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Roadmap for personal robotic development

We’re on the cusp of robotic assistants appearing in home and office use; not just silent machines vacuuming our floors (or in my experience with the Roomba, getting stuck under our furniture) or in industrial applications, but interacting with us for daily tasks and presenting themselves in anthropomorphic ways. This is on my mind a lot, but last week’s MIT Technology Review article “Personal Robots: Artificial Friends with Limited Benefits” kept gnawing at me. I’ve got some questions:

  • Why are the first wave of personal robotic assistants so cute and kid-friendly?
  • Is it necessary to train potential buyers with entertaining ‘bots before they will use serious applications?
  • Do cute robots trivialize the potential of these machines?
  • What have we learned from other sources about what adults might want, need, and — most importantly in the long run — actually use?
  • What does the product roadmap look like between Roomba and Rosie, and beyond?

In my previous work life as a project and product manager at Internet companies, it was important to consider not only the current product my team was building, but the competitive landscape, latest research, and how we hoped to iterate the product in the future.  The product roadmap got more speculative the further forward it stretched, and in Internet time, that could mean it was blurry a mere 12 months ahead, but I had some idea where we planned to go. Combined with research, reporting, and user testing, that roadmap would drive the requirements for the next version.

With a number of companies heading in simultaneous, differing development directions, I wonder what the roadmap looks like to people on the inside. Does Cynthia Breazeal want JIBO to become the Furby of 2016, just as irrelevant years later? Is she counting on more adult applications to come from third-party developers, or does she have a track in mind that goes beyond the lovechild of WALL-E and Siri? I look at the “Future Life with Pepper” video from Aldebaran Robotics (below, in Japanese but very easy to understand) and I find it unimaginative and silly.

Some of my irritation with how Pepper is shown could be cultural; I like kawaii things, but I don’t want an infantilized assistant with a high voice. That might say “non-threatening and friendly” to others, but it says “annoying and dumbed down” to me. I would love to have a moving robot with hands right now, if it could fetch or carry things for me while I’m steering my wheelchair or gripping crutches. Stir onions on the stove while they carmelize. Let the dog out. Pick up the ball of yarn I dropped that rolled across the room. Don’t play peek a boo with me when I’m crying, ffs. How useless!

Does the roadmap for personal robotics have to pass through Candyland? Though I find it frustrating for myself as an early adopter, I can see how it could be a viable path. It’s a non-threatening way to get robots into a family home. Children might engage with a cute bot more frequently and naturally than adults with a more serious one, and I suspect that like a digital assistant or a DVR, robots will have more perceived value when used regularly, while that value might be hard to explain to a non-user. Teaching children to comfortably interact with robots could be important to the roadmap in a Wayward Pines First Generation sort of way: they are the future, and when robotic technology has advanced so there are more home and office uses, they will be the programmers, designers, buyers, and users.

Do we have data that could point to what older users want from personal robots in the near future? I’d suggest looking at tablet/phone apps, gadget purchases, and use of digital assistants now. Mail, chat, videos, photography, weather, maps, social media, music, games, search, stock updates, fitness tracking, and news. Communication with other devices on the same network. Notifications delivered in a personalized, prioritized way. Immediate answers to relatively simple questions. Reminders and a calendar.  These are all things that are perfectly suited to a stationary, voice-controlled robot with a display screen. If I were designing a bot of that sort for my personal needs I’d add in: can take dictation and save longer notes, can read a piece of text and answer basic questions about it (“How many cups of flour do I need?” when reading a recipe), can send voice/photo/video messages to other bots of the same/similar type, can act as a receptionist for my mobile phone when I’m home, can interact with my accounts on video sites and the Chromecast/future device attached to my TV (“Play season 2 of Archer on the family room television”), and more.

I think that even at that point in the roadmap, a stationary robot with personality, like JIBO rather than the not-very-clever, screenless Amazon Echo, could be exceedingly useful for remote relationships of various types. My family is spread across the country and my friends are around the world, and just from my own life I can think of many use cases. I can also imagine such a bot as an assistant at work. In a few years, with better communication between devices and programs instead of maintaining silos of information, even this level of robot could be a daily helpmate to many people.

