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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

RoboEarth: An Internet for robots

by Mark Ollig

How has using the Internet improved the human condition?

One answer is in its capacity for allowing people to add, retrieve, and benefit from the information contained within it.

The Internet helps us to get prompt answers to our questions.

It also provides us with the processes needed to complete specific tasks using the information uploaded by others who have already accomplished them.

We are able to access this wealth of human-collected knowledge from just about any location on the planet.

Countless people have contributed to this ever-expanding pool of intelligence we share amongst ourselves.

The Internet is to us, as Paul Otlet’s early 20th century collection of thousands of wooden drawers filled with cataloged books and papers, were to him.

The story of Paul Otlet is one worth reading. Here is the link to the column I wrote about him July 21, 2008:

We know how humans have used the Internet for the improvement and betterment of their lives, but what about the robots? How do they learn, and improve upon accomplishing their tasks?

People create the programing software code used by a robot in order for it to logically complete a task.

When a modification to a task a robot performs is needed, an intervention or a change is required to be made by a human.

This human involvement takes additional time, and, until the program changes are implemented, the robot will encounter delays in its ability to complete tasks.

What if the robot could wirelessly tap into a knowledge database having the information it needed for making its own program modifications; thus quickly adapting itself in performing new tasks?

And what if this knowledge base included contributions made by other robots?

You would have what the researchers at Eindhoven University in the Netherlands, and five other European institutes have been working on for four years; a World Wide Web-styled database called: RoboEarth.

RoboEarth is a new online, worldwide information depository.

Robots will access this depository in order to teach and learn skill sets from each other.

“The goal of RoboEarth is to allow robotic systems to benefit from the experience of other robots,” said Dr. Ir. René van de Molengraft, project coordinator at Eindhoven University of Technology.

RoboEarth can also be thought of as a “Wikipedia for robots.”

The idea is to speedup delivery of the knowledge and skills required for a robot to carry out its tasks for hospital patient care, or for its role in supporting the growing elderly population, or for providing assistance to those in need of it at home.

As we grow older, and become more dependent on assistance while in our homes, robots will be fulfilling a variety of caretaker duties for us.

These robots would need to be able to adjust to new situations and conditions within its environment, namely, the home or facility it would be providing assistance in.

Researchers point out a person can teach (program) a robot to bring them a cup of coffee into the dining room; however, if there’s an obstacle, or the location of the dining room table or the chairs have changed, the robot may become confused, and not be able to find the person.

Robots need to tap into some universally available resource in order to obtain the necessary knowledge needed to quickly deal with any new situation or conflict they may confront.

This is where RoboEarth comes in.

When many of us come across a subject or a process we need more information about, we access the Internet and research it.

Now, robots will be able to tap into their own network information resource.

This resource will be largely contributed to, retrieved by, and shared betweenº fellow robots.

RoboEarth will be directly accessible to robots, via a wireless network.

Scientists will soon put the RoboEarth system to the test at the Eindhoven University of Technology.

There, inside a mockup of a hospital room, four robots will be using RoboEarth to complete a series of tasks. Some of these tasks include serving beverages to a patient.

These robots will work with one another, learning new skill sets and sharing them with each other via RoboEarth.

It would be interesting to look many years into the future and see the kind of information amassed in RoboEarth, and how it’s being used by the robotic intelligence community.

The word “RoboEarth” reminds me of the 1987 sci-fi movie “RoboCop.”

This caused yours truly to wonder if the intelligent robots of the future will have encrypted RoboEarth, in order to prevent humans from accessing its knowledge base.

This could make an intriguing storyline for a science fiction novel.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Business needs to keep pace with growing online population

by Mark Ollig

Many consider 1993 as the year we began using the Web in earnest.

The Web was going to be a whole new way for us to obtain news, to learn, to collaborate, to retrieve and share information, to work, and to entertain ourselves.  
It also opened up a whole new world of possibilities for personal interactions, and public dialogue. 

Yes, we were excited about this fresh, new medium; this global World Wide Web.

Of course, the corporate business world was undoubtedly thinking of ways to make money from it.

