Robotics

Amazon Robots Poised To Revamp How Whole Foods Runs Warehouses (bloomberg.com) 51

After Amazon announced it would buy Whole Foods Market for $13.7 billion earlier this month, John Mackey, Whole Foods' chief executive officer, rejoiced and reportedly gushed about Amazon's technological innovation. "We will be joining a company that's visionary," Mackey said. "I think we're gonna get a lot of those innovations in our stores. I think we're gonna see a lot of technology. I think you're gonna see Whole Foods Market evolve in leaps and bounds." Specifically, Mackey is talking about the thousands of delivery robots Amazon uses in its facilities. Bloomberg reports: In negotiations, Amazon spent a lot of time analyzing Whole Foods' distribution technology, pointing to a possible way in which the company sees the most immediate opportunities to reduce costs, said a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because the issue was private. Experts say the most immediate changes would likely be in warehouses that customers never see. That suggests the jobs that could be affected the earliest would be in the warehouses, where products from suppliers await transport to store shelves, said Gary Hawkins, CEO of the Center for Advancing Retail and Technology, a Los Angeles nonprofit that helps retailers and brands innovate. As Amazon looks to automate distribution, cashiers will be safe -- for now. Amazon sees automation as a key strategic advantage in its overall grocery strategy, according to company documents reviewed by Bloomberg before the Whole Foods acquisition was announced. Whole Foods has 11 distribution centers specializing in perishable foods that serve its stores. It also has seafood processing plants, kitchens and bakeries that supply prepared food to each location. Those are the places where Amazon could initially focus, according to experts. While the company said it has no current plans to automate the jobs of cashiers in Whole Foods stores after it finishes acquiring the grocery chain, it's likely only a matter of time before cashier positions become automated. According to Bloomberg's report, Amazon may bring the robots to the stores after automating Whole Foods' warehouses. "The first ones will likely navigate aisles to check inventory and alert employees when items run low, said Austin Bohlig, an advisor at Loup Ventures, which invests in robotics startups," reports Bloomberg.
Businesses

McDonald's Hits All-Time High As Wall Street Cheers Replacement of Cashiers With Kiosks (cnbc.com) 622

McDonald's is expected to increase its sales via new digital ordering kiosks that will replace cashiers in 2,500 restaurants. As a result, the company's shares hit an all-time high, rallying 26 percent this year through Monday. CNBC reports: Andrew Charles from Cowen cited plans for the restaurant chain to roll out mobile ordering across 14,000 U.S. locations by the end of 2017. The technology upgrades, part of what McDonald's calls "Experience of the Future," includes digital ordering kiosks that will be offered in 2,500 restaurants by the end of the year and table delivery. "MCD is cultivating a digital platform through mobile ordering and Experience of the Future (EOTF), an in-store technological overhaul most conspicuous through kiosk ordering and table delivery," Charles wrote in a note to clients Tuesday. "Our analysis suggests efforts should bear fruit in 2018 with a combined 130 bps [basis points] contribution to U.S. comps [comparable sales]." He raised his 2018 U.S. same store sales growth estimate for the fast-food chain to 3 percent from 2 percent.
Mars

Curiosity Rover Decides, By Itself, What To Investigate On Mars (sciencemag.org) 73

sciencehabit writes: NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Mars in 2012, in part to analyze rocks to see whether the Red Planet was ever habitable (or inhabited). But now the robot has gone off script, picking out its own targets for analysis -- precisely as planned. Last year, NASA scientists uploaded a piece of software called Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science (AEGIS) adapted from the older Opportunity rover. Curiosity can now scan each new location and use artificial intelligence to find promising targets for its ChemCam. Compared with the estimated 24% success rate of random aiming at picking out outcrops -- a prime target for investigation -- the current version of AEGIS lets the rover find them 94% of the time, researchers report.
Businesses

Just 14 People Make 500,000 Tons of Steel a Year in Austria (bloomberg.com) 175

An anonymous reader shares a Bloomberg Businessweek feature: The Austrian village of Donawitz has been an iron-smelting center since the 1400s, when ore was dug from mines carved out of the snow-capped peaks nearby. Over the centuries, Donawitz developed into the Hapsburg Empire's steel-production hub, and by the early 1900s it was home to Europe's largest mill. With the opening of Voestalpine AG's new rolling mill this year, the industry appears secure. What's less certain are the jobs. The plant, a two-hour drive southwest of Vienna, will need just 14 employees to make 500,000 tons of robust steel wire a year -- vs. as many as 1,000 in a mill with similar capacity built in the 1960s. Inside the facility, red-hot metal snakes its way along a 700-meter (2,297-foot) production line. Yet the floors are spotless, the only noise is a gentle hum that wouldn't overwhelm a quiet conversation, and most of the time the place is deserted except for three technicians who sit high above the line, monitoring output on a bank of flatscreens. "We have to forget steel as a core employer," says Wolfgang Eder, Voestalpine's chief executive officer for the past 13 years. "In the long run we will lose most of the classic blue-collar workers, people doing the hot and dirty jobs in coking plants or around the blast furnaces. This will all be automated."
AI