When we start to consider a robot with mobility and limbs, however, we need to think in 3D. The Pepper video fails greatly in that regard. The only shown use of mobility is that Pepper can move toward people and its hands are used for games or expressions. I doubt that’s all we want, but the development path between that and a fully mobile bot with useful appendages that could do housework, for example, is unclear. Our homes have different floor types, thresholds, stairs, and obstacles that must be overcome before we start to consider the fine motor control and grip needed for simple tasks. Still, I can imagine a robot not too far off that could operate on one floor of a home or office and handle small manual jobs as well as providing entertainment. At times, most of us could simply use an extra set of hands to hold, stir, open, carry, or balance something. Is that enough to justify the work necessary to make a mobile robot?  Probably not. I can see the first viable generation of mobile home robots being developed and marketed for the elderly or disabled, with uses customized to those populations as well as the functionality of the stationary bots. When might that be? 10-15 years from now?

It seems that the next step after that is currently undefined. The technological gap that remains before we reach the dream of a robot butler or housekeeper, able to do physical work in any setting, is huge. Maybe we need to give some thought to the roadmap and where we really want personal robotics to be in 20-30 years. Are charismatic androids the best robotic supplement we can imagine?  Maybe there is a fork in the path, where we separate companion bots from more utilitarian bots. Maybe the development curve of smart home/office technology will intercept the robotic curve at a point where the robot can be the control interface, but not need so many skills built in.

Along those lines, I’ve embedded a video below about the characters in the AMC series HUMANS. It’s interesting if you’re watching the series, but even if you’re not, it introduces the androids (“synthetics” or “synths”) as they’re imagined in that parallel present and the interactions that humans have with them. I think that full-service androids like synths are often seen as the endpoint of the personal robotic roadmap. Should they be?

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2015 in Digital Devices, Our Robot Overlords

 

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Digital device round-up: Disney MagicBand, Amazon Echo, Apple Watch

Feeling mousy

Disney MagicBand

This is about user experience, not just about Disney. You can sneer about Disney if you like, but they are awfully good at designing and managing the experience in their American parks and hotels. The first time I saw “cast members” in Florida vacuuming up puddles after a brief rainfall, I must have been around 12 years old, but the implications stuck with me. The Disney experience is controlled, planned, and created to make a specific illusion, nature be damned. And, I’ll be frank: if you splurge to indulge in the full experience, booking through Disney, staying in one of their resorts and using their transportation and restaurants, everything is consistent, integrated, and cheesy but fun. I wouldn’t describe myself as a Disney fan and my stepson is in his 20s, so I don’t have to deal with the corporation on a regular basis, but I enjoy their parks.

So, this Wired article on the Disney MagicBand is fascinating. A design team was given the specific directive to eliminate friction points in Disney World experience. They came up with a wearable wristband… but the design story and the implications are so much more.  Really, read the article.  It’s about the design process, trading privacy for convenience, and invisible technology. I found it inspiring because I’m a huge fan of user-focused design.

Amazon Echo 

I’ve had Alexa (the trigger name for the Echo) for a few months now and I still find her useful for basic things. I use the timer, alarm, and add to shopping/to do list functions many times each week. It’s incredibly useful to be able to say, “Alexa, set timer for 18 minutes,” while my hands are full or, “Alexa, add salsa to my shopping list” as I shake the last globs out of a jar. That’s difficult to convey in marketing. It’s like trying to convince my parents to use a DVR; it’s hard to understand how useful it is until you live with it for a while, but then it becomes part of daily life.

I suspect that they’ve updated the Echo to hear “Alexa” more easily, or perhaps to be less selective about the pronunciation, because she’s reacted to the TV more in the past couple of weeks than in months before. When I’m watching a show and a disembodied voice suddenly says, “Hmm, I didn’t understand that,” it’s an uncomfortable reminder that she’s always listening. And, she’s listening carefully. I can be halfway across the house and talk to her in a normal conversational tone. Other than what I’ve mentioned above, I use her to stream some podcasts and radio shows, tell me the weather forecast, and play the top news headlines, but I never use her for information I’d get from an Internet search.  Google Now is so far ahead in that functionality that using the Echo is frustrating.

