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You can get a robot to keep your lonely grandparents company. Should you?

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Mabel LeRuzic, age 90, lives alone — but not really.

“He’s my baby,” she tells me over Zoom, holding up a puppy to the camera. “Huh, Lucky? Yes! Say hello!”

Lucky barks at me.

I laugh and say, “Who’s a good robot?”

Lucky barks again, and the sound is convincing, as if it’s coming from a real dog. He’s got a tail that wags, eyes that open and close, and a head that turns to face you when you talk. Under his synthetic golden fur, he has sensors that respond to your touch and a heartbeat you can feel.

LeRuzic, who lives in a rural area outside Albany, is fully aware that her pet is a robot. But ever since she got him in March, he’s made her feel less lonely, she says. She enjoys watching TV with him, brushing his fur with a little hairbrush, and tucking him in each night in a bed she’s made out of a box and towel.

She hugs him and coos into his floppy ear, “I love you! Yes, I do!”

She’s not the only one embracing robots these days.

Even before Covid-19 came around, robots like these were being introduced in nursing homes and other settings where lonely people are in need of companionship — especially in aging societies like Japan, Denmark, and Italy. Now, the pandemic has provided the ultimate use case for them.

This spring, more than 1,100 seniors, including LeRuzic, received robotic pets through the Association on Aging in New York, an advocacy organization. Another 375 people received them through the Florida Department of Elder Affairs. Retirement communities and senior services departments in Alabama, Pennsylvania, and several other states have begun buying robots for older adults.

Zora, a robot that talks, sings, dances and moves is used to interact with residents of a nursing home in the Bordeaux region of France.
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Robots designed to play social roles come in many forms. Some seem like little more than advanced mechanical toys, but they have the added capacity to sense their environment and respond to it. Many of these mimic cute animals — dogs and cats are especially popular — that issue comforting little barks and meows. Other robots have more humanoid features and talk to you like a person would. ElliQ will greet you with a friendly “Hi, it’s a pleasure to meet you” and tell you jokes; SanTO will read to you from the Bible and bless you; Pepper will play music and have a full-on dance party with you.

Companies have also designed robots to help with the physical tasks of caregiving. You can get Secom’s My Spoon robot to feed you, Sanyo’s electric bathtub robot to wash you, and Riken’s RIBA robot to lift you out of bed and into a chair. These robots have been around for years, and they work surprisingly well.

There’s a decent body of research suggesting that interacting with social robots can improve people’s well-being, although the effects vary depending on the individual person, their cultural context, and the type of robot.

The most well-studied robot, Paro, comes in the form of a baby harp seal. It’s adorable, but the US has recognized it as more than just that, classifying it as a medical device. It coos and moves, and its built-in sensors enable it to recognize certain words and feel how it’s being touched — whether it’s being stroked or hit, say. It learns to behave in the way the user prefers, remembering the actions that earned it a stroke and trying to repeat those. In older adults, notably those with dementia, Paro can reduce loneliness, depression, agitation, blood pressure, and even the need for some medications.

Social robots come with other benefits. Unlike human caregivers, robotic ones never get impatient or frustrated. They’ll never forget a pill or a doctor’s appointment. And they won’t abuse or defraud anyone, which is a real problem among people who care for elders, including family members.

Residents of a nursing home play with Paro, a robot baby harp seak, at the nursing home in Yokohama, Japan.
Yamaguchi Haruyoshi/Corbis via Getty Images

During the pandemic, when we’re all forced to socially distance from other human beings, robots come with another major advantage: They can roll right up to seniors and keep them company without any risk of giving them the coronavirus. It’s no wonder they’re being touted as a fix for the isolation of older people and others who are at high risk of severe Covid-19.

But the rise of social robots has also brought with it some thorny questions. Some bioethicists are all in favor of them — like Nancy Jecker at the University of Washington, who published a paper in July arguing for increased robot use during and after the pandemic on the grounds that they can alleviate loneliness, itself an epidemic that’s seriously harmful to human health.

Others are not so sure. Although there’s a strong case to be made for using robots in a pandemic, the rise of robot caregiving during the coronavirus crisis raises the possibility of robots becoming the new normal even in non-pandemic times. Many robots are already commercially available, and some are cheap enough that middle-class consumers can easily snag them online (LeRuzic’s dog costs $130, for example). Although social robots are not yet as widely used in the US as they are in Japan, we’ve all been inching toward a future where they’re ubiquitous, and the pandemic has accelerated that timeline.

That has some people worried. “We know that we already underinvest in human care,” Shannon Vallor, a philosopher of technology at the University of Edinburgh, told me. “We have very good reasons, in the pandemic context, to prefer a robot option. The problem is, what happens when the pandemic threat has abated? We might get in this mindset where we’ve normalized the substitution of human care with machine care. And I do worry about that.”

That substitution brings up a whole host of moral risks, which have to do with violating seniors’ dignity, privacy, freedom, and much more.

But, as Vallor pointed out, “If someone wants to be given the answer to ‘Are social robots good for us?’ — that question is at the wrong level of granularity. The question should be ‘When are robots good for us? And how can they be bad for us?’”

