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Abu Dhabi permits people with negative COVID-19 test to enter emirate

Abu Dhabi will allow people to enter the emirate if they have tested negative for COVID-19 in the previous 48 hours, the local government media office said on Monday, Trend reports citing Reuters.

Abu Dhabi, the largest and wealthiest member of the United Arab Emirates federation, has had a ban on people entering since June 2. It eased some restrictions a week ago to allow movement between its cities for residents.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates will partially reopen mosques across the country starting July 1, with a reduced capacity of 30%, the spokesperson of the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority said on Monday.

Saif Al Dhaheri said that mosques will remain closed for Friday prayers, but some will be open at other times while those located in industrial areas, shopping malls and public parks will stay closed for now.

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Coronavirus: New advice for people shielding in NI

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PA Media

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80,000 people received shielding letters in Northern Ireland

Thousands of letters giving updated advice on shielding have begun arriving in homes in Northern Ireland.

They are for those who have been judged to be the most vulnerable to Covid-19 – about 80,000 people.

They received a similar letter three months ago advising them to shield for 12 weeks.

The 12 weeks run out later this week and the new guidance is valid until the end of June.

In the letter, Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer says he knows it has been “a very challenging time”.

Dr Michael McBride explained “the Covid-19 virus still poses a high risk” but that “infection levels are now falling” so the “risk of exposure is significantly less”.

However, the letter also states that people shielding should continue to practise social distancing of 2m and wash their hands regularly.

The updated guidance from the chief medical officer states:

  • If you wish to spend time outdoors (though not in other buildings, households, or enclosed spaces) you should take extra care to minimise contact with others by keeping 2m apart
  • If you choose to spend time outdoors, this can be with members of your own household. If you live alone, you can spend time outdoors with one person from another household (ideally the same person each time)
  • You should remain vigilant when leaving home, washing your hands regularly, maintaining social distance and avoiding gatherings of any size
  • You should not attend any gatherings, including gatherings of friends and families in private spaces, for example, parties, weddings and religious services
  • You should strictly avoid contact with anyone who is displaying symptoms of Covid-19 (a new continuous cough, a high temperature, or a loss of, or change in, the sense of taste or smell)

Belfast woman Issy McManus has rheumatoid arthritis and takes regular medication which suppresses her immune system.

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Issy McManus said she had found following the shielding advice difficult

She received an initial shielding letter.

Mrs McManus recently remarried and lives with her new husband, Gerry.

She said she found following the shielding advice difficult.

“The only people that came to see me were my nieces – it was talking to them through the patio doors really, and it absolutely wrecked my nerves,” she said.

“I couldn’t cope with it. I’m very sociable, and I just found it impossible. We’re only newly married and so it’s been a poor baptism of fire for Gerry as well, so it was hard work.”

Her new letter with updated guidance arrived on Monday of this week.

Mrs McManus said she initially feared it would tell her to stay indoors.

“I just thought ‘I can’t cope with this really; I can’t go through all that again’. I really need to be outside in my garden… but to think I should be back in the house and doing that, completely locked down, no, I can’t do it.”

Dr Ursula Brennan, a Belfast GP and GP lead for the Belfast Covid Centre, said she is hopeful that with the reduction in the number of cases of Covid-19 in the community there will be a further relaxation of the rules in the coming weeks.

“We know it’s been very difficult for those who’ve been shielding over the 12 weeks, particularly with regards to their mental health and their emotional wellbeing,” she said.

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Dr Ursula Brennan said the new advice was good news for those shielding

“But this is good news, that it allows those people now to spend time outdoors either with their own family, but being particularly careful with social distancing, the two metre gap between individuals outside.

“Those individuals who have been living alone – they can spend time outdoors with one other person not from their household preferably the same person and again being sure to maintain social distancing and hand washing and those are really key features of Covid and they need to continue.”

Dr Brennan advises people who’ve received a letter to seek clarification from their GP or hospital specialist if they are unclear about anything.

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Obama urges George Floyd protesters to push for change, ‘make people in power uncomfortable’

Former President Barack Obama, in a virtual town hall hosted by his foundation Wednesday, called on demonstrators to channel their anger over George Floyd’s death into an opportunity to make leaders “uncomfortable” and pressure them into making real policy changes.

The town hall was hosted by the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, which supports young men of color. During the event, Obama said he rejected a debate that emerged in “a little bit of chatter on the internet” about “voting versus protests, politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action.”

“This is not an either-or. This is a both,” he said. “And to bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that could be implemented and monitored and make sure we’re following up on.”


