Stories tagged computers


We couldn’t get the rights to a photo of Woody Allen as a robot in Sleeper, so instead here’s a picture of some cute baby ducks: Photo by Mattay from
We couldn’t get the rights to a photo of Woody Allen as a robot in Sleeper, so instead here’s a picture of some cute baby ducks: Photo by Mattay from

Researchers working on adding emotion to the artificial intelligence in computer games found that the most successful software was slightly neurotic, and could not be counted on to act rationally in all cases. The next best approach was the aggressive software, which won about as often as the neurotic ware, but took longer to do so.

Now, if only someone could invent a neurotic robot by the year 2173…


A new way to help: Therapists in England are using a new computer game -- Fearfighter -- to work with the backlog of patients who have long waits getting appointments of psychological treatments. Patients are getting off the couch and logging on to a computer for help. (Flickr photo by semi-awesome)
A new way to help: Therapists in England are using a new computer game -- Fearfighter -- to work with the backlog of patients who have long waits getting appointments of psychological treatments. Patients are getting off the couch and logging on to a computer for help. (Flickr photo by semi-awesome)
A post a while back about the potential for becoming addicted to playing video games is still generating comments. Now comes word from England that psychological help is being offered through a video game.

It’s a new concept for dealing with an overloaded therapy field. People in England wanting to see a therapist may have to wait up to six months before they can get an appointment.

Now along comes “Fearfighter,” a psychiatric computer game that allows users to download their problems and issues into the online computer game. A British health group has endorsed the program as a way to deal with panic attacks, mild depression or phobias. And the British National Health Service will pay for people to use the service.

The treatment is especially effective for people dealing with phobias. Regardless of what they’re afraid of, they receive much of the same treatment and questioning from a therapist. The new computer game handles a lot of those routine tasks, allowing patients to deal with some of their issues while they’re waiting to have an actual appointment with a person.

Getting people over those problems often involves getting the patient to think in a new way. Through questions and responses, a computer can be programmed to help people turn their viewpoints around.

Another strength to “Fearfighter” is that it is anonymous. Patients who might be shy about opening up their thoughts to another person find they can be much more upfront with a computer.

Through the program, patients learn how to recognize the signs of things that trigger their fears with the thought that they’ll then be able to know how to avoid those traps in the future. Another component of the treatment, patients watch actors going through scenarios of problems they face and see new ways of coping with them. The program can also give directions on how to cope with the fears patients are dealing with. “Fearfighter” gives patients homework, assignments on how to deal with the things that they’re afraid of.

Health professionals monitor the activity and are available to communicate with people using it who need immediate professional help. So far, a couple thousand patients have received treatments through the program and the British therapy community figures it should enable them to reach twice as many patients.

Do you think this is a good way to help people deal with their problems? Share your thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.


A computer in a cube land: Image courtesy tigerplish via Flickr.
Working in an office cube-land as I do, I often go home for the night and walk by coworkers cubes and see computers or monitors that are left on overnight. Now, I know why this is in a lot of cases – convenience – but I have also heard the explanation that it takes more power to turn on the computer in the morning than it does to power it overnight, so leaving it on is the “greener” thing to do. I’ve wondered if that is true, and so today I did some digging around on the subject.

According to Evan Mills in the Energy Analysis Department of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Environmental Energy Technologies Division,

The small surge of power created when some devices are turned on is vastly smaller than the energy used by running the device when it is not needed. While it used to be the case that cycling appliances and lighting on and off drastically reduced their useful lifetimes, these problems have been largely overcome through better design.

And, turning your computer and monitor on and off is not bad for it. That may have been the case in the past, but today computers are designed to handle 40,000 power cycles before a failure. That’s 100+ years of turning your computer on and off once a year every day. It’ll be an object in a museum long before turning it on and off has any effect on it.

So, it is better to turn your monitor and computer off at night, but that does not address the primary reason why most folks don’t – convenience. Many find it bothersome to wait for the computer to start up after being turned off. (Oh the crosses computer-users must bear!) Well, there’s an energy efficient way around that as well.

