Nine to Noon: 2 July 2009

July 1, 2009 – 12:40 pm

Listen to my 2 July 2009 appearance on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon show. I spoke about emotional robots, Kiwi web awards, and a new US government transparency web site.

Below are my notes. I prepare a small essay on the subjects I’m talking about because it helps me get my thoughts straight. We often deviate from the topic of my notes (as we did today with the long sidetrack into artificial intelligence). I look at my notes as where the conversation starts, not where it stops.



Ok, so first thing first: there are plenty of robots around us already. I’m not talking about Jim from Accounting whose only conversational gambit is marginal tax rates, but wires and metal machines. They make our cars, they pack our coffee beans, they sort our kiwifruit. But those are industrial robots. There are also military robots, blowing up roadside bombs and flying scout planes, but I’m not going to talk about them. I’ll talk about the softer, gentler, side of robots.

As is often the case, MIT are to blame. They have a Personal Robots group working on making robots that can interact with us as people, rather than just vacuum our carpets and blow up our bombs. Here are a couple of the cooler projects.

Leonardo looks like a Ewok from Star Wars: furry, pointed ears, big wide eyes. Leonardo was built by the Stan Winston studio. Stan Winston is famous for the creatures and make-up effects in Terminator, Predator, Batman, and other big Hollywood movies. Leonardo is a robotic toy, named after da Vinci of course, about 2.5 feet tall.

Brief diversion. A degree of freedom is something moving in one axis. Beckoning is one degree of freedom coming from a finger knuckle. Waggling your finger is a second degree, and comes from the joint where the finger attaches to the hand. Tapping your finger is a third degree of freedom, again coming from the joint with the hand.

Leonardo has 69 degrees of freedom, all provided by tiny motors. Most robot designers use degrees of freedom to tackle things like walking. 32 of Leonardo’s are in the face for lip curls, eyebrow waggles, forehead frowns, etc. There are something like 44 separate muscles that you generate facial expressions with, so Leonardo’s a long way along.

The goal is to make an *expressive* robot: something you can interact with beyond stilted voice synthesis (“I’M SORRY DAVE, I CAN’T DO THAT”). With Leonardo, and there are videos floating around the Internet–I’ve linked to one, you can forget that you’re looking at a robot. Briefly, of course, because the motors squeak and the movements are slower than a human’s, but that brief moment of “no wait, that’s not real” is priceless.

The project is based on social developmental psychology. Leonardo learns: in the video, a researcher shows an Elmo toy to Leonardo and gets excited. Leonardo gets excited back.

Researchers in computer graphics talk about something called the “uncanny valley”: you make crude computer graphics and everyone goes “oh, that’s computer generated”. But as it gets better and better, closer and closer to reality, there comes at point at which you can still tell it’s computer generated but it’s so close to real that it’s creepy. Presumably you can make it better and then nobody could tell it was fake. But between perfect and crude lies this “uncanny valley”. Leonardo is in that uncanny valley, if not there already.

Here’s something I found on a blog, someone less impressed with Leonardo:
“For some reason I can’t look at MIT’s Leonardo robot without an involuntary shudder – I think it’s the lifelike fur and the evil, calculating eyes. I still think it looks like an evil squirrel monster.”

If nothing else, though, watching the Leonardo video should convince you that we’re a long way from Terminator and the evil robot overlords walking among us.

Kiwi Web Awards

The Onyas launched last week (as in “good onya”). They’re awards for New Zealand web sites showing the best design, accessibility, usability, etc. This is brought to you by the people behind Webstock, the most awesomest web conference ever (in the words of many American visitors). Rather than the consumer-choice Netguide awards, which reflect popularity but not necessarily excellence, the Onyas are by the industry and for the industry.

It’s sponsored by New Zealand Post, Idealog magazine, and a Kiwi web design company, Shift. This is another sign that New Zealand’s web industry is growing up and getting a sense of identity. Now we just have to make hope the award winners don’t get jobs overseas!

Categories include best mobile, accessible, usable, innovation, and “most outstanding”. There’s only one New Zealander on the judging panel, the rest are from overseas. That means the candidates will be held to high international standards, and won’t be seen through jaded Kiwi eyes.


The US Government’s CIO just launched the “IT Dashboard”. The government here spends US $80B a year on IT projects. I think this year’s budget for the New Zealand government had total government expenditure at NZ $75B. So that’s a lot of money the US government are spending. Now citizens can see which projects this money went to, whether they’re on or behind schedule, whether the CIO is happy with them, and the contractor getting the money.

It’s a great idea, and something the Obama administration is doing more of. They’ve opened up the stimulus package at, so you can see where around the country the money went. The recovery web site got a lot of flak for not being detailed enough (you can see which state got the money, but often not which programs they wasted it on). This IT dashboard is a lot more detailed.

New Zealand needs more of this. The UK Government is moving towards it. Australia launched a “Gov 2.0 Task Force” with money to spend making these transparency projects happen. New Zealand … not a whistle. I started to house these kinds of projects built outside the government, but it’s slow going because we don’t release a lot of the relevant transparency information.

A Kiwi technologist, Glen Barnes, started a project on opengovt to build a list of open government data, but the truly interesting stuff either isn’t opened or isn’t gathered in the first place. For example, I’m pretty sure the NZ Govt doesn’t gather the IT project progress information that the US Govt does, so it’s not there in the first place to be opened. Lift your game, Enzed!

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