Robots Get Manipulative

Artificial intelligence-powered robots seem to intimidate all kinds of intelligent people, from Stephen Hawking to Elan Musk. But how scary are pieces of machinery? They can be powered down. They are programmed by humans. As far as we know the robots at work in the world today, and not the ones of science fiction, aren’t greedy, or vindictive, or even ethically benign. They are inanimate. On another level, robots aren’t able to navigate space very well. Even autonomous cars rely on the vehicle to attain motion. There doesn’t seem to be much of a threat. However these physical limitations also impede the potential for robots to adapt to environments and solve physical problems. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is about to change that.


Nikhil Chaven-Dafle, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, is developing ways for robotic arms to manipulate objects and make use of their environment. For example, we humans take for granted our ability to screw a light bulb into a socket with one hand, while tightly gripping a ladder with the other. We are able to adapt our grip, orient objects and correct mistakes, like threading the light bulb incorrectly, and starting over. We interact with our environment and we use our environment to assist us in manipulating objects.


Certainly robots are capable of performing physical tasks. Car manufacturing assembly lines prove that robotic arms are highly efficient and capable of completing repetitive tasks. What Chaven-Dafle is developing is something new. He is working on ways for robotic arms to solve physical, not virtual, problems. Chaven-Dafle explained his project to TechCrunch saying, “We basically developed a formulation that allows robots to estimate how the forces and motions and contacts are going to be involved, and use this underlying model, it can predict how the object is going to move in the grasp.”


No word yet on whether robots are capable of manipulating objects in space, or even if that skill poses a threat to humanity. But robots have been safely handling all kinds of tools for quite some time in limited and highly fixed ways.

Snapchat Creator Values its IPO at $24 Billion

In the largest tech IPO since Alibaba went public in 2014, Snap, the parent company of the immensely popular Snapchat app, will price its offering at $17 per share with a $24 billion valuation.


The company looks to make a tidy profit, announcing that it would sell around 200 million shares, for a total take of about $3.4 billion. Co-founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy will cash out a combined 32 million shares, netting them each a sum of $272 million. They will retain just under 211 million shares, giving them 88% voting power between them. The remainder of the $3.4 billion that’s being offloaded will be divided among other executives and early investors.


Similarly to Twitter, Snap wasn’t able to turn a profit on its Snapchat app before going public. Moreover, the company’s leadership has stated that it projects its losses to continue to grow going forward. However, in terms of popularity, Snapchat has already surpassed Twitter with 450 million daily users. The company is also beginning to move forward with other products, such as Spectacles — a pair of sunglasses with a built-in camera that streams 10-second video clips to the Snapchat account on your phone.


Stranger still, is that the company is asking a lot of faith from potential investors: the IPO will only be offering non-voting shares, meaning Spiegel and his leadership will be in complete control of the company’s future and direction. Even so, as indicated by the size of the valuation, the company is expecting a lot of investor enthusiasm.


Snap shares will begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange Thursday, March 2nd, under the ticker SNAP.



Will YouTube TV See an End to Traditional Television?

Will you finally be able to ditch your cable television provider? That may become increasingly possible in the coming months than ever before, considering YouTube’s latest announcement. An article on TechCrunch explains this new announcement in detail: the unveiling of YouTube’s new live internet television streaming service, YouTube TV.


“Cord-cutting,” the term used to describe canceling traditional television subscriptions in favor of internet streaming services, is a growing trend. Why is it becoming so popular? The price of cable television is rising, reaching up to an average of $103.10 a month in 2016. This is what makes internet streaming services so appealing. YouTube announced that YouTube TV will cost $35 a month for a family of six accounts.


With a price point like that, could YouTube TV bring the end of traditional television services? That depends on its availability and offerings. While the announcement is still new, here is what we know will be offered with YouTube TV:


  • Live TV broadcasts from networks such as ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox.
  • Other networks such as USA, FreeForm, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox News and Fox Business.
  • Sports channels such as ESPN, FoxSports and NBC SportsNet, as well as some regional sports networks.
  • The 28 original series found on YouTube Red.
  • Cloud-based DVR that will never run out of space. Each account will have a personal DVR with tailored recommendations.
  • Visual TV guide.
  • The ability to “cast” content to your television.
  • Use of voice controls.
  • ShowTime and Fox Soccer Plus can be added for an additional fee.


YouTube TV is expected to launch in the United States sometime in the coming months. While switching to YouTube TV will save you money, fewer channels will be offered on the internet streaming service than on traditional television. With this in mind, will YouTube TV see an increase in “cord-cutting”? That is still yet to be seen. However, with other non-traditional television services on the rise, such as Sling TV and Hulu’s own plans for an internet television streaming service, cord-cutting continues to become a more viable option year after year.


Company Security is Turning to Robots for Extra Eyes and Ears

With security being a serious issue these days, the cost of security personnel for businesses and schools is significant. To address this situation, Cobalt Robotics Inc., based in Palo-Alto, California, created a robot that will enhance building security without needing to cut more weekly paychecks or deal with other personnel issues.