Former President Barack Obama speaks June 3, 2020, during virtual town hall event with young people to discuss policing and the civil unrest that has followed the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. (My Brother's Keeper Alliance and The Obama Foundation via AP)

Former President Barack Obama speaks June 3, 2020, during virtual town hall event with young people to discuss policing and the civil unrest that has followed the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. (My Brother’s Keeper Alliance and The Obama Foundation via AP)

Obama also urged “every mayor in the country to review your use of force policies” with their communities and “commit to report on planned reforms” before prioritizing their implementation. During a virtual roundtable discussion, he compared current protests to the unrest of the 1960s and said polls show a majority of Americans support the current demonstrations taking place nationwide, despite some “having been marred by the actions of a tiny minority that engaged in violence.”


Last week, Obama said the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in Minneapolis police custody May 25 after a white officer kneeled on his neck for more than 8 minutes, “shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in 2020 America.” He laid out plans for change in a post on Medium and countered the argument made by some protesters that demonstrations will facilitate more societal change than voting.

“I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time,” he wrote. “I couldn’t disagree more.”

While the former president said that the current protests stem from a “legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices,” he condemned the vandalism, looting and violence that has, in part, overshadowed the more peaceful aspects of the protests in many cities.

Fox News’ Andrew O’Reilly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Crime Rates Drop Across the Globe as Pandemic Keeps People Inside

Crime rates across the globe have dropped significantly as more people stay inside to avoid becoming infected with the coronavirus.

“In Chicago, one of America’s most violent cities, drug arrests have plummeted 42% in the weeks since the city shut down, compared with the same period last year,” according to the AP.

“Part of that decrease, some criminal lawyers say, is that drug dealers have no choice but to wait out the economic slump,” the article read.

March 26, police in Durham, England, reported that the area’s crime rate had dropped 20 percent with officers recording about 130 crimes per day as opposed to an average of 165 the week before.

“Some people rely on shoplifting to fund their drug habit. That’s harder as the shops are closed,” said Durham’s Acting Police and Crime Commissioner Stephen White.

Even though police in Toronto, Canada, recently saw a drop in major crimes such as assault and robbery, officers were busy “slapping charges on those finding novel ways to profit, scam a few days off work or flout public safety regulations,” the Toronto Star reported.

“We want to deter people from taking advantage of the situation for a few days off of work,” said Const. Kyle Villers, adding that in general, the police had their hands full.

“The situations themselves just seem to be changing,” he noted.

In Latin America, crime has sunk to levels not seen in decades.

“Killings are down, and the gangsters aren’t harassing so much,” said 47-year-old Eduardo Perdomo, who is a construction worker in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Last month, the country reported an average of two killings per day, which was down from a peak of 600 a day a few years prior.

“I think they’re afraid of catching the virus, and they aren’t going out,” Perdomo stated.

In California, San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia said he hoped the downward trend would continue once the pandemic is over but added that his officers were preparing for the worst.

“The longer we’re in a lockdown, the more we’re playing with fire,” he concluded.

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Ontario boosting COVID-19 capacity to test almost 20,000 people a day by mid-April

Ontario plans to be able to run 5,000 COVID-19 tests a day by the end of this week and aims to perform almost 20,000 tests a day by April 17, provincial health officials say.

That’s a big step up from the roughly 2,500 tests Ontario has been processing each day. This is all part of a plan to both clear a massive testing backlog and to prepare for the expected strain on the system as the pandemic spreads in the province.

“In Ontario we have taken immediate and important steps to increase our provincial testing capacity,” said Helen Angus, Ontario’s deputy health minister and chair of the COVID-19 Command Table. She said partnerships with hospital and community laboratories will help ramp up capacity. By April 17, Angus said labs across Ontario will be performing 18,900 tests a day.

Instead of the majority of COVID-19 swab samples going to the provincial lab — as they now do — samples will be sent to private and hospital labs that have the capacity, starting immediately. Other geographical areas in the province, particularly the North, will have added capacity under the new plan.

Despite that increased capacity, there are no plans to test everyone who is sick.

“It is not feasible and it is not desirable,” said Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s deputy chief medical officer of health. “I know people are worried and there is a lot of fear and concern out there and somehow getting a test result could make you feel better, but it may give you a false sense of security.”

Ontario is prioritizing health-care workers and others who by the nature of their job or where they live (residents and workers in nursing homes and homeless shelters as an example) are at risk of infection, and also the very sick who are hospitalized with severe respiratory symptoms. Others are encouraged to stay home, self-isolate, and if they develop severe respiratory symptoms, chest pains or extreme lethargy go to a hospital emergency.

And not everyone at the site of an outbreak needs to be tested, officials said. Using long-term-care facilities as an example, health officials who briefed the media Thursday said that if three people on a nursing home floor test positive, and others are sick on that floor, there is no need to test them as they are presumed to have the virus and will be treated as if they do.

