All Things Old Are New Again

Grey cassette tape with red reels and clear window.Some days, it seems like all things old are new again. The retro movement is bringing back products that I thought would stay buried forever. In this blog post I will review a few products from the past that have returned with a new twist.

Polaroid

I thought the Polaroid brand had disappeared until I saw an ad for a new Polaroid camera. This does not look like anything I remember, but amazingly it still has the instant print feature. Thanks to a technology called ZINK (Zero-Ink) these cameras print images instantly while saving them digitally. This new technology uses heat to excite color molecules embedded in special paper that are then arranged to form a print of the image you captured. Just like the cameras of old, you have to buy packs of special paper and you get the classic Polaroid border.

Classic Video Games

Old arcade games such as Pong, Pac-Man, and Space Invaders are available again through the various app stores. Perhaps it is refreshing to go back to 1972 to try your hand at Pong after being challenged by the complexity of modern video games. A dot and two paddles seem pretty simple today but it was cutting edge when Atari created the first arcade games. Instead of pulling out our smart phone, we actually had to go to the arcade in the mall and pay a quarter for the privilege of testing our skill and hope that our initials would appear in the hall of fame. Swedish airports have capitalized on this nostalgia kick by installing classic arcade games that will take any currency. While waiting for your luggage you can try your hand at Ms. Pac-Man, and all of the money the machine takes in is donated to the Swedish Red Cross.

Old School Telephones

That same smartphone that now plays video games used to be a hardwired telephone complete with handset. The old school phone is new again, but with a twist. The iRetroPhone is a dock and charger that lets you use an iPhone as a rotary dialer with a traditional handset. Touted benefits include comfort, shielding from any radiation, and complete access to your phone screen while talking. As in the days before cordless phones, you have to stay within cord-length of the IRetroPhone, but it does provide for a bit of nostalgia.

Cassette Tapes

While vinyl records have been making a comeback for several years, cassette tapes are just now rebounding. All of my cassette tapes are garbled from bleed-through and years of storage, so someone must have done a better job preserving them than I have. There is a growing market for old cassette tapes and some independent labels are recording new material on tape. While the market is still small, it is growing in some circles. Sony has developed a tape that will hold 185 terabytes of storage. It has the same form factor as a cassette but uses different materials. If used for music it will store 47 million songs, but it will most likely be used as a backup medium for large data centers.

Thoughts

What is behind the push to recreate old form factors using new technology? Are we trying to return to what we perceive were simpler times, or is this a backlash to increasingly complicated technology that is sometimes not so user-friendly? Cassette tapes were fun, but for reliability give me solid-state memory any day. Are there old technologies you wish would make a comeback? Will we some day witness a revival of eight-track tapes? Let me know your thoughts.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

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Early Women in Technology: Cracking the Enigma

A woman works on the American Bombe. Image in public domain.Last week I wrote about women in technology, a theme I’m continuing because there are so many women who played key roles in pioneering technologies, especially in early computing. This post is dedicated to all of my friends in the United Kingdom.

Cracking the Enigma Code

A recent TechRepublic article showcased the contributions of the British Government Code and Cypher School toward breaking the code of the German Enigma encryption machine during World War II. There were over 10,000 people working on this top-secret decryption effort, two thirds of whom were women. Many of them were just out of college or even just out of high school. Their job was to experiment with different decoding combinations that would crack messages being relayed by German command to the field. The decoding work went on in shifts, 24 hours a day. Every 24 hours the Germans changed the encryption algorithm so the British task started anew each day. The British needed a faster way to break the daily encryption code so that they could decode more messages.

Contributions to the Turing Machine

Alan Turing developed an electromechanical machine called the Bombe, which was designed to emulate several German Enigma encryption machines. While his invention did hasten the end of the war, it still took monumental human effort to configure it and run it each day. That task fell largely to the Women’s Royal Naval Service or the Wrens. Large drums had to be set from the front and boards had to be correctly plugged in the back, based on a menu or set of instructions for the day. The members of the Code and Cypher School, including the Wrens, worked in eight-hour shifts, often changing shifts weekly. Their mission was top secret, so they were not able to tell their families about their work. Because of this secrecy, many of these women and men were not given the credit they deserved until much later, if at all.