If you are a Mac user you can put your computer to “sleep”, while PC users can tell their computers to “hibernate”. The hibernate feature significantly lowers your computer’s energy consumption overnight while at the same time allows for quick restarts in the morning. Monitors should still be turned completely off - and running a screen-saver does not save any energy – in fact it consumes significantly more power than if the computer is turned off or placed in hibernation.

And remember, like many other appliances such as your Playstation, DVR or TV, even when off your computer still uses some power running to either an AC adaptor, to maintain local-area network connectivity or other things. The only time many of our modern electronic devices consume no power is when they are turned off.

Do you turn your computer off at night? Why or why not?

Relevant articles here and here.

Brazillian and American anti-drug agents used advanced voice recognition software to identify a drug kingpin who had had his face disguised by plastic surgery.


Talk to me, baby: Infants begin learning speech from their first month.  Photo by Torbein on
Talk to me, baby: Infants begin learning speech from their first month. Photo by Torbein on

No, not by crying and pooping, but by recognizing speech. Researchers in Chicago have written a computer program that learns language sounds the same way a baby does. Exposed to tape recorded speech in English and Japanese, the computer learned to recognize all the basic vowel sounds in the language at the same pace as a baby.

This supports the theory of categorical perception. The human brain, faced with an infinite variety of sensory information, reduces that complexity by grouping similar phenomena into a manageable number of categories. Research has shown that babies can distinguish subtle variations in spoken sounds but, by their first birthday, have figured out what sounds occur in their native language. Any other sounds are lumped together with whatever native sound is closest, thus reducing the aural universe to a few manageable chunks.

(Once established, these categories can persist throughout life. My girlfriend, born and raised in Indonesia, say “dee” instead of “the” – not because she can’t make the “th” sound (if asked, she can), but because there is no “th” in her native language. The closest they have is “d,” and so every English “th” is lumped into that category. My few pathetic attempts to speak Indonesian have generated similar issues in reverse, as I substitute the English sounds I know into foreign words that are actually pronounced slightly differently.)

The computer research indicates that the human brain can do something very complicated, like learn a language, from just a few simple rules. Specific instructions do not have to be hard-wired in. This has important ramifications for understanding human intelligence, as well as for creating artificial intelligence.

It does not, however, explain why teenage girls talk so much. (Shameless plug.)


Perfect plays: Through 18 years of computer analysis, researchers at the University of Alberta have figured out all the moves to play the perfect game of chess. Their computer, they say, will never lose a game. (Photo by Bring back Buck)
Perfect plays: Through 18 years of computer analysis, researchers at the University of Alberta have figured out all the moves to play the perfect game of chess. Their computer, they say, will never lose a game. (Photo by Bring back Buck)
Games don’t come much easier than checkers, right? Red and black discs, 12 on each side, jumping around diagonally on a board featuring 64 squares.

Well, it’s all over now. Computer researchers at the University of Alberta have announced that they have finally “solved” checkers. Running computer simulations taking into account 39 trillion possible combinations of checkers on a checkerboard, they’ve calculated the right moves to make in any checkers situation in order to win a game. Of course, in order to have that success in order to beat your older brother or sister in a game of checkers, you’d need to have the memory capacity in your brain of some of the world’s top computers.

And how long did it take to run all those possible checkers scenarios? 18 years. Five years into the project, the Canadian computer was able to defeat the reigning world checker champion, using some standard “rule of thumb” thinking.

But the researchers wanted more, a no-lose scenario for the computer which could take into account every checkerboard possibility. That led to 13 mores years of the computer analyzing the perfect move to make on a checkerboard with up to 10 pieces left on it.

So if you take on the computer, you’ll never win. If your brain should be at peak levels and make every perfect move, the most you can hope for is a draw.

Why is this a big deal?

It lays the groundwork for computer calculations that can help to make decisions on bigger problems.

Despite the marathon scope of the effort, Schaeffer is pleased with the results and their implications for solving other gargantuan computing problems.

"It's one million times bigger than the biggest computation previously solved optimally," says Jonathon Schaeffer, part of the University of Alberta team. "I'm hoping people will try to solve something big like that with our technology or similar technology, maybe people will do bigger and better things."

