By Paul Miller December 12, 2014

AI for gift guides

Smart things make smart gifts

Because it's December, it's only natural that this rambling series ends in a gift guide. While these picks may seem a little safe, given my grand hopes for AI and robotics, they reflect where I think we'll see innovation and intelligence in the near future. These products help bring AI from out the dark corners of Google server farms, and into our living rooms.

If you're looking for more practical gift ideas, read Liz Furze's excellent roundup of staff picks. Here are my own AI-tinged thoughts:

Have a talk - Amazon Echo

Amazon EchoAmazon Echo "Just Ask," is all Amazon asks. Amazon Echo ($199, $99 with Amazon Prime) is a wireless speaker designed to recognize and respond to a wide range of voice commands. After I dumped on voice recognition in a previous post, you might be surprised to see me recommend something so wholly centered on it, but what I like about the Echo is how superfluous all its voice features are. You could use Echo as a regular Bluetooth speaker, or control it from your phone or laptop. This gives the voice commands a chance to be whimsical and wide-ranging. It's the perfect platform for a company like Amazon to learn how and why and when we want to talk to our electronics, and improve its product accordingly.

Go for a run - Jawbone UP24 or UP3

Jawbone UP24Jawbone UP24 Wearables can now collect a cornucopia of fitness data, but what do we do with it? Jawbone is finally providing some answers with its UP App and associated tracking products. UP takes your activity and then offers useful suggestions to improve your health. These suggestions are only rudimentary right now — walk more, go to sleep before X 'o clock — but there's virtually no limit to how machine intelligence could be applied to this data and be turned into detailed, powerful suggestions for your wellbeing. If you want the best data now, UP3 ($179) is your best choice, because it includes a heart rate monitor and more detailed tracking of your sleep habits, but the UP24 ($129) is a little more svelte and currently reigns as The Verge's best fitness tracker you can buy.

Play a game - Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Middle-earth: Shadow of MordorMiddle-earth: Shadow of Mordor If you want to really experience AI first hand, video games have long been a primary venue. Because the virtual world is simpler and more easily observed by software AI agents, they can exhibit more complicated and interesting behavior than even the most advanced robots do in real life. Unfortunately, very few games take advantage of this, instead relying on cinema-style scripts. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor ($59) is an exciting exception to this trend. Enemies track your behavior, build grudges, and seek revenge for their fallen comrades. The recent success of Shadow of Mordor and the handful of other AI-driven games is likely to drive a bigger emphasis on murderous game AI in the industry, which can only be a good thing.

Make a roboticist - Lego Mindstorms EV3

Lego Mindstorms EV3Lego Mindstorms EV3 The most important thing in robotics is the humans. And as great as the existing human roboticists are, we need more of them, which is why it's imperative we begin to recruit little baby humans and teach them how to make robots. The problem is, robots are possibly the most multi-disciplinary field in science or technology. An understanding of electronics, physics, mechanics, biology, engineering, and software are all required skills — and that's just off the top of my head. Lego Mindstorms ($349) offers a great combination of a kid-friendly programming environment and kid-friendly building blocks. There are cheaper, more realistic ways to teach kids programming and engineering, but nothing's quite as tangible and immediate as Legos. If the human baby you're attempting to indoctrinate doesn't like building robots with Mindstorms, check if there's some sort of human baby trade-in program available in your local area.

About Paul Miller

That guy who left the internet for a year