A Robot Called Pepper Can Teach Visitors Swahili at the Smithsonian

Pepper the Robot at the 2017 New Yorker TechFest in New York City
Pepper the Robot at the 2017 New Yorker TechFest in New York City
Brian Ach, Getty Images for The New Yorker

"Hakuna matata" may very well be the only Swahili phrase that many people outside of East Africa have ever heard (thanks, Lion King), but a 4-foot-tall humanoid robot named Pepper is working to change that.

The National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.—part of the Smithsonian Institution's network—is using Pepper to explain the meaning of Swahili words and phrases that appear in its artworks. The Smithsonian says it's the first museum complex in the world to use this particular robot, which was developed by SoftBank Robotics in 2014, made available to Japanese consumers in 2015, and later released to a wider market.

Considered to be the world's first robot capable of reading emotions, Pepper is multi-talented. He has already found a home in several different Smithsonian sites, where he interacts with visitors, answers questions, plays games, tells stories, and even dances.

Pepper the Robot talks to children at the National Museum of African Art
Courtesy of Smithsonian

For the Museum of African Art's new exhibition on Swahili arts, which opens on May 9, Pepper will be tasked with helping visitors better understand the ways in which African art influences global culture, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

"Proverbs and words are so important in African art and in the context of the culture, so having Pepper reinforce those ideals is so valuable," Michelle Edwards, the museum coordinator who wrote the robot's script, told the magazine.

Swahili is spoken on the east coast of Africa, and it's a lingua franca—or bridge language—in Tanzania, Kenya, Congo, and Uganda. The language was greatly influenced by the region's contact with Arabic-speaking traders over several centuries and contains many loan words from Arabic. Even the word swahili itself comes from the Arabic sawahili, meaning "of the coast." Today, it has between 100 and 140 million speakers around the world.

Training Pepper to speak Swahili correctly, though, was no easy feat. Edwards reportedly spent weeks trying to get the pronunciation just right.

SoftBank, which has a partnership with the Smithsonian, donated about 30 robots to its network of museums. In addition to the African Art Museum, Peppers are peppered throughout several other Smithsonian sites, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Castle, and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

Outside of the U.S., Peppers have taken over Belgian hospitals (as receptionists), Japanese funerals (as Buddhist priests), and even a Scottish grocery store (although, after a week, he was relieved of his duties as a customer liaison due to being generally unhelpful).

[h/t Smithsonian Magazine]

6 Common Fire Hazards Lurking in Your Home (and Simple Ways to Prevent Them)

iStock
iStock

Whether you're a homeowner or renter, a house fire can be a costly disaster. According to the National Fire Protection Association, home fires account for more than 2500 deaths and more than 12,000 injuries in the U.S. every year, not to mention billions of dollars in damage. U.S. fire departments respond to an average of 350,000 house fires annually.

The good news is, total fire-related deaths, injuries, and property losses have trended downward in recent years, and that may be due to improved fire-fighting technology at home. Nothing beats the effectiveness of smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and a solid fire escape plan, but the newest smart home devices can help you prevent these common fire hazards lurking in your home.

1. UNATTENDED BURNERS

Wallflower stove monitor
Amazon

We’ve all had that moment of panic when we ask ourselves, “Did I remember to turn off the stove?” It’s worth double-checking, since cooking equipment is the leading cause of house fires. Stoves, ovens, and other appliances account for nearly 50 percent of incidents, while unattended cooking is the leading contributor to these fires.

Fortunately, new smart stovetop sensors and monitors will alert you when you’ve left the stove on. The Wallflower simply plugs into the wall with your electric stove, then alerts you when the stove is turned on, when it’s been on longer than usual, and even when you leave the house without turning it off. The crowd-funded Inirv React, meanwhile, promises to be a system of smart stove knobs that use sensors and electronics to detect smoke, natural gas, and motion, while allowing you to monitor your stove remotely.

2. DEAD SMOKE DETECTOR BATTERIES

Nest Protect home smoke detector
Amazon

Working smoke alarms should be placed on every floor of your home, and inside every bedroom: They cut the risk of dying in a house fire by half.

Basic smoke detectors can get the job done, but newer models can also alert your phone if there's smoke in your home, turn off your HVAC system to slow the spread of smoke, or record video so you can check the situation remotely.

Security expert Emily Patterson of independent review site A Secure Life highlights the Nest Protect as one of her favorite devices for fire safety. “It has CO detection as well as heat and humidity sensors, so it has the ability to distinguish between real causes for concern and burnt toast,” Patterson tells Mental Floss. “You can also enable smartphone alerts, which is handy if you’re not home, and set up automated protocols to unlock doors or record video if the alarm goes off.”

The detector is only as reliable as the battery powering it, though. The Roost Smart Battery allows you to retrofit existing smoke detectors with 9V batteries to be managed by your smartphone and alerts you when battery life is running low (after three to five years).

