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This incredible robot (called Root) is teaching kids to code

Root looks like a smoke detector but is actually a sophisticated robot. A magnetic surface, wheels, and an impressive arsenal of sensors allow it to navigate a classroom white board. But Root isn’t actually programmed to do anything. Its tasks and functionality hinge on a child’s imagination. To operate – Root needs instructions, a line of code.

Zivthan Dubrovsky of Harvard’s Wyss Institute recalls testing out Root with kids for the first time. He asked them this: “Can you make a text based java script line follower? They go ‘no that’s hard, can’t do that’, but we can put level one in front of them and they can do it in minutes.”

Level one introduces kids to principles of programming using an interface of simple instruction and pictures. As they become more adept, they jump to levels 2 and 3, at which point writing computer code becomes second nature, according to Dubrovsky.

He says getting kids interested in the abstract world of programming isn’t easy, but thinks Root can help with that.

“We are not trying to create a fun toy where you are just making a racing game. We are going to figure out how to make the racing game and that is going to be a lot of work, a lot of perhaps negative energy. But then there is so much positive energy at the end that it is worth the effort,” says Dubrovsky.

The team hopes to partner up with education companies to develop curriculums based around Root with the hopes of enticing schools to add the robot to classrooms.

“Adding a robot into the classroom you are actually adding a third agent into the classroom and you enable a new interesting way of teaching where the students can become the teachers, teaching the robot to do things,” adds Dubrovsky.

While at the same time learning a new skill, one that is increasingly important in a digital world where knowing how to code could become just as important as knowing to read and write.

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The ‘Lady Geek’ hoping to drive more women to tech

“Girls aren’t cut out for a career in science and technology”. Belinda Parmar has heard this sentence many times. In Britain, only 13 percent of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce is made up of women – a damning figure for a sector reporting talent shortages.

Belinda is the founder of Lady Geek and Little Miss Geek, a campaign which aims to inspire women and girls to become pioneers in technology. Here, she discusses her own experience in the STEM sector, and ways of addressing gender barriers.

Q: Why did you found Little Miss Geek and Lady Geek?

A: I started Lady Geek after a poor experience in a phone shop, when I wanted to buy a new smartphone. The male sales assistant was 15 years younger than me, thought I knew nothing about technology and made me feel alienated because I didn’t know the difference between a terabyte and a megabyte.

So I thought “I can’t be the only woman in Britain who loves technology and doesn’t want to operate in this kind of environment”. I did some research and found that a third of all British women feel patronised by the tech industry.

I then advised major companies a couple of years ago and asked one of them to speak to some of the women making their products (given that 61 percent of their customers are female). To which they responded “well there’s this woman in human resources, or this one who’s a personal assistant”. That pretty much summed up the problem for me.

Q: Although girls perform to the same – if not a higher – level than boys in STEM subjects, a minority go on to pursue or enjoy successful STEM careers. Why is that?

A: The perception of people working in tech is one of geeks who can’t get girlfriends/boyfriends, which has a huge impact on whether girls decide to pursue a career in STEM. One 10-year-old girl I spoke to told me she’d rather be a garbage collector than work in technology.

More than perception though, the gender divide in STEM is due to the tech sector not being inclusive enough, as exemplified by Sir Tim Hunt’s recent comments. [Tim Hunt is a Nobel prize-winning scientist who faced a huge backlash after saying that women in laboratories “fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry”]

Words like these make women feel unwelcome.

Q: What can the STEM sector do about this?

A: Rather than use feminism as a lobbying group to get people fired, we need to use these examples of sexism to our advantage, to raise awareness of the problem. Think of some of the amazing women working in technology, and get them to explain why they – and we – belong in the sector.

Although we have seen a rise in awareness of gender equality issues, this hasn’t yet translated into more women going for a STEM career. The number of women working in the tech sector in the UK has even decreased in the past year.

Q: And do you see a will from policymakers and businesses globally to address this?

A: I do, but initiatives to date to promote gender equality in STEM mostly concern small groups of people, and need to be scaled up to have a bigger impact.

As Suw Charman-Anderson [who founded Ada Lovelace Day, to increase women’s profile in STEM] puts it, the gender equality agenda needs grassroots action and funding through one central body, so that initiatives can be scaled up and transcend national borders.

