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Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Outcast: Volume 1 Chapter 8

Volume One: Eastwood Is All Stones

Chapter 8: Life in the abandoned mine pit

After completing the last micro-scale soldering, Xu Le took off the deep-color protection mask from his face, feeling quite satisfied. Next, he organized all the repaired items inside the workshop room based on their labels and sorted them neatly onto the metal shelf. A push of a button by the shelf sent all the items out of the workshop room. By early morning the next day, these repaired items would be shipped back to the fourth district of the Xiang-Lan Boulevard. Out of old habit, Xu Le always got things ready ahead of time.
He quickly washed his face with hot water, and then smoothly retrieved a bottle of eye solution from a drawer and carefully added a few drops to his eyes. Even with the help of various microscope type instruments, the world of metal chips could still be quite a torture for the eyes of any electrical technician. Especially since he would always forget about time when he devoted himself into the world of metal chips, both of his eyes appeared to have reddened.
“Get some rest. Go watch the scenic views and relax the muscles in your eyes.”
Feng Yu rubbed his own gray hair and felt very satisfied with Xu Le’s speed and concentration. For the last half a year, most of the repair jobs for the electrical appliance repair shop at the Xiang-Lan Boulevard were really completed here by Xu Le in the secluded mine tunnel. All Feng Yu had to do was to stay at his shop during the weekdays and then show up here to give a few pointers during the weekends. As time went by, Xu Le’s repair speed had become faster and faster, now even faster than Feng Yu, who was once an electrical technician in the military.
Xu Le acknowledged with a mumble. He took out two bottles of fruit juice from the refrigerator and then followed behind Feng Yu, walking toward the upper part of the mine pit.
Xu Le could hear non-stop clanking sounds coming from the front. He couldn’t help but look up, and then once again, he saw the extremely eye-catching ragged jeans worn by Uncle Feng Yu together with their tightly wrapped buttocks, and also … a bunch of keys, small knives, and the kind of metal things alike. They swung back and forth in the air and again and again bumping into the big buttocks, making disturbing noises.
Xu Le could never understand why Feng Yu would present himself in such a way, but Feng Yu told him: a true swordsman will never let go of his sword, and a true gunslinger will never leave his gun behind. Therefore, electrical technicians should always keep their tools handy…. Xu Le actually figured it out. This uncle honestly believed that wearing a wind chime on his ass made him look extra manly, which could be very helpful in attracting the eyes of those young and lonely ladies.
 It was already quite late. The light above the Eastwood Grand District had gradually dimmed. The twilight also gradually turned redder and darker, producing a dazzling shine through the reflection against the large pile of metal things behind Feng Yu’s back. Xu Le squinted his eyes naturally and gazed at the figure as it climbed up the slope without ease. His mind suddenly brought him back to the moment two years ago when he stepped into the repair shop like an idiot for the first time.
The relationship between Feng Yu and him was a bit strange. It was not a relationship between student and teacher, but he did learn from Feng Yu knowledge and practical experience about electronics, something he always longed for.
Although repairing electrical appliances didn’t help him at all with respect to his dream, the dream of becoming an auxiliary officer of a space battleship or living a better life in the Capital Star Circle, Xu Le did find satisfaction and tranquility from the small repair shop.
Xu Le wasn’t really an employee of Feng Yu’s either, because Feng Yu never paid him any salary. He only left enough food in the freezer for Xu Le. Such treatment would only make Xu Le a pitiful slave of the Xiang-Lan Boulevard Repair Shop…. But Xu Le made substantial profit for the repair shop over the past two years.
“The registration fee for the draft exam … if I choose to be an electrical technician … the government will only reimburse forty percent of the fee.” Staring at the back of his uncle Xu Le finally gathered enough courage to make his demand. “There are only two years left. I really need to save up some money.”
The hidden meaning of these words was of course a request to get paid by the repair shop owner, but Feng Yu rejected it without even looking back.