Apple Watch

If someone is going to make a breakthrough, usable design for a smartwatch, the excellent team at Apple is probably the one to do it, but the Fusion article “Class anxiety, brought to you by Apple” nailed a lot of my thoughts. The author makes a point that while many household budgets had to stretch to afford Apple products in the past, it was possible. The fact that anyone from an Uber driver to Mark Zuckerberg could have the same phone was somewhat egalitarian. However, by setting such high prices, they’ve established the edition watches as status items. Let’s be honest, even the $349 sport edition is spendy for a peripheral. The Apple Watch is intriguing, though I think that smartwatches are another example of DVR marketing: hard to understand how/if they can be life-changing until you use one. I stopped wearing a watch decades ago because I find them uncomfortable and distracting. This won’t be the product that changes my mind, and if my husband is going to have an expensive watch, he’d prefer the Leatherman Tread:

 

A personal update 

Jakob was admitted to the hospital yesterday. He was so weakened by chemotherapy that walking a few steps left him exhausted, unable to breathe, heart pounding. He hasn’t been able to eat and the limited nutrition from meal-replacement drinks hasn’t been enough. (For new readers: Jakob — my SL partner — has stage IV stomach cancer that metastasized to his brain. He has had surgery, radiation, and his first cycle of chemo.)

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2015 in Digital Devices

 

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Tech trends for 2015

Interested in what’s next or simply trying to keep up with impressive-sounding jargon? I’ve compiled a few lists of tech trends that are expected to be hot this year. I agree with some of them, for better or worse, and others are giving me food for thought as I consider the human implications. Click the links for more details.

Webbmedia Group (the presentation below is worth watching at full-screen, but a summary list of the key points from by Amy Webb in the Harvard Business Review  includes deep learning, smart virtual personal assistants, “It’s like Uber for ____”, oversight for algorithms, data privacy, and block chain technology):

 

10 Strategic Technology Trends from Gartner:

  1. Computing everywhere
  2. The Internet of Things (IoT)
  3. 3D printing
  4. Advanced, pervasive, invisible analytics
  5. Context-rich systems
  6. Smart machines
  7. Cloud/client architecture
  8. Software-defined infrastructure and applications
  9. Web-scale IT
  10. Risk-based security and self-protection

Tech Trends for 2015 from frog design:

  • Move over “step counters”
  • Ambient intelligence knows what’s up
  • Nano particles diagnose from the inside out
  • The emergence of the casual programmer
  • Eat your technologies
  • The Internet of food goes online
  • Mobilizing the next 4 billion
  • Personal darknets in the spotlight
  • 4D printing assembles itself
  • Digital currency replaces legal tender
  • The rise of cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Textiles get techy
  • Adaptive education personalizes learning
  • Achievement unlocked: you’re hired!
  • Micro-farming networks go mainstream

 The Tech That Will Dominate 2015, from Tim Bajarin at PC Magazine:

  • Apple enhances product resolution and invades enterprise market
  • Increased vigilance against security breaches
  • Tablets as personal TVs
  • Streaming media everywhere
  • Better battery life
  • New MacBook Air
  • Domestic robots
  • Low-end tablets replacing other gadgets
  • Apple Watch more successful that expected
  • Easier ways to design/create 3D products
 
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Posted by on January 7, 2015 in Digital Devices, In the News, Research

 

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Review: Amazon Echo (updated)

My Echo arrived on Christmas Eve and I’m happy with her as what I expected her to be: a music player with some bonus features. As a digital assistant, she’s woefully incomplete. For the sake of not twisting my brain too much, I’ll refer to the Echo as “Alexa” and with feminine pronouns, since Alexa is the device wake phrase and she has a feminine voice. It’s also important to say, for review purposes, that I am an English-speaking Amazon Prime member in the US and I’m blind to the experience for someone who isn’t. (I made some updates to this post on Dec 31 based on questions I’ve received.)