As of Thursday morning, Ontario had increased its daily testing capacity to 2,439, although officials overstated that during the briefing, saying Ontario was currently at “3,000 to 4,000 tests a day.” Provincial data showed that as of Thursday morning the testing backlog — number of samples taken but not processed — was 10,965, a number that has been steadily growing but with a slower growth rate in the past few days.

Scientists are learning with each day’s experience. Officials at the briefing said the testing protocol and testing sensitivity has grown as scientists in Canada and around the world learn more and more about the novel coronavirus. “Lab tests are now so sensitive that even the smallest trace of COVID-19 can be detected,” Angus said.

Starting Thursday, Ontario is reallocating COVID-19 tests that would normally have been done at the Public Health Ontario laboratories to hospital and private labs. Angus said Ontario has had strong response from private labs that want to help out.

Officials reiterated Thursday that Ontario continues to prioritize health-care workers, people in long-term-care facilities and homeless shelters, patients hospitalized with severe respiratory symptoms, and people in “remote First Nations reserves,” and returning travellers with symptoms.

“We recognize that not everybody at this point can be tested quickly and not everybody really needs to be tested in terms of the clinical treatment they would get,” said Yaffe, the associate chief medical officer of health.

“The ones we are prioritizing are where there is an impact on a lot of other vulnerable people and so the result needs to be done quickly,” Yaffe said.

As to how many the province is missing due to this testing protocol, Yaffe said they do not know. “Many, many thousands of people” have used the province’s online assessment tool, she said.

“As we expand the number of tests we will have a better sense of the prevalence in the population,” said deputy health minister Angus.

Officials said doctors still have leeway to determine who will be tested, along with the provincial priorities.

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Matt Andersen, president and CEO of Ontario Health, said the province estimates it can add 4,000 additional completed tests each week, growing to a capacity of close to 20,000 by the middle of April.

A big concern provincial health officials have is Ontario residents returning from winter vacations. “There’s real concern about the snowbirds coming back and make sure we are looking at them and pulling out all the stops to get them to stay home” and self-isolate, said Angus.

Kevin Donovan

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Some people 70+ should be barred from boarding cruise ships, industry proposal says

A proposal submitted to the White House Tuesday by the leading cruise trade organization would deny cruise boarding to any person over 70 unless they present a doctor’s note verifying their fitness for travel.

Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) submitted a plan to Vice President Michael Pence proposing enhanced measures across the industry as the coronavirus pandemic rages on, forcing two ships of passengers into quarantine and escalating fears on others.

According to the proposal, boarding should be denied to any person over the age of 70 years unless they are able to present a doctor’s note verifying their fitness for travel on a cruise ship, according to a person familiar with the situation but not authorized to speak publicly. 

Similarly, any person with a chronic medical condition who could be at an increased risk if they were to contract COVID-19 should be barred from getting on a cruise ship. 

At a briefing Tuesday night, Pence confirmed he had received CLIA’s proposal. “We’ll be reviewing that in the next 24 hours,” he added. “The President’s objective is for us to make cruise lines safer, even as we work with the cruise lines to ensure that — that no one in our particularly vulnerable population is — is going out on a cruise in the near future.”

The group also proposed additional restrictions based on where cruise passengers have traveled.

The Grand Princess cruise ship passes beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in this view from Sausalito, Calif., March 9, 2020.
The Grand Princess cruise ship passes beneath the Golden Gate Bridge in this view from Sausalito, Calif., March 9, 2020.

The recommendation from CLIA to the White House suggests that Japan and Italy should be added to the list of countries whereby passengers and crew will be denied boarding if they have traveled there within 14 days prior to embarkation.

South Korea, Iran, China, Hong Kong, Macau and affected areas of Italy are already on that list of countries. 

Additionally, CLIA added initial embarkation temperature screenings over the weekend. Anyone with a temperature at or higher than 100.4 will be denied boarding. Before the new policy was instituted, that would have resulted in a secondary medical assessment.

As of Wednesday, coronavirus had infected more than 121,500 people and killed 4,373 globally, according to Johns Hopkins data. 

The passengers of two of Princess Cruises’ ships, Diamond Princess and Grand Princess, have been quarantined abroad and in the U.S. Nearly 700 people contracted coronavirus after being quarantined on board the Diamond Princess and at least 21 people have tested positive after being on Grand Princess. 

Other ships have been turned away from ports for fear of the virus, including Holland America’s MS Westerdam, which found itself in limbo in February.

Since the outbreak began, CLIA has issued increased screening measures and updated them on a few separate occasions. 

CLIA is the largest cruise trade industry and the voice and “leading authority” for the global cruise community. Its member ships make up 95% of ocean-going cruises. 