“Back then it was you who cried and begged me to teach you. Did I ever ask you for any tuition?”
What a shameless guy! Even more shameless than I am! Xu Le thought. Then he remembered the time when he first ran into the repair shop and how he shamelessly held onto the owner’s thigh. The courage to ask for money quickly diminished. He heaved a helpless sigh, ran a few steps, and then sat by Feng Yu’s side.
The two of them were now sitting at the very top of the mine pit. Behind them were the shadows of the city’s buildings, which were a good distance away and appeared blurry and unreal. In front of them was a large stretch of green grassland. Deep in the grassland they could see tall trees reaching the sky. The refreshing scene of the nature almost felt like a jumping flame, burning with ardor under the setting sun.
“I’ve always been curious.”
Feng Yu didn’t take the juice Xu Le handed to him, instead, lit another cigarette. He joyfully took a deep breath in and then glanced greedily at the grassland and the forest in front of him.
“There are at least a thousand repair shops in the Eastwood Grand District. Why did you choose me?”
Xu Le cast a side glance toward him, shocked by the fact that uncle had only just thought of the question after two years had already passed. After a short pause, he finally replied with his head bent down.
“The automatic vacuum door of the coffee shop had stopped working. I heard that you fixed it, so I decided to find you.”
“Anyone could have fixed that door,” Feng Yu exclaimed without turning his head.
“Perhaps you were in a really good mood when you fixed that door….” A slight trace of cunning quickly flashed across Xu Le’s eyes, which normally looked extra sincere when he smiled. “The glueless vacuum joint at the B2 port was simply remarkable, with an error grade in the one-thousands. That was two grades higher than the civilian standards, even slightly higher than the military standards. Ever since then, I knew you weren’t just any ordinary guy, boss!”
Feng Yu seemed to have been startled. He suddenly burst into laughter. Turning around he raised his hand as though he was going to strike Xu Le’s head, but eventually he settled for rubbing the untidy black hair of Xu Le.
“You are crazy! Who would have thought of measuring that thing?”
“Maybe it was just my intuition?” Xu Le smiled happily. “I just felt there was something really weird about that door, and I happened to have some money at that time, so I went and bought a laser multi-spectrometer. As soon as I measured it, I found the oddity.”
“Even the smallest laser multi-spectrometer won’t fit under the door. How did you measure it? I am quite curious.” Feng Yu’s interest instantly shot up.
“Hmm….” After a short moment of awkward silence Xu Le finally answered. “I asked Li Wei to help me, and the two of us took the door apart at night … of course we put it back on the same night. I am no thief.”
Feng Yu couldn’t help but laugh again.
“But didn’t I install an alarm on that door…?” he asked.
“The one hidden inside the double-paned glass?” Xu Le lowered his head in embarrassment. “I…I found it right away and…took it apart too.”
Feng Yu suddenly fell quiet. He stared at the young lad next to him, and for a long time, didn’t speak another word. Two years ago, Xu Le had only been a self-studying student, who knew nothing but procedures and standards he memorized from books in the library. Even then Xu Le had already been capable of disabling an alarm set up by him. The conclusion he had come to earlier on the couch was indeed very accurate.
At that moment several majestic-looking wild buffalo, cloaked in the beautiful twilight of the dusk, slowly wandered outside of the woods and walked in the direction of the mine pit.
Both Xu Le and Feng Yu instantly stopped all thoughts and motion and only stared at the buffalo steadily. The stares were filled with greed.
“Uncle, we haven’t had any fresh buffalo steaks for over half a year,” Xu Le swallowed a mouthful of saliva and suggested.
Feng Yu stood up slowly and glanced at the long, endless metal isolation guardrail that separated the mine pit and the grassland, his face turning into a grimace.
“All through my life, I hate two Federation laws the most. One of them is that god damned Wildlife Protection Act.”
Xu Le tried hard to hold his laughter. Raising his head up, he asked, “What’s the other one?”
“The First Constitution.”
After that most arrogant statement, he led Xu Le toward the wild buffalo on the other side of the isolation guardrail, looking vicious and dangerous.