If you submitted your name to Amazon to be invited to purchase an Echo, pay attention to your email. The invitation that I received had an expiration date a week after it was sent, and since it was buried deep in my Gmail Promotions tab, I didn’t see it. I was on the Amazon site for something else and went to the Echo page out of curiosity, which is when I saw that I could add it to my cart. Later I searched Gmail and found the invitation email dated 4 days earlier. If you’re getting impatient, consider that I asked to buy the Echo on the first morning it was available, I’m a long-time Amazon Prime member, and my invitation didn’t arrive until mid-December.

Setup in our household was simple. Plug her in, download an app, enter the WiFi password, and done. I think it took longer to get her out of the packaging. The device herself is black and a bit taller than a bottle of beer (or hard cider, in the photo below). She needs to be plugged in for power, which limits her location somewhat. I’ve already started to feel annoyed because I’d like one upstairs and downstairs, but I’m not about to pay for two when I have JIBO arriving next year, so Alexa gets unplugged and hauled around. She reconnects to the network and says “Hello” within a minute after I move her.

echo_and_cider

The microphone is very sensitive. There’s no need to shout or stand right next to the device.  I can give commands in a conversational tone from across the room, even when music is playing, and there is also a remote for more distant use. If the idea of having a sensitive, Internet-connected mic enabled in your house creeps you out (it should, frankly), it is easy to mute. I haven’t had big problems with getting Alexa to understand me. “Alexa, play something by Bastille” got a response like, “I heard you say you want me to play something by best deal, is that right?”  “No, Bastille.” “Shuffling music by Bastille.”  “Alexa, play music by Thievery Corporation.” “You’d like to hear music by Hal Leonard Corporation, is that right?” “No.” “Ok. What would you like to hear?” “Theee-verrr-eeeee Corporation.” “Shuffling music by Thievery Corporation.” Ok then.

How’s the sound quality? Well, I grew up listening to cassette tapes in crappy players, so I’d say it’s brilliant. Audiophiles would disagree, but it’s a hell of a lot better than my previous speaker solution: propping my smartphone inside a metal bowl. Volume control is good and can be done either by turning a ring at the top of the device or giving voice commands. “Alexa, volume down.” “Alexa, turn it up!”

I’ve been listening to more music since Alexa entered the house, which is nice. “Alexa, play something by Kate Bush.” “Shuffling music by Kate Bush,” replies Alexa, and starts to play whatever she can find on Prime Music. Alexa will also pull from iHeartRadio and TuneIn radio, and I could upload 250 of my own tracks to Amazon’s cloud storage for streaming (or up to 250,000 files for an additional fee). The music available to stream on Prime Music is fairly substantial — I have about 10,000 songs in my library there and have only purchased 4 of those tracks. (It did take some time going through the listings and adding albums to my library, but each add is a one-click process.) I can also connect my laptop or phone via Bluetooth to use Alexa as a speaker. “Alexa, play NPR” makes her play Detroit Public Radio on TuneIn.  “Alexa, play program Radiolab” makes her find the latest podcast. “Alexa, play Jingle Bells” made her find that track on some children’s album. However, “Alexa, play something by Mozart” leads to “Shuffling music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart… You don’t have songs by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” Actually, I have dozens of Mozart tracks in my Prime library, but they are listed by the performer’s name or “Various Artists”. I would have to give the name of a specific album or track. Annoying.  Of course, you can purchase digital music through Alexa. One Click ordering is enabled, but it can be turned off or you can add a 4-digit pin that is required before a One-Click order will be executed.

Alexa will also maintain a To Do list and a Shopping List, but the functionality is limited.  You can add items verbally, but then the list is only accessible in the Echo app. You can’t delete items verbally or have the list read back to you. This can lead to exchanges like this:

Me: Alexa, read my To Do list.

Alexa: What can I add for you?

Me (silence)

Alexa: What can I add for you?

Me: Nothing.

Alexa: I added nothing to your To Do list.

At least it will be an easy task to complete.