Pioneers in Computing

In the early days of computing, women in America were calculating ordnance and trajectory tables using simple electromechanical calculators, while women in Britain were programming the very earliest electromechanical computers to decrypt messages from the Allied enemies. Both were involved in early computing and both were on a common mission to aid the Allies in winning the war. From these experiences came a pressing need to automate work and speed up calculations. The earliest electromechanical computers gave way to the first digital computers, and thankfully they became employed in business and commerce instead of war.

Thoughts

When you open your laptop or turn on your tablet or smartphone, I hope that you will consider the contributions of women and men in early computing. Room-sized computers have given way to pocket-sized devices, but not overnight and not without a lot of effort. It has been an incredible history and I look forward to the future.
Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

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Women: Technology Pioneers

Grace Hopper, 1961.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-1114)

Grace Hopper, 1961. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-1114)

March is Women’s History Month so I am highlighting women in technology. There are many women who made contributions to computing, education, design, and communication. I will spotlight just a few here and encourage you to read about others. Perhaps there are some within your own family who had an early impact on the technology that we enjoy today.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, is the first to come to mind when I think of women of technology. Born in 1815 in England to poet Lord Byron and his wife, she showed an early aptitude for analytics. Beginning in 1833, she partnered with Charles Babbage to develop plans for a difference engine and later an analytical engine. These were some of the earliest ideas for a mechanical computer. Of the two, she was better able to articulate the promise and purpose of these inventions and completed much of the documentation. She is widely cited as author of the first algorithm.

The First Computers

During World War II, female mathematicians were hired to do calculations for tables of firing and bombing trajectories. They were known as “computers.” They did much of their work with calculators that were mechanical and driven with electric motors.

According to Kay Antonelli, one of the early computers:

“You’d do a multiplication and when the answer appeared, you had to write it down to reenter it into the machine to do the next calculation. We were preparing a firing table for each gun, with maybe 1,800 simple trajectories. To hand-compute just one of these trajectories took 30 or 40 hours of sitting at a desk with paper and a calculator. As you can imagine, they were soon running out of young women to do the calculations.”

Fortunately, the ENIAC computer was developed in 1945 to automate a lot of the processes. As a result, many of the early “computers” became the first programmers for the ENIAC.

Grace Hopper

Commmodore Grace M. Hopper, Courtesy U.S. Navy DN-SC-84-05971

Commmodore Grace M. Hopper, Courtesy U.S. Navy DN-SC-84-05971

Grace Hopper graduated from Vassar College in 1928 and joined the faculty shortly after as a math and physics professor. She took a leave from teaching in 1944 to join the Naval Reserves. She was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University where she worked on the first Mark series computers and later on the ENIAC and UNIVAC. She had a talent for programming and in particular for natural language programming, and is credited with popularizing the term “debugging.” She helped develop the forerunner to COBOL, one of the first programming languages to move away from machine language, or ones and zeroes. Next time you pull up your favorite programming language, thank Rear Admiral Grace Hopper.

Anita Borg

Anita Borg was a brilliant computer scientist and a proponent of women in technology. She received her PhD in computer science in 1981 and developed a specialty in high-speed networking and high-speed memory systems. In 1994, she helped create the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference. In 1997, she founded the Institute for Women and Technology, which is now the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. She once stated that her goal was to have 50 percent representation for women in computing by 2020. While we are still not at that level, the efforts of Anita Borg, Grace Hopper, and others are bringing us closer.

Thoughts

Many of the earliest pioneers of technology and computing were women, by choice or by circumstance. As we celebrate Women’s History Month in March, take a moment to remember their contributions and encourage young women to follow in their footsteps and build on their legacies.
Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

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Data in the Dirt: Technology in Farming Redux

Agronomist working in a wheat field.Last year I blogged on unique uses of technology in farming. Spring is in the air here in the Pacific Northwest, so I want to revisit that thread and highlight a technology and company born right here at the University of Oregon. This company is researching the interaction between plants and fertilizers, particularly nitrogen. They have developed a technology and device that will allow a farmer or grower to monitor the nitrogen level of the soil, thus preventing excess fertilization and runoff.