Jack Ma: In 30 Years People Will Work Four Hours a Day and Maybe Four Days a Week (cnbc.com) 471

There could be benefits from artificial intelligence, self-made billionaire, Alibaba chairman Jack Ma said, as people are freed to work less and travel more. From a report: "I think in the next 30 years, people only work four hours a day and maybe four days a week," Ma said. "My grandfather worked 16 hours a day in the farmland and [thought he was] very busy. We work eight hours, five days a week and think we are very busy." He added that if people today are able to visit 30 places, in three decades it will be 300 places. Still, Ma said the rich and poor -- the workers and the bosses -- will be increasingly defined by data and automation unless governments show more willingness to make "hard choices." "The first technology revolution caused World War I," he said, "The second technology revolution caused World War II. This is the third technology revolution."
Businesses

Amazon Says It Won't Replace Whole Foods Cashiers With Computers... Yet (cnbc.com) 109

An anonymous reader shares a report: Amazon said it has no current plans to automate the jobs of cashiers in Whole Foods stores after it finishes acquiring the grocery chain. It also isn't planning any layoffs, according to a spokesperson. There is some speculation, however, that Amazon may change its plans and use new technology inside of Whole Foods locations. Commenting on Amazon's announcement from earlier today, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner said, "Only one company on earth can buy grocery chain, be rumored to buy enterprise software company & in both cases be lauded for strategic vision."
Robotics

Roomba Inventor Launches 'Tertill', a Weed-Killing Robot For Your Garden 116

mcpublic writes: iRobot veteran and Roomba co-inventor, Joe Jones is a modest man with a big mission: to create robots that make agriculture more efficient, less tedious, and yes, maybe even one day feed the world. After a decade at Harvest Automation building greenhouse robots, his new team at Franklin Robotics has developed Tertill, an affordable, waterproof, solar-powered robot that continuously whacks weeds around your yard. MIT Technology Review calls Tertill "a Roomba for your garden." Today the Kickstarter campaign went live and already they are well on the way to their goal. According to the Kickstarter campaign, Tertill is solar powered, chemical free, waterproof and Bluetooth compatible. It doesn't actually pull the weeds from your garden, instead it uses a "spinning string trimmer" to trim the weeds down to ground level. Since Tertill will be trimming weeds daily, the company says the weeds will eventually run out of nutrients to continue growing, and therefore will die and decompose. How does it know what's a weed and what's a plant? "A plant tall enough to touch the front of Tertill's shell activates a sensor that makes the robot turn away. A plant short enough to pass under Tertill's shell, though, activates a different sensor that turns on the weed cutter. Because Tertill's approach is height-based, put one of the provided plant collars around short plants until they are tall enough for Tertill to recognize. When Tertill approaches the collar, it will recognize it and turn away."
Toys

How Lego Clicked: The Super Brand That Reinvented Itself (theguardian.com) 191

managerialslime shared an article about how Lego executed "the greatest turnaround in corporate history." The Guardian reports: By 2003 Lego was in big trouble. Sales were down 30% year-on-year and it was $800m in debt. An internal report revealed it hadn't added anything of value to its portfolio for a decade... In 2015, the still privately owned, family controlled Lego Group overtook Ferrari to become the world's most powerful brand. It announced profits of £660m, making it the number one toy company in Europe and Asia, and number three in North America, where sales topped $1bn for the first time. From 2008 to 2010 its profits quadrupled, outstripping Apple's. Indeed, it has been called the Apple of toys: a profit-generating, design-driven miracle built around premium, intuitive, covetable hardware that fans can't get enough of. Last year Lego sold 75bn bricks. Lego people -- "Minifigures" -- the 4cm-tall yellow characters with dotty eyes, permanent grins, hooks for hands and pegs for legs -- outnumber humans. The British Toy Retailers Association voted Lego the toy of the century.
It's a good read. The article describes how CEO Vig Knudstorp curtailed the company's over-expansion -- at one point, Lego had "built its own video games company from scratch, the largest installation of Silicon Graphics supercomputers in northern Europe, despite having no experience in the field." And he also encouraged the company to interact with its fans on the internet -- for example, the crowdsourcing of Ninjago content -- while the company enjoyed new popularity with Mindstorms kits for building programmable Lego robots.
Google