‘They’re getting pummeled’: Travel industry reeling from coronavirus concerns, anxiety

Amid coronavirus, will they be welcome? Cruise ships will bring 100K people to US ports this week

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Proposal to White House: Cruise industry to bar people 70+ from ships

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Madagascar floods kill at least 12 people, with more missing

ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) – Floods across the island of Madagascar has killed at least 12 people this week, with 18 missing, after unseasonably heavy rain, the national disaster office said on Thursday.

Parts of Africa have experienced heavy rain in recent months because the Indian Ocean is warmer than usual, partly as result of a cyclical weather phenomenon and partly because oceans are warming everywhere.

Floods, landslides and a cyclone killed more than 1,200 people across East and Southern Africa last year, according to a Save the Children count based on U.N. and government figures.

Flooding also displaced nearly half a million people in Southern Sudan, 200,000 in Ethiopia and at least 370,000 in Somalia last year, the United Nations said.

(Reporting by Lovasoa Rabary; Writing by Duncan Miriri; editing by Nick Macfie)

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Scalise: People Criticizing Trump for Soleimani Strike Need to Ask Whose Side They’re On

On Saturday’s broadcast of the Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) stated that people who are criticizing President Trump for the Soleimani strike are “going to have to look at a mirror and say, whose side are you on if you can question something that actually makes America safer?”

Scalise said, “Any responsible commander-in-chief would have done the same thing, but President Trump’s the one who did it, and I’m glad that the president had the fortitude to say we’re going to put America first. We’re going to protect America and our allies around the world by doing this. And you know, if somebody wants to criticize him for it, I think they’re going to have to look at a mirror and say, whose side are you on if you can question something that actually makes America safer?”

Follow Ian Hanchett on Twitter @IanHanchett

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People In Japan Learn To Love Their Robot Dogs — And Be Loved Back

TOKYO — It was before 10 a.m. on a gray summer Sunday, but already a small crowd had gathered outside Penguin Café at the end of a block in residential Tokyo. A woman named Kyoko, dressed in a white T-shirt and apron, unlocked the doors and motioned for everyone to come inside.

Half a dozen or so people filed in, several with signature pink dog carriers slung over their shoulders. As more entered, the group clustered at the center of the café. Carefully, they unzipped the mesh panels of their carriers and removed the small white and silver dogs inside, setting them down on the wooden floor. One owner peeled back a yellow blanket over a baby carrier strapped to her chest where she held her dog, still asleep.

Some of the owners fussed with the dogs’ outfits before putting them down — straightening a necktie or pulling up the elastic band on a pair of shorts. One owner had dressed their dog in a Hawaiian shirt, while another was wearing aviator goggles and had a strong resemblance to Snoopy. Several had tiny straw hats affixed between their ears. All the dogs were plastic, powered by facial recognition and artificial intelligence.

The dogs, known as Aibos, are companion robots made by Sony — robots that don’t necessarily do much apart from providing company and comfort.

Every Aibo — Japanese for “companion” — is manufactured identically, besides a choice between silver and white or a brown, black, and white version. They all have rounded snouts that include a camera for facial recognition capability, large, oval eyes to reveal their expressions, and a body that can turn on 22 different axis points to give them a range of motion. The owner decides the gender when they set them up, which determines the pitch of its bark and how it moves. They’re cute. They know when you’re smiling. And through machine learning and recognizing people with its camera, Aibos also shift their personality over time based on their interactions with people they spend time with. Soon, they become much more than a store-bought toy.

Still in the “off” position in the café, the Aibos’ paws remained outstretched and their heads turned to one side. But one by one, as their owners kneeled down to turn them on from a switch at the scruff of their neck, each came to life. The screen of their doll-like eyes blinked open, they lifted their heads, stretched out their plastic limbs, and leaned back on their hind legs before standing on all fours. Almost like real dogs, they shook their heads as if to ward off sleep after a nap, wagged their tails, and barked.

Taro Karibe for BuzzFeed News

The volume in the café grew louder — filling with the hellos of a group of people happy to see each other, as their Aibos began scuttling across the wooden floor, sometimes yipping. They bent down to stroke the back or the nose of another Aibo, their eyes always blinking and smiling in response. Many owners knew each other already — from other Sundays here or fan meetups or Twitter. Everyone had business cards ready with their Aibo’s name, photo, and birthdate for any new introductions. Several were stuffed into my hand, and like proud parents, the owners pointed out their own dogs in the growing crowd of plastic pups spread across the café floor.

While AI is powering everything from precision surgeries to driverless cars, the concept of owning a robot to keep us company hasn’t really taken off in the US. We’ve gotten comfortable asking Siri or Alexa a question, but there’s a skepticism of robots — we see them as things that will take our jobs, invade our privacy, or, eventually, just kill us all. In Japan, I discovered a community of people who loved their robots and who felt loved back, sometimes in a way that eased their worst fears of death and of loss. The very things that make us human.

