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This Robot Just Wants a Hug

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I love hugs. Like, really love them. I’d choose a warm embrace over a cream cheese-smeared bagel, an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt binge, or a sale on scented candles.

So you can bet I’m excited about the prospect of a humanoid robot programmed to hug people.

HuggieBot—a modified Willow Garage PR2 robot—is the first step toward an IRL Baymax: As tall as an average human, it is made with layers of foam, polyester, and other materials for extra-soft comfort.

(And, as an added bonus, it won’t deflate when the battery runs low.)

“We’re interested in enabling robots to hug because of how common hugs are in daily life and because of their numerous health benefits,” according to lead researcher Alexis Block, a Ph.D. student in the Haptic Intelligence Department at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems.

Studies suggest that hugs—whether between family, friends, or significant others—can ease stress, lower blood pressure, and make us feel supported, all of which helps stave off infection.

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Earlier this year, Block presented her own findings, based on a study in which HuggieBot gave 30 participants 12 different mechanical hugs.

The experiment, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, featured the cyborg raising its arms expectantly and asking, “Can I have a hug, please?”

Some folks were wary of embracing the 450-pound computer, while others seemed excited for the novel opportunity.

No one was crushed to death or ran away screaming, NBC News MACH reported; some participants told researchers that HuggieBot was “nicer to hug” than they anticipated.

Researchers are working on a second-generation machine—one that measures how much emotional support its hugs provide. Their ultimate goal, according to MACH, is to “demonstrate that robots are able to comfort people” young and old.

Block has no intention, though, of replacing human embraces (because who would want to?). She simply wants to supplement them.

“We’re advocating for this technology to be used as a complement to other people,” she said, “in situations where it is difficult or uncomfortable to get the support a person needs or wants from another human”—like a college campus or senior living facility.

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ACLU Sues Federal Government Over Social Media Surveillance

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The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the federal government to gain information on its social media surveillance—specifically the Trump administration’s controversial “extreme vetting” immigration policy.

Filed under the Freedom of Information Act, the lawsuit accuses seven federal agencies—including the DoJ, FBI, Homeland Security, and several immigration services—of failing to produce records in response to a 2018 FOIA request.

The document, filed in May, seeks information on how the government collects and analyzes posts from Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks.

“Government surveillance of social media raises serious constitutional and privacy concerns,” according to the ACLU appeal. “Most online speech reflects no wrongdoing whatsoever and is fully protected by the First Amendment.

“When government agencies collect or share individuals’ online speech without any connection to investigation of actual criminal conduct,” it continued, “they foster suspicion about individuals and make it more likely that innocent people will be investigated, surveilled, or watchlisted.”

In response, the FBI claimed it “can neither confirm nor deny the existence of records responsive to [the ACLU’s] request.”

Simply acknowledging its use of social media surveillance would “risk circumvention of the law,” the Bureau said.

Except, the domestic intelligence and security service has repeatedly acknowledged—on official government websites—that it contracts with data analytics firms to obtain “the mission critical social media monitoring” and “software that parses and analyzes social media data.”

The six other agencies “haven’t produced a single document,” ACLU attorneys Hugh Handeyside and Matt Cagle wrote in a blog post.

“Based on what little information is publicly available, it’s clear that the federal government routinely tracks domestic social media users, with a particular focus on immigrants,” the blog said.

In May 2017, President Trump announced an “extreme vetting” initiative that includes seeking social media handles for those visa applicants deemed suspect by immigration agents.

The State Department followed up with plans to require most of the 14.7 million people who annually apply for work or tourist visas to submit social media identifiers used in the past five years in order to travel or immigrate to the US.

“It’s clear from already public information that all of the agencies we’re targeting in our FOIA lawsuit engage in manual and automated surveillance of social media users and their speech, and it’s unacceptable for the government to withhold details about this domestic spying,” Cagle and Handeyside said.

“The public needs to know how the government is watching us,” they added. “And we shouldn’t have to think about self-censoring what we say online.”

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You May Soon Be Able to Fly Drones Over a Crowd, At Night

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The U.S. Department of Transportation on Monday announced new rules that would allow drones to fly over crowds of people and at night without waivers.

Current Federal Aviation Administration regulations do not permit small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to fly after dark without official authorization.

The program, detailed this week by DOT Secretary Elaine Chao, allows drones to fly at night. But only if the operator has received appropriate training and completed approved testing, and the drone is equipped with anti-collision lighting.

Public feedback is welcome once the proposal is published in the Federal Register; the comment period will remain open for 60 days.

“The Department is keenly aware that there are legitimate public concerns about drones, concerning safety, security, and privacy,” according to Chao. “Recent events overseas have underscored concerns about the potential for drones to disrupt aviation and the national airspace.”

(Remember the days-long shutdown of the UK’s second-busiest airport following sightings of unmanned aerial vehicles?)

“So along with this new proposed rule, the Department is finishing up two other proposals to address drone safety and national security,” she added.

The UAS Safe and Secure ANPRM (advanced notice of proposed rulemaking) identifies major drone safety and security concerns, and will also be published in the Federal Register “as soon as possible,” with 60 days for public comment.

In her final announcement, Chao revealed three commercial partners—Nevada UAS Test Site Smart Silver State, Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site, and Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership—that will develop technology to manage airspace for the DOT’s drone pilot programs.

“Together, these three initiatives will be a major step forward in enabling the safe development, testing, and deployment of drones in our country,” she said.

Well ahead of other autonomous technologies (i.e. self-driving cars), UAVs are already widely used by hobbyists and first responders, for rescue and recovery efforts and to inspect infrastructure.

As of Dec. 14, 2018, there were nearly 1.3 million registered drones in the US, according to DOT, and more than 116,000 registered drone operators.

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Study: Majority of Facebook Users Don’t Understand Targeted Ads

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A surprising number of Facebook users remain clueless about how their personal information is used for targeted advertising.

A Pew Research Center survey found that 74 percent of U.S. adult Facebook users were unaware the site maintains a list of interest and traits.

While most websites and apps track how consumers use digital services and turn that data into targeted advertisements, their proprietary algorithms are usually kept under lock and key.

As part of its “transparency” narrative, however, Facebook allows users to view at least some of how it classifies them—based on engagement with content on the site—via the “Your ad preferences” page.

Unique to each user, the dossier displays various pieces of personal information, including a list of purported interests.

When directed to the page, 59 percent of Pew survey participants said the generated categories do reflect their real-life interests; another 27 percent claim they are not very, or not at all, accurate.

I can see where they’re coming from.

While I do enjoy photography, Star Wars, and IKEA, I have no idea how or why Facebook decided drag racing, towels, veganism, and Jesus are some of my personal passions. (They’re not.)

So whether you like it or not, ads for horror fiction, YouTube, women’s rights, and nail polish will probably appear on your Facebook feed.

But even if Facebook were spot-on with its assessments of user interests, targeted ads still feel, for many, like an invasion of privacy.

According to Pew, about half of those surveyed (51 percent) are not comfortable with Facebook creating lists about their hobbies and traits. Conversely, a handful of folks (5 percent) are “very comfortable” with their leisure pursuits being aired for the world to see.

“We want people to understand how our ad settings and controls work. That means better ads for people,” Facebook said in a statement to The Verge.

“While we and the rest of the online ad industry need to do more to educate people on how interest-based advertising works and how we protect people’s information,” it continued, “we welcome conversations about transparency and control.”

The social network did not immediately respond to Geek’s request for comment.

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