If I ask Alexa for the weather, she will give me local conditions and the forecast for the next 24 hours. “Alexa, what is the temperature in Celsius?” was a fail; she told me today’s weather, in Fahrenheit, and then I had to ask a second question to have her do the conversion. I can ask her for my “Flash Briefing”, which currently gives me the top-of-the-hour news from NPR and the BBC (you can also have her read top stories in a variety of categories via text-to-speech, but I find that painful). I’ll admit, it’s nice to roll over drowsily in the morning, mutter “Alexa, flash briefing”, and listen to the news while my eyes open.

As far as answering questions, Alexa is like Google Now’s stupid cousin. Emphasis on stupid. Things that Google Now would answer easily trigger Alexa to reply (paraphrased), “Hmm, I can’t answer what I think you asked me, but I have sent a Bing search to the Echo app.” If I wanted to search Bing on my phone or laptop, I would have, so I consider every one of those a significant fail. There is also a learning curve for me to understand the limits of her natural language comprehension. “Alexa, when did Austin Powers come out?” was not understood, but “Alexa, when was the movie Austin Powers released?” got me a quick answer.  Sure, she’s programmed with some cutesy answers like other digital assistants, but I’m not looking for her to impersonate Scotty; I want her to tell me what hours my favorite local Thai restaurant is open today. Fail.

Alexa has Timer and Alarm functions, but they are very basic. I’m used to being able to tell Google Now to remind me to do something at a particular time or place, “Remind me to get potstickers at Trader Joe’s” or “Remind me to call my mother at 8:00 Tuesday morning.” Those are both perfectly executed by Google Now. With the Amazon Echo, I’m limited to “Set timer for 30 minutes” or “Set alarm for 4:15 pm.”  Handy, but not impressive. It’s also impossible to leave a note for myself or someone else, which I consider very basic functionality for a standalone digital assistant.

As far as family friendliness, Alexa does not have a parental control setting that can be enabled or disabled. I find it frustrating that she warns me about explicit content before playing songs that have that tag. I’m an adult woman. If I want to listen to Lords of Acid, I don’t need a warning that they’re going to be obscene. On the Echo forums, people have complained that while Alexa will not swear, she will define swear words. It seems that Amazon has already changed some of the Echo’s programmed responses based on forum feedback, leaning toward G-rated responses and “Ask your parents.” Ugh!  Note to Amazon: many households do not have delicate snowflake children in them, and it is a mistake to hobble an electronic device because of the Disney crowd. Add a parental control or obscenity filter that can be turned-on by choice, if you must, but please make the default suitable for adult purchasers. At least, let me turn off the explicit content warning!

Bottom line? I really, really like the Echo as a voice-controlled music player. Until she’s smarter — and that could be hard to do with the databases she is given — she’s not much use as a digital assistant.

Update, New Year’s Eve: Having lived with Alexa for a week now, the novelty is gone but I’m working her into my daily routine. I ask her to play my Flash Briefing each morning when I first come downstairs and am puttering around, feeding the dog and starting coffee. Surprisingly, having a voice-controlled timer/alarm has turned out to be a usability win. I have lots of timer options in the house, built into the oven and microwave or on my smartphone, yet when I had to check baking in 12 minutes, I almost always relied on the clock and my memory. Telling Alexa to set a timer for 12 minutes is something I can do while my hands are full and I’m busy. It feels like no extra effort and adds a lot of benefit.

My 21 year old stepson came over for dinner on the weekend and he was really impressed with the Echo. Alexa kept a stream of Foo Fighters music going in the background while we ate, told us the weather and some bad jokes, and by the end of the night he was asking me how much a Prime membership costs.

I still use Google Now as my primary digital assistant, but Alexa has her role too. For me, part of the point of having an Echo is training my own behavior: I think voice controls are the home automation UI solution for the next decade or so — supplementing and often replacing smartphone/tablet controls — but it takes time to develop a habit of speaking a command instead of using a screen.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2014 in Digital Devices

 

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Random thoughts and Rudolph

Ever start to write about a topic that’s just too large, leaving you wallowing in drafts and rewrites for days?  I did that with a post I began on the weekend, so I started another post to publish while I was thinking. Wouldn’t you know it, the second post is turning into a monster, too. A couple random thoughts will have to do for today, since it’s almost Christmas and I’ve got some last minute elf work to finish!