The ethics of care in a future with robots

Replacing or supplementing human caregivers with robots could be detrimental to the person being cared for. There are a few different ways that could happen.

For one thing, human contact is already in danger of becoming a luxury good as we create robots to more cheaply do the work of people. Getting robots to take on more and more caregiving duties could mean reducing seniors’ level of human contact even further.

“It might be convenient to have an automated spoon feeding a frail elderly person, but this would remove an opportunity for detailed and caring human interaction,” the robot ethics experts Amanda Sharkey and Noel Sharkey noted in their paper “Granny and the Robots.”

As companies urge us to let their robots care for our parents and grandparents, we might feel like we don’t need to visit them as much, figuring they’ve already got the company they need. That would be a mistake. For many older adults, interacting with a robot would feel less emotionally satisfying than interacting with a person because of the sense that whatever the robot says or does is not “authentic,” not based on real thoughts and feelings.

But for those who have no one or very few people to interact with, contact with a robot is probably better than no contact at all. And if we use them wisely, robots can improve quality of life. Take LeRuzic and her dog. When I asked if her grandchildren visit less often now that they know she’s got a robot, she said no. In fact, Lucky has given her and her granddaughter Brandie an extra way to connect, because Brandie also got a new puppy (a real one) in March. “We’ve found a lot in common,” she told me. “Except one of us doesn’t have to deal with vet bills!”

Some particularly well-designed robots, like Paro, have also been shown to increase human-to-human interaction among nursing home residents and between seniors and their kids. It gives them something positive to focus on and talk about together.

Another common worry is that robots may violate human dignity because it can be demeaning and objectifying to have a machine wash or move you, as if you’re a lump of dead matter. But Filippo Santoni de Sio, a tech ethics professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, emphasized that individual tastes differ.

“It depends,” he told me. “For some people, it’s more dignifying to be assisted by a machine that does not understand what’s going on. Some may not like anyone to see them naked or assist them with washing.”

Then there are concerns about violating the privacy and personal liberty of seniors. Some robots marketed for elder care come with built-in cameras that essentially allow people to spy on their parents or grandparents, or nurses to surveil their charges. As early as 2002, robots designed to look like teddy bears were being used in Japanese retirement homes, where they’d watch over residents and alert staff whenever someone left their bed.

You might argue this is for the seniors’ own good because it will prevent them from getting hurt. But such constant monitoring seems ethically problematic, especially when you consider that the senior may forget the robot in their room is watching — and reporting on — their every move.

There may be ways to solve these problems, though, if roboticists design with an eye to safeguarding privacy and freedom. For example, they can program a robot so it needs to get the senior’s permission before entering a room or before lifting them out of bed.

The difference between liberation from care and liberation to care

There’s also another factor to wonder — and worry — about: Can getting robots to do the work of caregiving also be detrimental to the would-be caregivers?

Vallor lays out the case for this claim in an important 2011 paper, “Carebots and Caregivers.” She argues that the experience of caregiving helps build our moral character, allowing us to cultivate virtues like empathy, patience, and understanding. So outsourcing that work wouldn’t just mean abdicating our duty to nurture others; it would also mean cheating ourselves out of a valuable opportunity to grow.

“If the availability of robot care seduces us into abandoning caregiving practices before we have had sufficient opportunities to cultivate the virtues of empathy and reciprocity, among others,” Vallor writes, “the impact upon our moral character, and society, could be quite devastating.”

She’s careful to note, though, that caring for someone else doesn’t automatically make you into a better person. If you don’t have enough resources and support at your disposal, you can end up burned out, bitter, and possibly less empathetic than you were before.

So Vallor continues: “On the other hand, if carebots provide forms of limited support that draw us further into caregiving practices, able to feel more and give more, freed from the fear that we will be crushed by unbearable burdens, then the moral effect on the character of caregivers could be remarkably positive.”

Again, robots aren’t inherently good or bad; it depends on how you use them. If you generally feel good about caring for a senior except for a couple of tasks that are too physically or emotionally difficult — say, lifting him up and taking him to the bathroom — then having a robot to help you with those specific tasks might actually make it easier for you to care more, and care better, the rest of the time.

As Vallor says, there’s a big difference between liberation from care and liberation to care. We don’t want the former because caregiving can actually help us grow as moral beings. But we do want the latter, and if a robot gives us that by making caregiving more sustainable, that’s a win.

What if people come to prefer robots over other people?

There’s another concern we haven’t considered yet: A robot might provide company that the senior finds not inferior, but actually superior, to human company. After all, a robot has no wants or needs of its own. It doesn’t judge. It’s infinitely forgiving.

You can glimpse this sentiment in the words of Deanna Dezern, an 80-year-old woman in Florida living with an ElliQ robot. “I’m in quarantine with my best friend,” she said. “She won’t have her feelings hurt and she doesn’t get moody, and she puts up with my moods, and that’s the best friend anybody can have.”

