Archive for category Robots

Poker Bots Still Can’t Beat The Pros

The Superstition of the PoorA few months back, scientists at the University of Alberta built a piece of software that could not lose at the game of checkers. Even if you played the game perfectly, at best you’d end up with a tie. Somehow I doubt that most online gamers are looking for games that they can’t beat, but it was still a pretty amazing technological feat to see accomplished.

After proving that checkers could be perfected, the team behind the software set their eyes on the high stakes world of Poker and in late July they entered their Polaris poker software into the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence Computer Poker Competition in Alberta, Canada.

The highlight of the event turned out to be a Polaris rematch against celebrity poker player Phil “the Unabomber” Laak. Laak previously had beaten the Polaris software, but not without quite a bit of difficulty.

For the rematch, the AAAI paired up Laak with fellow poker pro Ali Eslami and the two did battle against a number of different poker programs. The end result of the event proved that the pros can still beat the best software out there, although even the pros admit that the poker bots are getting better.

“And so it seemed a solid victory for team humanity. Was this more proof that the complexity of poker was still currently too much, even for a program that had been in the works for 16 years?

Not according to Eslami and Laak.

As the applause died down Eslami spoke to the crowd, “This was not a win for us. First of all there are a few things you need to know. One of the bots completely clobbered us. Another one had kind of a glitch in the second match that we won.”

Both players also agreed that they had played their absolute best poker and if there had been a time limit on the hands, they would not have been able to beat Polaris.”

As it turns out, the Polaris software wasn’t even the best bot to play in the tournaments. A piece of software called Bluffbot 2.0 couldn’t beat the pros, but was able to edge out the other robots in a tournament that pitted a number of different bots against each other.

The Bluffbot was built by a couple of software developers Teppo Salonen in Claremont CA. The duo that created the software hasn’t released the Bluffbot 2.0 on their website, but they do have an earlier limit version, that is available for download. They also promise that they’ll have an online version of 2.0 up soon, so that internet surfers can test their own skills against the machine.

A lot of people find the idea of poker robots somewhat distasteful, but I’m fascinated by the technology. Trying to create the perfect chess or checker games is tough, but because there are only so many mathematical possibilities, it’s something that is at least possible.

When it comes to poker though, there are so many variables involved that I’m still not convinced it can be done. You can certainly analyze other players patterns for tells, but sometimes, it’s the little things that give away someone’s hand. I used to play online poker quite a bit, but after finding that I couldn’t win online, I stopped playing in the real money tournaments.

I’m not sure if people are gaming the system online or if I just can’t do well at poker in an online environment, but when I play live, it’s a very different game for me. Just being able to look for subtle tells like which card someone is eyeballing, can give you a real advantage in real life, but when you play online, there isn’t nearly as much info to go on.

Eventually, someone will come up with a piece of software that will be able to consistently beat real life players and when they do, it will make online gambling even less attractive. There have already been attempts to deploy this technology on real money sites, but there isn’t any good data on how effective these programs really are.

At the end of the day, I enjoy online games as much as the next person, but part of what makes internet gaming so appealing is that people actually make mistakes while playing it. It’s fun to be challenged, but it’s even more fun to win and when your opponent is a cold calculating machine, it takes random mistakes out of the equation.

It’s Not As Easy To Take Candy From A Robot

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them: San Francisco Hosts Robot Invasion

Watch Out For Killer Robots

This weekend I had an opportunity to check out the RoboGames in San Francisco. I had a great time looking at all the different types of robots and watching the games. They had robots that played soccer, a lego robot that doubled as a pooper scooper, even an R2D2 unit that just seemed to beep a lot. Before the event, I had never realized just how many different types of robots there really were.

Before I attended the games, I had been expecting a more stuffy type of event. I figured that a lot of businesses would use the Robogames to show off what they’ve been working on and it would be more trade show, than fighting robots. I had even hoped to meet the iRobot team, so that I could try and use my Jedi mind tricks on them, in order to figure out what they might be working on . . . Unfortunately, iRobot didn’t show up and while there were a few robot companies there, most of the robots seemed to be built by proud hobbyists, instead of the pros. This didn’t make the machines any less impressive, but it did mean that most of the robots featured were more for cool factor, than useful. (I’m still waiting for the robot that knows how to get me a beer, right before I finish the one I’m holding)

The Robots Turn On Each Other

I can’t think of an exhibit that I didn’t enjoy, but the highlight of the show, had to be the battlebots. Watching two robots fight to the death (or 3 minutes whichever comes first) is about as exciting as you can get. I still can’t believe that Comedy Central pulled the TV show. John Stewart liked to make fun of it, but the show used to be one of my favorites.