The approximately 4-foot tall robots, which look something like large blue and silver bishop playing pieces from a chessboard, are not capable of replacing human security guards. Instead, these little buddies glide around a floor of the building looking for things that might be out of the ordinary, such as people in the office after hours, the sound of a window breaking or possible water leaks.


These units are designed for indoor use only. Using a microphone and cameras, audio is detected and people can be videotaped. Whereas wall-mounted security cameras are stationary, these robots with artificial intelligence are mobile. Again, they are not created to replace existing security camera systems but to complement them.


The Cobalt Robot has 60 sensors, including daytime, nighttime and wide-angle cameras, ultrasound, lidar and depth sensors. This is the same technology found in  self-driving cars used to sense the vehicle’s external environment.


The 2-way video chat and text screen allows a security guard in another part of the building to communicate with the person that the robot has approached. Often, the security guard will ask the person to scan his employee ID badge using the RFID technology found on the front of the robot.


Cobalt’s target market is companies with large or complex buildings, such as hospitals, museums, warehouses, office buildings and schools. The company expects to get a portion of the physical security market, which is expected to reach $110 billion within three years.


Currently, these innovative devices are in pilot-program mode. Plans for future development include flagging changes in the building and tagging assets, such as computers, TVs, inventory and other devices of value.


Investors in this project like the fact that that add additional technology can be added to future models. The robots will not become obsolete because the designers will be able to incorporate new features and keep up with demands of businesses’ growing and changing security needs.


Companies that need more security but need to keep the costs under control will find the Cobalt Robots can patrol floors and examine corners, freeing up security personnel for tasks that only humans can do, such as escorting someone from the building or investigate something that the robot communicates as unusual activity.

Verizon Wireless Penalizes Users Who Exceed 200GB Per Month

Verizon is doing everything it can to get a handle on data usage. It has recently announced that it is disconnecting users who use more than 200GB of data within a month. This brings into questions as to the meaning of unlimited data. However, it is important to keep in mind that Verizon wireless has dropped their unlimited data plans more than a couple of years ago. However, it has grandfather the users who have held onto the plan. Users who have averaged more than 200GB of data will either be urged to sign up for new contracts. The other option is that they get disconnected.

While this does seem harsh when it comes to unlimited data use, one must admit that 200GB is a lot. One would have to be online all day everyday. That said, unlimited data is supposed to mean unlimited data. Therefore, that would be a slap to the face for people that are used to not worrying about any data caps. The other thing to consider is that this move might actually push people away from Verizon wireless to mobile carriers that still offer unlimited data.

There is enough controversy when it comes to unlimited data plans to begin with. A lot of people have to deal with being throttled which they don’t like. However, it does say that only a certain amount of data is high speed data. The rest of the data is still unlimited. However, it will only be downloaded at slower speeds.

Beneficial Deception Keeps Users Happy

Software developers and designers employ various tactics to optimize user experience, but one seemingly devious tactic is quite helpful to both users and brand websites. The practice of beneficial deception isn’t new but tech writer Kaveh Waddell recently investigated the phenomenon after experiencing it himself. While filing his taxes he noticed that the Turbo Tax progress bars seemed a little quirky. They were running too smoothly and taking their time. He wondered if the program was actually double and triple checking his returns like it promised. He also wondered if it should take that long, considering that the program must have been processing the return as he was filling it out. Waddell was correct. The Turbo Tax progress bar was faking it.


After consulting with fellow techie Andrew McGill, the two looked through the program’s source code and found that it ran separately from the actual tax processing portion of the program. It also ran for the same length of time and in the exact same manner for every single Turbo Tax user. According to Turbo Tax, the delay and the bright animations help ease users’ tax anxieties. The graphics provide a bit of time for users to calm down, build confidence and trust the software. Although most other uses of beneficial deception hide faults or delays, the Turbo Tax program developers purposefully create a waiting period.


Not all of this is placed squarely on the developers, of course. User experience experts, test studies, control groups and human behavioral scientists also provide insight into optimal user experiences. This particular tactic, of extending a wait period, also serves to heighten user suspense and creates a more satisfying conclusion to an otherwise easily automated and instantaneous result. It seems people like feeling a little bit nervous, but only a little bit and for only a little while.


Verizon Will Purge or Reduce Customers Using 200GB or More of Monthly Data

One of the four major cellular carriers, Verizon, has announced its intention to eliminate “unlimited” data plans from available services. The company actually stopped selling unlimited data plans in 2011, but has “grandfathered” many customers by allowing them to remain in an unlimited data plan if they chose to. However, it appears that customers using what Verizon views as excessive data will be moved to different plans within the next month.

This is part of Verizon’s ongoing push to reduce data consumption rates by its customers. In 2015, they added an additional $20 monthly fee to continue grandfathering customers on unlimited data plans. They’ve also followed other wireless trends and stopped offering contracts, so customers cannot “lock” themselves into a specific rate. When customers upgrade their phones, new plans or updates will become effective.