Now support the author Maoni by clicking this link, and support the translator Lanny by following my blog! :)

Video of the Day:

I suspect the name Xiang-Lan Boulevard mentioned in this chapter comes from Hong-Kong singer Jacky Cheung's famous song "Li Xiang Lan." Either way, it is a beautiful song! Enjoy!

Friday, May 08, 2009

Robot of the Day: Microswimmer Robot Taking Pictures of Your Intestines

This is a robot I read about recently, a robot the size of a pill that can swim inside your body powered by external MRI machine's magnetic fields with the task of taking pictures of your intestines.

Credit: Tel Aviv University and Brigham & Women's Hospital
The robot was developed by scientists at Tel Aviv University in Israel and Brigham & Woman's Hospital in Boston and introduced in a recent paper published in Biomedical Microdevices. Although still in the early testing stage in a water tank, the tiny robot seems to maneuver well with its 20mm x 5mm tail. The eventual objective of robot is to enable doctors to see the inside of a patient's intestines and detect early stages of gastrointestinal cancer.

Presently doctors can already have patients swallow a pill-sized camera. Pictures are taken every half second or so until the camera is passed. However, doctors have no control of the camera's movement when they wanted pictures of specific part of the body. One challenge with the robot idea is how to power the robot because embedding large power supplies would increase the size of the robot and cause other problems. The beauty of the proposed solution is that it uses magnetic field to control the movement of the robot via the little copper and polymer tail. And since MRI machines are already a common device in hospitals, they can become very handy.

I remember seeing a video of how live bacterias can be controlled by magnetic fields to push around a "nano-robot" in a Discovery Channel documentary. In this case, the magnetic field controls the robot directly which is probably more predictable than trying to control bacterias.

Some people even suggest that we can leave such robots inside us permanently like parasites. Now imagine having a bunch of these things inside your body, constantly posting images or videos online of your internal like those live web cams.... Now you not only have no privacy outside of your body, you don't even have privacy inside your body.... Well, but if lives can be saved, I guess it's okay.

To read more about this, click here.

The good news: the robot is reusable!
The bad news: the robot is reusable!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

10 Famous Thought Experiments That Just Boggle Your Mind Part 5

Read Part 4: Einstein's Light Beam

6. The Ship of Theseus

One of the oldest of all thought experiments is the paradox known as the Ship of Theseus, which originated in the writings of Plutarch. It describes a ship that remained seaworthy for hundreds of years thanks to constant repairs and replacement parts. As soon as one plank became old and rotted, it would be replaced, and so on until every working part of the ship was no longer original to it. The question is whether this end product is still the same Ship of Theseus, or something completely new and different. If it’s not, at what point did it stop being the same ship? The Philosopher Thomas Hobbes would later take the problem even further: if one were to take all the old parts removed from the Ship of Theseus and build a new ship from them, then which of the two vessels is the real Ship of Theseus? For philosophers, the story of the Ship of Theseus is used as a means of exploring the nature of identity, specifically the question of whether objects are more than just the sum of their parts.

I couldn't help but think of the story about Steve Jobs and his Mercedes Benz. Steve was able to exploit a hole in Californian law and roved the Silicon Valley in a Mercedes without license plates:

It turns out there's a provision in California regulations that give one six months to get license plates for a new car, and Jobs took advantage of it. Yes, he leased a silver Mercedes SL55 AMG, said Callas -- and every six months he traded it in for a new one.
So to Steve, the car was still The Car of Jobs, but to the Californian DMV, the car was a different one.

It might not matter too much if this thing we talk about is just a physical thing like Steve Jobs' car. What if it is an intangible object, for example, a song. If we move up or down the pitch of all notes in the song, is it still the same song? If you think the answer is yes, then what if we move the pitch to a range where human can no longer distinguish them?

Now let's think about robots. US Soldiers in Afghanistan have being using remotely-controlled robots to detonate road-side bombs. As unintelligent as these robots are, many soldiers have developed close affection toward these devices. When damaged robots are sent in for repair, the normal procedure is to simply send back a replacement unit because it is most time-efficient and cost-efficient. However, many soldiers demanded the exact same unit or robotics device to be repaired and sent back because they have assigned a personal identity to the robot as a teammate and friend.

