The growing popularity of hi-tech devices, such as flat-screen TVs and digital radios, threaten to undermine efforts to save energy, a report says. UK consumers spend E12bn a year on electronics, much of which is less efficient than older technology, a study by the Energy Saving Trust found. By 2020, the gadgets will account for about 45% of electricity used in UK households, the organisation projected. It said flat-screen TVs and digital radios were among the worst offenders. Paula Owen, author of the report called The Ampere Strikes Back, said household appliances currently consumed about a third of an average home’s electricity.
But she warned this was likely to increase as a result of people buying more energy-intensive devices.
“Your old-fashioned, bulky cathode ray tube TV on average consumed about 100 watts of electricity when it was switched on,” Dr Owen explained. “What we are seeing now is a trend for much bigger flat-screened TVs. On average, we are seeing a three-fold increase in the energy needed to power these TVs.
“Pretty much in every other sector [such as fridges and washing machines], we find that as the technology moves on, the products get more and more efficient.
“Consumer electronics does not work like that.”
The equivalent of 14 power stations will be needed just to power consumer electronic devices by 2020, the report warned.
By that time televisions on standby will consume 1.4% of all domestic electricity, it predicted.
Digital radios were also singled out by the report as being energy intensive.
“Traditional analogue radios consume about two watts when they are switched on,” Dr Owen said. “We’ve looked at digital radios and the average consumption of these is eight watts.” She added that listening to the radio via digital TVs or set-top boxes had an average consumption of more than 100 watts. Recent research by the communications watchdog Ofcom said that more than 80% of UK homes now had digital TV. More people are buying digital TVs or set-top boxes because by the end of 2012 the analogue TV signal will no longer be available in the UK. But not all new technology was criticised by the report.
“Mobile phones and their chargers are one area where we have seen an improvement,” Dr Owen said. A few years ago, she said, the current being drawn by chargers that were plugged in but not actually attached to a phone was about three to five watts. “We have done some testing on the newest mobile phones and chargers you can buy today and reassuringly we could see that ‘no-load’ consumption had fallen below one watt.”
“The simple message to people is switch things off when you have finished using them,” urged Dr Owen.
Using a Robot to Teach Human Social Skills
By Emmet Cole
Children with autism are often described as robotic: They are emotionless. They engage in obsessive, repetitive behaviour and have trouble communicating and socializing.
Now, a humanoid robot designed to teach autistic children social skills has begun testing in British schools.
Known as KASPAR (Kinesics and Synchronisation in Personal Assistant Robotics), the $4.33 million bot smiles, simulates surprise and sadness, gesticulates and, the researchers hope, will encourage social interaction amongst autistic children.
Developed as part of the pan-European IROMEC (Interactive Robotic Social Mediators as Companions) project, KASPAR has two “eyes” fitted with video cameras and a mouth that can open and smile.
Children with autism have difficulty understanding and interpreting people’s facial expressions and body language, says Dr. Ben Robins, a senior research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire’s Adaptive Systems Research Group, who leads the multi-national team behind KASPAR.
“Human interaction can be very subtle, with even the smallest eyebrow raise, for example, having different meanings in different contexts,” Robins said. “It is thought that autistic children cut themselves off from interacting with other humans because, for them, this is too much information and it is too confusing for them to understand.”
With this in mind, the team designed KASPAR to express emotion consistently and with the minimum of complexity.
KASPAR’s face is made of silicon-rubber supported on an aluminium frame. Eight degrees of freedom in the head and neck and six in the arms and hands enable movement.
The researchers hope that the end result is a human-like robot that can act as a “social mediator” for autistic children, a steppingstone to improved social interaction with other children and adults.
“KASPAR provides autistic children with reliability and predictability. Since there are no surprises, they feel safe and secure,” Robins said, adding that the purpose is not to replace human interaction and contact but to enhance it.
Robins has already tested some imitation and turn-taking games with the children and his preliminary findings are positive.
“When I first started testing, the children treated me like a fly on the wall,” he said. “But each one of them, in their own time, started to open themselves up to me. One child in particular, after weeks on end of ignoring me, came and sat in my lap and then took my hand and brought me to the robot, to share the experience of KASPAR with me.”
Using robots to interact with children is nothing new, although there’s been a lot of new research lately into this kind of work. The Robota dolls, a series of mini humanoid bots developed as part of the AURORA project, have been in use as educational toys since 1997.
The Social Robotics Lab at Yale is collaborating with a robotics team from the university’s department of computer science to develop Nico, a humanoid robot designed to detect vulnerabilities for autism in the first year of life.
Relying on a robot to teach human social skills might seem counterintuitive, but autism presents a special case, said Dr. Cathy Pratt, director of the Indiana Resource Center for Autism at Indiana University.
“Autistic kids often interact better with inanimate objects than with other people, so a project like this makes sense and might lead to a safe way for these kids to learn social skills,” she said.
However, autistic children often don’t make the connection between what they have learned in a training situation and the outside world, said Dr. Gary Mesibov, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina and editor of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
“I think this project will still be worthwhile, even if the children don’t fully generalize what they have learned to the real world,” Mesibov said. “But the key question facing the researchers is whether the autistic children will be able to apply what they have learned from KASPAR in different situations and contexts.”
Face recognition and emotion processing is a major area of deficit for autistic children and hampers their social development, said Dr. Jennifer Pinto-Martin, director of the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research and Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Although autistic children often respond well to training, the process can be very labour intensive and the quality of the trainer is paramount, Pinto-Martin said. “People who work in this area need more creative ways to train around the deficits of autism. The quality and consistency of the trainer can be hard to control, but that’s not the case with a robot.
“There is interactive computer software and video out there for testing and interaction, but the idea of using a robot trainer like KASPAR is a creative and wonderful step beyond current technologies and techniques,” she said.