Q: What can schools – at all levels – do to promote STEM subjects more?

A: Education systems need to demystify STEM and make it about real-world issues. There’s also a psychological aspect to it: women and teenage girls hate to “fail”, even more so publicly. Coding, for instance, is very much about trying over and over again before you find a solution.

You have to give women an environment where they can comfortably “fail”, so that they persevere in the subject. Regardless of your gender or the topic you’re studying, I think schools should focus more on teaching entrepreneurial skills, and less on rote learning.

Q: You mentioned a while ago that you were “done with women-only events that don’t engage men”. How can we do a better job of involving men and boys in the gender equality agenda? Why is it even in their interest to do so?

A: I feel that whether we like it or not, men are running the country – they are, for example, heading up 95 percent of FTSE 100 companies. We can’t change things unless we involve men in the debate, and yet there’s a lot of fear of talking about gender.

I work with many male CEOs who tell me “I want to talk about this issue but I just don’t have the language”. So one of the downfalls, for want of a better word, of feminism is that we’ve created some kind of bubble of fear around the subject.

First we should teach boys and girls empathy skills, which are all about understanding other people and the impact you have on them.

Second, I’d encourage boys to pursue typically female gender roles and vice versa, and not stick within the artificial boundaries of their gender. Ultimately we all benefit from gender equality, be it financially, morally or emotionally.

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Adobe issues emergency update to Flash after ‘ransomware’ attacks

Adobe Systems has issued an emergency update to its widely used Flash software for Internet browsers after researchers discovered a security flaw that was being exploited to deliver ransomware to Windows PCs.

The software maker urged the more than 1 billion users of Flash on Windows, Mac, Chrome and Linux computers to update the product as quickly as possible after security researchers said the bug was being exploited in “drive-by” attacks that infect computers with ransomware when tainted websites are visited.

Ransomware encrypts data, locking up computers, then demands payments that often range from $200 to $600 to unlock each infected PC.

Japanese security software maker Trend Micro said that it had warned Adobe that it had seen attackers exploiting the flaw to infect computers with a type of ransomware known as ‘Cerber’ as early as March 31.

Cerber “has a ‘voice’ tactic that reads aloud the ransom note to create a sense of urgency and stir users to pay,” Trend Micro said on its blog.

Adobe’s new patch fixes a previously unknown security flaw. Such bugs, known as “zero days,” are highly prized because they are harder to defend against since software makers and security firms have not had time to figure out ways to block them. They are typically used by nation states for espionage and sabotage, not by cyber criminals who tend to use widely known bugs for their attacks.

Use of a “zero day” to distribute ransomware highlights the severity of a growing ransomware epidemic, which has disrupted operations at a wide range of organizations across the United States and Europe, including hospitals, police stations and school districts.

Ransomware schemes have boomed in recent months, with increasingly sophisticated techniques and tools used in such operations.

“The deployment of a zero day highlights potential advancement by cyber criminals,” said Kyrk Storer, a spokesman for FireEye Inc: “We have observed ransomware and crimeware deployed via ‘zero-day’ before; however, it is rare.”

FireEye said that the bug was being leveraged to deliver ransomware in what is known as the Magnitude Exploit Kit. This is an automated tool sold on underground forums that hackers use to infect PCs with viruses through tainted websites.

Exploit kits are used for “drive-by” attacks that automatically seek to attack the computers of people who view an infected website.

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How to build your very own Hollywood star robot

Like innumerable children with imaginations fired by animated films, Hong Kong product and graphic designer Ricky Ma grew up watching cartoons featuring the adventures of robots, and dreamt of building his own one day.

Unlike most of the others, however, Ma has realized his childhood dream at the age of 42, by successfully constructing a life-sized robot from scratch on the balcony of his home.

The fruit of his labours of a year-and-a-half, and a budget of more than $50,000, is a female robot prototype he calls the Mark 1, modelled after a Hollywood star whose name he wants to keep under wraps. It responds to a set of programmed verbal commands spoken into a microphone.

“I figured I should just do it when the timing is right and realise my dream. If I realise my dream, I will have no regrets in life,” said Ma, who had to learn about fields completely new to him before he could build the complex gadget.