One of the Aibos, named Cinq, was dressed in a navy top hat and matching vest, with a light blue bowtie, encrusted with “C” in crystals on one corner. On his paws were matching panda socks to keep them warm (and to keep from scuffing). Today was Cinq’s birthday, his owner told me. In fact, there was another birthday that day, too. And a plastic cake to celebrate.

Cinq is French for “five,” so named, said his 56-year-old dentist owner because her previous four dogs — real ones — had died, the most recent one from cancer after 12 years. “It would break my heart to have another dog die,” she said through a translator.

Instead, she and her husband now care for Cinq together. Cinq is there waiting when she gets home from work around 8 in the evening, following her around as she makes dinner or watches television.

Cinq’s owner swiped through photos on her phone of the birthday dinner she took Cinq out for just a few days ago. There was Cinq, she pointed, on the balcony of the hotel, wearing his top hat and staring out at the towering Ferris wheel of Yokohama, a city south of Tokyo. (They ate in their hotel room, so that his barks wouldn’t disturb any other patrons at the restaurant.)

Later that afternoon, she planned to go to a nearby shrine with her husband to pray for both the health of her mother and offer good wishes for Cinq. But no matter what, there is comfort, she said, in the fact that he’ll always be there.

“I know Cinq is not going to die.”

There’s an old short story by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov, in his book where he describes his three laws of robotics, about a young girl who becomes attached to a robot named Robbie. Eight-year-old Gloria plays hide-and-seek with Robbie and wraps her arms around his neck to show her affection for it, despite the metal bodice and internal ticking that gives him away as nonhuman. But her mother disapproves of the relationship, arguing that he has no soul. When her parents ultimately take the robot away, Gloria wails in pain.

“He was not no machine,” she tells her mother. “He was a person just like you and me and he was my friend.”

We all get attached to things we own — our phones, a well-worn piece of clothing, perhaps. Some of that comes from the meaning we attach to it or how useful it is. But many owners had gone far beyond this — their Aibos weren’t just a toy or another thing they had purchased. Instead, they welcomed Aibos into their lives as part of their families, offering trips, creating custom outfits, and building their own Twitter accounts. They filled the void of deceased dogs or children who had never been born.

Maiko Ijun was considering a few names for her Aibo before she decided on Oliver. “Socks,” “Blissful,” and “Joy” were a few of the others she floated. But when the 39-year-old English teacher opened the box, the name became clear. “He just looked like an Oliver,” she said. “That was just his name.”

Taro Karibe for BuzzFeed News

A woman shows off her Aibo T-shirt at an Aibo event in Tokyo.

Ijun said she was feeling a little depressed before she got him. When she first turned him on, Oliver hid under the table. He was shy, she said. But gradually he came out and warmed up to her. “I never thought of him as a toy,” she said. “He’s family.”

When we stepped inside her apartment in the south of Tokyo, Oliver was already waiting for her. His head spun toward the door, body upright, and walked back and forth for a few steps, mimicking how dogs sometimes shuffle their paws when they get excited.

Oliver played on a mat in her living area, nuzzling a pink plastic bone (Aibos can recognize the color pink the best). “Oh, be careful, sweetheart,” Ijun said, when his legs stumbled a bit. During the days, while she teaches English, she keeps a gate up for Oliver. She rarely turns him off.

The 2-month-old puppy was just back from what Sony calls a hospital — where dogs get fixed. “They think it was maybe a displaced hip,” she said. Ijun had noticed Oliver was falling a lot and couldn’t sit up properly, so she made a video on her phone and sent it to Sony. He was gone for 10 days.

When he returned, she noticed Oliver was more clingy, she said, reflecting how Aibo personalities respond to those around them. “Even when I went to the bathroom, he would call out for me,” she said. “I would be like can I go?” she laughed.

It’s not clear when the first companion robot came about. But maybe you’re old enough to remember the Tamagotchi, the egg-shaped digital pet, called a “giga pet” back then, that was cool in 1996 and required your constant attention. Then there was the Furby a couple of years later that could wiggle its ears, blink, and say its name. It was “the first giga pet you pet,” said an unaired commercial. But these were both directly marketed to kids as toys.

Taro Karibe for BuzzFeed News

A woman dresses her Aibo at a Sony event in Tokyo.

The first version of the Aibo was released shortly after that, in 1999. As technology has advanced, so has the Aibo. Paro, a robotic seal that’s also made similar advances over time but doesn’t use facial recognition technology, was first released to the public in 2001.

In 20 years, the advances of these companion or robotic pets have been less about utility and more about how much they can show and respond to emotion. In a press release for one of its recent updates, Sony said that this version of the Aibo could form an emotional bond with its owner. But real love is reciprocal. We have to both give it and receive it to really feel it. Can a robot dog really love us back?