One of the things that impressed me about this year’s RoboGames, was the great array of battlebots that they had. It seemed like there was an endless supply of fighting robots willing to step up to the each new challenger. Just about every five minutes, two new robots would go at it, smash each other into pieces and the crowd would cheer as someone picked up 6 months of their life’s work, off of the charred wooden floor. There was one that actually caught on fire, but unfortunately I was stuck in the hot dog line and I missed it. (the refreshments were such a disaster it was comical, I have never seen someone iron a hot dog before)

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

Your Own Personal Android

Of all the exhibits, the android had the biggest wow effect on me. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the name of the company that created it, but they had built it to be an identical twin of one of their researchers. I’m not sure what the practical implications would be, but this was no country bear jamboree robot, it looked just like a real live human being. A little freaky really. When I first saw them standing next to each other, I could immediately tell that the living person was real, but it took me about 30 seconds, before my eyes were convinced that the robot wasn’t a real human. If they could figure out a way to put a brain inside, we may all be out of work pretty soon.

Jim Henson Would Be Proud

Another robot that I really liked was Animal, the drumming robot. I’m pretty sure that it would be a lot cheaper to buy a drum machine and lay down your own music over the tracks, but having a robot play the drums is pretty impressive. I’d love to see a band use one for a live show. I’ve seen artists fool around with drum machines on stage, but a drumming robot would be wild. I bet a crowd would go nuts over it.

Robots Learn To Get You Drunk Before Starting Laser Attack

I didn’t find any robots that knew how to get me a beer, but I did find a pretty cool cocktail robot. You press a button and choose between three drinks that it’s programmed to mix. It wouldn’t be good for a regular bar because it’s too slow, but so much of bartending is in the presentation and this would be a pretty cool way to serve cocktails at a dinner party.

The device works a bit like a Rube Goldberg machine. It uses a conveyor belt to load the glass and then uses a spinning mirror to move the glass under the ice and the liquor. At the end of the presentation, they asked if anyone wanted the drink, by the looks I got, I may have spoken up a bit too quickly. It could have used more a little more ice and some garnish (and scotch instead of that fruity stuff ;) ), but overall it’s was pretty good, even if I’m not a big fan of a Campari Orange.

I had never seen cocktail robots before, but it turns out that this sub-genre has a bit of a following of it’s own. There is also a drinking robot convention, that they hold in Vienna each year. The name of the event is RoboXotica and it sounds like it’s more of a party than a convention. Last year they had a Mojito robot that would smash the mint before serving you the drink. Very cool and tasty. It would be a lot harder for me to get to Vienna, than it is to check out robots in San Francisco, but I liked the cocktail robot so much, that I’m tempted to go to Vienna in November, in order to cover this year’s event.

When I was a kid the RoboGames didn’t exist. It was probably a good thing because I would have gone into sensory overload from all of the gadgets, but even though I didn’t get to see the RoboGames until just this year, there were still plenty of kids who were enjoying the event. It’s definitely a family type of event. Whether you are 10 years old or 100, robots are something that everyone dreams about. I’m not sure why a talking, moving hunk of metal is so cool, but watching these machines evolve, sure is exciting. While I didn’t see a lot of practical robots at the event, it was still exciting to see the various contraptions that hobbyists have been building and watching them destroy them in the battlebot events.

*For more coverage of the games, you can check out Zedomax’s blog, Snarkolepsy’s two part coverage, Laughing Squid’s great photographs of the event or the Robogame photos on Zooomr.

Taking Apart The Financial Gears Behind iRobot

i-heart-robots.JPG

I’ve always been a fan of iRobot as a consumer, but I’ve never been a big fan of their stock. When the company first went public, there was a lot of buzz, but I could never get past their razor thin margins. I knew that they were doing interesting things, but my interests were elsewhere, so I didn’t pay much attention to the company.

Having recently become an iRobot customer, it’s made me more interested in finding out more about them, so when I saw that Helen Greiner, iRobot’s Co-Founder and Chaiman, was presenting at a JP Morgan technology conference, I figured that it would be good conference to listen in on.

I knew that iRobot was selling robots to the government, but I didn’t realize how much of their revenue was coming from their military contracts. Their revenue is split about 60% consumer products and 40% government and industrial robots. They haven’t restricted their sales to just the US market, so they have some decent international exposure. They sell their consumer robots in Japan, South Korea, Austrailia, as well as a number of other countries.

