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Trash talk hurts, even when it comes from a robot

Trash talking has a long and colorful history of flustering game opponents, and now researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have demonstrated that discouraging words can be perturbing even when uttered by a robot.

The trash talk in the study was decidedly mild, with utterances such as “I have to say you are a terrible player,” and “Over the course of the game your playing has become confused.” Even so, people who played a game with the robot — a commercially available humanoid robot known as Pepper — performed worse when the robot discouraged them and better when the robot encouraged them.

Lead author Aaron M. Roth said some of the 40 study participants were technically sophisticated and fully understood that a machine was the source of their discomfort.

“One participant said, ‘I don’t like what the robot is saying, but that’s the way it was programmed so I can’t blame it,'” said Roth, who conducted the study while he was a master’s student in the CMU Robotics Institute.

But the researchers found that, overall, human performance ebbed regardless of technical sophistication.

The study, presented last month at the IEEE International Conference on Robot & Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN) in New Delhi, India, is a departure from typical human-robot interaction studies, which tend to focus on how humans and robots can best work together.

“This is one of the first studies of human-robot interaction in an environment where they are not cooperating,” said co-author Fei Fang, an assistant professor in the Institute for Software Research. It has enormous implications for a world where the number of robots and internet of things (IoT) devices with artificial intelligence capabilities is expected to grow exponentially. “We can expect home assistants to be cooperative,” she said, “but in situations such as online shopping, they may not have the same goals as we do.”

The study was an outgrowth of a student project in AI Methods for Social Good, a course that Fang teaches. The students wanted to explore the uses of game theory and bounded rationality in the context of robots, so they designed a study in which humans would compete against a robot in a game called “Guards and Treasures.” A so-called Stackelberg game, researchers use it to study rationality. This is a typical game used to study defender-attacker interaction in research on security games, an area in which Fang has done extensive work.

Each participant played the game 35 times with the robot, while either soaking in encouraging words from the robot or getting their ears singed with dismissive remarks. Although the human players’ rationality improved as the number of games played increased, those who were criticized by the robot didn’t score as well as those who were praised.

It’s well established that an individual’s performance is affected by what other people say, but the study shows that humans also respond to what machines say, said Afsaneh Doryab, a systems scientist at CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) during the study and now an assistant professor in Engineering Systems and Environment at the University of Virginia. This machine’s ability to prompt responses could have implications for automated learning, mental health treatment and even the use of robots as companions, she said.

Future work might focus on nonverbal expression between robot and humans, said Roth, now a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland. Fang suggests that more needs to be learned about how different types of machines — say, a humanoid robot as compared to a computer box — might invoke different responses in humans.

In addition to Roth, Fang and Doryab, the research team included Manuela Veloso, professor of computer science; Samantha Reig, a Ph.D. student in the HCII; Umang Bhatt, who recently completed a joint bachelor’s-master’s degree program in electrical and computer engineering; Jonathan Shulgach, a master’s student in biomedical engineering; and Tamara Amin, who recently finished her master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering.

The National Science Foundation provided some support for this work.

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Materials provided by Carnegie Mellon University. Original written by Byron Spice. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Addictive de-vices: How we can unplug from this 21st century epidemic

We spend our days looking at them, talking to them, and touching them.

They increasingly consume our time, attention and money. We are addicted to our digital devices — or, more precisely, the digital experiences they give us.

Now, an article published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, by SFU Beedie professor Leyland Pitt and his co-authors, analyzes the growing problem with digital addiction and how marketers as well as app developers contribute to this 21st-century phenomenon. The researchers also made several public policy recommendations to help with this problem.

According to Pitt, digital addiction is linked to promoting obesity, sleeplessness, increased anxiety, decreased productivity, and relationship issues. It is also a factor in physical dangers related to distracted driving, and walking.

“Digital experiences, like social media, are linked to decreased productivity in the workplace and it’s already costing the U.S. economy $997 billion,” says Pitt. “Today, texting while driving is now six times more dangerous than drinking and driving, and it’s costing the Canadian economy $25 billion.”

He adds, “If you’re checking a text for just five seconds while driving at 90 km/h, you’ve basically travelled the length of a football field blind-folded. That’s incredibly dangerous and foolish when you put it into perspective.”

The researchers say marketers and app developers work together to develop experiences that create an insatiable desire for users to keep returning to their apps. Companies achieve this by using various tactics such as the freemium model, gamification and making their app ubiquitous.

“It seems that digital addiction is impacting young adolescents the most, but that’s because they’ve grown up with digital devices,” says Pitt. “Addiction doesn’t know age. It can happen to anybody.”

Leyland sat down with SFU News recently to share his team’s recommendations for how we can curtail this growing epidemic through changes to public policy.

Product Design

L: I would like to see mandatory labeling for apps. Although this would not entirely prevent addiction to digital experiences, warning labels would likely prompt more conscious decision- making on the part of consumers, and reduce the automaticity often inherent to addiction.

Another strategy would be to mandate natural “stopping points” in digital offerings. This would mean endless games and infinite scrolls would be punctuated with natural breaks, in the same way that books have chapters.