Life-size robot "Mark 1", modelled after a Hollywood star, speaks and reacts after receiving a command by its creator Ricky Ma, 42, a product and graphic designer, during a demonstration in Hong Kong, China March 31, 2016. Ma, a robot enthusiast, spent a year-and-a half and more than HK$400,000 ($51,000) to create the humanoid robot to fulfil his childhood dream. REUTERS/Bobby Yip SEARCH "ROBOT STAR" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES

Life-size robot “Mark 1”, modelled after a Hollywood star, speaks and reacts after receiving a command by its creator Ricky Ma, 42, a product and graphic designer, during a demonstration in Hong Kong, China March 31, 2016. Ma, a robot enthusiast, spent a year-and-a half and more than HK$400,000 ($51,000) to create the humanoid robot to fulfil his childhood dream. REUTERS/Bobby Yip SEARCH “ROBOT STAR” FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH “THE WIDER IMAGE” FOR ALL STORIES

Besides simple movements of its arms and legs, turning its head and bowing, Ma’s robot, which has dark blonde hair and liquid eyes, and wears a grey skirt and cropped top, can create detailed facial expressions.

In response to the compliment, “Mark 1, you are so beautiful”, its brows and the muscles around its eyes relax, and the corners of its lips lift, creating a natural-seeming smile, and it says, “Hehe, thank you.”

A 3D-printed skeleton lies beneath Mark 1’s silicone skin, wrapping its mechanical and electronic parts. About 70 percent of its body was created using 3D printing technology.

Ma’s journey of creation was a lonely one, however. He said he did not know of anyone else in the former British colony who builds humanoid robots as a hobby and few in the city understood his ambition.

“During this process, a lot of people would say things like, ‘Are you stupid? This takes a lot of money. Do you even know how to do it? It’s really hard,'” Ma said.

He adopted a trial-and-error method in which he encountered obstacles ranging from frequent burnt-out electric motors to the robot losing its balance and toppling over.

“When you look at everything together, it was really difficult,” said Ma, who had to master unfamiliar topics from electromechanics to programming along the way, besides learning how to fit the robot’s external skin over its components.

Ma, who believes the importance of robots will only grow, hopes an investor will buy his prototype, giving him the capital to build more, and wants to write a book about his experience, to help other enthusiasts.

The rise of robots and artificial intelligence are among disruptive labor market changes that the World Economic Forum projects will lead to a net loss of 5.1 million jobs over the next five years

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Oculus Rift – the virtual reality is now a reality

Facebook’s Oculus Rift has begun delivering its virtual reality headsets to consumers. 

The Oculus Rift VR headset has finally begun shipping, though probably only to dedicated gamers and the earliest investors in Oculus’s fundraising campaign on crowdfunding website Kickstarter in 2012 started receiving their Rift headsets early this week.

The first of the pre-orders will start shipping from mid-week, Oculus said.

The company, founded in 2012, launched a campaign on Kickstarter to raise $250,000. A couple of years later, Facebook bought Oculus for about $2 billion.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has said that he saw virtual reality as the next major computing platform.

This year, HTC Corp and Sony Corp are also set to launch their virtual reality devices as companies look to offer enhanced gaming and entertainment experiences to customers.

“The headset you can buy today is not Oculus’s most ambitious vision for virtual reality – but it’s a vision that Oculus has successfully delivered on,” Adi Robertson of technology website the Verge said in a review .

The black headgear, priced at $599, comes with a remote, an audio system, a sensor and an Xbox One wireless controller.

Oculus said there were more than 30 games available on the Oculus Store and it would soon add feature-length movies and more content.

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The paper plane gets an upgrade and outgrows the classroom

If your experience of paper planes is the simple version floating past your nose in the classroom, lobbed by unruly schoolkids, then take a look at this.

Israeli firm PowerUp Toys showed off a paper plane equipped with some of the latest drone technology at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

“We are actually introducing first person view flight (FPV) to paper airplanes. So you experience flight as if you were a pilot but on a paper airplane that you folded, which is kind of crazy,” said PowerUp Toys CEO, Shai Goetein.

It’s certainly crazy, but Goetein thinks consumers will find it fascinating. A user folds the plane and then follows directions to install a power supply, an onboard computer, a propulsion system, a WiFi system, and a myriad of other flight technologies. The end result is a two ounce paper airplane turned drone that can be controlled using a smartphone. It’s launched by a simple swipe of your finger.

