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Hummingbird Robots Use AI to Go Where Drones Can’t

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Drones are great for capturing aerial views, delivering food, and interfering with airport operations.

But their search-and-rescue skills are still being refined.

Researchers at Purdue University engineered artificially intelligent hummingbird robots, designed to easily maneuver through collapsed buildings and cluttered spaces to find trapped victims.

Trained on machine learning algorithms to behave like the delicate birds they’re modelled after, the devices “know” how to move on their own, and can teach themselves new tricks.

The hummingbots, for instance, can’t see (yet); they sense objects by touching surfaces. Each touch, according to a Purdue press release, alters an electrical current, which researchers can track.

“The robot can essentially create a map without seeing its surroundings,” Xinyan Deng, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue, said in a statement.

“This could be helpful in a situation when the robot might be searching for victims in a dark place,” she continued. “And it means one less sensor to add when we do give the robot the ability to see.”

The team will present their work at next week’s 2019 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Montreal.

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Drones simply can’t be made much smaller; they wouldn’t be able to generate enough lift to support their weight. Hummingbirds, however, don’t rely on conventional aerodynamics.

“The physics is simply different,” Deng explained. “The aerodynamics is inherently unsteady, with high angles of attack and high lift. This makes it possible for smaller, flying animals to exist, and also possible for us to scale down flapping-wing robots.”

Hummingbirds have long been the subject of robotics research: In 2011, AeroVironment (commissioned by DARPA), built a cyborg that was heavier and slower than the real thing, with helicopter-like flight control and limited maneuverability.

Deng & Co. took a hands-on approach to their studies, spending multiple summers in Montana examining hummingbirds. The team documented key maneuvers (like a rapid 180-degree turn), then translated them to computer algorithms for the robots to learn.

Like their IRL inspirations, Purdue’s hummingbots can fly silently and stay steady through turbulence, making them ideal for covert operations. Each device requires only two motors, and can control each wing independently.

“An actual hummingbird has multiple groups of muscles to do power and steering strokes,” Deng said. “But a robot should be as light as possible, so that you have maximum performance on minimal weight.”

Moving forward, researchers hope to add a battery and sensing technology (like a camera or GPS).

Simulations of the technology are available open-source on Github.

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Un-Fur-Tunate Cat Filter Ruins Double-Homicide Police Presser

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It’s hard to take anyone seriously when they have digital cat ears and whiskers superimposed onto their face.

A lesson Canadian police learned the hard way.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in British Columbia have apologized after livestreaming a press conference detailing a double homicide—with an augmented reality “cat filter” turned on.

Chynna Noelle Deese, 24, of North Carolina, and Lucas Robertson Fowler, 23, of Australia, were found Monday morning alongside Highway 97 in British Columbia.

A blue 1986 Chevrolet van with Alberta license plates was also at the scene.

The couple, as reported by CBS17, were on a road trip through Canada; after visiting national parks, they planned to end the journey in Alaska.

It remains unclear whether the duo were specifically targeted or the victims of a random act of violence.

“Early in the investigation, the deaths were deemed suspicious and investigators from the North District and BC RCMP Major Crimes Units were called to assist the investigation,” Sgt. Janelle Shoihet, of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said at a Friday press conference.

Unfortunately, the somber announcement was marred by a pair of pink cartoon cat ears and animated whiskers on Shoihet’s otherwise earnest face.

Police said they were aware of the “technical difficulties,” and have since uploaded a new, feline-free video of the press conference to their Facebook page.

Investigators are asking to speak with anyone traveling in the area of Liard Hot Springs and on the Alaska Highway 97 between 4 p.m. July 14 and 8 a.m. July 15—especially those with dashcam footage.

Anyone with information relating to the blue van or the deaths of Deese and Fowler should contact the Northern Rockies RCMP at 250-774-2700.

The same furry filter recently turned Pakistani politician Shaukat Yousafzai’s live-streamed press conference into an unintended farce.

