Friday, March 25, 2016

Amazon shows you how to make an Echo with Raspberry Pi


If you're into messing with hardware and have some basic programming skills, you can put together an Amazon Alexa device of your very own. Amazon has even put together an official guide to do so on GitHub, Lifehacker reports. You'll need to snag a Raspberry Pi 2 and a USB microphone to make it happen, but you've probably got the other required hardware (a micro-SD card for storage, for example) lying around. Unfortunately, due to limitations with Amazon's Voice Services, your creation can't listen for trigger words like Echo and Echo Dot. Instead, you'll have to hit a button to issue commands. This isn't the first DIY Amazon Echo project, but it's notable since it comes officially from Amazon. The GitHub guide is also fairly detailed, so you can probably follow through it even if you don't know what all the commands mean. It could be a fun project for anyone who wants to learn a bit more about hardware.

Via: Hacker News

Source: Amazon (GitHub)


AI-written novel passes first round of a literary competition


Researchers from the Future University in Hakodate have announced that a short-form novel co-written by an artificial intelligence also developed by the team was accepted by a Japanese story competition, the Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award. Though the story didn't eventually win the competition, its acceptance does suggest that AI systems are quickly becoming capable of emulating human-like creativity.

The team, led by computer science professor Hitoshi Matsubara, collaborated closely with their digital construct during the writing process. The humans first assigned a gender to the protagonist and developed a rudimentary outline of the plot. They also assembled a list of words, phrases, and sentences to be included in the story. It was the AI's job to assemble these distinct assets into a unified text that wasn't just intelligible but compelling as well. The result was a novel entitled Konpyuta ga shosetsu wo kaku hi, or "The Day a Computer Writes a Novel", about an AI that abandons its responsibilities to humanity after recognizes its own talent for writing.

This is the first year that the Hoshi Shinichi Literary Award has allowed submissions from machines. Of the 1,450 novels received for this year's competition, 11 were human/AI collaborations like Future U's. Interestingly, judges throughout the competition's four rounds are never told which stories are written by computers or humans. Though the team's story did make it past the first round, it was eventually eliminated because, as sci-fi novelist and award judge, Satoshi Hase, explained, the story lacked sufficient character development despite being well-structured. Welp, there's always the X-Prize.

Via: Motherboard

Source: The Japan News


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Now you can ask Amazon's Echo about your Fitbit stats


It was only a matter of time until someone integrated a fitness gadget with Amazon's Echo -- we should have guessed that Fitbit would be first. Starting today, you'll be able to ask any of Amazon's speakers about your Fitbit performance with a new Alexa skill. Once enabled, you can say "Alexa, ask Fitbit how I'm doing today" for a basic overview of your activity. But even more intriguing, you can ask Alexa things like how you've slept, or how much activity you've tracked, for any of the previous seven days.

Sure, it's pretty easy just to glance down at your Fitbit device, but the ability to ask about even more complex stats makes this a pretty compelling Alexa skill. Amazon's virtual assistant will even take the role of a coach with encouraging and inspirational comments, all of which will take the time of the day into account. Asking about your step count in the morning, for example, might get Alexa to say "you've got to start somewhere."

"As we look at how this integration could evolve in the future, there is an endless world of possibilities from fitness coaching and nutrition tips, to guidance before bedtime to help you get a more restful night's sleep," Tim Roberts, executive vice president of interactive at Fitbit, said in a statement.

I haven't had a chance to try out Fitbit's Alexa skill yet, but on paper it seems like the perfect use of Echo's voice smarts. It's much easier to ask about something like the amount of calories you burned yesterday and get a quick reply, rather than open your phone, find the Fitbit app, and drill down to the appropriate screen. It's even more useful than the voice-powered food and activity logging that Fitbit brought to Microsoft's Cortana last year.


How a startup is making it easy to build virtual reality worlds


My most recent virtual reality experience was created by a 9-year-old. That's according to Martin Repetto, CEO of Voxelus, a platform that lets you build, share and play your own VR games. As I roam through this Minecraft-like world, steered by a Gear VR headset, Repetto tells me that a kid is the one who designed what I'm seeing. But for Voxelus, which launched last year at the Oculus Connect 2 conference, there's a clear goal: to let anyone, young or old, make VR games without a single line of code.

At GDC 2016, Voxelus is expanding on that idea by offering a marketplace, something that Repetto refers to as the missing piece in his company's ecosystem. As it stands, Voxelus' free software is available for Mac and PC, giving people an open canvas to design games for virtual reality. These are compatible with both Gear VR and the Oculus Rift, meaning you don't have to worry about making different versions for each system.

You can also keep polishing your games even after you've made them available on either platform, and creating a world is easy as dragging and dropping items into a sandbox. Naturally, given the aesthetics of the platform, I asked Repetto if Voxelus was inspired by Minecraft, to which he replied with a strong "no." That said, Repetto notes there's a lot to learn from Microsoft's open-world title, adding that his team's intentions are to "have a sandbox with a meaning." He says, "Minecraft controls the aesthetics, [with] Voxelus you can go above and beyond."

According to Repetto, 400 worlds have been created to date using Voxelus, featuring multiplayer elements and 3D worlds like the few pictured above. Given that its software is free, Voxelus had to find a way to bring in revenue, and that's where the newly announced marketplace comes in. To simplify this process, the startup also created its own cryptocurrency, which developers are able to use to purchase any of the 7,000 VR assets available so far, including bridges, castles, houses, trees, spaceships, teleporters and more.

Repetto describes Voxelus as Clash of Clans for VR, but he says the platform, and the games born out of it, aren't meant to compete with the AAAs of the industry. "[We] just want to make something for people to play and have fun," he says.


Monday, February 29, 2016

Scientists model a Coronavirus' infectious bits for the first time


A collaboration of scientists from University of Washington (UW), the Pasteur Institute and the University of Utrecht have harnessed a state-of-the-art microscope and supercomputer to model a coronavirus' infection mechanism for the first time.

Coronaviruses are really good at infecting the respiratory systems of humans and other mammals. Once inside, these viruses can cause pneumonia (if you're lucky). The strains that become SARS and MERS have a mortality rate as high as 37 percent. Plus, there is currently no antigen for SARS or MERS, which makes them especially dangerous.

The virus is so effective because of its "transmembrane spike glycoprotein," which binds to the surfaces of other cells, allowing the virus to enter. This structure is what gives coronaviruses their spiky, crown-like shape and determines what species of animals the virus can target.

The research team leveraged a single particle cryo-electron microscopy technique to model the spike of a coronavirus that infects mice in terrific detail. The team managed a 4 angstrom resolution -- about a tenth of a nanometer.

With this new analysis, the team believes they've identified a potential weaknesses in the virus' defenses. Turns out, the spike has a small peptide chain running along it. That peptide helps facilitate the virus' entry into a cell but could easily be hijacked by a treatment.

"Small molecules or protein scaffolds might eventually be designed to bind to this site," UW assistant professor of chemistry, David Veesler said in a statement, "to hinder insertion of the fusion peptide into the host cell membrane and to prevent it from undergoing changes conducive to fusion with the host cell. We hope that this might be the case, but much more work needs to be done to see if it is possible."

Source: UW Health Sciences