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Talk nerdy to me


This week, we look at China’s troubling smart uniform initiative, the urge to smoosh cute things, and a robot that takes photos of kitties for science. Let’s dive in.

Smart uniforms

Anyone who was a bit fidgety as a child can attest that school can sometimes feel restrictive. But missing out on sunny days doesn’t hold a candle to what’s happening in some Chinese schools.

<strong>Your uniform is watching.</strong> New smart school uniforms contain computer chips that can verify if students attend classes, and can even detect when they fall asleep at their desks. Courtesy Guizhou Guanyu Technology.Eleven schools in the Guizhou province have implemented “smart uniforms,” which contain computer chips to track the students. These GPS devices ensure that a pupil is attending class, but can also tell if they’re catching some z’s. Administration officials can even track a student outside of school hours.

To make things worse, there isn’t much students can do to avoid detection. Swapping jackets will only activate facial scanners that match computer chips with a person’s face. Although this system is only active in a small number of schools, it does bring to mind the notion that China may be preparing future citizens for a world without privacy.

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Kitty photo shoot

<strong>Tough assignment.</strong> The Vektor home robot spent time interacting with and photographing cats to train its neural network to recognize household pets from a robot’s-eye-view. Courtesy Anki.Q: What’s cooler than a robot? A: A robot that takes pictures of cats. Created by robotics firm Anki, Vector is a machine on wheels that can tell you about the weather, set a timer, and can even express “emotion” with its light-up eyes. And, yes, take pictures of cats.

What sets Vector apart from other household assistants is its ability to collect data and train its neural network to learn more about its environment. This is what the Anki team hoped to accomplish with the cat photo shoot. They want Vector to know when it is facing a pet – rather than an inanimate object – and to be able to eventually interact with our fuzzy friends.

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Bee better at research

Animals and insects have played a crucial role in the history of scientific progress. However, a recent case from the University of Washington takes this to a completely different level. Scientists at the school have developed a backpack for bees.

Living IoT is the first wireless sensing system small enough to ride aboard a bumblebee. Its tiny rechargeable battery is sufficient to collect data over a period of up to seven hours uninterrupted — offering an alternative to mechanical drones for agricultural and environmental monitoring. Courtesy University of Washington.

This pack isn’t filled with homework and a bagged lunch. Rather, it’s a collection of sensors, a battery, and a localization system that altogether weigh only 102 milligrams. This entire package allows scientists to collect data on temperature, humidity, and light intensity. What’s more, the localization system triangulates radio signals to identify the bee’s position.

The scientists involved in the experiment believe this could be a big step forward for farmers, as they would be able to survey their land without expensive drones. And unlike drones, that can only stay in the air for 10-20 minutes before needing a recharge, bees can fly for hours. In the future, the researchers believe they’ll even be able to put a camera on the bees.

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Scientific smooshing

<strong>That little face.</strong> If your response to this little guy’s cuteness is strong enough, you might feel the urge to smoosh or even bite him (gently). It’s called ‘cute aggression’ and it’s what happens when our brains overload on emotion. Have you ever seen a baby or a puppy so cute that you had to smoosh its little face? It’s certainly a strange impulse, but you aren’t alone. In fact, a recent study researched this phenomenon, known as “cute aggression.” By looking at how people react to cute and less cute babies and puppies, the scientists studied what could make a person respond this way.

As it turns out, wanting to smoosh an adorable pup is a necessary reaction. The scientists believe that cute aggression is a way for your body to handle a strong emotional response. Basically, it’s a way for you to get the cuteness out of your system so you can get back to the tasks involved in caretaking.

The power of a smile

Motorized wheelchairs have been enormously helpful in enabling people with disabilities to move around. But many of these devices require the person to control the movement with their hands. For those with severe mobility challenges, that may be impossible.

Facial mobility. The Wheelie 7 kit allows any motorized wheelchair to be controlled using only facial expressions that the software learns from its specific user. Courtesy Paulo Pinheiro.

To solve this problem, Brazil’s Hoobox Robotics team created a wheelchair named the Wheelie 7 that moves based on the user’s facial expressions. There are 10 total expressions that a person can employ, ranging from a smile to a kissy face.

What’s really interesting about this is that the expressions aren’t predetermined. The wheelchair can slowly learn what each expression specifically looks like on a specific user’s face, and then a caretaker assigns the expressions to different tasks. Wheelie is also able to understand when the person is sneezing or coughing, and disables any action that might otherwise result.

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