Let's think one step further. With robots that are more intelligent, especially ones that learn from past experience, it is still possible for us to duplicate the programs and memory of the robot (with the exception of Johnny 5) and then load the same programs and memory into an identical robot. Now we run into a real identity crisis -- both for the robots and the users. Both robots will think they are the original robot, and to the user, both robots are the original robots with the same memory, same logic, and same appearance. (Why do I keep thinking of the movie The 6th Day?) What problems will this create?

I also can't help but think of all the protagonists in these reincarnation novels (like the Joy of Life story I am translating, for example). Are these persons still the same persons? Probably not! But why not?

That's enough philosophical discussion for today! Have a good day!

Read part 6: Galileo's Gravity Experiment

Video of the Day:

Enjoy this beautiful song The Velocity of Love, and the beautiful video while you struggle with philosophical thought experiments!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Robot of the Day: CQ-10 Snowgoose Cargo Delivery Glider UAV

CQ-10 Snowgoose is a glider UAV developed by Mist Mobility Integrated Systems Technology (MMIST), a Canadian firm, for the purpose of pinpoint precision small cargo delivery. It is one of the earliest UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) used by US military in the war in Afghanistan.

The Snowgoose UAV uses a parafoil for lift and then a "pusher" propeller to help with the glide. A newer version of the UAV CQ-10B actually includes an autogyro rotor for lift and is capable of vertical take off and landing. Therefore the UAV is capable of three types of deployments:
  • ground launching from the back of a truck or Humvee,
  • air launching from the back of a cargo plane,
  • or self launching using the gyro rotor.
The Snowgoose UAV has six modular cargo bays and can be used for leaflet dispensing or delivery of small amount of ammo or medical supplies. The newer model can carry up to 2400 lbs of cargo and travel up to 93 miles. Operator can upload flight plans to the UAV and then the UAV will perform the delivery fully autonomously. This can be very helpful in search and rescue missions, disaster relief efforts, or support military operations in hostile environment.

In 2003, U.S. Special Operations Command bought five of these for $250,000 each and deployed them to Afghanistan in support of special operations in the tough terrains.

With the steep price tag, it is unlikely to see such UAVs used in search and rescue missions (with the exception of this story), which is kind of a shame. That's why cheaper and smaller Micro-UAVs stand better chance of actually deployment in local search and rescue teams.

Video of the Day:

A woman floating on a surfboard near Santa Cruz, California almost ended up on the lunch menu for a humpback whale.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

10 Famous Thought Experiments That Just Boggle Your Mind Part 4

Read Part 3: The Ticking Time Bomb

7. Einstein's Light Beam

According to his book Autobiographical Notes, Albert Einstein’s famous work on special relativity was inspired by a thought experiment he conducted when he was only 16 years old. He thought about chasing a beam of light as it traveled through space, and reasoned that if he were able to move next to it at the speed of light, he should be able to observe the light frozen in space as “an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating.” For Einstein, this thought experiment proved that for his imaginary observer “everything would have to happen according to the same laws as for an observer who, relative to the Earth, was at rest.”

The video below gives a good example of special relativity.

I can't think of how this relates to AI, but the lesson here is that simple thought experiments can lead to extraordinary findings. Therefore I'll keep running all kinds of thought experiments in my head like how properties of intelligence should remain the same regardless of what species is displaying intelligent behaviors.

Read Part 5: The Ship of Theseus


I love staring at the starry sky, because that lets me stare right into the past.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Outcast: Volume 1 Chapter 7

