Archive for December, 2007

Holiday Shopping Season Could Be A Robotic Toy Story

December 11, 2007

This could be a big year for robot toys. From lifelike baby dinosaurs to mechanized humanoids, robots are hitting store shelves in many forms.

Sharper Image SHRP even devoted the cover and more than five inside pages of its recent holiday catalog to robot toys. The specialty high-end electronics retailer is billing itself as the “shop for bots” this Christmas.  One of the most anticipated robot toys is coming from privately held Ugobe of Emeryville, Calf. This month, it started shipping its Pleo robotic dinosaur to customers who pre-ordered online.

Pleo units aren’t expected to show up in Sharper Image (NASDAQ:SHRP) stores until early to mid-January. Online retailer (NASDAQ:AMZN) AMZN lists Pleo as shipping Dec. 18.

Ugobe’s Web site said the product is on back order and that orders placed Monday would be shipped Jan. 21. It offers customers a holiday card that they can print out that says “Pleo’s On His Way.”

Source:  CNN Money


Study finds humans still evolving, and quickly

December 11, 2007

The pace of human evolution has been increasing at a stunning rate since our ancestors began spreading through Europe, Asia and Africa 40,000 years ago, quickening to 100 times historic levels after agriculture became widespread, according to a study published today.

By examining more than 3 million variants of DNA in 269 people, researchers identified about 1,800 genes that have been widely adopted in relatively recent times because they offer some evolutionary benefit.

Until recently, anthropologists believed that evolutionary pressures on humans eased after the transition to a more stable agrarian lifestyle. But in the last few years, they realized the opposite was true — diseases swept through societies in which large groups lived in close quarters for a long period.

Altogether, the recent genetic changes account for 7% of the human genome, according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source:  Los Angeles Times

NASA on target for return to the moon by 2020

December 11, 2007

Despite funding uncertainty, NASA is on track to return humans to the moon by 2020 and set up a lunar outpost to serve as a springboard to explore Mars, officials said Monday.

“Our job is to build towns on the moon and eventually put tire prints on Mars,” NASA’s Rick Gilbrech told reporters here, one year after the US space agency unveiled an ambitious plan to site a solar-powered, manned outpost on the south pole of the moon.

“We have the International Space Station, we’re going to have a lunar outpost, and someday, certainly, somebody will go to Mars,” said Jeff Hanley, head of NASA’s Constellation program, which is developing the tools to return humans to the moon.

“Thirty-five years ago this week, Gene Cernan, Ron Evans and Jack Schmitt were on the surface of the moon. We are working hard to return a future generation of astronauts to the moon,” said space flight veteran Carl Walz, who now works for NASA’s exploration systems mission directorate.

Despite budgetary constraints, NASA hoped to have Constellation fully operational by 2016, Gilbrech said.

Source:  AFP

2 ‘green’ technologies race for driver’s seat

December 8, 2007

Fuel-cell vehicles

Advocates of alternative-fuel vehicles would seem a unified bunch of tree huggers, bound by their determination to wean the world’s automobiles off fossil fuels. But there’s a red-hot fight brewing in the green-car world.

Proponents of the two most hyped technologies — hydrogen fuel cells and plug-in electric hybrids — are squared off in an increasingly bitter fight. They are vying for publicity, manufacturer acceptance, favorable regulation and, especially, funding for research and investment in infrastructure and marketing.

The battle has been simmering for several years, but with the technologies coming tantalizingly close to commercial reality, the stakes are higher than ever. Whoever gets the upper hand now could determine what kind of cars we all drive in the future.

Source:  Los Angeles Times

The Robots Among Us

December 8, 2007

The San Francisco Chronicle has an excellent piece about the future of consumer robotics.  Many say robotics now stands where computing did in the ’70s.  So what does the future hold? 

The Chronicle highlights many sectors of the robotics industry.  Mentioned are the Grand Challenges, Pleo, the ubiquitous Roomba and AI.

Read all about it at  The San Francisco Chronicle

The U.S. Army’s $200 Billion Makeover

December 7, 2007

A $200 billion plan to remake the largest war machine in history unfolds in one small way on a quiet country road in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Jack Hensley, one of a legion of contractors on the project, is hunkered in a slowly moving SUV, serving as target practice for a baby-faced soldier in a Humvee aiming a laser about 700 yards away. A moment later, another soldier in the Humvee punches commands into a computer transmitting data across an expanse of sand and mesquite to a site 2 1/2 miles away. On an actual battlefield, this is when a precision attack missile would be launched, killing Hensley almost instantly.

For soldiers in an experimental Army brigade at the sprawling Fort Bliss base, it’s the first day of field training on a new weapon called the Non-Line of Sight Launch System, or NLOS-LS, a box of rockets that can automatically change direction in midair and hit a moving target about 24 miles away.  The Army says it has never had a weapon like it. “It’s not the Spartans with the swords anymore,” said Emmett Schaill, the brigade commander, peering into the desert-scape.

In the Army’s vision, the war of the future is increasingly combat by mouse clicks. It’s as networked as the Internet, as mobile as a cellphone, as intuitive as a video game.

Source:  Washington Post

Private Companies Shoot for the Moon

December 7, 2007

Odyssey Moon from the Isle of Man stepped forward Thursday as the first private team intent on exploring the moon and claiming Google’s 30-million-dollar Lunar X Prize.

Google announced the prize in September, challenging entrepreneurs to “re-conquer the moon” and launch a “Moon 2.0” era of private lunar visits and enterprises.

“The moon is the eighth continent and we need to exploit it in a responsible way,” said Odyssey Moon chairman Ramin Khadem. “We want to win the Google prize and, if we do, that will be gravy. But either way we are going to the moon.”

The 30-million-dollar offer to the first private team to make it to the moon is good until 2012, when the amount of money drops to 25 million. All the prize money is taken from the table in 2014 if unclaimed.

Source:  AFP

Cell transplant can reduce risk of heart condition

December 7, 2007

Transplanting genetically engineered cells into the heart may reduce the risk of a fatal condition which occurs after heart attack, research suggests.

Ventricular tachycardia – an unusually fast heart rhythm – is the main cause of sudden death after heart attack.  In mice, transplants of skeletal muscle cells engineered to produce a specific protein prevented the condition.

Experts said the study in Nature should help to direct research on using stem cells to treat heart attacks in humans.

Source:  BBC News

New stem cells already showing promise

December 7, 2007

Scientists have the first evidence that those “reprogrammed stem cells” that made headlines last month really have the potential to treat disease: They used skin from the tails of sick mice to cure the rodents of sickle cell anemia.

At issue: Turning adult cells into ones that mimic embryonic stem cells, master cells that can turn into any type of tissue. When scientists announced last month that they had successfully engineered embryo-like stem cells from human skin, it was hailed as a possible alternative to ethically fraught embryo research.

Scientists in Alabama and Massachusetts reported a key next step when they used the technique to give mice with sickle cell anemia a healthy new blood supply.

Source:  Associated Press

Toyota’s new robot can play the violin, help the aged

December 7, 2007


Toyota Motors on Thursday unveiled a robot that can play the violin as part of its efforts to develop futuristic machines capable of assisting humans in Japan’s greying society.

The 1.5-metre-tall (five-foot), two-legged robot wowed onlookers with a faultless rendition of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance.

With 17 joints in its hands and arms, the robot has human-like dexterity that could be applied to helping people in the home or in nursing and medical care, the carmaker said.

Toyota also unveiled a two-wheeled, single-seat “mobility robot” that could be used to transport an elderly or disabled person over uneven ground and around obstacles.

Source:  AFP