Since going public, they’ve introduced several new products including the Scooba and a pool cleaning robot. There is a strong seasonality to their business with most of their earning’s payload coming at the second half of the year. The company likes to build their robots internally, but hasn’t been afraid to partner when it’s advantageous. They are working with Boeing on a new ground robot and have also been developing a 1,500 pound military robot with the help of John Deere.

Much to investors chagrin, iRobot has been investing a pretty good chunk of cash into research & development. In the past they’ve targeted 6 – 8% of revenues and this year have been runing at 7%. Because of their military work, they also receive grants from the Government, that boost their R&D budget closer to 15%. The company’s continued commitment to R&D has been painful for shareholders in the short run, but the investment has gone a long way towards creating new products and speeding up the introduction of pipeline products to the market.

Greiner told investors that they had good visibility on their government orders and that 70% of their guidance, was business that was already lined up. The consumer market is harder to predict, but with a 30% cushion, the numbers don’t seem all that hard to hit, especially with new products on the market. Management has disappointed investors in the past, but this may be a case where they’ve underpromised, so that they could make sure to over deliver.

Most of the conference was about boring financial stuff, but during the middle of the presentation, Greiner said that iRobot was introducing two new consumer robots to the market. She refused to divulge information about what they were, but the robots will be out in time for the holidays. Investors had apparently, already heard this news, but it was the first time I had heard about new products and it made me wonder whether it would be something that I might find useful.

Greiner refused to play 20 questions about the new products, but she did drop hints and that only made me more curious. She said that it was not a talking robot and at a previous conference she told investors that it wasn’t a floor cleaning product. These are good hints to start with, but it still leaves too much out.

Oddly enough, while she was defining the potential markets that iRobot could go after, she did mention healthcare robots, as a possible growth area? I’m not sure how iRobot would go after the hospital market, but if they started making smarter robots that could take out your spleen :? instead of mopping your floor, it would open up large addressable markets that they could go after.

During the Q&A session of the conference, I was pleased to hear one investor raise my concerns about gross margins. This investor told managment point blank that

“profit margins are a great barometer of healthy new emerging businesses and yet your profit margins do not look like they’re high enough to me. They don’t look like a lot of new emerging busineseses often have looked and I wonder two things about your margins. Number 1, do you invest much of your R&D into production technology to lower costs the way Intel was known to do. What percentage of your R&D goes there and secondily, what do you think of your own profit margins, do you have objectives for those margins, is there anything you can do about them?”

iRobot CFO, Geoff Clear, fielded the question and did a pretty good job of addressing this criticism of their business model. He outlined a plan to bring margins up to a point where investors could be more comfortable with them. In his response to the potential investor, Clear told him that the company tracks two different metrics in evaluating the business. They look at revenue growth and pre-tax operating margins. Their margins have been steady, but not high over the last few years. The company thinks that they can start to increase operating margins as soon as the second half of this year. Eventually, they’d like to get to a point where they can move from 2% operating margins to margins someplace in the mid teens. This would be a big accomplishment and would validate their business model.

To do this they need to get their gross profits higher. Last year they were at 37%, but Clear felt that they needed to get to 40% to accomplish the growth that they are after. The company isn’t willing to cut R&D to enhance margins, but he did mention that there were other areas of the company, where they could improve operating margins.

One of the highlights during the presentation was when JP Morgan Analyst Paul Costner started fishing for information on how receptive management would be to an outside company acquiring them. Normally, executives try and avoid answering these types of questions, because they only lead to rumors, but Greiner took the bait. She did say that they wanted to acquire other companies and grow the company independently, but was also very quick to point out that the UK defense company QinetiQ has recently had a large appetite for robots. She also suggested that the defense industry has always been interested in their technology.

With management being at least a little open to shopping the company, investors could see a takeover premium, if someone stepped in. If Boeing is not interested, I am sure that there are private equity shops that would love to take them private and then spin them off again. I wouldn’t bet on a takeover happening, but as an investor, it’s always nice when management is open to this sort of potential event.

Towards the end of the presentation, Costner asked Greiner why investors shouldn’t just skip iRobot’s growing pains now and jump in, after they are more fully developed, she responded by defending the robot industry and told investors that the company is at a tipping point.