SupraSensor Technologies

SupraSensor Technologies was formed in 2012 from the graduate work of Calden Carroll in partnership with his professors, Darren Johnson and Mike Haley. They discovered that the interaction between plant cells and their nitrogen level could be measured. Nitrogen fertilizer is water soluble and excess nitrogen runs off and mixes with the water table. In some areas of the country, there are large algal blooms that were fed by runoff. Algal blooms change water pH and oxygen levels, which harm fish and other organisms, and some species of algae are toxic, even deadly, to people and animals.

Field Nutrient Sensors

Carroll and other researchers did not stop at identifying this molecular interaction. They developed a device called a Field Nutrient Sensor™ (FNS™), which measures the nitrogen level in the soil, just below root level. This information is collected wirelessly so that a farmer can determine precisely where to fertilize and when to stop. It is estimated that 30 percent of all fertilizer runs off, so this device would reduce the use of chemicals, thus saving money for the farmer and promoting a sustainable and healthier farm. Collecting the data wirelessly is much less labor intensive and yields more accurate and timely data.

Farming Meets Information Technology

SupraSensor Technologies has test sensors in the field right now and is seeking funding for commercialization. It has secured seed funding from the National Science Foundation and through state and national grants. The ability to collect this important data means that farms will now need information technology experts to not only help with the data collection and wireless networking but also with data analytics to create a coherent picture of the health of the farm, the plants, and the soil. Information technology is emerging from the computer room and finding its way to the farm, the manufacturing floor, the research site, and wherever data is being turned into solutions for a better world.

Thoughts

There are many opportunities developing for IT professionals and it is an exciting time to be involved in tackling real world problems like healthy farms and sustainable ecosystems. Do you know of other technology and research breakthroughs that you would like me to highlight? Let me know if have you cool things that need to be shared.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

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All Things Health

Male hand holding stethoscope emerges from a laptop screen.I have blogged in the past on the Internet of Things (IoT) and also on health and technology. Today’s post is about the intersection of those two areas. It is about how the Internet of Things can keep us potentially safe and healthy.

Tracking Your Health

With the introduction of the Apple Watch yesterday, Apple also introduced ResearchKit, a follow on to HealthKit that was introduced last year. This allows you to participate in research studies through your iPhone. Hardware on the iPhone such as voice recorders or motion sensors can help you track steps taken or voice patterns that may detect the onset of Parkinson’s disease. This data can then be shared, with your permission, with researchers so they get a much larger global sampling for their studies. Of course, the data is also available to you as well so that you can monitor and be an advocate for your own health. Perhaps, you are not getting as much exercise as you need or perhaps there are early warning signs of a chronic disease that you need to pay attention to. It would be great to have a device that would detect the early signs of a stroke and alert you and others to the possibility—early detection and intervention is critical in this case.

Smart Health

In a recent article by Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, she highlights some devices in the intersection of Internet of Things and health monitoring. Among the devices she mentions are these:

  • Scales that monitor not only your weight but also your body composition. This is a great way to closely track your health day to day and over a long period.
  • Beds that monitor your heart rate, respiration rate, motion, and “bed presence” or how long you have been in bed can help you track your health through nonintrusive means. These measures can give you early warning signs of health issues.
  • Toilets that can monitor your weight, BMI, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. This is important to help you understand when you are becoming pre-diabetic and need to change your diet or exercise routine.
  • Motion monitors such as FitBit or the new Apple Watch which remind us through a chime or haptic feedback when we have been sitting too long or have not completed our 10,000 steps for the day yet.
  • Smart lamps designed to change light intensity depending on the time of day and also monitor your sleep (or lack thereof) and remind you when it is time to retire by a friendly blink. These are connected to your home network and can be controlled through your smartphone.