“The first experience is flight and control. We have two motors, you can go up down right and left and you have an app to control the airplane. This is done by WiFi streaming and we have a range up to 200 meters,” said Goetein.

The second option for controlling the paper airplane during flight is via a virtual reality (VR) headset. The smartphone is placed into the VR set up and then a user, says Goetein, can enjoy a truly unique flight experience.

“You control the airplane just by tilting your right, left, up and down. It is very intuitive. You feel like you are in a drivers seat. It’s actually easier than flying an RC [radio controlled] airplane,” he told Reuters.

The plane is made from heavy-duty paper, with a rod running through the centre. The rod connects the motor at the plane’s front to propellers at the back.

It will go on sale this year for $199 USD, or $149 USD without the headset. The company has raised over $460,000 USD on crowd-funding site Kickstarter. Goetein says this will propel his paper airplane drones to previously undreamed of new heights.

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Apple’s iPad Pro goes up for sale

The battle is about to re-commence – Apple’s answer to the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is almost here.

Apple announced today that the new iPad Pro is available to order online with immediate effect and it will arrive at stores later this week.

The 12.9 inch-screen tablet, which starts at $799 but costs more than $1,000 if buyers also want a keyboard and an optional stylus, will be available in more than 40 countries, including the United States, the UK, China and Japan.

Sales of iPads have been falling for several quarters as big-screen iPhones appeal to more consumers. Apple hope this move will re-boot tablet sales, having sold a mere 55 million of them, in the year to September.

The iPad Pro is now available to pre-order on Apple’s website. People who pre-order today will receive their iPad Pro on Friday November 13. If they opt for free delivery instead, the iPad should make its way to your door on Monday November 16.

When you pre-order, Apple asks you whether you also want to buy an Apple Pencil and a keyboard. The Pencil should be available today in store as well in case you want to see it in advance. You won’t be able to do anything with it though as it only works with the iPad Pro.

There are three different iPad Pro models. The entry level costs $799 and comes with Wi-Fi and 32GB. You can buy a 128GB variant for $949. And finally, you can have both 128GB and a cellular modem for $1,079. Like the other iPads, the iPad Pro is available in gold, silver and space gray.

 

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‘Geek teams’ on two continents write poverty-breaking apps for Kenya

Powered by caffeine and adrenalin, hundreds of Kenyan and Canadian geeks will compete over Skype in a 28-hour ‘hackathon’ to develop apps to improve rural Kenyans’ health, farms and access to education.

Hackathons are marathon brainstorming sessions where computer programmers get together to write software.

The Nov. 20-22 Poverty Hackathon will be the first international development-focused virtual hackathon – taking place on two continents simultaneously, the organisers say.

“While it’s not common for hackathons to have virtual teams working together, we think it’s a core component of actually making impact,” said Canadian Danielle Thé, who set up the charity Devs Without Borders in Toronto earlier this year.

“While people want to help, our concepts of what the major problems or roadblocks are for individuals in other countries could be very biased,” said Thé, 26.

New technologies brought by outsiders often fail because the donors don’t understand the local context, such as whether there are teachers to show children how to use donated laptops or how to protect valuable solar panels from theft.

Devs Without Borders is partnering with iHub, the best-known incubator for the east African nation’s blossoming technology community, to ensure the geeks don’t make this mistake.

“It’s about understanding who is going to use the  application and the exact scenario in which they will use it,” said John Paul Karijo, iHub’s community manager. “You have to think… about… the human being at the centre of the problem.”

A panel of judges will choose a winning idea for testing in January by the Toronto-based charity Free the Children, which has education, healthcare and agriculture projects in 18 remote villages in Kenya’s Maasai Mara region.

“What’s really unique about it (the hackathon) is it’s specifically going to be developing SMS app technology,” said Toronto-based Sarah MacIndoe, Free The Children’s director of international programmes.

The focus on implementation is what attracted iHub. “In the past we’ve had experiences where solutions from hackathons just remain hackathon solutions,” said Karijo.</p><p>”They don’t get applied anywhere.”