“I cannot imagine a future world without robots and they’ve already been adopted. They’ve already been adopted by our armed forces and there is no going back and they have already been adopted by 2.5 million consumers across the country. This is a tremendous time for the robot industry. It really is at the tipping point now and I believe that the company is at a tipping point going into the back half of the year.”

After listening to the call, I’m still not in love with their margins, but am more comfortable with their strategy for increasing the bottom line. I think that iRobot has tremendous brand value and a lot of flexibility over the markets that they can address. The military contracts should help to stabilize revenues, while they continue to reinvest in new product development. I’m not in love with the stock, but over the last two years, it is down 40%. With their market cap down to $390 million, this could be a value opportunity for the right investor.

Between their healthy queue of military orders and their $70 million in cash, iRobot looks cheap for a company that took in $180 million in sales last year. There is always the possibility that their stock could fall another 40%, but given the barriers of entry in their industry, I think that there would be companies willing to pay a premium to get access to their robot think tank. They have patents, they have engineers that specialize in advanced robots and they have developing revenue streams that will add diversification to the business. There is a lot that iRobot is doing right, even if it hasn’t translated into profits.

Overall, I’m not 100% enthusiastic about iRobot’s business model, but I do like their valuation. I don’t think that the robot revolution will happen overnight, but iRobot is leading the consumer component of it. There is always the possibility that their stock could go down further, but with 17% of the float short, I think that the markets have been too harsh is assessing iRobot’s prospects. Without knowing more about the company, it’s hard for me to get a sense of what I think the company should really be worth, but Greiner’s presentation was enough to get my attention and at least put iRobot onto my radar.

Watch Out For Killer Roombas!

Skeptics tried to call me a conspiracy nut, when I exposed how far TiVo is willing to go, in order to accomplish their master plan of controlling a robot army, but the skeptics were wrong and I now have video evidence of this plot in action! The YouTube clip embedded above was emailed to me by an unnamed source, who has been working deep undercover at one of the iRobot factories. It is perhaps, the most terrifying four minutes of video that has ever been uploded to YouTube, but it offers undisputable proof that TiVo has been quietely plotting their robot invasion.

The movie is actually a sequel to an earlier segment, but this Roomba strikes back clip is far more entertaining. In the first clip, Roomba fell in love with an obsolete vacuum and learned an important lesson about love, loss and the price of having to serve demanding human masters. In this clip, it is the humans who learn what happens when you abuse our robot overlords.

Recently, I was actually given a Scooba and I have been excited about trying it out, but after seeing this video, I’m thinking that it may be safer for me to stick with iRobot’s pool cleaner and just use it for my bathtub instead. On the other hand though, if I could figure out the backdoor hack that tells Roomba how to fetch me a beer, the risk of being attacked in my sleep may be worth the benefits . . .

My Robot Can Beat The Snot Out Of Your Robot

Kondo Robot

There are some pretty weird things that show up on the internet and just when I think that technology can’t get any more bizarre, I find out that scientists have created a synthetic form of snot that will help robots distinguish between one smell or another.

We already have a number of devices that are used to analyze scents, but apparently researchers have found that by using a synthetic form of mucus, robots can better distinguish between one scent and another.

Most of the applications using this technology are more for business purposes, than for consumers, but if you consider the potential for this technology, there are more than a few practical uses for a smellbot.

We already have carbon monoxide filters that warn us when there are gas leaks in a home, but what if we could customize these mini robot canaries to detect scents of other hazardous materials? It probably wouldn’t be popular in most living rooms, but if you could build sensors that could also detect things like sulfur or nerve gas, it could help save lives at factories, mines or even public areas like subways and airports.

We could also see homeland security take in interest in the technology to make more advanced bomb snifing robots. If you’ve ever gotten a chance to see police K9 units in action, it’s really impressive. Those dogs are smart and if you are a criminal on the run, they can be scary as hell. The problem of course is that the dogs are expensive to train and they can take a lot of work keeping them well cared for.

The most promising application that we could see though, is in the healthcare industry. As they are refining this technology, scientists are trying to come up with a way to electronically smell funky body odors, in order to spot eye infections, skin diseases and urinary issues.

Researchers think it will be two years before we see synthetic snot start to appear on the market, but if this technology is as effective as they say it is, the uses for the technology will only be limited by our imagination.

Robots Attack And They Are Working For Less Then Minimum Wage

Jack in the Box is reporting that they’ve started a new program on a very limited basis, where they refuse to pay their new employees overtime, give them any breaks, make them work 24/7, and they are paying them less then a dollar an hour to take orders from customers. No, they haven’t taken a page out of Walmart’s playbook, instead they’ve introduced fast food kiosks into three of their restaurants.

