We keep an eye on the latest technology developments so you don’t have to. Here are some of the things we’ve spotted recently that are changing our world for the better — or at least, helping us raise a smile in challenging times.

Cars with eyes

The transition to autonomous vehicles is well under way, but some of the barriers standing in the way of our self-driving future as psychological rather than technical. Researchers have found that one thing pedestrians do frequently is make eye contact with drivers to understand their next move, and are interested to know how we will interact with self-driving vehicles in the same way. So they’ve stuck a big pair of eyes on the windscreens of some of their research vehicles, and a team of cognitive psychologists is seeing how people react. Not creepy at all… check out the photo here: https://www.motoringresearch.com/car-news/jlr-self-driving-test-vehicle-eyes/

The microscope made from Lego

We all know the feeling: spending too much money on something that almost - but doesn’t quite - do exactly what you want. For IBM microelectronics engineer Yuksel Temiz, this was a big problem, because the type of microscopes he needed to capture images of the tiny chips used in medical diagnostics cost tens of thousands of dollars and could not be angled or positioned in the right way to take non-reflecting and precise images of the - literally - microscopic components. So he decided to build his own - out of Lego. “I started 3D printing interlocking pieces, and I realized that what I was printing was almost exactly a Lego brick. So I said, “Why should I spend time on 3D printing?” He’s now open-sourced the design so you, too, can build your own Lego microscope. https://futurism.com/engineer-published-scientific-papers-lego-microscope

Welcome our new robot (dog) overlords

The terrifying videos produced by Boston Dynamics to show the capabilities of their family of robots conjure up visions of futuristic dystopias. But it turns out that Spot - Boston’s best-known quadruped - has a friendlier purpose: reminding people to keep their social distance during the coronavirus pandemic. Local authorities in Singapore are running a two-week trial during which Spot, controlled by a remote operator, will play a recorded message reminding parkgoers to stay two metres apart and will monitor those who fail to heed the warnings. https://techcrunch.com/2020/05/08/boston-dynamics-spot-is-patrolling-a-singapore-park-to-encourage-social-distancing/

The e-bike revolution

As some countries take the first steps towards reopening businesses and encouraging people back to work, one of the big questions is how commuters will get to their workplace without filling up public transport. Some Italian politicians think e-bikes are the answer, and at least one advisor on the country’s Covid-19 task force has called for the government to subsidise the purchase of e-bikes. Whether this will be via a tax break or directly giving people money towards the bikes is unclear, but if the policy goes ahead, it is certain that other countries will be watching with interest. https://www.bike-eu.com/sales-trends/nieuws/2020/04/italian-taskforce-promotes-e-bikes-as-cities-prepare-to-reopen-10137732

The AI that is learning common sense

While artificial intelligence systems can be capable of superhuman feats of reasoning and of performing impossible calculations in microseconds, there is one area where humans beat them every time: the type of logic we usually refer to as ‘common sense’. This article from Wired uses the example that while Alexa and Siri might be able to tell you all about a type of plant, they do not understand that a plant will die if left in a dark cupboard, or while a self-driving car can be programmed to avoid obstacles, it will not intuitively understand that a human is more important to avoid than a traffic cone. Now David Ferrucci, the man behind IBM’s Watson, is working on a project to teach machines to acquire and apply everyday knowledge. The article is well worth a read: https://www.wired.com/story/watsons-creator-teach-ai-new-trick-common-sense/

Opera in your living room

Finally, this week’s dose of digital culture to keep us going until live events are a possibility again comes to us via the German State Opera, with a weekly programme of on-demand events from their archive. This week, it’s Daniel Baremboim playing Bruckner: https://www.staatsoper-berlin.de/en/staatsoper/news/our-daily-video-on-demand-programme.142/