Volume One: Eastwood Is All Stones

Chapter 7: He doesn’t know his talent

Feng Yu was a middle-aged man, who always liked to describe himself as: a mature, sedate, reliable, and handsome yet with a grain of ripeness from vicissitudes, stunning middle-aged uncle who could capture the hearts of the entire world, especially those of the young girls.
He wasn’t exaggerating too much. Suppose that he was willing to take a bath once in a while, shave a bit more often, replace his mouthful of ugly teeth, and put on some appropriate pieces of clothing, maybe even become a few years younger, then he certainly possessed that special grace.
Unfortunately the reality didn’t allow that many suppositions, so Feng Yu was still just an ordinary, childless, middle-aged citizen who did nothing but drink liquor, chit chat, daydream inside the electrical appliance repair shop in the fourth district of the Xiang-Lan Boulevard from Monday through Thursday every week and drool over the occasional female police officers in uniform who happened to walk past the repair shop.
The appliance repair shop always had good business because Feng Yu certainly had excellent craftsmanship. Whether it was the latest model of the rollable crystal screen, the antique liquid crystal display, an overclocked room thermal control, or an electric skateboard for kids, as long as it was a machine powered by electricity, he could always put it back to order.
Good business naturally meant a stable income. For that reason, during every three-day weekend protected by law, Feng Yu got into the habit of closing down the shop and frequented himself in the many major recreation clubs of the Riverwest State. He got to know many of the girls in the recreation clubs and at the same time spent a great deal of money. His neighbors in the district had long known the horny side of the middle-aged man, so no one ever showed any sign of surprise.
However, none of them knew that during the weekends of the last two years, Feng Yu had not spent every weekend on relieving his male hormones, but instead, had gone to a secluded mine tunnel far from the city. The mine tunnel had been abandoned for many years. Especially after the mine accident ten years ago and the bankruptcy of the United Mining Corporation, no one ever visited the mine tunnel again. Even though the miner’s old break room had been turned into an appliance repair shop, no one else ever learned about it.
Xu Le shot a sharp glare at the middle-aged man sitting on the sofa. After a quiet sigh, he took out the dishes from the oven by his side and laid them on the table.
“Time to eat,” he said softly as he went on retrieving a hot towel for the middle-aged man to wipe his face with first.
No matter how annoyed Xu Le found himself, his habitual softheartedness and kindness would always soon take over. Not able to stomach the dispirited look of the middle-aged uncle, he couldn’t help but look after him.
Feng Yu sat on the table and started chewing the cheap-looking meat, making loud disgusting noises.
“Why’s the buffalo meat so tough?” he suddenly exclaimed.
“No meat tastes good if you leave it in a freezer for half a year.”
With a blank face, Xu Le filled his own bowl with rice and then sat by the table. The two men’s dining habits had turned into something quite unusual in the last two years. If an ordinary Eastwood District resident had seen this, he would have considered them excessively luxurious.
“You haven’t answered my question,” Xu Le suddenly put down his chopsticks and demanded sincerely. “I know you worked for the military as an electrical technician and only became a deserter because you offended your supervising officer. But that electric prod you taught me how to make, man, doesn’t it look a bit too authentic? See…it has been several days now. I must have really scared Bao Longtao. He didn’t dare to ask Li Wei about me at all.”
“Didn’t I tell you two years ago? I am a man with stories!” Uncle Feng Yu clearly didn’t mind the nausea-causing effect of his tone and continued with a leisurely voice filled with self-complacency.
“In those old days with my rank and security clearance in the military, the kind of design documents I could get my hands on will totally blow you away. Even if you wanted a battle-grade cannon, I could have made one for you, as long as you’ve got the needed materials, let alone a mere electric prod.”
Xu Le had grown quite used to this kind of conversation. Naturally he didn’t show much of a reaction.
“Will you give up the bragging? Remember that time when we were lucky to find a central control unit for a Mech at the waste station? You looked at it for five days and still dared not repair it.”
Feng Yu’s face turned purple. After a few coughs, he reprimanded sternly.
“That was an antique from the days of the Fourth Military District! Dammit! Who knows about a piece of crap hundreds of years old? Of course all I could do was to observe it with appreciation.”
“But what else can you make besides the electric prod?” Xu Le said dispiritedly. “It has been two years! All I learned from you were how to repair TVs, refrigerators, toys, and cars. The draft exam for the Department of Defense is only two years away. So far I haven’t even seen a real Mech or space battleship. How will I ever pass the exam?”
Feng Yu chewed on his steaks and mocked in a disgruntled voice.
“You never even finished the 12-year Compulsory Education, nor were you trained in a military technical school. How are you ever gonna pass? The Department of Defense is also enrolling cannon fodder marines. Why don’t you give that a try? I bet you every Marine Corps would welcome you with open arms!”
“If I pass the draft exam, then I’ll start off as a Technician Sergeant. That’s a higher starting point,” Xu Le replied sincerely after a short moment of ponder.
Feng Yu finally raised his head up and stared at the young lad with utter disbelief. Then he sighed with deep sorrow.
“You still haven’t given up that shameful dream of yours, have you?”
“Why would a dream be shameful?” Xu Le’s face shined with resolve. “The first dream of my life is to become an auxiliary officer of a space battleship. My second dream is to join the research branch of a big company at the Capital Star Circle, so I can live a good life.”
“The Feds are still at war with the Empire over in the Westwood District.” Feng Yu’s voice suddenly turned somewhat calm. “Forget your first dream. And as far as the second one goes, it’s actually not that difficult.”
They were both fast eaters, and by then Xu Le had started tidying up the table.
“The war has been going on for over sixty years. People here at the Eastwood Grand District have never seen any Empire guys, maybe with the exception of their diplomatic group on TV. What’s there to be afraid of?”
He paused for a second and then continued with a tone of frustration.
“I know I am not talented, I’ve studied for two years and the only thing I know how to make is an electric prod. But I know I really enjoy working with these machines. That’s why I want to give the draft exam a try.”
Feng Yu fell quiet. He lay down on the couch to watch TV, but his stares were actually still fixed on Xu Le’s back.
After washing the dishes, Xu Le entered the workshop room as usual, and soon began operating those tools and instruments that he was as familiar with as his fingers. At an unusually steady rate, he began fixing the pile of old and broken appliances, putting them back into working condition one by one.
The kind of common electronic appliance problems were not difficult to troubleshoot and overcome, but Xu Le still worked with the utmost earnestness, as if he was working on the most delicate and finest instrument in the entire Federation. Perhaps he never even noticed that every time when he fully devoted himself into his work, a brilliant trace of sincerity would shine on his adolescent face.
Uncle Feng Yu with stories lit a cigarette and then watched Xu Le’s busy figure through the glass wall with his narrowed eyes. It was probably time to lower the dust grade for another level, he thought to himself. Then he remembered the words Xu Le had said earlier. He couldn’t help but lift the corners of his mouth, and then blew a smoke ring.
The smoke ring scattered slowly and eventually disappeared into Feng Yu’s gray hair. At that exact moment, Feng Yu thought to himself: Everyone in the world calls me a genius, but in some aspects, this young lad named Xu Le has only got … more talents.