Basically, when customers show up they now interact with a kiosk instead of with a human. Someone in the back gets the order through a computer and then prepares the meal for the customer. Because the kiosk deals with taking the orders you can avoid spoilage because the kiosk is more accurate and because the kiosk handles the payments you don’t have to worry about the cash register ending up short at the end of the night. In fact even if you get robbed, you don’t even have to worry about them handing over the cash. On the surface, they may not look very tough, but I’ve got it on good authority that they have one armed cousins in Nevada who can be very stingy with paying out money.

I’ve got to say that I find this idea pretty appealling. When I get fast food, it’s not for the food, it’s for the fast. I want in and out with as little chit chat as possible. If kiosk ordering allowed me to order and pay directly, it might actually convince me to go into a Jack in the Box once in a while. Even better, if I could order via the net and pick it up I would be thrilled. I wouldn’t even mind if the cost savings went directly to the shareholders instead of the customers (although it would be nice to see them upgrade to something other then mystery meat.)

With the fast food industry now using centralized drive thrus, kiosk ordering and DVD vending, it’s only a matter of time before the robots take over. Throw in a couple of roombas into the equation and we could have the machines controlling the food supply for the majority of all Americans.

Via Kiosk Marketplace

TiVoisAliens Attacks: Hacker Warns Of Killer Robots!

Just Because You Are Paranoid Does Not Mean They're Not Watching YouJust Because Im Paranoid Doesnt Mean They’re Not Watching You Hosted on Zooomr

TiVo’s Blue Moon video may have turned out to be a viral marketing stunt, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying to figure out the source behind the campaign. When I first found out that the video was part of a larger ad campaign, I speculated that B|W|R Public Relations may have been behind the viral ad. Without having any real concrete evidence I decided to dig deeper to see if I could find better evidence so I could prove which marketing firm was behind the campaign. Since the TiVo Community Forum wasn’t willing to release the IP address of the original poster of the blue moon video, I decided I would set a TiVo Alien trap to find out if I could unlock another clue in this mystery.

Having already developed a link between the marketing campaign and the TiVoisAliens website, I figured that it would be easy to catch a busy PR exec napping and I proceeded to send TiVoisAliens a nice welcome letter to let him know that he had already earned one RSS subscriber even though he didn’t offer feeds yet. In the letter, I made sure to include a link to my blog baiting him into clicking on it and thereby revealing his identity through the IP information picked up by my traffic software. It took more then a day, but sure enough he took the bait and I immedietely began looking for the real crash site coordinates that TiVo was broadcasting from.

The Real Crash SiteThe Real Crash Site Hosted on Zooomr

At first I felt pretty pleased that my trap had been a success, but I quickly realized that I had been wrong about TiVoisAliens being a PR hack when he demonstrated real geek skills by cracking into my computer and changing my Firefox profile. Ironically, the first time I realized that I had been hacked was when I went to comment on the news that Weaknees could still hack the series 3 to add bigger hard drives. Hidden deep within my auto fill information TiVoisAliens managed to send me a warning to Watch Out For Killer Robots.

Zatz Not An AlienZatz Not An Alien Hosted on Zooomr

I was hoping that somehow my system could prove who did the hacking, but he did a good job of hiding his tracks. He even retitled my profile folder hmmmm just to toy with me. I am sure that there is a way that I could launch some kind of counter attack by baiting him into trying it again, but with my limited geek background, I barely was able to locate some unusual files that were modified shortly after he read my email. A quick Google search of some of these files warn of a backdoor trojan that grants access to your mainframe, but none of them reveal which actual backdoor tool was used.

strange modificationsstrange modifications Hosted on Zooomr

I now know that I’m likely dealing with a very tech saavy TiVo employee and not some underground marketing “special unit” like I had thought. I also know that it’s not a good idea to upset him because he is very paranoid. I suppose I could have toned down my email to him a bit, but I felt it was a coherent, well thought out attempt at a legitimate dialouge and clearly he must have taken something I had said the wrong way.

YoU make good CASE for TiVo’s Aliens proof, but I no who U R and HAVE will
exPose Ur MisINFOrmAtion Champaign. I Was aBle to Find AlaN and I CAN
findz U. I will S00N haVe New SecreT TiVO width Time Shifting PoRTAL
and I While Go 2 Future 2 Find U.