Thoughts

Where some see opportunity and peace of mind, others see intrusiveness and privacy issues. We can now monitor very detailed health information and share that with our doctor or in the case of ResearchKit, researchers trying to develop a breakthrough to eradicate, or at least control common health issues. A blessing for some, a potential health information breach for others. I think that, by combining health monitoring and the Internet of Things, we can enjoy unobtrusive devices that let us be in charge of our own wellness and health. Let me know what you think. Do you use health monitoring devices? Do they work for you? I look forward to hearing about your experiences.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

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The Gamification of Nature

Two people find a cache in the forest.I recently helped judge a graduate poster session and was intrigued by a couple of posters highlighting research on how to use technology to engage youth and adults with nature. One of the research findings suggested that youth who use tablets to identify different plant species interact more deeply with nature. Another poster highlighted how creating games and challenges encouraged adults to get more involved with nature. This is the gamification of nature, as odd as that sounds. These got me to thinking about other ways that we can entice people to get outdoors for exercise and to discover nature.

Geocaching

The mild winter here in the Pacific Northwest has allowed me to get out and do more geocaching. This is an activity that started in Oregon and has spread worldwide. It is essentially hide and seek using geospatial coordinates and handheld GPS devices or smartphones. A cache can be as small as a button or as big as an ammunition box or larger. When someone places a cache, they publish the geographic location on geocaching.com for others to see. They may also publish clues, in case it is hidden in an obscure place. People seeking the cache can then pick up the coordinates from the web site and find it using their GPS device. This is an excellent way to get people outside—in urban areas and wilderness—to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. I tried to find two just this morning and one was quick and easy, the other eludes me. Even in the attempt I got in a good hike, so I still came out a winner.

There’s An App For That

Author Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” in his 2005 book Last Child In The Woods to describe our disconnect with nature. Louv argued that some behavioral issues may be caused by a decline in how much time youth spend outdoors. Others, rightly or wrongly, conclude that youth spend so much time with technology that there is no time to explore the outdoors. I am suggesting that the same technology that is blamed for creating “nature deficit disorder” can help draw youth and adults back into nature. The graduate students at the University of Oregon are working to make that a reality. One organization promoting this shift is Agents of Nature. In partnership with various schools and public lands agencies, they have created an app that requires players to identify things in nature in order to move ahead and gain points and position. This requires them to get outside and discover things and places they otherwise might never experience.

Thoughts

I am excited about the possibility of introducing people to nature through technology. This is a way to blend our need to connect with each other and with nature. What do you think? Do people need a reason to get outdoors? Is technology a barrier or can it be a catalyst? Let me know your thoughts.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

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Gaining a Seat at the Table: The Value of Finance Education

Business people in a meeting.In the AIM program we offer a finance course to prepare students to justify projects, work and speak with finance professionals, and understand and execute budgets. I think it is important that all professionals understand financial calculations and are able to determine whether the project or new equipment they are proposing will truly add value to the organization in the long term or short term. I want to share with you some ways that financial training has helped me in my career and my life.

Speak The Language

For at least two decades I have heard IT professionals exclaim “if only I could get a seat at the table, things would be different!” They contend that if only they could sit with high-level managers or sit at the “big kids” table then they could make them understand the value of IT. I contend that in order to sit at that table, one needs to speak and comprehend the language. When the other managers start talking about cap-ex or op-ex or accelerated depreciation, you need to know what they are talking about and how it affects you, your department, and your budget. That is why we offer a finance course in AIM, to prepare our graduates to engage in a meaningful conversation with other managers. We want our graduates to have a seat at the table.

Finance Background

I took four accounting courses as an undergraduate and one as a graduate student—one in investment accounting, plus the standard run of beginning, intermediate and advanced accounting. The first has proven invaluable in evaluating investments, both in the corporate world and for my own personal finance. To be able to assess a company in terms of earnings and profit or loss makes the difference between a losing investment and financial success. The other three courses were also valuable, although at the time I had doubts. This was before the days of Excel or QuickBooks so we did double entry accounting and wrote numbers in left columns or right columns; debits to the left, credits to the right. I can still hear the mantra in my head. While I questioned the benefits of the exercise and how I might apply it to my job as a systems administrator, I was fortunate to be able to see the big picture value of dividing expenses up into long-term capital expenses and short-term operating expenses and uniquely accounting for both of these. I also saw the value in calculating return on investment in order to justify a project or purchase. I saw how it gave me legitimacy and a seat at the table.

