Innovation of the week
“If children are raised by robots—even just for a couple of hours a day—what are the consequences?” asked Julia Carrie Wong in The Guardian (U.K.). We may find out soon, thanks to the iPal, a child-size robot companion built by Chinese company AvatarMind. The 3-foottall iPal “can sing, dance, and play Rock, Paper, Scissors.” It can also talk with children, and answer questions like “Why is the sun hot?” Thanks to a touch-screen computer in its chest, it can also provide surveillance and video chat for absent parents. AvatarMind says its robot is designed to provide companionship for children ages 3 to 8 and keep them occupied for several hours, like after school until their parents get home, but it isn’t meant to replace a human babysitter. The iPal will be available to Chinese consumers by the end of 2016; the company plans to start selling in the U.S. next year.
Bytes: What’s new in tech
Google translations get smarter
“Google’s new translation software is almost as good as human translators,” said Tom Simonite in TechnologyReview.com. The search giant is replacing its existing translation system with a new one built around “deep learning,” which uses math functions based loosely on studies of the brain. To test its new software, which has already been rolled out for translations from Chinese to English, Google asked fluent speakers to rank its translation results for random Wikipedia entries and news articles against work by human translators. For English to Spanish, Google’s new system scored 5.43 out of 6 on average, compared to the 5.55 average score for human translations. Google’s new system scored even closer to human translators for French to English.
Meerkat gets a mulligan
“The company that turned live streaming into a sensation last year is ready to introduce its next act,” said Casey Newton in TheVerge.com. Meerkat, which caused a splash at South by Southwest in 2015 before being eclipsed by Facebook Live and Twitterowned Periscope, has a new app for group video chatting, called Houseparty. The app has quietly attracted roughly 1 million users on Android and iOS, most of them young people, after launching under a pseudonym not tied to the Meerkat name. Houseparty “encourages users to have frequent, candid conversations.” Friends and family are notified when you are live, “or as the company now says, ‘in the house.’” Up to seven people can join the chat. Now, the question “is that same one that dogged Meerkat: Can it last?”
Silicon Valley to study AI ethics
Tech giants are teaming up to work out the ethics of artificial intelligence, said Sean Captain in FastCompany.com. Amazon, Google, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft have formed a nonprofit called the Partnership on AI “to keep a collective eye on how AI is developed and used.” The partnership will fund and conduct research with academics, user group advocates, and industry experts, with topics including ethics, fairness, and privacy. Aside from addressing fears of “futuristic killer robots,” the partnership will study proble ms with AI that could already have real-world effects, such as hiring software that develops an inadvertent bias against women or ethnic groups, because it makes decisions based on the attributes of current employees and so ends up recommending “only white men.”