Government

Y Combinator Announces Funding For UBI-Supporting Political Candidates (latimes.com) 194

Most people "feel like they have great potential that is being wasted," argues Y Combinator president Sam Altman -- a Stanford dropout whose company's investments are now worth $65 billion, including Airbnb, Reddit, and Dropbox. Now an anonymous reader quote the Los Angeles Times: A wealthy young Silicon Valley venture capitalist hopes to recruit statewide and congressional candidates and launch an affordable-housing ballot measure in 2018 because he says California's leaders are failing to address flaws in the state's governance that are killing opportunities for future generations. Sam Altman, 32, will roll out an effort to enlist candidates around a shared set of policy priorities -- including tackling how automation is going to affect the economy and the cost of housing in California -- and is willing to put his own money behind the effort. "I think we have a fundamental breakdown of the American social contract and it's desperately important that we fix it," he said. "Even if we had a very well-functioning government, it would be a challenge, and our current government functions so badly it is an extra challenge..."

Altman lays out 10 principles including lowering the cost of housing, creating single-payer healthcare, increasing clean energy use, improving education, reforming taxes and rebuilding infrastructure. He has few specific policy edicts, and floats proposals that will generate controversy, such as creating a universal basic income for all Americans in an effort to equalize opportunity, public funding for the media and increasing taxes on property that is owned by foreigners, is unoccupied or has been "flipped" by investors seeking a quick return on an investment.

Altman argues that he wants to "ensure that everyone benefits from the coming changes," and specifically highlights the idea of a Universal Basic Income. Altman writes that "If it turns out to be a good policy, I could imagine passing a law that puts it into effect when the GDP per capita doubles. This could help cushion the transition to a post-automation world."
AI

'World's First Robot Lawyer' Now Available In All 50 States (theverge.com) 79

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: A chatbot that provides free legal counsel using AI is now available in all 50 states starting today. This is following its success in New York, Seattle, and the UK, where it was invented by British entrepreneur Joshua Browder. Browder, who calls his invention "the world's first robot lawyer," estimates the bot has helped defeat 375,000 parking tickets in a span of two years. Browder, a junior at Stanford University, tells The Verge via Twitter that his chatbot could potentially experience legal repercussions from the government, but he is more concerned with competing with lawyers.

"The legal industry is more than a 200 billion dollar industry, but I am excited to make the law free," says Browder. "Some of the biggest law firms can't be happy!" Browder believes that his chatbot could also save government officials time and money. "Everybody can win," he says, "I think governments waste a huge amount of money employing people to read parking ticket appeals. DoNotPay sends it to them in a clear and easy to read format."

The Media

Google Funds A Team Of Robot Journalists (theguardian.com) 43

Darren Sharp brings news about the arrival of robot journalists. The Guardian reports: Robots will help a national news agency to create up to 30,000 local news stories a month, with the help of human journalists and funded by a Google grant. The Press Association has won a €706,000 ($800,779 or £621,000) grant to run a news service with computers writing localised news stories. The national news agency, which supplies copy to news outlets in the U.K. and Ireland, has teamed up with data-driven news start-up Urbs Media for the project, which aims to create "a stream of compelling local stories for hundreds of media outlets"... PA's editor-in-chief, Peter Clifton, said journalists will still be involved in spotting and creating stories and will use artificial intelligence to increase the amount of content. He said: "Skilled human journalists will still be vital in the process, but Radar [the Reporters And Data And Robots project] allows us to harness artificial intelligence to scale up to a volume of local stories that would be impossible to provide manually." Journalists will create "detailed story templates" for articles about crime, health, and employment, for example, then use natural language software to create multiple versions to "scale up the mass localization."
United States

Afghan Girl Roboticists Denied US Visas (bbc.com) 399

Three anonymous readers share a similar report: An all-girl team of roboticists will watch their creations compete in a US competition via Skype after being denied visas to enter the country. President Trump recently ordered a ban on travel from six Muslim-majority countries, but Afghanistan was not included on the list. Teams from Iran, Sudan and Syria -- which are on the list -- did manage to enter the country. The six-member team watched their ball-sorting robot compete in Washington DC via a video link from their hometown of Herat, in western Afghanistan. "We still don't know the reason why we were not granted visas, because other countries participating in the competition have been given visas," Fatemah Qaderyan, 14, told Reuters.
Robotics

'Call For a Ban On Child Sex Robots' (bbc.com) 597

An anonymous reader shares a BBC report: There should be a ban on the import of sex robots designed to look like children, the author of a new report into the phenomenon has said. Prof Noel Sharkey said that society as a whole needed to consider the impact of all types of sex robots. His Foundation for Responsible Robotics has conducted a consultation on the issue. Only a handful of companies were currently making sex robots, said Prof Sharkey. But, he added, the upcoming robot revolution could change that. The report, Our sexual future with robots, was written to focus attention on an issue barely discussed at the moment, he said. The report acknowledged that finding out how many people actually owned such robots was difficult because the companies that made them did not release the numbers. But, said Prof Sharkey, it was time society woke up to a possible future where humans and robots had sex. "We do need policymakers to look at it and the general public to decide what is acceptable and permissible," he said. "We need to think as a society what we want to do about it. I don't know the answers -- I am just asking the questions."
Robotics

Central Bankers Warned Of Possible Economic 'Robocalypse' (seattletimes.com) 238

An anonymous reader quotes the Seattle Times: At an exclusive gathering at a golf resort near Lisbon, the big minds of monetary policy were seriously discussing the risk that artificial intelligence could eliminate jobs on a scale that would dwarf previous waves of technological change. "There is no question we are in an era of people asking, 'Is the Robocalpyse upon us?'" David Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told an audience Tuesday that included Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and dozens of other top central bankers and economists... [A]long with the optimism is a fear that the economic expansion might bypass large swaths of the population, in part because a growing number of jobs could be replaced by computers capable of learning -- artificial intelligence.

Policymakers and economists conceded that they have not paid enough attention to how much technology has hurt the earning power of some segments of society, or planned to address the concerns of those who have lost out... In the past, technical advances caused temporary disruptions but ultimately improved living standards, creating new categories of employment along the way... But artificial intelligence threatens broad categories of jobs previously seen as safe from automation, such as legal assistants, corporate auditors and investment managers. Large groups of people could become obsolete, suffering the same fate as plow horses after the invention of the tractor. "More and more, we are seeing economists saying, 'This time could be different,'âS" said Autor, who presented a paper on the subject that he wrote with Anna Salomons, an associate professor at the Utrecht University School of Economics in the Netherlands.

Ultimately we'll just have to wait and see, Autor concluded. "I say not Robocalpyse now. Perhaps Robocalpyse later."
Google

New Google Project Lets You Collaborate On Doodles With A Neural Network (tensorflow.org) 31

Long-time Slashdot reader Giant Robot writes: Google Brain's latest experiment is a neural network that allows you to collaboratively draw with it inside of your web browser in real-time. The neural network is trained using the drawings collected from an earlier web game called Quick, Draw! released a few months earlier.
"Once you stop doodling, the neural network takes over and attempts to guess the rest of your doodle," explains Google's page about the project, adding "You can take over drawing again and continue where you left off."
Robotics

Amazon Robots Poised To Revamp How Whole Foods Runs Warehouses (bloomberg.com) 97

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) 632

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) 472

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."

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