Dezern might be happy with this arrangement (at least so long as the pandemic lasts), and the preferences of seniors themselves are obviously crucial. But some philosophers have raised concerns about whether this setup risks degrading our humanity over the long term. The prospect of people coming to prefer robots over fellow people is problematic if you think human-to-human connection is an essential part of what it means to live a flourishing life, not least because others’ needs and moods are part of what makes life meaningful.

At a nursing home in Florence, Italy, a robot acts as a caregiver or butler for twenty elderly guests in 2015. The EU supported project Robot-Era, the world’s largest experiment ever done on service Robotics involving 160 people in real-world environments and spanning over four years.
Laura Lezza/Getty Images

“If we had technologies that drew us into a bubble of self-absorption in which we drew further and further away from one another, I don’t think that’s something we can regard as good, even if that’s what people choose,” Vallor says. “Because you then have a world in which people no longer have any desire to care for one another. And I think the ability to live a caring life is pretty close to a universal good. Caring is part of how you grow as a human.”

Yes, individual autonomy is important. But not everything an individual chooses is necessarily what’s good for them.

“In society, we always have to recognize the danger of being overly paternalistic and saying, ‘You don’t know what’s good for you so we’ll choose for you,’ but we also have to avoid the other extreme, the naive libertarian view that suggests that the way you run a flourishing society is leaving everything up to individual whims,” Vallor says. “We need to find that intelligent balance in the middle where we give people a range of ways to live well.”

Santoni de Sio, for his part, says that if a senior has the ability to choose freely, and chooses to spend time with robots instead of people, that’s a legitimate choice. But the choice has to be authentically free — not just the result of market forces (like tech companies pushing us to adopt addictively entertaining robots) or other economic and social pressures.

“We should not buy a simplistic and superficial understanding of what it means to have free choice or to be in control of our lives,” he says. “There’s this narrative that says technology is enhancing our freedom because it’s giving us choices. But is this real freedom? Or a shallow version of it that hides the closing of opportunities? The big philosophical task we have in front of us is redefining freedom and control in the age of Big Tech.”

So, bottom line: Should you buy your grandma a robot?

If you take anything away from this discussion, take away the fact that there’s no single answer to this question. The more productive question is: Under what specific conditions would a robot enhance care, and under what conditions would it degrade care?

During a pandemic, there’s a strong case to be made for using social robots. The benefits they can provide in terms of alleviating loneliness seem to outweigh the risks.

But if we fully embrace robots now, deeming them a fine substitute during a pandemic, how will we make sure they’re not used to disguise ethical gaps in our behavior post-pandemic?

Several tech ethicists say we need to set robust standards for care in the environments where we’re morally obligated to provide it. Just as nursing homes have standards around physical safety and cleanliness, maybe they should have legal restrictions on how long seniors can be left without human contact, with only robots to care for them.

Vallor imagines a future where an inspector reviews facilities on an annual basis and has the power to pull their certification if they’re not providing the requisite level of human contact. “Then, even after the pandemic, we could say, ‘We see that this facility has just carried on with roboticized, automated care when there’s no longer a public health necessity for that, and this falls short of the standards,’” she told me.

But the idea of developing standards around robot care leads to the question: How do we determine the right standards?

Santoni de Sio lays out a framework called the “nature-of-activities approach” to help answer this. He distinguishes between a goal-oriented activity, where the activity is a means to achieving some external aim, and a practice-oriented activity, where the performance of the activity is itself the aim. In reality, an activity is always a mix of the two, but usually one element predominates. Commuting to work is mostly goal-oriented; watching a play is mostly practice-oriented.

In the caregiving context, most people would say that reminding an elderly person to take their medication or collecting a urine sample for testing is mostly goal-oriented, so for that type of activity, it’s okay to substitute a robot for a nurse. By contrast, watching a movie with the senior or listening to their stories is mostly practice-oriented. You doing the activity with them — your very presence — is the point. So it matters that you, the human being, be there.

Two robots called ‘Peppa’ and ‘Pepper’ stand between elderly residents during a presentation of the robots at a senior care facility in Frankfurt, Germany in 2018.
Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

There’s some intuitive appeal to this division — certain discrete tasks go to the robot, while the broader process of showing up emotionally to listen, laugh, and cry remains our human responsibility. And it echoes a claim we often hear about artificial intelligence and the future of work: that we’ll just automate the dull and repetitive tasks but leave the work that calls on our highest cognitive and emotional faculties.

Vallor says that sounds good on the surface — until you look at what it actually does to people. “You’re making them turn their cognitive and emotional faculties up to 11 for many hours instead of having those moments of decompression where they do something mindless to recharge,” she says. “You cannot divide up the world such that they are performing intense emotional and relational labor for periods that the human body is just not capable of sustaining, while you have the robots do all the things that sometimes humans do to get a break.”

This point suggests we can’t rely on any one conceptual distinction to take the nuance out of the problem. Instead, when deciding which aspects of human connection can be automated and which cannot, we should ask ourselves several questions. Is it goal-oriented or practice-oriented? Is it liberating us from care or liberating us to care? And who benefits — truly, authentically benefits — from bringing robots into the social and caregiving realm?


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World

All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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(CNN) —  

Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.

Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.

So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.

Coffee

Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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