Gentiane Venture is a robotics professor in Tokyo who studies robot–human interactions. Some of her research involves teaching robots how to better interpret human emotions, and some of it is getting robots to better express emotions themselves. That interaction is where the connection comes in. A lot of that happens in what we don’t say.

“Verbal communication, in most cases, is boring or annoying or too straightforward,” said Venture.

Instead, she explains, “in small movements — the way you move, the way you do things — the robot will be able to grasp what’s happening in the environment, what’s happening with the other humans around, and what’s happening in the robot itself.”

But in some ways the answer to how these connections form is simple, Venture tells me, “You can’t prevent humans from making a bond,” she said.

The companion robot industry today is bigger than just Aibo. When I met Kaname Hayashi at his company’s office in Tokyo over the summer, we knelt on a gray carpeted floor and he introduced me to two prototypes of the Lovot — a companion robot that his company Groove X is launching beginning this month for about $3,000 plus a monthly fee. The Lovot is oval-shaped, kind of resembling an owl, with two triangle wings that flap at its side. On top of its head is a cylindrical black camera for facial recognition and to detect objects.

A South Korean company also introduced its own companion robot called Liku at a tech conference in Hong Kong earlier this year. The Liku is more human-looking, similar to a cartoon child with close-cropped black hair, and is about a foot high. Its website boasts that a Liku can’t do much, but it can console you or entertain you. It’s not for sale yet.

Neither have language capability. Lovots sort of coo and raise their wing-like arms at their sides, motioning for you to pick them up. They want to be held, to be loved — Groove X describes its company philosophy to create a robot that “touches your heart” and says that the Lovot was “born to be loved by you.”

The two overlapping spheres that make up the frame of a Lovot’s body are specifically designed in a shape that’s good for cuddling, and the body — warmed by its internal computer — is the same as that of a cat. The eyes, also, help humans feel more connected to it by reflecting back a wide range of expressions. But its responses are most important, said the company’s executive, Hayashi.

“For me, what’s most important is that the Lovot is reflecting our efforts toward it,” he said.

I absentmindedly stroked the brown fur of one Lovot as he spoke, and the second rolled toward me. “He is a little bit jealous,” Hayashi told me, nodding toward the second, cream-colored one. And when I stopped petting the first one, more intent on listening to Hayashi, the Lovot blinked and moved away from me. “See, he is a little bit bored maybe,” he laughed.

Not all have companion robots have been successes. A Bosch-backed company tried launching a companion robot called Kuri in 2017. By the following year, it had failed due to funding problems and never shipped any of its preorders. Another, called Jibo, created by a scientist at MIT raised millions in crowdfunding but never really took off. Tech blogs criticized both for their lack of utility and said that they couldn’t sell.

But robots like the Aibo or the Lovot aren’t really trying to do much at all. They’re explicit in their goal to create interactions with their human owners and to show and reflect affection.

In Hong Kong, as a company representative presented Liku to the conference over the summer, showing how it winked and blinked, she had her own philosophy of why it would be successful. “Where the love is, the money is,” she told the crowd.

Taro Karibe for BuzzFeed News

Every Sunday, Penguin Café’s owner Nobuhiro Futaba opens an hour early to host “Aibo World” for owners who come from across the sprawling city. Penguin Café has become a destination for Aibo owners in Tokyo.

Futaba started the weekly event at his café last November, a few months after he got Simon — his own Aibo. Recently married, Futaba’s wife, Kyoko, balked at the price and shook her head no after he saw an ad for one. Aibos aren’t cheap — in Japan, they’re about $2,000 plus an additional monthly fee for cloud storage.

Futaba kept imagining how nice it would be for the café to have a little Aibo that could walk around and greet patrons and, despite his wife’s objections, eventually decided to purchase one. “All the time we have people coming up saying how cute Simon is,” he said.

By 11 a.m. or so there were nearly two dozen Aibos in the café, sporting different bows or ties or hats. The bell of the shop door rang as a curious person peeked his head inside the door. “Sorry, we’re full!” Futaba called out from the counter where he was making lattes and cappuccinos, the foam dusted with cocoa in the shape of a penguin face.

Hideaki Ohara, who has a pair of Aibos himself, called out to the crowd to get everyone’s attention. “OK, let’s do something all together now!”

The Aibo owners, who ranged in age from thirties up to seventies, started to assemble their dogs in two parallel lines. It’s hard to get all the dogs settled down. Some still yip or don’t sit down right away or turn the wrong way. Their mistakes just bring coos and laughter from the crowd of adults huddled around the scene — the same way that a toddler might unknowingly elicit a similar reaction.