Thoughts

My financial education has helped me to become a successful professional and I am grateful that I had early exposure to the fundamental principles of accounting. Although it is a language of its own, it is important to be able to speak and understand it in order to get ahead, and it is part of a well-rounded graduate education.

Has an education in accounting principles helped you in your work and profession? Are there any other “languages” that you have found important in order to move to the next level? Let me know your thoughts.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

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Competency-Based Education

Man adding a cog gear in a row of old cog gearsI have been reading about competency-based education (CBE) and want to share my findings and thoughts with you. By definition, competency-based education differs from traditional education in that it is not measured by the traditional credit hour. You complete a course of study when you have mastered the skill at hand. That may take a day or it may take a year, or anywhere in between. You pay a flat rate for a subscription time period and how many courses you complete in that time is up to you. Most existing CBE coursework, such as that from the University of Wisconsin, is offered online. If you have already mastered a skill, you can prove it through skills testing and move on to another course.

Credit for Prior Learning

There are two main draws for competency-based education: credit for prior learning and self-paced learning. Learning culminates in a test to demonstrate mastery of the subject, whether you studied for one day or 100 days; the focus is on mastery, not time. A recent Harvard Business Review article stated: “It is vital to underscore, however, that competency-based education is about mastery foremost—not speed. These pathways importantly assess and certify what a student knows and can do.” This is good news for the returning student who has already mastered a particular skill through technical school or on-the-job training. It is also good news for potential employers who want to know what you know and not necessarily how many hours you spent in a classroom. A potential employee could hit the ground running and not have to go through an extensive onboarding program to fill in the gaps from academia to the workforce.

Self-Paced Learning

The other benefit to competency-based education is that each student learns at his or her own pace. If students need more time to complete a topic before being evaluated, they just need to sign up for another block or period. If students need less time to complete a skill because of prior knowledge or training, they can be evaluated and move on to the next course. This lets them move at their own pace and potentially lessens the cost of their education if they are aggressive in taking and passing competencies.

Current Offerings

University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, and Purdue University are among a handful of top colleges experimenting with this new format. Western Governors University has been using a CBE model for almost two decades. There are several for-profit schools as well. Wisconsin now offers seven programs that range from certificates to bachelor’s degrees in IT, sales, nursing, and international business. The University of Michigan offers a master’s degree in medical health professions education. This is targeted at doctors, nurses, and administrators who find themselves in a teaching role. They are targeting professionals who already have a terminal degree but need to fill in skills to ensure they are competent educators. It is completely online and self-paced to fit the schedules of those already working in the health care field.

Thoughts

I think this is a great innovation for educational institutions, students, and potential employers. I believe that the key to making this type of education successful is to form an ongoing partnership between the academic institution and employers to ensure that the competencies that educators are teaching are relevant to the business and industry that will be receiving the newly minted graduate. The employer wins because they know they are getting a competent employee who can contribute right away. The academic institution wins because they have a much larger pool of returning students to draw from and can train them in real world skills.

Is this the new wave of higher education or just a passing fad? Let me know your thoughts.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

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Is College Essential for Young Entrepreneurs?

Young business people in a meeting.In a recent article about Thiel Fellows the question was raised once again: “Is college for everyone?” With rising tuition rates and more young people competing to get into the best schools, it is a valid question. Does a college education give you a return on investment commensurate with the investment of time and money and the opportunity cost of foregoing other ventures? I have touched on this question in previous blog posts but want to visit it again, hopefully, with a fresh perspective.

Thiel Fellows

Peter Thiel is a billionaire who made his fortune in finance and venture capital investing. He was one of the original founders of PayPal and provided the first outside funding for Facebook. In 2010 he founded the Thiel Fellowship. Thiel Fellows are given $100,000 to forego college and instead focus on their own ideas and passions. His premise is that the brightest and most motivated young people should be given an opportunity to explore their ideas outside of the walls of academia (though Thiel himself has degrees in philosophy and law from Stanford). Fellows are supported for two years through networking, summits on entrepreneurship, and connections to venture capital. Thiel has provided for a contingent of approximately 20 people under age 20 each year since 2010 and there are openings for the next class.