Google Has Finally Found a Buyer For Its Scary Robot Companies Boston Dynamics and Schaft: SoftBank (recode.net) 50

Japan's SoftBank is buying robotics group Boston Dynamics -- the makers of the bipedal Atlas, the jumping Sand Flea and the animal-like BigDog, Spot and Wildcat robots -- from Alphabet, more than a year after Google's parent put the unit up for sale. From a report: Google acquired Boston Dynamics in 2013 under the leadership of Andy Rubin, the co-inventor of Android, who was leading a wave of acquisitions of robotics companies under the search giant. Boston Dynamics' robots routinely make headlines, including a high-profile demo at this year's TED conference. The company, led by CEO Marc Raibert, has made a robotic cheetah that can run 28 miles per hour, a robotic dog that it recently used to deliver packages to doorsteps in Boston, and most recently a massive legged and wheeled robot that can clear hurdles and walk down stairs. The firm has been hailed by other roboticists for its ability to blend hardware and artificial intelligence to make machines capable of dynamic, agile movements. Its most recent wheeled robot, Handle, can manipulate objects that are comparable to its own weight, and its four-legged, animal-like robots can maneuver over different types of terrain.
Businesses

Uber's Self-Driving Unit Gets New Head of Hardware After Levandowski Firing (gizmodo.com) 9

A little more than a week ago, Uber fired Anthony Levandowski, the former head of its self-driving car project who is accused of stealing some 14,000 documents from Google's Waymo and using that information as the technological basis for Uber's self-driving cars. Uber is now appointing Brian Zajac as company's new head of hardware engineering. Gizmodo reports: Brian Zajac has worked at Uber since the early stages of its autonomous vehicle development in 2015, and previously developed robotic systems for the US Army and Shell Oil. He also contributed to research and development of a disaster-response robot at Carnegie Mellon University. (Uber poached extensively from the university to beef up its autonomous vehicle staff, though it's unclear whether Zajac's coming on board was part of that hiring spree.) With his promotion, Zajac will report directly to Eric Meyhofer, who took over Uber's Advanced Technologies Group after Uber fired ATG's former lead, Anthony Levandowski, for refusing to cooperate in a trade secret theft investigation.
Robotics

'Our Streets Are Made For People': San Francisco Mulls Ban On Delivery Robots (theguardian.com) 219

Norman Yee, an American elected official in San Francisco, has recently proposed legislation that would prohibit autonomous delivery robots -- which includes those with a remote human operator -- on public streets in the city. In a statement provided to Recode, Yee said, "our streets and our sidewalks are made for people, not robots." He also worries that many delivery jobs would disappear. The proposed legislation is causing a headache for one high-tech startup in particular. The tech company is called Marble, which uses bots fitted with camera and ultrasonic sensors to deliver small packages and food within a one or two mile radius. The delivery robots themselves travel at a walking pace and use cameras and sensors to avoid pedestrians and navigate pavements. The Guardian reports: San Francisco police commander Robert O'Sullivan is in favor of the legislation, fearing the robots could harm children, the elderly, and those with limited mobility. "If hit by a car, they also have the potential of becoming a deadly projectile," he told a local TV station. Marble CEO Matt Delaney says these fears are unfounded. "We care that our robots are good citizens of the sidewalk," he says. "We've taken a lot of care from the ground up to consider their need to sense and intuit how people are going to react."
Robotics

EU Commissioner Says No to Bill Gates' Robot Tax Idea (fortune.com) 128

Andrus Ansip, the European Commissioner in charge of the Digital Single Market, has said that he does not support Bill Gates' idea of taxing robots that replace human workers. From a report: Microsoft founder Gates made an argument for robots incurring taxes equivalent to that worker's income taxes during an interview in February. "Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed," he said. "If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you'd think that we'd tax the robot at a similar level." But Ansip has made it clear that he is not in favor of a robot tax. Speaking during a CNBC-hosted panel at the Pioneers tech conference in Vienna on Thursday, Ansip said the "aim of taxation is not just (to) collect revenues... but to increase salaries of teachers and police," CNBC reports. "No way. No way," he added, when asked if he would support the tax.
The Media