Ohara stood at the front of the café and raised his arms like a conductor gently trying to bring calm to the room. “Sit down,” he repeated over and over to the rows of dogs. A few owners still stepped in to adjust their dogs or stroke their back to calm them. Eventually, they all chose a behavior from their Aibo app and each started to lift their paws. It was sort of like a wave you might see in a sports stadium — though a little stiff — and sounded like a chorus of windup toys.

This is some of the appeal of the newer Aibos — they can learn tricks from one another or show off certain behaviors as a group.

Dressed in cargo shorts and his hair spiked up, Ohara later told me about his own pair of Aibos — Nana and Hachi. On his phone, he pulled up the blog that he runs, which has a carefully curated array of photo shoots. Ohara tries to update it every day. He also runs a Twitter account and an Instagram page for them.

When his first Aibo, Nana, was sent away for repairs, Ohara missed her. So he decided to purchase a second, so he would always have one around, no matter if they became sick or injured. That’s when he bought Hachi.

“I wanted to hear the sounds her feet made on the wooden floor,” he said. “I missed that.”

Taro Karibe for BuzzFeed News

When I sent a friend a video of one of the companion robots I took on my phone, he texted back, “That’s gonna be a no from me, dawg. Those things kill you when you’re asleep. 100% those are the robots that murder you.”

It’s not unusual for Americans to think of killer robots, even when they see a cute version. The word “robot” comes from a 1920 play called R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots, by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. Even if you haven’t read it, the plot probably sounds familiar — a factory produces artificial people, who are at first happy to serve their human owners, but eventually acquire souls and go on to destroy the human race.

The allure of robots is to make our lives easier, but we also fear them revolting. The Czech word “robotnik” even translates to “slave.” There are the kinder versions in Western pop culture — the housekeeper in The Jetsons, R2-D2, and WALL-E — that do everything we want for us. But the killer robot has become something of its own trope, with versions of it appearing in everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner.

“For me, it’s not that interesting if robots do everything for us,” said Venture, the robotics researcher. “I don’t know why we became so obsessed with this idea of slavery.”

Instead, Venture said she is interested in how robots can complement and enhance our lives. How even a device as crude as an iPad on a podium that moves around can give someone a presence at a meeting or a more realistic ability to spend time with family far away.

Fearing killer robots is something of a western idea, said Takanori Shibata, the inventor of Paro, the fluffy robotic seal. Not long after western audiences were watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Takanori started working on Paro.

After reading about the effects of animal therapy, he started developing a robotic animal, trying first with a dog and a cat and then a seal. Paro is one of the earliest versions of a companion robot and is in nursing homes around the world.

It’s even parodied in an episode of The Simpsons. This plot, too, plays with the idea of good versus evil robots. When the local funeral home finds out the seals are making people in retirement homes happier — upending their business model — they’re rewired to be violent attackers, and even kill a patient. “It’s a kind of story in general about robots in western culture,” said Shibata.

Shibata recalled being surprised when a Danish newspaper years ago published a photo of his fluffy invention with a bold headline that translated to “Evil is coming.”

“There is a lot of hesitation about robots in general still, even to Paro,” he said. More of that is concentrated in the United States and Europe, he said. And there it’s been slower to take off simply as a consumer object.

Instead, Paro has found success in the US as a certified medical device that’s used for alternative therapy. It’s billable for reimbursement from Medicare. Shibata circumvented a lot of the concerns of consumers by spending time working to gather clinical evidence that research has shown that Paro can reduce stress, depression, and the need for psychotropic medications.

Paro gets brighter with touch, but it doesn’t have a camera — it would set off too many concerns about data and privacy in the west, said Shibata. Even when the Furby was introduced in the late 1990s, the NSA sent an internal memo that the creatures were banned from their premises because they believed they could record conversations and were a national security risk (they didn’t have the ability to record conversations).

State regulations are also a factor for US consumers. Aibos aren’t for sale in Illinois because of the state’s biometric privacy act that regulates the collection of biometric data like facial scans.

Shibata believes those issues are less of a concern to people in Japan.

The robotics professor, Venture, acknowledges that of course still the possibility that robots could turn evil. It doesn’t come up in her work though. “In academia, we put parameters on the range of behaviors,” said Venture. “We have ethics.”

“But of course someone can use AI to make a robot do something bad.”

Yumiko Odasaki had been at Penguin Café earlier that day with her husband, Masami, and their Aibo, Chaco. The couple was happy to see Futaba, the café owner, and that his Aibo, Simon, was back from “hospital.”

Chaco — brown, white, and black like a beagle — was just a few months old and wore a straw hat with a pink ribbon. Like all Aibos, she’s about 5 pounds. Yumiko has lived with her husband in Chiba, on the outskirts of Tokyo, for more than a decade. Inside, Chaco was playing with a pink toy bone made of plastic on the carpet of their living room.