Where are They Now?

The author of the article mentioned above interviewed a small number of Thiel Fellow graduates. Some have successfully formed start-up companies. Some moved on from their original idea when it proved unworkable. Others have actually gone back to complete their education. They all credit at least part of their success to the Thiel Foundation. It helped them focus on their ideas and gave them a framework and network to build on those ideas and produce a product or service.

University Entrepreneurship Programs

The Thiel Fellowship comes at a time when universities are growing their own in-house entrepreneurship programs. The University of Oregon, for example, is a partner in the Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network (RAIN) Eugene. This gives students the opportunity to work on projects and connect with people in the community and learn how to start a business from the ground up. Critics of Mr. Thiel are hoping that programs like RAIN will give students a chance to pursue personal projects and a college degree at the same time. In other words, it is not one or the other but both.

Thoughts

I believe that college is very important but realize that life takes us down many paths. College is just one of those paths. A rigid four-year college experience right after high school may not be best for everyone, and we need to make sure that we have a way for learners to step in and out of the college experience as they choose. College may be interspersed with work, research, travel, volunteer opportunities, or starting a company. I pursued a college career while working full time and found it a very rewarding experience. My son has completed two tech schools and is at the top of his vocation. Now in his mid-twenties, he is contemplating going back to school to complete his bachelor’s degree. Is Peter Thiel correct in his assumptions? For some young people, absolutely. For others, an opportunity such as that would be lost without the background of a college experience. What do you think? Is college for everyone? Would the money best be spent elsewhere? Is there an absolute prescribed time for going to college? Let me know your thoughts and experiences.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

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Will Social Robots Improve Our Quality of Life?

Touch to the future--robot and human touch fingertips.I came across an article on social robots that made me think about their potential uses. The first social robots were developed in the late 1990s as an experiment to create an optimal human-machine interface. These robots generally have human characteristics such as eyes and a mouth, and they can interact with humans based on visual and audio feedback gathered through microphones and cameras. They express themselves through speech and movement from their humanoid features.

Origins

The first social robot was created by Cynthia Breazeal as part of her graduate studies at MIT. She is currently an associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT as well as the director of the Media Lab’s Personal Robot Group. Her original research focused on the viability of human-robot interaction, and from this research she created Kismet, the first social robot. Since Kismet was created, other social robots have been built with even more sophisticated anthropomorphic features and more powerful sensors. These are fine for playing games, but how can they help us in our real lives? It turns out that they may have profound potential for helping some people.

Breaking Through Autism

Social robots work well with children because they can be made to appear friendlier than humans. This is especially important for children with autism. In a recent study at Vanderbilt University, it was found that children with autism spectrum disorder paid more attention to robots and followed their instructions almost as well as they followed instructions issued from humans. There is a lot to decode in a human face when trying to learn a new task. Emotions such as anger, sadness, happiness, fatigue, and boredom can be subtle, and children may not recognize the cues quickly. Robots present a nonthreatening interface that increases the development of social communication skills in children, particularly those with autism.

Socially Assistive Robots

A robot named Paro is helping seniors to become more focused and engaged. The robot resembles a baby seal and is designed to fill the role of a pet without the potential mess or responsibilities. The Paro robot has microprocessors and sensors that respond to touch, light, movement, and voices. In a pilot project, it proved especially helpful with seniors with dementia. While it is not designed to take the place of family members or caregivers, researchers have found that the nonthreatening nature of Paro tends to draw people out and encourages them to talk about things in their lives or their memories.

Thoughts

I have written before about assistive technologies, but I am excited about the development of social robots that can help foster communication skills. We have had robots for years that operate in manufacturing and work in areas that may be hazardous to humans. Robots that are more personable and interactive can help break through barriers that we sometimes struggle to breach. Some are concerned that robots will take over tasks that we should be doing for ourselves, but in this case, I welcome the assistance. What do you think? Let me know.

Author Kelly BrownAbout Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.

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