecules. The implication of this is more efficient products, from solar cells to pharmaceutical drugs, and especially fertilizer production; since fertilizer accounts for 2 percent of global energy usage, the consequences for energy and the environment would be profound.


Most online security currently depends on the difficulty of factoring large numbers into primes. While this can presently be accomplished by using digital computers to search through every possible factor, the immense time required makes “cracking the code” expensive and impractical.

Quantum computers can perform such factoring exponentially more efficiently than digital computers, meaning such security methods will soon become obsolete. New cryptography methods are being developed, though it may take time: in August 2015 the NSA began introducing a list of quantum-resistant cryptography methods that would resist quantum computers, and in April 2016 the National Institute of Standards and Technology began a public evaluation process lasting four to six years.

There are also promising quantum encryption methods being developed using the one-way nature of quantum entanglement. City-wide networks have already been demonstrated in several countries, and Chinese scientists recently announced they successfully sent entangled photons from an orbiting “quantum” satellite to three separate base stations back on Earth.

Financial Modeling

Modern markets are some of the most complicated systems in existence. While we have developed increasingly scientific and mathematical tools to address this, it still suffers from one major difference between other scientific fields: there’s no controlled setting in which to run experiments.

To solve this, investors and analysts have turned to quantum computing. One immediate advantage is that the randomness inherent to quantum computers is congruent to the stochastic nature of financial markets. Investors often wish to evaluate the distribution of outcomes under an extremely large number of scenarios generated at random.

Another advantage quantum offers is that financial operations such as arbitrage may require many path-dependent steps, the number of possibilities quickly outpacing the capacity of a digital computer.

Weather Forecasting

NOAA Chief Economist Rodney F. Weiher claims (PowerPoint file) that nearly 30 percent of the US GDP ($6 trillion) is directly or indirectly affected by weather, impacting food production, transportation, and retail trade, among others. The ability to better predict the weather would have enormous benefit to many fields, not to mention more time to take cover from disasters.

While this has long been a goal of scientists, the equations governing such processes contain many, many variables, making classical simulation lengthy. As quantum researcher Seth Lloyd pointed out, “Using a classical computer to perform such analysis might take longer than it takes the actual weather to evolve!” This motivated Lloyd and colleagues at MIT to show that the equations governing the weather possess a hidden wave nature which are amenable to solution by a quantum computer.

Director of engineering at Google Hartmut Neven also noted that quantum computers could help build better climate models that could give us more insight into how humans are influencing the environment. These models are what we build our estimates of future warming on, and help us determine what steps need to be taken now to prevent disasters.

The United Kingdom’s national weather service Met Office has already begun investing in such innovation to meet the power and scalability demands they’ll be facing in the 2020-plus timeframe, and released a report on its own requirements for exascale computing.

Particle Physics

Coming full circle, a final application of this exciting new physics might be… studying exciting new physics. Models of particle physics are often extraordinarily complex, confounding pen-and-paper solutions and requiring vast amounts of computing time for numerical simulation. This makes them ideal for quantum computation, and researchers have already been taking advantage of this.

Researchers at the University of Innsbruck and the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information (IQOQI) recently used a programmable quantum system to perform such a simulation. Published in Nature, the team used a simple version of quantum computer in which ions performed logical operations, the basic steps in any computer calculation. This simulation showed excellent agreement compared to actual experiments of the physics described.

“These two approaches complement one another perfectly,” says theoretical physicist Peter Zoller. “We cannot replace the experiments that are done with particle colliders. However, by developing quantum simulators, we may be able to understand these experiments better one day.”

Investors are now scrambling to insert themselves into the quantum computing ecosystem, and it’s not just the computer industry: banks, aerospace companies, and cybersecurity firms are among those taking advantage of the computational revolution.

While quantum computing is already impacting the fields listed above, the list is by no means exhaustive, and that’s the most exciting part. As with all new technology, presently unimaginable applications will be developed as the hardware continues to evolve and create new opportunities.

Image Credit: IQOQI Innsbruck/Harald Ritsch

Maker Faire Kansas City 2017: Live Updates

Union Station in Kansas City is overflowing with makers!

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