Walt Mossberg's Last Column Calls For Privacy and Security Laws (recode.net) 96

70-year-old Walt Mossberg wrote his last weekly column Thursday, looking back on how "we've all had a hell of a ride for the last few decades" and revisiting his famous 1991 pronouncement that "Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it isn't your fault." Not only were the interfaces confusing, but most tech products demanded frequent tweaking and fixing of a type that required more technical skill than most people had, or cared to acquire. The whole field was new, and engineers weren't designing products for normal people who had other talents and interests. But, over time, the products have gotten more reliable and easier to use, and the users more sophisticated... So, now, I'd say: "Personal technology is usually pretty easy to use, and, if it's not, it's not your fault." The devices we've come to rely on, like PCs and phones, aren't new anymore. They're refined, built with regular users in mind, and they get better each year. Anything really new is still too close to the engineers to be simple or reliable.
He argues we're now in a strange lull before entering an unrecognizable world where major new breakthroughs in areas like A.I., robotics, smart homes, and augmented reality lead to "ambient computing", where technology itself fades into the background. And he uses his final weekly column to warn that "if we are really going to turn over our homes, our cars, our health and more to private tech companies, on a scale never imagined, we need much, much stronger standards for security and privacy than now exist. Especially in the U.S., it's time to stop dancing around the privacy and security issues and pass real, binding laws."
Robotics

Robot Police Officer Goes On Duty In Dubai (bbc.com) 49

The first robot officer has joined the Dubai Police force tasked with patrolling the city's malls and tourist attractions. "People will be able to use it to report crimes, pay fines and get information by tapping a touchscreen on its chest," reports BBC. "Data collected by the robot will also be shared with the transport and traffic authorities." From the report: The government said the aim was for 25% of the force to be robotic by 2030 but they would not replace humans. "We are not going to replace our police officers with this tool," said Brig Khalid Al Razooqi, director general of smart services at Dubai Police. "But with the number of people in Dubai increasing, we want to relocate police officers so they work in the right areas and can concentrate on providing a safe city. "Most people visit police stations or customer service, but with this tool we can reach the public 24/7. It can protect people from crime because it can broadcast what is happening right away to our command and control center."
Robotics

Consumers Trust Robots For Surgery Over Savings, Research Finds (bloomberg.com) 70

An anonymous reader shares an article: Andy Maguire faces a challenge: tasked with upgrading HSBC's digital-banking systems, he has discovered that customers are twice as likely to trust a robot for heart surgery than for picking a savings account. "I do find it slightly odd," said the chief operating officer of Europe's largest bank, referring to its survey of more than 12,000 consumers in 11 countries published this week. Just 7 percent of respondents would trust a robot with their savings, versus the 14 percent willing to submit to a machine for heart surgery. "You think, gosh, one would've imagined the world had moved on further or was moving faster than that," Maguire said in an interview. While consumers tend naturally to trust medical professionals, the "bar is pretty high" for banks dealing with people's money, he said. Banks around the world are spending billions of dollars to bolster creaking computer systems in a push to ward off startup competitors and cut long-term operating expenses. But consumers and regulators are holding them to ever-higher standards of security and convenience, driving the cost of overhauls higher and potentially eroding any savings.
AI

When AI Botches Your Medical Diagnosis, Who's To Blame? (qz.com) 200

Robert Hart has posed an interested question in his report on Quartz: When artificial intelligence botches your medical diagnosis, who's to blame? Do you blame the AI, designer or organization? It's just one of many questions popping up and starting to be seriously pondered by experts as artificial intelligence and automation continue to become more entwined into our daily lives. From the report: The prospect of being diagnosed by an AI might feel foreign and impersonal at first, but what if you were told that a robot physician was more likely to give you a correct diagnosis? Medical error is currently the third leading cause of death in the U.S., and as many as one in six patients in the British NHS receive incorrect diagnoses. With statistics like these, it's unsurprising that researchers at Johns Hopkins University believe diagnostic errors to be "the next frontier for patient safety." Of course, there are downsides. AI raises profound questions regarding medical responsibility. Usually when something goes wrong, it is a fairly straightforward matter to determine blame. A misdiagnosis, for instance, would likely be the responsibility of the presiding physician. A faulty machine or medical device that harms a patient would likely see the manufacturer or operator held to account. What would this mean for an AI?
United States

Is Russia Conducting A Social Media War On America? (time.com) 469

An anonymous reader writes: Time magazine ran a cover story about "a dangerous new route for antidemocratic forces" -- social media. "Using these technologies, it is possible to undermine democratic government, and it's becoming easier every day," says Rand Waltzman of the Rand Corp., who ran a major Pentagon research program to understand the propaganda threats posed by social media technology." The article cites current and former FBI and CIA officials who now believe Russia's phishing emails against politicians were "just the most visible battle in an ongoing information war against global democracy." They cite, for example, a March report by U.S. counterintelligence which found "Russians had sent expertly tailored messages carrying malware to more than 10,000 Twitter users in the Defense Department." Each message contained links tailored to the interests of the recipient, but "When clicked, the links took users to a Russian-controlled server that downloaded a program allowing Moscow's hackers to take control of the victim's phone or computer -- and Twitter account...