Now support the author Maoni by clicking this link, and support the translator Lanny by following my blog! :)

Video of the Day:

Giant Gundam Mech Warrior Robot Statue Protecting Tokyo!!

Sunday, May 03, 2009

10 Famous Thought Experiments That Just Boggle Your Mind Part 3

Read Part 2: The Gettier Problem

8. The Ticking Time Bomb

Imagine that a bomb or other weapon of mass destruction is hidden in your city, and the timer on it will soon strike zero. You have in your custody a man with knowledge of where the device is planted. Do you resort to torture in order to get him to give up the information?

Sounds like an action movie? It's only another thought experiment called "ticking time bomb". Like the trolley problem, the ticking time bomb scenario is an ethical problem that forces one to choose between two morally questionable acts.

Thanks to many fictional movies and TV shows, the ticking time bomb scenario is one of the most discussed thought experiments. The US government has laws against torturing prisoners (Although we all know how well that law is being followed. Think Abu Ghraib.), but would breaking the law be justified if large number of people's lives can be saved? A British news article extended the scenario and asked if one would be willing to resort to torturing the man's wife and children as a means of extracting the information from him. This sounds really scary now!

According to Wikipedia:
In September 2002, when reviewing Alan Dershowitz's book, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge, Richard Posner, a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, wrote in The New Republic, "If torture is the only means of obtaining the information necessary to prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Times Square, torture should be used--and will be used--to obtain the information.... No one who doubts that this is the case should be in a position of responsibility."