During the 1980s and early ‘90s, much of our online computing experience consisted of using a telephone modem, and dial-up services we paid to use such as: Prodigy, CompuServe, and AOL.

These sites were, more or less, large Bulletin Board Systems (BBS’s) with a connection to the Internet. 

We needed to install their proprietary client software on our computer. This software usually came on a 3.5-inch diskette, or a 5.25-inch floppy disk.

Many small, independently operated, free-to-access hobby BBS’s were out there, too.

Before Web browsers hit the scene, we used a “command line” and traversed the Internet in text mode. We typed specific commands in order to retrieve information.

With a Web browser, we could navigate over the fast-growing Web portion of the Internet via a colorful, intuitive, graphical interface, and the use of a point-and-click mouse. 

We learned HyperText Markup Language (HTML) coding for creating our own individual web pages using a text editor program. 

What fueled the Internet’s dramatic rise in public usage after 1993 was the Web, and I contribute this largely to the Mosaic Web browser software installed in many personal computers. 

Mosaic wasn’t the first Web browser. 

Tim Berners-Lee is the person credited with writing the programming code which allows us to point and click our way through the myriad of hyper-links connecting documents, sounds, videos, and information we access via the World Wide Web portion of the Internet using a Web browser.

Berners-Lee called his creation a “global hypertext system.”

Some people believe the Internet and the Web are the same; but this is not true. The Web is actually a type of technology that works with the Internet. 

We know the Internet is “the networks of networks.” This network consists of many devices, including: computers, cables, routers, switches, gateways, and data servers – all working together.

Information sent over the Internet consists of data bits inside a data packet. I tend to think of a data packet as analogous to a letter inside an envelope addressed to a specific mailing address. 

This data packet travels through the many devices connected on the Internet. Each device, or “hop,” along the way determines which path the packet needs to take next so its information ends up getting to its desired destination. 

The fewer the “hops,” the faster the information will be sent and retrieved.

The Internet delivers packets of information between connected devices anywhere in the world using transmission control and Internet protocols – and it does this very quickly.

The Web browser program called WorldWideWeb, was created by Tim Berners-Lee. This browser was made available to the public in 1991. 

In 1994, a new Web browser called Netscape Navigator became extremely popular with Web users. It ended up becoming the dominant Web browser for the remainder of the 1990s.

During the last 20 years, many of us have come to spend hours on end online, interacting within our favorite websites using a variety of Web browsers.

Today, 2 billion of us world-wide, regularly use the Web. 

Along the way, businesses were very carefully watching how the public became enamored with the Web. They soon realized, in order to keep themselves (and their products and services) in the eyes of this ever-growing online public;,they needed to have a presence on the Web.

Marketing firm Onyxdigital recently stated 85 percent of customers “expect businesses to be active in social media.”

Approximately 68 percent of business Twitter followers, and 51 percent of business Facebook fans, have a tendency to make a purchase from online business advertising. 

Studies also show businesses with blogging accounts receive 55 percent more Web traffic.

Customers are increasingly using a business’s Twitter account or Facebook page for submitting questions and comments. 

Onyxdigital reported 71 percent of complaints made on business Twitter accounts are not responded to. However, of the 29 percent who did receive a Twitter response, 83 percent said they were “satisfied” with it.

They also reported 30 percent of customer inquiries received “no reply” from a business’s online social media site. Onyxdigital posed this insightful question: “Would you NOT answer the phone 30 percent of the time?” 

Onyxdigital’s website is located at:

Online chat sessions via social media need to be utilized by more businesses to communicate with customers; much the same as if a customer was on the phone, or inside their brick-and-mortar store.

Too many online businesses have become fixated with their number of Twitter “followers” and “likes” on their Facebook pages, instead of cultivating one-on-one, productive customer interactions via their social media sites.

Companies with just a static, online social media presence are missing out.

Businesses need to establish a dynamic, online social media presence where the customer can easily communicate with them in real-time. This is a good way to network and nurture relationships with online patrons.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Brightly streaking across the sky

by Mark Ollig

While writing this column during the early pre-dawn hours, I looked out the living room window and noticed it had snowed overnight.