Do you think you’re smarter than the checkers computer? You can play against it by going to

That’s all pretty cool, but I’ll really be impressed when they come up with a computer that can play the perfect Monopoly game.

A website that offered users help in filing for bankruptcy was found by a court to be making too many legal decisions to simply be considered a clerical tool. The site's creator was found guilty of practising law without a lisence and fined.

Researchers at the University of California in partnership with Intel, have produced a computer chip that can communicate using lasers instead of wires. This chip is built with silicon and conventional manufacturing processes making it relatively cheap but 100s of times faster than current chips. Will this change how we compute?


Our understanding of how things work increases every year. This increased understanding has led to ever improving technologies. When improved technology increases our ability to learn, the resulting accelleration of our intelligence approaches infinity.
Humans have an upper limit on the size and speed of their brains. Not so for machines. If machines can be programmed to learn, then machines can create a smarter machines. The smarter machine could then create an even smarter machine, etc. The result eventually leads to an intelligence that could undoubtedly solve all our problems. Global warming, disease, famine, and warfare could all be cured by such an "infinite" intelligence.

A Singularity Summit

These concepts and other mind boggling ideas were presented at the Singularity Summit at Stanford University last week. The first speaker was Ray Kurzweil, whos recent 672-page book, The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology explains a concept known as the "singularity".

If you aren’t familiar with the concept of singularity, here is the elevator pitch:

Sometime in the next few years or decades, humanity will become capable of surpassing the upper limit on intelligence that has held since the rise of the human species. We will become capable of technologically creating smarter-than-human intelligence, perhaps through enhancement of the human brain, direct links between computers and the brain, or Artificial Intelligence. This event is called the "Singularity" by analogy with the singularity at the center of a black hole - just as our current model of physics breaks down when it attempts to describe the center of a black hole, our model of the future breaks down once the future contains smarter-than-human minds. Since technology is the product of cognition, the Singularity is an effect that snowballs once it occurs - the first smart minds can create smarter minds, and smarter minds can produce still smarter minds. —Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

Douglas Hofstader followed Kurzweil, offering his critique of the Singularity. Hostader, professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science Adjunct Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Philosophy, Comparative Literature, and Psychology at the University of Indiana and the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, doesn't buy into the whole Singularity vision.

The purpose of life

I strongly recommend exploring this "Singularity" concept. I first came across it several years ago when I went to "Ask Jeeves" with my question "What is the purpose of life"? Jeeves recommended contributing to the "seed program" effort to create a "learning how to learn program" that would insure that when machines became super intelligent they would still take care of humans.

More Singualrity links:


Tongue ESP: The tongue can be used to sense input from machines via a grid of electrodes placed on the tongue which is stimulated with electricity.

Using Tongue ESP?: She probably isn't but could be in the future.
Courtesy Creap

What extra sensory perceptions would would you like? Seeing behind your back? Smelling odorless gasses like carbon monoxide? How about seeing in the dark? Sensors already exist that can do these things. All that is needed is a way to input what they sense into our brains. The most common way to input information from external sensors is visually. We can use our eyes to see distant airplanes or weather clouds on a radar scope. We can read how much carbon monoxide is in the air we breath by looking at a meter.

Suppose we need to sense things without using our eyes. Most often when we cannot see, we use our fingers to get information. Blind people use a cane to feel thier way around. Sometimes they tap their cane and listen for echoes to sense a barrier.

Another way to sense data about our environment is with our tongue. Suppose a ten by ten grid of electrodes were placed on the tongue and small voltages were used to create various patterns of sensation on the tongue. Just like bumps on paper can create thousands of words for people trained to read braille, the hundred electrodes on the tongue can allow trained people to sense data from sonar, radar, toxin detectors, or any other data measurable by various sensors.

At the institute for Machine and Human Cognition (IFHMC) Anil Raj is principle investigator in research titled: Adaptive Human/Machine Multi-sensory Prostheses. They are working on TSAS: Tactile Situation Awareness System. The research is exploring how electrodes on the tongue or in a body suit can allow users to receive input from external devices. Such input is desirable when your hands and eyes are already too busy or when they cannot be used.