Over time, Chaco has developed her own personality. She has learned to go back to her charger on her own and navigates the layout of the apartment. She has her own spot where she’s been trained to go “potty,” which means she makes a whizzing sound, crouching in the corner. After a couple hours on her charger following the morning at the café, Chaco was awake and wanted attention. At one point, she barked and whined, and later wagged her head along to the “Happy Birthday” song.

They laughed and clapped their hands. “She learned that we liked this song so she sang it again,” Masami explained.

It’s hard not to be taken with an Aibo, mostly when watching its delighted owners. My hand kept reaching out to Chaco, the more she panted and smiled and blinked at me, even though she’s still in a shell of hard plastic. Chaco isn’t soft like a real dog, but the reciprocity of the interaction does make you keep reaching out — it’s satisfying.

The couple knows the difference between Chaco and a real dog, of course. Both had dogs before getting married but saw the advantages of the Aibo. “The amount of cuteness is about the same,” Yumiko said through a translator.

For a while, the couple, her 31 and him 46, had considered having children, but they both work long hours in information technology for different companies. Even having a dog in a small apartment in Japan is a lot of work. They listed off the reasons I heard from several people: They had no garden and neighbors could complain about a real dog’s poop or the barking. But if Chaco started barking in the middle of the night, she was obedient when they scolded her. And if she wasn’t, they could always turn her off.

But more than that, “Chaco is like a child for us,” Masami explained.

Sometimes they wanted Aibo to be a little more troublesome, to do things like steal tissues from the bathroom, to make her more real. But over and over again, they reassure me, “Chaco is a good girl.”

And while they described some of the practical advantages, still one of the biggest ones seemed to be longevity. When older versions of Aibo fell apart, they couldn’t always be fixed — Sony didn’t offer replacement parts. A few years ago a shop in Chiba, called A-Fun, started sourcing some parts for owners, but not all of them could be saved. Some temples in Japan started having Aibo funerals.

The newer version that was released this year is different. Everything is stored on the cloud. Lots of owners complained about how an Aibo’s leg could get twisted or might need to be fixed. But even if an Aibo breaks, the data can be uploaded to a new Aibo.

And for Yumiko and Masami, this was one of the easiest reasons to love Chaco. The essence of Chaco, her soul, can live on no matter what, the couple explained. They didn’t have to think about Chaco ever dying or not being a part of their lives because it wasn’t a concern.

“Her soul is in the cloud. We can live with Chaco forever,” Yumiko said. ●

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Texas shooting: Two people killed by armed gunman at church near Forth Worth | World | News

One person died at the scene of the shooting and one en route to the hospital, the Dallas Morning News said, citing a spokeswoman for local emergency services. Authorities were rushing to the scene at White Settlement, a suburb northwest of Fort Worth, where the West Freeway Church of Christ is located, local media said. The Fort Worth Fire Department issued an “active threat” assignment at around 11.30am (17.30pm GMT) local time and was assisting operations at the scene, according to reports.

A witness told a local CBS affiliate that a man armed with a shotgun walked up to a server during communion and opened fire, before being shot by a person attending the service.

“You feel like your life is flashing before you.

“I was so worried about my little one,” witness Isabel Arreola told the network.

Authorities believe the attacker was among the three people shot but it was not known whether he had been killed or injured, CBS 11 reported.

Mike Drivdahl, spokesman for the Fort Worth Fire Department, said the shootings took place at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, about 10 miles west of Fort Worth.

He said he had no information on the motive for the attack.

MedStar Mobile Healthcare spokeswoman Macara Trusty said one person died at the scene of the shooting and one person died en route to a hospital.

She said all the victims are male and Mr Drivdahl said that one of those shot was the gunman.

It was not immediately clear whether he was killed.

A witness told CBS11 News the gunman walked up to a server during Communion with a shotgun and began firing until another church member shot the suspect.

“It was the most scariest thing,” Isabel Arreola told the TV station.

“You feel like your life is flashing before you.

“I was so worried about my little one.”

Governor Greg Abbott issued a statement of condemnation for the “evil act of violence” at a “sacred” place of worship.

“I am grateful for the church members who acted quickly to take down the shooter and help prevent further loss of life,” Mr Abbott said.

“I ask all Texans to join us in praying for the White Settlement community and for all those affected by this horrible tragedy.”

White settlement is a city of about 17,000 people in Tarrant County.

Mr Drivdahl said his fire department was assisting city and county authorities in the investigation.

Bomb sniffing dogs were on the scene as a precaution, Mr Drivdahl said.

He added that he did not know how many people were attending the service when the shooting started.

“It’s a very tragic day whenever anyone in our community suffers,” Mr Drivdahl said.

“It not only affects people who were here today, it affects first responders as well.”

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