With yard lights shining on the new-fallen snow, it looked as if an enormously white, fluffy blanket was covering the ground.

The branches of the surrounding pine trees also held copious amounts of the white stuff.

I checked the outdoor thermometer, and sighed. “I will need to put on my heavy winter jacket before heading outside into the frozen Minnesota tundra,” I thought.

Of course, being we’re hearty Minnesotans, we are used to going through these “good old-fashioned” winters; however, I am now anxiously awaiting the warmer temperatures of spring.

I took a sip from my coffee mug, and resumed typing.

Last week’s column talked about some of the new products from the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, or CES2014.

I viewed the follow-up videos produced by the International CES about this year’s show, and was blown away by some of the numbers.

For example, they reported around 20,000 consumer products were displayed on 2 million net-square-feet of space; equaling some 37 football fields’ worth of technology being exhibited.

The number of people attending the CES2014 from outside the US was impressive: approximately 35,000.

They reported, between Jan. 7 - 10, 150,000 people had attended the CES2014.

The Twitter hashtag, #CES2014, was mentioned over 256,000 times, and was seen by an estimated 2.9 billion online users.

The CES2014 car show floor exhibited examples of wireless Bluetooth technology solutions for connecting various smart devices (such as your tablets or smartphones) to your automobile.

These product solutions included: BluClik, BluStream, InSeam, and Tranzit BLU HF.

I also noted an assortment of high-tech replacement rear-view mirrors.

A display screen on one of these rear-view mirrors allowed a person, when backing up their car, to view the lower hidden area behind their vehicle, via a video camera lens positioned on the back of the car.

This low, hidden area at the rear of an automobile is normally not viewable when using a standard rear-view mirror.

Look for rear-view surveillance camera display systems to be installed as a standard safety feature in future car models.

I have come to appreciate the rear-view surveillance camera and display screen in my new car – it makes me feel a lot safer knowing what is directly behind my automobile when backing up.

It’s also a great assist when parking the car, too.

CES2014 also exhibited vehicle dashboard video recording cameras, known as “dashcams.” These devices record what you see while you are driving your car.

Dashcams can be surface- mounted, or discreetly installed high on the inside windshield, right behind the rear-view mirror.

There are forward-window- facing dashcams, and other models with wider viewing angles.

There are models which provide excellent video quality during the day and night.

Dashcams can also operate 24 hours a day.

Many dashcam systems use loop recording, which means if the video storage disk runs out of space, new video will begin recording over the oldest video files, allowing the dashcam to record for an indefinite period.

Video from the dashcam can be watched on a smartphone or smartdevice via Wi-Fi, or a cellular data connection.

Some dashcam systems can stream their video live to the Internet, where it can be stored in a cloud server and/or viewed live.

Having a dashcam installed would certainly be of benefit, especially if one is ever involved in a car accident; you could use the dashcam’s video to see what happened, and possibly to prove who was at fault.

Another benefit would be having video proof of the person(s) who vandalized your car while it was parked.

People also have dashcams installed for recording any suspicious activity occurring in the area where their car is located.

Some folks use dashcams as a video road diary for recording and narrating long, scenic road trips.

Oh, and how about using a dashcam to record those zealous, preoccupied road-raged drivers who are always in a hurry, and scream at anyone who makes eye contact with them.

To watch some of these road-rage dashcam videos, just do a YouTube search on “road rage driver” and you’ll keep yourself entertained for hours.

Many uploaded dashcam videos to YouTube have become popular, some have even gone viral.

For example, we would not have seen the huge, bright, exploding meteor streaking across the skies of Chelyabinsk, Russia in February 2013, if not for the dashcam video recordings provided by the Russian drivers who were in the right place at the right time.

I expect more people in this country to be installing dashcams in their automobiles; you never know – your dashcam might someday record the “no one would believe it” flying saucer hovering silently in the sky.

DVR (digital video recorder) dashcams normally range from $50 to $400.

To view the YouTube dashcam video of the spectacular meteor flashing across the sky in Chelyabinsk, go to:

Next year’s CES2015 event will take place Jan. 6 - 9 in Las Vegas.