According to the BBC, Yousafzai was unaware of the digital distraction, but later said it was a “mistake” and should not be taken “so seriously.”

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FaceApp Responds to (Mostly Unfounded) Privacy Concerns

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Appearance-altering platform FaceApp has, once again, come under fire—this time from privacy advocates.

The AI-powered selfie editor from Russian company Wireless Lab uses neural network technology to generate highly realistic transformation of faces in photographs.

Launched in early 2017, FaceApp almost immediately faced criticism over its “ethnicity filters” and, later, the “hot” transformation feature that reportedly lightened skin color.

Both options have since been removed.

Curious about what you’d look like with a different hair or eye color? Want to virtually test out bangs before making the cut? Wonder what you’d look like as a Hollywood star or someone of the opposite gender?

The face-morphing app does it all.

It even bends time to reveal what you might look like in the future.

“Through we might not be able to influence your wisdom, we can certainly add some wrinkles to your face,” the FaceApp website said.

The new “time travel” filter has garnered attention around the world: Check out what the Jonas Brothers, Terry Crews, Sam Smith, Drake, and Zachary Levi look like as old fogies.

With great virality comes great responsibility, though. And some believe FaceApp isn’t taking that responsibility seriously.

Concerns have been raised about whether the application uploads users’ camera roll in the background (of which there is seemingly no evidence), and how it allows you to pick photos without allowing access.

“We are receiving a lot of inquiries regarding our privacy policy and therefore, would like to provide a few points that explain the basics,” the Russian startup told TechCrunch.

For starters, FaceApp performs “most” of its photo processing in the cloud (Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud, specifically), uploading only those pictures selected by a user.

“We never transfer any other images from the phone to the cloud,” the statement said. “Most images are deleted from our servers within 48 hours from the upload date.”

FaceApp also claims that no user data is “transferred to Russia,” where its core R&D team is located.

“We don’t have access to any data that could identify a person [and] we don’t sell or share any user data with any third parties,” it added.

But that’s not enough for some U.S. policymakers.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has asked the FBI and FTC to look into FaceApp’s data handling practices.

“I have serious concerns regarding both the protection of the data that is being aggregated as well as whether users are aware of who may have access to it,” Schumer wrote in a letter to the government agencies.

“In the age of facial recognition technology as both a surveillance and security use,” he continued, “it is essential that users have the information they need to ensure their personal and biometric data remains secure, including from hostile foreign nations.”

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Ford Secretly Designed a Pickup Truck Emoji (And It’s Been Shortlisted By Unicode)

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There are at least 10 different emojis to represent trains, but none that denote a pickup truck.

Ford Motor Company wants to change that.

“When customers started demanding a truck emoji, we knew we had to help make it happen,” Joe Hinrichs, president of Ford automotive, said in a statement. “Given the popularity of Ford trucks globally, there’s no one better than Ford to help bring an all-new pickup truck emoji to hard-working texters around the globe.”

Last year, the automaker submitted a proposal to the Unicode Consortium—judge, jury, and executioner of new emoji—to add a truck icon to keyboards.

The character—a simple blue pickup—has since been short-listed for inclusion in a future version of Unicode.

“Our team spent a lot of time digging through message boards, texting influencers, and watching social media feeds to really understand our customers’ needs,” according to Craig Metros, Ford North America design director.

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“People want a truck emoji that’s fresh, stylish, carries their ideas, and ‘tows’ the line on what a truck means,” he said. “The end result is a modern icon that should give all truck fans a smiley face emoji.”

Ford is no stranger to “innovations”: This is the same company, remember, that brought you a noise-cancelling kennel, lane-keeping bed, and self-braking trolley. (All, unfortunately, still in the prototype stage.)

Now, following months of top-secret development and testing, the company is making waves again with its new pickup truck emoji.

If approved, the design will be customized for all mobile platforms and could start driving onto digital screens as early as next year.

In the meantime, iOS and Android users can look forward to a slew of new food, animal, activity, and smiley face characters—including more diverse and inclusive icons—set to hit keyboards this fall.

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