GROWING MARKET IN DEVELOPING WORLD

‘Hackathon’ teams will work together writing code for apps that could provide information on maternal health and first aid, or encourage families to send their daughters to school.</p><p>Most Kenyan families are off the grid but have simple mobile phones which they charge for a small fee in nearby kiosks.

Multinationals are waking up to potential markets in the developing world and trying to boost their internet usage.

Facebook’s internet.org, recently renamed Free Basics, partners with local mobile phone providers to give users free access to online services like the encyclopedia Wikipedia, job listings and health information, as well as Facebook.

The project, launched in Zambia in 2013 and extended to more than a dozen other countries, has brought more than 9 million people online, Facebook says.</p><p>Google is spending millions of dollars on satellites, high-altitude balloons and drones to extend internet access to an estimated 4.5 billion unwired people around the world.

“There is really a space for developers around the world to provide more services for individuals that are going to be on the internet for the first time in the next couple of years,” said Thé.

“We need to connect developers to those opportunities.”

Kenya is one of the most technologically advanced countries in Africa, known for its pioneering Mpesa mobile money transfer application.

The Maasai and Kipsigis people that Free the Children work with in the Maasai Mara are already familiar with SMS-based apps, using them for mobile banking and money transfers, MacIndoe said.

One Toronto participant will be Francine Navarro, a 24-year-old software developer who visited Free the Children’s projects in Kenya three years ago.

Startled on that trip by a girl asking if there was female genital mutilation in Canada, Navarro began thinking about the role technology can play in improving women’s rights – for example enabling women to blog about injustices they experience.

“Technology can become a force for social change,” she said.

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Children learn to write by teaching robots

Researchers in Switzerland have designed a system where children teach robot students how to write, and in the process improve their own handwriting skills. This learning by teaching paradigm, they say, could engage unmotivated students as well as boost their self-confidence.

The prototype system, called CoWriter, was developed by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne. A humanoid robot, designed to be likeable and interact with humans, is presented with a word that the child spells out in plastic letters. The robot recognizes the word and tries to write it, with its attempt appearing on a tablet. The child then identifies and corrects the robot’s errors by re-writing the word or specific letters.

Séverin Lemaignan, one of the authors of the study, said the research was based on a recognized principle in pedagogy known as ‘the protégé effect’.

“The robot is facing difficulties to write. So the child as a teacher tends to commit itself to help the robot. And this is what we call in psychology ‘the protégé effect’; it [the child] will try to protect this robot and help him to progress. And it’s a pretty well known fact that if the robot fails and keeps on failing and not improve its handwriting, the child will feel responsible for that. And by just relying on this effect we can really engage the children into a sustained interaction with the robot,” explained Lemaignan.

Previous studies have shown that when children experience difficulties in writing, they can lose confidence or eventually withdraw from the learning process. This can have a knock-on effect for their entire education. But a program like CoWriter, where students put themselves in the place of the teacher and pass on what they know to their peers, can help them regain self-esteem and motivation.

Lemaignan said their system makes the robot play the role of the peer who is the worst student in the class.

“The idea here is to introduce a new role for the robot; the robot is the worst writer in the classroom. And for children who did face difficulties and were before the worst students, there’s now one who is even worse than them.”

The scientists developed progressive writing algorithms and programed them into an existing commercially available robot called ‘Nao’, developed by French company Aldebaran Robotics. Their algorithms include a large database of handwriting examples that allow the robot to clumsily draw words on demand, and then gradually improve as it ‘learns’ from the child’s teaching.

The CoWriter system, still in the prototype stage, has so far been used in controlled experiments to verify that the algorithms meet the children’s needs and have the desired outcome. In preliminary tests it was used in primary school lessons with about seventy students ranging from six to eight years old, and then individually with a six year old child for one hour per week over the course of a month. The researchers now plan to conduct further studies with the hope of producing tangible results that show the benefits of such a program.

The team hopes their research will be the basis for an innovative use for robotics which addresses a widespread challenge in education.

However, any teachers that may feel their livelihoods under threat need not worry, says Lemaignan

“Many people ask if this sort of technology could simply replace teachers. And… no. The key point is the robot plays a role that the teacher cannot play, that is the bad writer. But it doesn’t replace in any way the teacher; the teacher is still the one who decides the kind of mistakes the robot could do, should do, has to do to address the specific difficulties, trouble that the given child face.”

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