Morgan from the Center for American Free Thoughts gave an interesting discussion in the video below (sorry, I can't find a commercial-free version, so this will do).

I don't know which side I should support. It is quite a dilemma. However, I am one hundred percent sure that we shouldn't allow the government to easily slap the title of "terrorists" on innocent citizens and then torture him/her or take away their basic rights and claim it is "justified".

Read Part 4: Einstein's Light Beam

Picture of the Day:

This spectacular photo looks like it is coming out of a Sci-Fi movie. It is actually taken by a Russian girl who snuck into a Russian military rocket factory.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Robot of the Day: Air Hogs Gyro X RC Helicopter

Maybe because of the frequent sightings of helicopters flying over our house, my three-year-old son developed this special interest in helicopters and always wanted a helicopter. And since my research is related to robotic airplanes, I also have a strong urge to own a robotic airplane myself. So when I found out about the Black Friday deal on the Air Hogs Gyro X RC Helicopter, I jumped on it, under the claim that the helicopter was really the birthday present for my son's three-year-old birthday!

The RC helicopter normally sells for $40, but I was able to get one at half price thanks to Black Friday sales at RadioShack. It is a remote-controlled toy airplane, so the kit included a controller that lets the user controls the throttle (to fly the helicopter up and down) together with an omnidirectional stick to control the flying directions. The controller also has a wheel on the side that allows you to trim the plane (adjusting the balance of the plane so it doesn't keep rotating in one direction). The controller also acts as a charger. Powered itself by four AA batteries, the controller has a wire to connect to the airplane for charging the battery on the airplane.

This RC toy can actually be categorized as a robotics device because it has built-in a "gyro" electronic stabilization system for smooth flight. The "gyro" sensor can sense the roll of the plane and then adjust the speed and direction of the small tail propeller to automatically stabilize the plane. What this means is that a beginner can easily focus on the throttle of the helicopter (controlling the altitude) and not worry about keeping the helicopter in an upright position. In a sense, the "auto-pilot" on the tiny plane can take over some of the responsibility for keeping the plane hovering in the same spot, which is extra nice because now even my three-old son can fly this thing around the house.

In robotics terminology, this type of function is called "Shared Control". For example, you can direct a ground mobile robot to go toward a certain direction, but the robot is capable of going around obstacles autonomously, so you don't have to worry about it. Although in the RC helicopter case, the stabilization autonomy falls pretty low in Tom Sheridan's Levels of Autonomy, it is a start. The robotic planes we use in our research also can stabilize themselves in the air in various wind conditions and maintain a constant speed. And once we load the terrain data into the control station, the UAVs can also maintain their height-above-ground. With GPS capabilities, the research UAVs can also follow way points.

The $20 Air Hog RC Helicopter of course is not that sophisticated. Besides, GPS works terribly in an indoor environment. However, it is totally possible that I could use some computer vision program to estimate the position of the plane and then send control signals from a computer instead of the RC controller. Then the little plane might display a slightly higher intelligence.

Another great thing about this helicopter is its durability. You can crash it left and right without worrying about damaging the device (which is a rare thing in robot world). The biggest downside is that the tiny battery in the plane only flies for about 5 minutes with a full charge --- frankly, a bit too short for me, especially when time seems to zoom by quickly when I have a great time flying this thing. Then it takes 20-30 minutes to charge. The upside about this is that it really teaches my kids that patience is a virtue.

Anyway, this RC helicopter is a great toy for beginner operators and kids. If you want to read a more detailed review of this RC Helicopter, click here.

Picture of the Day: Black Friday Fail! Only a programmer will get a kick out of this!

Friday, May 01, 2009

10 Famous Thought Experiments That Just Boggle Your Mind Part 2

Read Part 1: The Trolley Problem

9. The Gettier Problem (The Cow in the field)

One of the major thought experiments in epistemology (the field of philosophy that deals with knowledge) is what is known as “The Cow in the Field.” It concerns a farmer who is worried his prize cow has wandered off. When the milkman comes to the farm, he tells the farmer not to worry, because he’s seen that the cow is in a nearby field. Though he’s nearly sure the man is right, the farmer takes a look for himself, sees the familiar black and white shape of his cow, and is satisfied that he knows the cow is there. Later on, the milkman drops by the field to double-check. The cow is indeed there, but it’s hidden in a grove of trees. There is also a large sheet of black and white paper caught in a tree, and it is obvious that the farmer mistook it for his cow. The question, then: even though the cow was in the field, was the farmer correct when he said he knew it was there?