Playing Rudolph

My Amazon Echo arrives tomorrow. It’s not a comprehensive digital assistant, but I’m hoping it will be a decent voice-controlled music player/Bluetooth speaker with some bonus features. Since my personal data is mostly in the Cthulu-like tentacles of Google, I’d be more excited if Alexa (the Echo) and Google Now could work together (but no — Alexa even uses Bing for search results. Ugh.). I’m envisioning a near future where I have three disconnected digital assistants: Alexa, JIBO, and Google Now. That’s far from optimal user experience. Google Now is almost always in my pocket, JIBO can be moved around the house, and Alexa needs to be plugged into a wall, so I’m seeing Alexa in a niche role, sitting between my writing table and the kitchen to play music and answer simple questions.

I’m critical of Facebook for many valid reasons, but as a place to keep in contact with people I truly like but never see, it’s fabulous. A photo I posted yesterday got “likes” from people I’ve known for more than 40 years and less than 6 months. Family members, high school friends, college friends (from the late ’80s), college friends (from the early ’10s), colleagues at two companies, and friends met first in virtual worlds (gaming/SL). People who are spread around the US and Europe. People ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s. People with white, tan, and brown skin. Married/single/partnered, straight/gay/who knows. Military veterans and lifelong hippies, people all over the political spectrum. Of those whose religious faith I know, Catholic, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, atheist, agnostic, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Buddhist, and Southern Baptist are all represented. My Australian and Islamic friends were slacking or my list could be a teensy bit more diverse.

I don’t put ads on my blog (though, since it’s a free WordPress site, you might see some). However, I do have links to non-profit organizations in my sidebar. If you do some charitable giving at this time of year, please give them a look. Kiva allows you to make small loans to entrepreneurs and farmers around the world who fall outside of the commercial credit system. Your money is repaid and you can loan it again and again. Doctors Without Borders has been stretched to the limit with the Ebola crisis this year. I have a slight preference for supporting Partners in Health, founded by anthropologist/physician Paul Farmer.  PIH does amazing and caring medical support work; I just don’t have a nifty logo in the sidebar for them yet. (Doctors Without Borders foolishly, in my opinion, rejected offers of assistance from medical anthropologists with experience in West Africa, whereas PIH takes a more holistic approach. They’re both excellent groups and use their resources well.)

This isn’t the easiest of holiday seasons, but if you celebrate at this time of year, enjoy! Christmas is my tradition, so I wish you a happy one.

Merry-Christmas-3-Hd-Wallpaper

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2014 in Relationships, Side Topics

 

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Amazon Echo: it’s hard out there for an early adopter

Really, Amazon? Give a gal (and her credit card) a break!  Now tempting me is the Amazon Echo, announced and offered today. What the hell is it? Well, it’s a speaker, streaming audio device, and a digital assistant (like Google Now or Siri without a screen), and as TechCrunch points out, it could be a cash machine for Amazon.

I’ve been a Prime member for years and I’ve had an Amazon.com account for almost 20 years, and we’ve already seen with my JIBO pre-order that I see the potential for a stationary digital home assistant, so of course I requested an invitation to purchase one. At $99 for Prime members, and since I don’t have a working Bluetooth speaker right now, the price is pretty good. My husband has been bothering me for Christmas gift ideas, too, so I could rationalize it that way.

TechCrunch‘s analysis is probably on point: Prime members buy more from Amazon, they get a 50% discount on the Echo, and you can be sure that voice-controlled purchasing will be a feature. I’m fine with that. I’ve got most of my shopping impulses under control (except for robots and digital assistants, it seems). If I could notice the dog food is getting low and simply say, “Alexa, order Acana dog food,” and have it check my order history, confirm size and variety, and place the order, I’d do a happy dance to streamed Amazon Prime music.

The privacy-aware part of me squirms a bit when I think about the multiple relationships I have with Google and Amazon, but I think they are still beneficial exchanges of data, money, goods, and services. I’ll probably order the Echo if I get an invitation in the first round. Probably.

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2014 in Our Robot Overlords, Side Topics

 

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