3. SPACE HEATERS

Dyson Hot + Cool fan heater
Amazon

Space heaters keep things cozy when your existing heating system performs poorly, but they can also be extremely dangerous. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 1100 residential fires—and more than 50 deaths—are linked to portable electric heaters every year. Fires often occur when the heaters are left on unattended or they’re too close to flammable materials like paper or blankets.

The U.S. Department of Energy recommends purchasing only newer-model heaters equipped with safety features like a tip-over switch and automatic shut-off, which kicks in if the heater exceeds a certain temperature. The Dyson Hot + Cool fan heater uses diffused mode heat to warm rooms evenly while the machine stays comfortable to the touch. For a more affordable option, the Smart Ceramic Tower Heater has infrared heat settings, a sleep timer, overheating protection, a tip-over safety switch, and Wi-Fi connectivity that lets you control it with your smartphone—just in case you forget to turn it off before leaving home.

4. OVERLOADED OUTLETS

Wemo smart plug
Amazon

Heat-producing small appliances like coffee makers and toasters can pose a fire risk if used improperly—like if you have too many appliances plugged into one outlet. The NFPA recommends plugging only one heat-producing gadget into an outlet at a time [PDF], while smart plugs make it easy to turn off power to small appliances when you’re not home. Some devices even turn off outlets automatically when they’re not in use. There are dozens of options on the market now, from Wemo’s Insight Smart Plug with energy monitoring to the iDevices Switch. Most can be controlled with your phone, and are compatible with smart-home hubs. Be sure to check that the smart plug you choose is equipped with enough power to handle the wattage of your appliances.

5. COMBUSTIBLE LANDSCAPING

B-Hyve sprinkler regulator
Amazon

The landscaping around your home can mitigate fire risks—or multiply them. Any plants that are too close to the house can present a fire hazard, especially when they’re dried out, says Cassy Aoyagi, a board member of the U.S. Green Building Council’s L.A. Chapter and president of FormLA Landscaping. “Several popular plants, like pampas, feather, and fountain grasses, marketed in the West as ‘drought tolerant,’ are actually quite combustible,” she tells Mental Floss.

A smart sprinkler controller makes it easy to ensure that your yard is moist and as fire-safe as possible. It can regulate and even reduce your water consumption, too. The Rachio 3 Smart Sprinkler Controller is equipped with a weather-monitoring system to adjust water use based on the forecast. The Orbit B-Hyve has fewer bells and whistles, but still offers smart scheduling with a smartphone app.

6. INTENTIONAL FIRES

iCamera KEEP home security system
Amazon

Let’s hope you never have to deal with this one, because playing with fire is no joke. The NFPA reports that 8 percent of residential fires between 2011 and 2015 were set intentionally, with 15 percent of civilian deaths happening as a result [PDF].

To keep your home safe inside and out, consider using a smart home security system. The iCamera KEEP Pro from iSmartAlarm has a powerful image sensor, sound and motion detection, event-triggered video recording, and a motion-tracking feature that allows the camera to follow movement around your space. The Wyze Cam 2 is a smaller model with motion-tagging technology and a budget-friendly price tag.

Nothing beats the power of common sense, of course. “Preparedness is the best protection,” Patterson says. “Have the right tools, have an evacuation plan, and know what to do in the event of an emergency. Fires are scary and it can be difficult to act quickly and think clearly in the moment if you aren’t prepared.”

Trulia Now Makes Browsing Neighborhoods as Easy as Browsing Homes

iStock
iStock

An online real estate listing can tell you the number of bedrooms, the square footage, and the price of a property, but until you arrive in person, it's hard to know if the location will be a good fit for you. Trulia is looking to tackle that problem with a new Neighborhoods feature, as Fast Company reports, letting you virtually explore your potential home's surroundings before you show up for the tour.

Trulia, a listings site owned by Zillow, already offers all the standard information you would get from any other real estate service. Now, the new Trulia Neighborhoods feature also makes it possible to research various neighborhoods within the app the same way you would research individual houses and apartments.

The Neighborhoods feature includes a slideshow of annotated images of each neighborhood captured by Trulia's team of photographers and videographers. It also has some objective data about the area, like maps of local businesses, as well as first-hand reports from residents. In the "What the Locals Say" section, for instance, you might find that 90 percent of people reported that a neighborhood is quiet, while just 50 percent said it's easy to find parking there. This part also includes personal testimonies from individual users that you can browse by topic, such as "community" or "dog owners." Neighborhoods also allows you to easily access data on schools, safety, and commute times.

Trulia Neighborhoods isn't available for every market yet. For now, you can only take advantage of it if you're house-hunting in one of 300 neighborhoods across five U.S. cities—San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Austin, and Chicago. Trulia plans to expand the feature to more than 1100 neighborhoods by the end of 2018.

[h/t Fast Company]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios