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Robots,

Incredible Self-Folding Robots Work Without Batteries or Wires

Image: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Inspired by the traditional Japanese art of origami, self-folding robots can go places and do things traditional robots cannot. A major drawback to these devices, however, has been the need to equip them with batteries or wires. Researchers from Harvard have found a new way to overcome this problem, by designing folding robots that can be controlled using a wireless magnetic field.

Folding robots are a funky version of on-demand robotic manufacturing or “printing,” where users can deliver a pre-folded version of their device to an otherwise inaccessible or hard-to-reach environment, and then have it fold into its intended physical configuration after which point it can perform useful work. Trouble is,
most complex origami-bots to date
have required batteries and wires, making them bulky, heavy, and biologically unsafe.

Indeed, one of the more exciting possibilities for self-folding robots is their potential use in medicine. In future, surgeons could
deliver a tiny origami-bot into the body
, where it could unfold and perform a medical task, such as targeted drug delivery. The presence of wires and batteries presents an obvious hurdle, which is why a team of researchers from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard University decided to create a wireless, externally powered self-folding robot.

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Scientists have developed origami-bots and self-folding designs that don’t require batteries or wires, but
these designs
were
rather basic
. The new folding bots are a bit more complex in terms of form and potential function.



Led by roboticist Mustafa Boyvat, the researchers designed and demonstrated several systems, including a quarter-sized flat tetrahedral robot (a spherical six-bar origami pattern) and a hand-sized ship robot made of folded paper.

To make these things move without batteries, the researchers installed two structures into their joints: coils of Shape Memory Alloys (SMAs), which return the bot to its original shaped when heated, and miniature circuits that become energized when hit with varying levels of magnetic resonance frequencies.

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By changing the frequencies, the robots could be made to fold their joints on demand, and independently of each other. They were even able to fold multiple joints simultaneously by exposing the bots to overlapping electromagnetic frequencies. The team demonstrated multiple degrees of freedom at both centimeter and millimeter scales. This
research
now appears in
Science Robotics
.

Image: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

“Like origami, one of the main points of our design is simplicity,” noted co-author Je-sung Koh in a statement. “This system requires only basic, passive electronic components on the robot to deliver an electric current-the structure of the robot itself takes care of the rest.”

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The researchers were able to move and unfold the devices without any physical contact, and while the bots were out of visual range.

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“We believe that these demonstrations illustrate the viability of collections of wirelessly powered and controlled functional origami robots and devices,” noted the authors in the study. “One potential use involves origami-based medical devices operating remotely inside the human body without the need for energy storage or control electronics.”

Along those lines, the researchers envision a swallowable folding robot that can substitute for an invasive endoscope. Such a machine could move around and perform simple tasks, such as holding tissue or taking video. Excitingly, the highly scaleable design will allow for both smaller and larger versions.

“There is still room for miniaturization, “said Boyvat. “We don’t think we went to the limit of how small these can be, and we’re excited to further develop our designs for biomedical applications.”

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Looking ahead, the researchers plan to experiment with robots of different sizes and physical configurations, and to work with different frequency ranges. As for a folding robot that can assume the appearance of an origami-like swan, the timeline for that is a bit more unclear.

[
Science Robotics
]

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Apple expands Swift Playgrounds to robots, drones

Tech giant Apple has announced that Swift Playgrounds, its educational coding app for iPad, will now offer a new way to learn to code using robots, drones and musical instruments.

Swift Playgrounds is great for students and beginners learning to code with Swift, Apple’s intuitive programming language for building apps.

“More than one million kids and adults from around the world are already using Swift Playgrounds to learn the fundamentals of coding with Swift in a fun and interactive way,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Software Engineering.

“Now they can instantly see the code they create and directly control their favourite robots, drones and instruments through Swift Playgrounds. It’s an incredibly exciting and powerful way to learn,” added Federighi.

Apple is working with leading device makers to make it easy to connect to Bluetooth-enabled robots within the Swift Playgrounds app, allowing kids to programme and control popular devices, including LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3, Sphero SPRK+, Parrot drones and more.

The Swift Playgrounds 1.5 update will be available as a free download on the App Store starting from June 5.

Swift Playgrounds is compatible with all iPad Air and iPad Pro models and iPad mini 2 and later running iOS 10 or even later versions.

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Robots,

This Robotic Exosuit Could Turn You Into a Super Athlete

Credit: The Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Researchers from Wyss Institute and Harvard SEAS have developed a soft robotic exosuit that significantly boosts a person’s running performance. The device requires a tether and external power supply to work, but once it becomes portable, it could help athletes run faster and further than before, smashing their existing running records without having to undergo additional training.

In tests on treadmills, the device was shown to reduce the metabolic cost of running by 5.4 percent (metabolic cost being the amount of oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide produced while running). That might not sound like much, but to a long distance runner, it’s a substantial increase in performance. In real terms, it could make a 26.2 mile marathon feel like 24.9 miles, or improve a runner’s pace from 9:14 minutes per mile to 8:49 minutes per mile. These
findings
now appear in the journal
Science Robotics
.



The textile-based design is lightweight and moves with the body. Flexible wires are connected to an external actuator unit, which provides the power. When a person runs on a treadmill with the suit on, the actuator pulls on the wires. Once activated, the wires perform the function of a second set of hip extensor muscles, applying force to the legs with each stride.

Designing the device was one problem, but knowing when the machine should exert pressure and engage the wires during running proved to be a different challenge entirely. To figure out the optimal way to boost the running stride, the researchers use two models-one based on observations of a person running, and another based on a simulation of exoskeleton-assisted running. Surprisingly, the computer model produced the best results, taking the movement of the whole body into account rather than focusing on individual body parts.

A system of actuation wires attached to the back of the exosuit provides assistive force to the hip joint during running. (Credit: The Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

There’s still plenty of room for improvement. The researchers only considered two different actuation profiles (the timing of the wire triggering), so it may be possible to increase running efficiency further.

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Importantly, the exosuit was tested exclusively on treadmill conditions. As many athletes can attest, treadmills are fine and well, but they’re a poor approximation for running in the real world. In normal running conditions, runners push themselves forward off the ground, while on treadmills, the feet and legs are pulled under the body, which makes running a bit easier. The researchers will have to take these kinesthetic differences into account once the device becomes portable.

And yes, creating an untethered version of the exosuit is a priority for the researchers. “Our goal is to develop a portable system with a high power-to-weight ratio so that the benefit of using the suit greatly offsets the cost of wearing it,” said Lee in a statement. “We believe this technology could augment the performance of recreational athletes and/or help with recovery after injury.”

It could be years before we see a battery-powered exosuit, but should it ever happen, it could revolutionize both professional and recreational running. It could complicate races greatly, and result in cheating. Once on the market, organizers will have to check runners to make sure they’re not wearing these devices during sporting events.

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As a final note, this study was funded by the Department of Defense’s DARPA Warrior Web program. So in addition to producing super athletes, this device could eventually be used to produce super soliders.

[
Science Robotics
]

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These Freaky Robots Were Built From Drinking Straws and Inspired by Spiders

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Emulating spiders and bugs, and using drinking straws as basic building blocks, a research team from Harvard University has developed a type of semi-soft robot capable of standing, walking, and even striding across a liquid surface. Say hello to the “arthrobots.”


“Once you have a Lego brick, what kind of castle can you build with it?”

In an effort to create nimbler and more agile robots, Harvard’s George White and Alex Nemiroski decided to make machines that move like arachnids and insects. These creatures are among the most agile on the planet, able to move rapidly, climb on various objects, and perform physical maneuvers that clunky conventional robots simply cannot. When it came construction materials, however, the researchers looked to something far less natural: the humble drinking straw.

“This all started with an observation that George made, that polypropylene tubes have an excellent strength-to-weight ratio. That opened the door to creating something that has more structural support than purely soft robots have,” said Nemiroski, a former postdoctoral fellow in Whitesides’ Harvard lab, in a
statement
. “That was the building block, and then we took inspiration from arthropods to figure out how to make a joint and how to use the tubes as an exoskeleton. From there it was a question of how far can your imagination go? Once you have a Lego brick, what kind of castle can you build with it?”



To create the joints, the researchers cut notches into thick Slurpee straws, allowing them to bend. A short length of rubber tubing was then inserted inside the straws and, when inflated, this tubing forced the joints to extend. A rubber tendon was also attached to each side, allowing the joint to retract when the tubing was deflated. The details of this work can now be found in the journal
Soft Robotics
.

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Using with this deceptively simple concept, White and Nemiroski created a basic one-legged robot capable of crawling. Finding success, they graduated to two- and three-legged versions until they finally hit a wall at an eight-legged robo-beastie.

Initially, the researchers used a simple hand-controlled syringe to pump air into the joints, but as the designs got more complicated, they had to rely on computers to control the rate of inflation and the sequencing of the limbs. Moving beyond this point would have required new materials and a different paradigm for controlling the leg movements.

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Eventually, more refined versions of these robots could be used in surveillance, or during search operations following natural disasters. The arthrobots may not be the most durable machines, but they’re cheap, effective, and easy to build. More to the point, they’re wonderfully
uncomplicated
.

[
Soft Robotics
]

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Ignore Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg’s War Over Killer Robots, the Real Challenge is Already Here

Photo: AP

Tech giants Elon Musk and Mark Zuckeberg have been engaged in a very public, somewhat silly and self-indulgent
battle over artificial intelligence
lately. Musk has warned AI-powered robots could usher in some form of automated war to give humanity its richly deserved demise, while Zuckerberg responded by saying he is
“really optimistic”
it could usher a golden age of lifesaving technology.

Both have traded blows, with Zuckerberg saying the doomsaying is “pretty irresponsible,” and Musk tweeting he thinks the Facebook head just
doesn’t understand
the issue. The whole thing is a little eyeroll-inducing given true AI remains a pipe dream for now, and both men stand to benefit greatly from machine learning trends which automate jobs and concentrate control of the emerging digital economy in fewer hands. Coursera cofounder Andrew Ng, a real AI researcher who used to be chief scientist at Chinese tech company Baidu, weighed in on the latter issue Tuesday.

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“As an AI insider, having built and shipped a lot of AI products, I don’t see a clear path for AI to surpass human-level intelligence,” Ng told attendees at a Harvard Business Review event,
VentureBeat reported
. “I think that job displacement is a huge problem, and the one that I wish we could focus on, rather than be distracted by these science fiction-ish, dystopian elements.”

“I’ve been in a lot of private conversations with AI leaders, or business leaders who are working on new AI products that will wipe out tens of thousands of jobs in a single company, maybe more across multiple companies,” he added. “And the interesting thing is that a lot of people whose jobs are squarely in the crosshairs of the technologies, a lot of people doing the jobs that are about to go away, they don’t understand AI, they don’t have the training to understand AI.”

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“And so a lot of people whose jobs are going to go away don’t know that they’re in the crosshairs,” Ng concluded.

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Some 5.6 million US manufacturing jobs disappeared from 2000 to 2010, according to a
recent study
by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, with approximately 85 percent of those losses “actually attributable to technological change – largely automation.”
Estimates vary
, but they largely agree that a huge slice of US jobs could be lost to technology-somewhere between
38
to
47
percent of all employment in the country is at high risk.

That falls in line with Ng’s warning early AI-like technologies such as machine learning are putting a lot of jobs commonly assumed to be the continued domain of humans at risk. Researchers in the field have been sounding this warning for years. A 2013
Oxford University study
on computerisation identified a number of high-risk professions ranging from traffic technicians and medical records technicians to loan officers, nuclear reactor operators and technical writers.

Risk is just risk, and some
recent research
suggests automation and computerization of US jobs has slowed down lately in part because wages have remained so low workers are cheaper than fancy new toys. But on another point, Ng is right: Polls show Americans tend to be optimistic that this trend won’t kill their jobs, just those of
other poor saps
. That did not work out so well for
the taxi industry
.

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High concept futurist drama over whether or not machines will kill or save us all grab headlines. But the more immediate concern is already here: Figuring out how to keep the economy working for most of us before people like Musk and Zuckberg run away
with all our money
.

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[
VentureBeat
]

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Blink and You’ll Miss These Lightning Fast, Blood-Thirsty Sumo Bots Fighting

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It’s assumed that when robots one day replace humans in boxing and ultimate fighting bouts, the ensuing battles will be like watching a real-life
Transformers
movie play out. But these tiny sumo robots tell a different story, with
lightning fast fights
that are over almost as quickly as they begin.

YouTuber
Robert McGregor
spliced together years of Japanese sumo robots at war, each programmed with just a single task: pushing their opponents out of the ring. However, unlike human sumo matches that tend to go wild with pomp and circumstance, these sumo bots don’t care about impressing the crowds. They’re immediately out for blood, and don’t care if an opponent gets destroyed in the process.

[
YouTube
]



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Google’s Plan to Make Assistant Actually Useful

Released last year, Google Assistant hasn’t really proven itself useful outside of checking the weather, searching Google, or setting an alarm using voice commands. So far it’s been limited to just basic features that are more than matched by other smart assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. But Google is trying to chane that.

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Last month the company released an official SDK for Assistant, and today it’s announcing a host of new built-in functionality, as well as new third-party integrations, that will improve how intelligent and capable Assistant can be.

Minor improvements include the ability to physically type inquiries to Google Assistant using your smartphone’s keyboard if you’re out in a public place and don’t want to make a scene by talking to your device, improved language support including the addition of French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and Korean, and Google transactions so purchases can be made all from within Assistant, including payment details.

Google Assistant on iPhone

Google’s messaging platform Allo gave iPhone users a small taste of what Google Assistant could do, but now the company is bringing a dedicated Assistant app to iOS that will include most of its functionality like voice commands, image recognition, and Google Actions. Unlike with Google Home or the Google Pixel, however, users won’t be able to launch Google Assistant using a voice command without having the app open in front of them, which limits how useful and hands-free it can be.

Google Lens

One of the biggest features Samsung touted for its
Galaxy S8 smartphone
was its smart image recognition capabilities using the company’s Bixby AI. But the feature wasn’t available for the device’s launch, and it already looks outdated compared to Google’s new Lens feature that gives Google Assistant the same image recognition capabilities, plus more advanced features.

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You can point your smartphone’s camera at a flower and it will tell you what type of plant it is, or point it at a restaurant to get instant reviews for the place. Google also demoed Lens being used to grab the username and password data from the back of a wireless router, and automatically connecting the device to it after extracting the important data. Very cool, and a little scary.

Google is also integrating Google Lens into Google Photos so if you’ve snapped a photo of a receipt, white board notes, a sticky note, or anything else you want to remember, it can extract the important details and data from those images for use in other apps.

Google Home Upgrades

The Google Home smart speaker is completely reliant on Assistant for all of its most advanced features, and Google will soon be upgrading it with new abilities like proactive notifications so you’ll know if you have to leave home early to make a meeting on time due to traffic, or can take your time because of a flight delay. Google Home will also be getting hands-free calling, making it the ultimate speakerphone, plus entertainment upgrades including access to Spotify, Deezer, and Soundcloud soon.

iRobot Robovac Connectivity

Robot vacuums have allowed humanity to reach never-before-seen levels of laziness, but iRobot is taking that one step further
with Google Home and Google Assistant compatibility
for all of the company’s wi-fi-connected robovacs including the Roomba 980, 960, and 690. Voice-activated commands include starting, stopping, and pausing a cleaning routine, sending a Roomba back to its base for a charge, or asking where it’s currently cleaning in your home.

Whirlpool Appliance Connectivity

Appliance maker Whirlpool announced today that it will be releasing over 20 new appliances under its Whirlpool and Jenn-Air brands in 2017 that will allow homeowners to do everything from checking how much time is left on the microwave, to starting and stopping the dishwasher, to setting the temperature on the oven, or even ensuring it’s been turned off, using simple voice-commands through Google Home.

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Aside from granite countertops, it’s a compelling reason to upgrade your kitchen, although older Whirlpool connected appliances from 2015 onward will also be upgraded with the new Google Home functionality.

GE Smart Appliance Connectivity

If you don’t have Whirlpool appliances in your home, odds are most of them are branded GE-branded instead. And today the company announced its entire Wi-Fi connected appliance lineup, which includes dishwashers, stoves, laundry machines, fridges, and even water heaters, will
now work with Google Assistant and Google Home
.

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Users will be able to pre-heat their ovens, turn off appliances, or get a status update on when their undies will be dry. The functionality is tied to Geneva, GE’s own voice-powered assistant, which was actually developed as part of a collaboration with Amazon using Alexa technologies.

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A Robot Captured Photos of What Might Be Melted Nuclear Fuel Inside Fukushima’s Reactor No. 3

Photo: AP

One of the several brave robots to make
one-way trips
into Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant’s severely damaged reactors has accomplished what its less fortunate compatriots did not, sending back photos of what appears to be melted nuclear fuel from the interior of the ruined facility.

The remotely controlled Toshiba robot, which is similar in design to a submarine, managed to gain some glimpses of “a hardened black, grey and orange substance” pooled below reactor No. 3,

Bloomberg
reported

on Friday. Officials with Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc. believe the substance is the remains of atomic fuel rods, which melted through and fused with other structural components of the reactor.

Images of what engineers believe is melted nuclear fuel pooled below the No. 3 reactor at Fukushima. Credit:
Tepco

Identifying precisely where the melted-down materials are, and what they are composed of, is critical to the ongoing Tepco cleanup efforts.

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“Never before have we taken such clear pictures of what could be melted fuel,” utility official Takahiro Kimoto told reporters, per
Bloomberg
. “We believe that the fuel melted and mixed with the metal directly underneath it. And it is highly likely that we have filmed that on Friday.”

After the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami triggered the plant’s meltdown, over 100,000 people were evacuated from a
30-mile radius
around the facility. The reactors at Fukushima remain extremely dangerous: In February 2017, radiation levels inside reactor No. 2 reached at least
650 sieverts per hour
, enough to fry a person in seconds and destroying the electronics inside Tepco robots.

While the cleanup is expected to take decades and has an estimated $72 billion price tag, authorities are confident enough the area surrounding the plant is now safe they began the process of
resettling evacuees
last year.

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[
Bloomberg
]

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Stanford Designed the Most Phallic Robot You’ve Ever Seen

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GIF:
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Designing simpler spacecraft is what helped us finally put rovers on Mars and start exploring the Red Planet. Embracing simplicity might also give us
simple, inexpensive robots
that thrive doing very specific tasks, instead of multi-million dollar humanoids that have trouble just staying on their feet.

Stanford University and University of California researchers are the latest to take the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) approach to engineering with a new inflatable robot that “grows like a vine” as they describe it. But honestly, the soft robot, which inflates like a balloon to extend over 236-feet, looks far more phallic than the researchers are willing to let on.



In a paper published recently in the 

Science Robotics
journal

, the researchers detail how the robot is really much more than a penis-shaped balloon. Its most impressive feat is its ability to steer and turn corners by lengthening or shortening one side, allowing it to navigate and crawl its way through complicated spaces.

Aside from exploration using a camera attached to its tip, or making it easier for contractors to run wiring through a wall, the robot could be used for finding victims in a search and rescue scenario and perhaps helping to free them. The researchers have successfully used it to lift a crate weighing over 150-pounds by first winding the robot beneath the box, and then fully inflating it. Similar devices are used to lift trucks that have rolled over, but the advantage to this robot and approach is that the rescue can be delivered to a hard-to-reach area.

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The robot also has some interesting potential applications in medicine, both for exploratory surgery and delivering medications or installing catheters. Because it’s soft, there’s less risk of it causing tissue damage as it snakes its way through a person, and its flexibility could allow it to reach places current scope technology cannot. The one thing it won’t do is make your next colonoscopy any less creepy.