"In 2016, Russia had used thousands of covert human agents and robot computer programs to spread disinformation referencing the stolen campaign emails of Hillary Clinton, amplifying their effect. Now counterintelligence officials wondered: What chaos could Moscow unleash with thousands of Twitter handles that spoke in real time with the authority of the armed forces of the United States?" The article also notes how algorithms now can identify hot-button issues and people susceptible to suggestion, so "Propagandists can then manually craft messages to influence them, deploying covert provocateurs, either humans or automated computer programs known as bots, in hopes of altering their behavior. That is what Moscow is doing, more than a dozen senior intelligence officials and others investigating Russia's influence operations tell Time."

The article describes a Russian soldier in the Ukraine pretending to be a 42-year-old American housewife. Meanwhile, this week Time's cover shows America's White House halfway-covered with Kremlin-esque spires -- drawing a complaint from the humorists at Mad magazine, who say Time copied the cover of Mad's December issue.
Robotics

Robots Could Wipe Out Another 6 Million Retail Jobs (cnn.com) 280

According to a new study this week from financial services firm Cornerstone Capital Group, between 6 million and 7.5 million retail jobs are at risk of being replaced over the course of the next 10 years by some form of automation. "That represents at least 38% of the current retail work force, which consists of 16 million workers," reports CNN. "Retail could actually lose a greater proportion of jobs to automation than manufacturing has, according to the study." From the report: That doesn't mean that robots will be roving the aisles of your local department store chatting with customers. Instead, expect to see more automated checkout lines instead of cashiers. This shift alone will likely eliminate millions of jobs. "Cashiers are considered one of the most easily automatable jobs in the economy," said the report. And these job losses will hit women particularly hard, since about 73% of cashiers are women. There will also be fewer sales jobs, as more and more consumers use in-store smartphones and touchscreen computers to find what they need, said John Wilson, head of research at Cornerstone. There will still be some sales people on the floor, but just not as many of them. Rising wages are also helping to drive automation, as state and city governments hike their minimum wages. Additionally, several major retailers including Walmart, the nation's largest employer, have increased wages in order to find and retain the workers they need. The increased competition from e-commerce is also a factor, since it requires retailers to be as efficient as possible in order to compete.
Robotics

A Lowe's Hardware Store Is Trialling Exoskeletons To Give Workers a Helping Hand (theverge.com) 48

slew writes: Okay, this isn't Aliens 2, but hardware chain Lowe's is "outfitting employees with a simple exoskeleton to help them on the job," reports The Verge. "The company has partnered with Virginia Tech to develop the technology, which makes lifting and moving heavy objects easier. The non-motorized exoskeletons are worn like a harness, with carbon fiber rods acting as artificial tendons -- bending when the wearer squats, and springing back when they stand up. Lowe's has issued four of the custom-built suits to employees at a store in Christiansburg, Virginia. The equipment has been in use for over a month and the company says early feedback is extremely positive. '[Employees] wear it all day, it's very comfortable, and it makes their job easier,' says Kyle Nel, the director of Lowe's Innovation Labs, adding that Lowe's is working with scientists from Virginia Tech to conduct a proper survey of the technology's usefulness. 'It's early days, but we're doing some major studies,' he says."
Robotics

WSJ Columnist: Robots Aren't Destroying Enough Jobs (foxbusiness.com) 389

An anonymous reader writes: Will millions be unemployed after a job-destroying robot apocalypse? That's "starkly at odds with the evidence," argues a Wall Street Journal columnist, who says the real problem is robots aren't destroying enough jobs. "Too many sectors, such as health care or personal services, are so resistant to automation that they are holding back the entire country's standard of living." Noting that "churn relative to total employment" is the lowest it's ever been, he writes that "The pessimism would be more plausible if the evidence weren't moving in exactly the opposite direction...

"In April, nonfarm private employment rose for the 86th straight month, the longest such streak on record. Monthly job creation has averaged 185,000 this year, more than double what the U.S. can sustain given its demographics. This has driven unemployment down to 4.4%, a 10-year low and below most estimates of 'full employment.' Growing labor shortages have boosted the typical worker's annual wage gain to more than 3% now from 2% in 2012, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Instead of worrying about robots destroying jobs, business leaders need to figure out how to use them more, especially in low-productivity sectors... The alternative is a tightening labor market that forces companies to pay ever higher wages that must be passed on as inflation, which usually ends with recession.

"That is a more imminent threat than an army of androids."

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