Advertising and Promotion

L: Disclosures could be included in ads for digital products and services, similar to prescription drug ads in the United States or those on food packaging. This could include explicit information on how much time a user spends using an app or service, as well as how much a company is making from a user’s attention and information.

Place and Distribution

L: One prime area for public policy intervention might be in the area of what the World Health Organization calls “distracted walking.” Distracted walking refers to accidents that occur when citizens use their smartphones while walking in public places.

Rather than ban phones in these busy areas, government intervention could shape behavior. For example, in many German cities the street-crossing “walk” and “do not walk” signals are duplicated at ground level so as to be in the line of sight of people looking at their mobile devices.

Price and Cost

L: Digital products could disclose, on average, what in-app purchases typically end up costing and how much time consumers spend using these apps.

In addition, regulators could impose taxes directly on the most addictive offerings, as they have done in the case of tobacco products; alcohol; and, in some cases, prescription drugs.

Fast Facts:

* According to the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), 80 per cent of collisions and 65 per cent of near crashes have some form of driver inattention as contributing factors.

* According to the CAA, driver distraction is a factor in about 4 million motor vehicle crashes in North America each year.

* According to CAA, the economic and social consequence of road crashes in Canada is estimated to be $25 billion per year, including direct and indirect cost, as well as pain and suffering.

* According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), similar neurological responses between compulsive social network sites use and addiction to substances.

* The World Health Organization recognizes gaming addiction as a disease.

* According to National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), texting and driving is six times more dangerous than drinking and driving.

* According to the Overload Research Group, distractions from digital experiences, like social media, in the work place are responsible for the loss of a quarter of each employee and employer’s day. This costs the U.S. economy $997 billion each year.

* In China, mobile phone lanes have been implemented in a number of large cities for pedestrian safety.

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Mintynet’s OBD-2 Adapters for Car Upgrades // MCU Monday

Ian Tabor has created a couple of small, open-source adapter boards so you can get microcontrollers talking with your car! At DEFCON, he generously gave us both versions – for Arduino Nano and ESP32. See below for directions on making and using these, as well as Ian’s excellent blog about his own projects.

// https://mintynet.com
// https://github.com/mintynet/nano-can
// https://github.com/mintynet/esp32-slcan
// https://twitter.com/mintynet

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Revolutionizing the CRISPR method

Everyone’s talking about CRISPR-Cas. This biotechnological method offers a relatively quick and easy way to manipulate single genes in cells, meaning they can be precisely deleted, replaced or modified. Furthermore, in recent years, researchers have also been using technologies based on CRISPR-Cas to systematically increase or decrease the activity of individual genes. The corresponding methods have become the worldwide standard within a very short time, both in basic biological research and in applied fields such as plant breeding.

To date, for the most part, researchers could modify only one gene at a time using the method. On occasion, they managed two or three in one go; in one particular case, they were able to edit seven genes simultaneously. Now, Professor Randall Platt and his team at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich in Basel have developed a process that — as they demonstrated in experiments — can modify 25 target sites within genes in a cell at once. As if that were not enough, this number can be increased still further, to dozens or even hundreds of genes, as Platt points out. At any rate, the method offers enormous potential for biomedical research and biotechnology. “Thanks to this new tool, we and other scientists can now achieve what we could only dream of doing in the past.”

Targeted, large-scale cell reprogramming

Genes and proteins in cells interact in many different ways. The resulting networks comprising dozens of genes ensure an organism’s cellular diversity. For example, they are responsible for differentiating progenitor cells to neuronal cells and immune cells. “Our method enables us, for the first time, to systematically modify entire gene networks in a single step,” Platt says.

Moreover, it paves the way for complex, large-scale cell programming. It can be used to increase the activity of certain genes, while reducing that of others. The timing of this change in activity can also be precisely controlled.

This is of interest for basic research, for example in investigating why various types of cells behave differently or for the study of complex genetic disorders. It will also prove useful for cell replacement therapy, which involves replacing damaged with healthy cells. In this case, researchers can use the method to convert stem cells into differentiated cells, such as neuronal cells or insulin-producing beta cells, or vice versa, to produce stem cells from differentiated skin cells.

The dual function of the Cas enzyme

The CRISPR-Cas method requires an enzyme known as a Cas and a small RNA molecule. Its sequence of nucleobases serves as an “address label,” directing the enzyme with utmost precision to its designated site of action on the chromosomes. ETH scientists have created a plasmid, or a circular DNA molecule, that stores the blueprint of the Cas enzyme and numerous RNA address molecules, arranged in sequences: in other words, a longer address list. In their experiments, the researchers inserted this plasmid into human cells, thereby demonstrating that several genes can be modified and regulated simultaneously.

For the new technique, the scientists did not use the Cas9 enzyme that has featured in most CRISPR-Cas methods to date, but the related Cas12a enzyme. Not only can it edit genes, it can also cut the long “RNA address list” into individual “address labels” at the same time. Furthermore, Cas12a can handle shorter RNA address molecules than Cas9. “The shorter these addressing sequences are, the more of them we can fit onto a plasmid,” Platt says.

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