What, exactly, is considered excessive by the wireless giant? Verizon has determined that customers using more than 200GB of data, averaged over several months, will be selected for review. They’ll be asked to move to new contracts that include data caps of only 100GB of data each month, with an option to add an additional 2GB. Per household line. Additionally, if users choose to take the 100GB plan, they should expect to pay for it: Verizon offers it at $450 per month. That’s over $400 for a limited data plan that users can expect to be speed-throttled once the cap is reached.

Verizon is offering very little to those who do not want to select another, lower-limit plan: they’ll simply disconnect their devices and cut off all service. Customers who want service reinstated will have to choose a new data plan within 50 days to do so.

Artificial Intelligence Will Only Replace Low-paying Jobs

The rise of automation and artificial intelligence is greeted positively by many within the tech industry. Artificial intelligence software is designed to processes greater amounts of data in less time than any human possibly could, which speeds up decision-making and improves accuracy. On another level, vending kiosks are poised to replace fast food workers. Indeed, automated cars could replace taxi and Uber drivers. In one respect, this is frightening. Fewer jobs will be available, but as pointed out in a report to Congress in 2016, workers earning less than $20 per hour can expect an 83% chance that their job will be transferred to an AI powered robot by 2021. Those earning $40 or more per hour will only face a 31% chance that a robot will replace them.


In a recent Huffington Post article, Anurag Harsh points out that technology has been replacing humans since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. He also brings to light the fact that tractors were once expected to take away all agricultural jobs. In reality, the invention and adoption of the tractor forced generations of would-be farmers to attend and complete high school. Once educated, they moved on to higher skilled, and better paying jobs, in factory towns and urban areas. A way of life changed completely, but the need to earn a living did not.


Considering the historical precedent that has been set, it is imperative that younger generations position themselves for higher paying jobs. Those positions could include engineers who write the code that run the robots, or innovators who conceive new strategies for robotics, or it could be an influx of physicians, lawyers and other creative thinkers who can conceive of patterns and perceive nuances that AI-driven devices will not be able to replicate. So while robots flip hamburgers, chefs will still be in demand. In this sense, robots are helpful in more ways than simply doing drudge work. They challenge us to raise the bar, to receive better educations, to hone greater skills and to earn more money. As the adage goes: work smarter, not harder.


Amazon AWS Outage Ruins Browsing

Aside from being unable to view images, an Amazon AWS outage has caused internet users to experience difficulty when accessing mobile boarding passes, Quora, Business Insider, Giphy and Slack file sharing, among other services and sites. Amazon S3 acts as a web-based storage service for numerous websites, and app backends. It also hosts images for many websites. However, the problem goes beyond slow-loading pages or image download failures. The outage reveals how many sites, services and users depend on AWS.


Although Amazon S3 is only used by .8 percent of the web’s top 1 million sites, the issue is affecting a large swath of users, including Amazon itself. According to reports from TechCrunch, the Amazon service status page relies on Amazon S3 to store its health data. As a result, the site shows an unaffected status despite its ongoing issues. Although that particular situation was resolved, the entire S3 universe is still experiencing broken websites.


The internet of things is also being affected, with users reporting that smart home thermostats, connected lighting and other devices and hardware are experiencing issues. Amazon will most certainly rectify the situation as soon as possible, but in the meantime the exact cause of the issue remains unknown. The likelihood of an outside hack is so low that it is not even being discussed. The outage appears to be the result of an internal issue and tech news organizations are treating it as such.


Although Amazon has not released any specifics on the cause behind the meltdown, some third-party network intelligence experts suspect Amazon’s Ashburn, Virginia data center is the home of the problem. This isn’t the first time the Ashburn location has been compromised. The center was the scene of a fire when it was first being constructed. This outage serves as a reminder that even the cloud has real world problems.

Mobile Carriers and Throttling

There is all this talk about unlimited data. While the data is unlimited, the mobile carrier does practices after a certain amount of data is used. On average it is between 2 and 5 GB of data. In many cases, the first 5 GB of data is 4G LTE speed. Once that limit is reached, the internet service is slowed down to slower speeds. For the rest of the month, the user has access to internet at 2G speed. Which is significantly slower than the first 5GB. However, some of the simpler sites can still be accessed with speed.

However, there are some companies that are working on getting rid of unlimited data plans. Among these companies are Verizon wireless and AT&T. Their reasoning behind getting rid of unlimited data plans range from data congestion to people not using unlimited data to begin with. Verizon has gotten rid of their unlimited data plans, but have grandfathered the users that still use the plan. However, they are raising the price of data service and trying to get people to drop the plans and switch to another type of service.

Mobile carriers that are still offering unlimited data plans are Sprint, and T Mobile. Therefore, people can take part in the plans that are offered by companies in the Sprint networks, While the network does slow down data, it is better than having no internet service. This is one of these times of change in the mobile carrier industry. Hopefully, there will be a solution that will benefit everyone when it comes to internet services.