[
YouTube
]

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Robots,

It Sure Looks Like the FCC’s Anti-Net Neutrality Bot Problem Got Worse

Image: Getty

Last week, we
reported
that tens of thousands of fraudulent comments had been filed in favor Ajit Pai’s proposal to roll back net neutrality rules, using text taken from the Center for Individual Freedom (though, according to the CFIF, they aren’t behind the fake comments). We spoke to several people who had comments filed under their names and addresses, as did reporters from other outlets, and several more supposed commenters responded to our emails after publication saying they hadn’t filed comments with the FCC.

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But the coverage hasn’t deterred whoever is filing these fake comments, which have ballooned. On Wednesday last week, 128,000 of these particular identical comments, beginning “The unprecedented regulatory power the Obama Administration imposed on the internet…” had been filed. Now, that
number
is up to more than 440,000, with the most recent comments filed on May 12. (The FCC doesn’t consider comments submitted in the week leading up to a vote on the notice of proposed rulemaking, which will happen May 18.)

And two blog posts published this weekend may provide more evidence that a bot is being used to file these comments.

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One,
published
on Medium by Chicago-based developer Chris Sinchok, looked at the sources of the comments. (Sinchok formerly worked at the Onion, another property of Univision, Gadgetlayout’s parent company.) Sinchok filtered the comments for ones filed directly to the FCC’s site-which would also account for commenters directed from gofccyourself.com, John Oliver’s site-and those filed through the FCC’s API, which is essentially a tool used to interact with or communicate with a program or database. (Sinchok later clarified in an email that he missed a third source of comments, those filed in
bulk by a CSV file
, which he said numbered 277,959 as of yesterday morning. Those comments, he said, would be “even easier to fake.”)

Sinchok found that comments filed through the site itself were “pretty similar” to each other, mostly using phrasing similar to what John Oliver suggested, but also had “a ton of variation.” Sinchok concluded that if there was any significant bot activity for messages filed through the site, “they’re doing a good job of disguising it.” The most common on-site
comment
text was filed around 14,000 times; the rest of the top 5 most common comments were filed several thousand times each, and all were pro-net neutrality.

Compare that to comments filed by API, where the most common comment text has been filed 436,000 times. The next most common
comment
text has been filed 181,000 times, and appears to come from Free our Internet, a non-profit staffed by a Trump campaign staffer from Maine and the spokesperson for Breitbart News Network. Its website
says
Obama “gave away our internet” with the net neutrality order,”at the behest of radical leftists and globalists like George Soros.” Another, from the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, which gets
funding
from Koch brothers-funded groups, has been filed 96,000 times. The only pro-net neutrality comment filed en masse by API has been filed 24,000 times.

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Sinchok also identified a second stat-filing a comment through the FCC site gives the commenter the option to request a confirmation of their comment, but the overwhelming majority of the CFIF “unprecedented…” comments recorded no data for email confirmation. That seems to suggest those comments came from a bot using other people’s email addresses-why would they want to alert those people their addresses were used with an email confirmation? Meanwhile, pro-net neutrality comments filed through Battle for the Net mostly did opt to receive email confirmation.

Another
post
, by Jeffrey Fossett, a data scientist who previously worked for Airbnb, supports Sinchok’s analysis. Fossett’s chart shows the bot comments arriving in huge numbers, and then disappearing for hours at a time:

Image:
Jeffrey Fossett.

Fossett also has some conclusions about how many genuine comments have been filed to support Pai. After removing the supposed bot comments, he took a random sample of 200 real comments and categorized all of them by whether they supported or opposed net neutrality. He found, unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority of 95.6 percent in favor of keeping net neutrality rules.

Image:
Jeffrey Fossett.

This is more evidence of what was already quite clear: someone is seeking to tip the scales of the FCC comment process more in favor of Pai’s proposal. So what is the FCC going to do about it? When it comes to vote on the rules, will it consider these fraudulent comments as if they were legitimate, equal to the real comments filed by members of the public? And will it investigate who filed so many comments in other people’s names?

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Mark Wigfield, a spokesperson for Pai’s office, declined to comment.