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Robot Dog Astro Can Sit, Lie Down, and Save Lives

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Who’s a good boy? Astro, the four-legged seeing and hearing intelligent robodog.

Using deep learning and artificial intelligence, scientists from Florida Atlantic University’s Machine Perception and Cognitive Robotics (MPCR) Laboratory are bringing Astro to life.

A robotic tail wagger is not exactly new: Boston Dynamics has been honing its all-electric Spot lineup for years.

But Astro has a head start—literally.

FAU’s quadruped features a 3D-printed noggin (designed to resemble a Doberman pinscher) that contains a computerized brain.

He doesn’t just look like a dog, though. He learns like one, too: Astro is being trained via deep neural network to learn from experience and perform real-life tasks.

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Built-in sensors, radar imaging, cameras, and a directional microphone help ensure that, just like a flesh-and-blood pooch, he can respond to commands like “sit,” “stand,” and “lie down.”

Eventually, researchers hope Astro will be able to understand hand signals, detect different colors, comprehend various languages, coordinate with drones, distinguish human faces, and recognize other dogs.

“Astro is inspired by the human brain and he has come to life through machine learning and artificial intelligence, which is proving to be an invaluable resource in helping to solve some of the world’s most complex problems,” Ata Sarajedini, dean of FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, said in a statement.

Designed to engage and react to his surroundings in real time, the intelligent machine will be able to navigate rough terrains and respond to dangerous situations.

As an information scout, Astro can assist police, the military, and security personnel in sniffing out guns and explosives. He is also capable of rapidly searching faces in a database, smelling the air for foreign substances, and hearing distress calls well outside a human’s audible range.

As if that weren’t impressive enough, the heartwarming hound may be programmed to work as a service dog for the visually impaired or provide medical diagnostic monitoring.

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‘Star Wars’ Actors Discover What It Takes to Be NASA Astronauts

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As the world prepared to visit a galaxy far, far away last month, two Star Wars cast members trained for a mission closer to home.

On Dec. 11, Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico) and Naomi Ackie (Jannah) spent the day learning about NASA’s Artemis program, which will help put the first woman and next man on the lunar south pole by 2024.

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The actors (presumably expendable during the Rise of Skywalker press tour) traveled to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where they fangirled their way through the facility.

After taking a spin in simulated zero and micro gravity via the agency’s Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS), Ackie and Tran tried on spacesuits, hung out in a space capsule, toured space station mockups and mission control, taste-tested astronaut grub, and drove a lunar rover.

They ended their day with a space-to-ground call from ISS rocketeers Christina Koch, Jessica Meir, Andrew Morgan, and Luca Parmitano.

The pair were accompanied by NASA astronauts Meghan McArthur (a veteran of the space shuttle missions STS-125) and Jessica Watkins (a recent graduate from basic training).

Just as droids roam the moons of the Star Wars universe, NASA sends robotic explorers, science instruments, and technology demonstrations to explore Earth’s satellite.

Star Wars Goes to Space

Star Wars: Episode IX is now playing at an International Space Station (relatively) near you.

Disney recently sent the film through mission control to Expedition 61 crew members living and working aboard the orbiting laboratory.

“Watching films aboard the space station is one way for the crew to bond and decompress,” Bettina Inclán, associate administrator for NASA communications, said in a statement.

There is no word on whether the team munched floating popcorn as they caught up on the final chapter of the Skywalker saga over the weekend.

“On occasion, we’re able to share some of the latest film releases for them to enjoy at their leisure and as free time allows,” according to Inclán. “Science fiction films are often the most popular among astronauts. They also can literally enjoy them while floating in microgravity, which is cool.”

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Uber Test Lets Some California Drivers Set Their Own Fares

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Uber is testing a feature that allows some California drivers to set their own fares.

Motorists ferrying passengers from airports in Palm Springs, Sacramento, and Santa Barbara may now charge up to five times the standard amount, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

This “initial test,” according to Uber, gives chauffeurs more autonomy—a direct response to the state’s new gig-economy law, which paves the way for better labor protections.

California Assembly Bill 5 took effect Jan. 1, and entitles workers classified as “employees” (rather than independent contractors) to benefits like minimum wage, sick leave, unemployment, and worker’s comp.

Uber—which, alongside rideshare rival Lyft, has been reluctant to reassign drivers—argued that it is a technology platform not a transportation firm, so motorists are not “part of its usual course of business,” the WSJ said.

The San Francisco-based company, however, is slowly making changes to allow workers more control over certain parts of their job: Earlier this month, Uber added a “favorite driver” feature and replaced upfront pricing with price estimates.

“Since AB 5 has gone into effect, we’ve made a number of product changes to preserve flexible work for tens of thousands of California drivers,” an Uber spokesperson told Geek.com. “We’re now doing an initial test of additional changes which would give drivers more control over the rates they charge riders.”

“Since AB 5 has gone into effect, we’ve made a number of product changes to preserve flexible work for tens of thousands of California drivers,” an Uber spokesperson told Geek in an emailed statement. “We’re now doing an initial test of additional charges which would give drivers more control over the rates they charge riders.”

As part of the trial, Uber provides a base fare, which the driver can adjust in multiples of 0.1—from 1.0 to 5.0. So, as Geek.com sister site Mashable explained, a $10 trip could cost upwards of $50 if the user accepts that inflated tab.

Drivers, meanwhile, will soon have the option to opt out of surge pricing and set their costs below the Uber base—turning that $10 ride into an $8 trip.

“One thing that will be interesting to watch … is drivers who set their price too low,” former Uber and Lyft chauffeur Harry Campbell, owner of the Rideshare Guy Blog, wrote in a Tuesday post.

“Drivers often complain about over-saturation,” he continued. “So in a world where drivers have the ability to set their own rates, could this make it a race to the bottom?”

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Tesla: Unintended Acceleration Claims Are ‘Completely False’

Tesla Model S (Photo Credit: Tesla Inc.)

Tesla calls bullshit on claims that its cars are prone to “sudden unintended acceleration.”

A December petition asking the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to investigate and recall 500,000 Tesla vehicles is “completely false,” according to the automaker.

“We investigate every single incident where the driver alleges to us that their vehicle accelerated contrary to their input,” the Tesla Team wrote in an angry blog post. “And in every case where we had the vehicle’s data, we confirmed that the car operated as designed.”

“In other words, the car accelerates if, and only if, the driver told it to do so, and it slows or stops when the driver applies the brake,” the company condescended.

Signed by 127 Tesla owners, the petition—brought by “short-seller” (someone who profits when a company’s stock drops) Brian Sparks—contends that a defect caused 110 crashes and 52 injuries involving Model 3, Model S, and Model X cars.

“I believe Tesla vehicles have a structural flaw which puts their drivers and the public at risk,” Sparks, of Berkeley, Calif., wrote in a September 2019 letter to NHTSA. “I further believe Tesla must know of this flaw and be unresponsive to it.”

It wouldn’t be the first time someone mistakenly pressed the accelerator pedal instead of the brake. (An elderly neighbor recently did just that while trying to pull out of a parallel parking space next to our car. Thank God for insurance!)

Built-in sensors, however, ensure errors like that don’t occur in Tesla vehicles, the firm asserted.

Always transparent with NHTSA, Elon Musk’s EV manufacturer has worked with the transportation agency to assess “the majority” of complaints in this petition.

“In every case we reviewed with them,” the blog said, “the data proved the vehicle functioned properly.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration declined to provide a timeline for its preliminary investigation, instead telling Geek that the agency will “carefully review the petition and relevant data,” and post its final decision online.

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