The Cow in the Field was first used by Edmund Gettier as a criticism of the popular definition of knowledge as “justified true belief”—that is, that something becomes knowledge when a person believes it; it is factually true; and they have a verifiable justification for their belief. In the experiment, the farmer’s belief that the cow was there was justified by the testimony of the milkman and his own verification of a black and white object sitting in the field. It also happened to be true, as the milkman later confirmed. But despite all this, the farmer did not truly know the cow was there, because his reasoning for believing it turned out to be based on false premises. Gettier used this experiment, along with a few other examples, as proof of his argument that the definition of knowledge as justified true belief needed to be amended. The video below shows another example of the Gettier Problem.

A robot or an AI agent can acquire knowledge in several distinct ways. The easiest one (at least for the programmer) is to memorize facts. For example: the capital of the United States is Washington D.C., earth is a sphere, and a triangle has three sides. These are beliefs we forcefully inject into the agent's brain and the agent might blindly take them in as faith. AI agents are great at storing facts and can store large quantities of facts. This is similar (roughly) to us human learning in elementary schools.

Another way of acquiring knowledge is to learn the rules and then apply rules to different problems. For example: don't run into an obstacle. Abstracting and representing rules can be quite challenging for designers, that's why robots today don't have a lot of rules programmed into them. Having too many rules can also exponentially increase the computational complexity can cause internal conflicts, unless the robot is designed to ignore rules at times or only apply rules that can help optimize or maximize certain utilities, like how we humans do at our convenience. However, once the rules are implemented, robots are great at executing them (as long as the rules are clearly defined). For example, we already have AI agents that can solve or generate proofs for very complicated math problems, even better than the human counterparts. This method is similar (roughly) to us human learning in middle schools. Learning by demonstration probably falls under this category as well.

A third way of acquiring knowledge for robots and AI agents is by the means of traditional machine learning using existing data sets. Whether supervised learning (where records in a data set are labeled by human) or unsupervised learning (no labels), the basic idea is that the agent would try to "rationalize" the data sets and then find some consistent properties, or "insights", in the data sets, and then be able to apply them to new information (generalize). This is similar (roughly) to us human learning in college where we are exposed to a lot of facts, but we have to come up with general senses of these facts and then conclude with our own, newly identified rules. Agents are normally bounded by "features" identified by human who provided the data sets. However, few smart agents can try to come up with "features" of their own and it falls under the name of "Active Learning".

Yet another way of acquiring knowledge for these artificial beings is through Bayesian networks (logical nodes interconnected like a neural network). Given that a good Bayesian network exists (or one that's pretty good at self-evolving), the agent first have some a priori beliefs of things (e.g., sky is blue and grass is green) acquired either through previous mentioned methods or simply non-informative (e.g., a woman is probably just as lazy as a man). Then through observations, the agent learns from experience and obtain a posteriori knowledge. The new knowledge might be completely opposite to the a priori beliefs, therefore the agent modifies its beliefs of the existing rules, previous facts, and the world and everything in the universe. You probably already see where I am going. This is similar (roughly) to us human beings learning in grad schools.

Not to ridicule things, by the time the agent becomes really imaginative and start to question everything simply based on reports from lower-level agents (hmm...grad school robots?), we make it a professor. (I hope my advisor is not reading this...)

Anyway, back to the original topic, IMHO, we can't always rely on justified true beliefs, but isn't at least trying to justify the belief better than blind beliefs? Of course when it comes to authority, my robots don't have to justify its beliefs, because to them, I am God!

Read Part 3: The Ticking Time Bomb

Video of the Day:

Great examples of illusions. So we shouldn't trust what we see with our eyes. Does this mean we shouldn't trust everything we see?