When Google said that not sharing photographs of your friends made you “kind of a terrible person” at this year’s I/O keynote, I bristled. The idea that its new Google Photos app would automatically suggest I share pictures with specific people sounded dystopian, especially because so much of the keynote seemed geared toward getting Google’s AI systems to help maintain relationships. Want to answer an email without even thinking about it? Inbox’s suggested responses are rolling out all over Gmail. Has a special moment with somebody slipped your mind? Google might organize photos from it into a book and suggest you have it printed.
Google is far from the first company to do this; Facebook suggests pictures to share and reminds you of friends’ birthdays all the time, for example. It’s easy to describe these features as creepy false intimacy, or say that they’re making us socially lazy, relieving us of the burden of paying attention to people. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve decided that I’m all right with an AI helping manage my connections with other people — because otherwise, a lot of those connections wouldn’t exist at all.
I don’t know if I’m a terrible person per se, but I may be the world’s worst relative. I have an extended network of aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends that I would probably like but don’t know very well, and almost never see face-to-face. They’re the kind of relationships that some people I know maintain with family newsletters, emailed photos, and holiday cards. But I have never figured out how to handle any of these things.
Desperate to overcome Japan’s growing shortage of labor, mid-sized companies are planning to buy robots and other equipment to automate a wide range of tasks, including manufacturing, earthmoving and hotel room service.
According to a Bank of Japan survey, companies with share capital of 100 million yen to 1 billion yen plan to boost investment in the fiscal year that started in April by 17.5 percent, the highest level on record.
It is unclear how much of that is being spent on automation but companies selling such equipment say their order books are growing and the Japanese government says it sees a larger proportion of investment being dedicated to increasing efficiency. Revenue at many of Japan’s robot makers also rose in the January-March period for the first time in several quarters.
“The share of capital expenditure devoted to becoming more efficient is increasing because of the shortage of workers,” said Seiichiro Inoue, a director in the industrial policy bureau of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, or METI.
If the investment ambitions are fulfilled it would show there is a silver lining as Japan tries to cope with a shrinking and rapidly aging population. It could help equipment-makers, lift the country’s low productivity and boost economic growth.
The government predicts investment in labor-saving equipment will rise this fiscal year, Inoue said.
The way Japan copes with an aging population will provide critical lessons for other aging societies, including China and South Korea, that will have to grapple with similar challenges in coming years.
“More than 90 percent of Japan’s companies are small- and medium-sized, but most of these companies are not using robots,” said Yasuhiko Hashimoto, who works in Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd’s (7012.T) robot division. “We’re coming up with a lot of applications and product packages to target these companies.”
Among those products is a two-armed, 170-centimeter (5-foot-7) tall robot. Kawasaki says it is selling well because it can be adapted to a range of industrial uses by electronics makers, food processors and drug companies.
Hitachi Construction Machinery (6305.T) says it is getting a lot of enquiries for its computer-programmed digging machines that use a global positioning system to hew ditches that are accurate to within centimeters and can cut digging time by about half.
“We focus on rentals and expect business to pick up in the second half of the fiscal year, which is when most companies tend to order construction equipment for projects,” said Yoshi Furuno, a company official. Hitachi Construction declined to provide figures.
Mid-sized companies are planning on increasing spending much more than large-caps, which are projecting just a 0.6 percent increase in the fiscal year, according to the Bank of Japan. Smaller companies tend to have less flexibility in overcoming labor shortages by paying workers more or by moving production overseas.
WORKING POPULATION PLUNGING
Some companies could end up spending less than originally planned. But with demographics only worsening, companies will need to continue to search for solutions to the labor shortage problem. Japan’s working-age population peaked in 1995 at 87 million and has been falling ever since. The government expects it to fall to 76 million this year and to 45 million by 2065.
In the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2016, mid-sized companies with 100 to 499 workers advertised to fill 1.1 million new positions, the highest in five years and almost five times the number of open positions at companies with 500 workers or more, Labor Ministry data show.
Among the robot makers to report stronger revenue in the last quarter was Fanuc Corp (6954.T). Its revenue was 7.9 percent higher than a year earlier, the first increase in seven quarters.
According to a report by the Outdoor Foundation, Americans log 598 million nights a year under the stars. At an average of $40 in expenses and fees per night, that’s $24 billion spent on campsites alone. Add in all the related costs—gear, transportation, food—and the Outdoor Industry Association figures the industry generates closer to $167 billion annually.
But former investment banker Michael D’Agostino, who grew up camping on a farm in Litchfield, Conn., still calls the industry a broken business.
The tipping point came a few summers ago, when D’Agostino found himself on vacation “directly across from a campsite of 40 people at a Wiccan convention: robes and UFO spotters and streaking and all.” It wasn’t what he’d imagined as a quiet weekend with his wife—counting stars, listening to crickets, bellies full from prime steaks grilled over a man-made fire. “We definitely took them up on some mead,” he said of the Wiccans, “but we had to keep the dog in the tent—she was going bonkers—and it was kind of like camping in Times Square.”
The experience led him to create Tentrr, a free iPhone app that takes the guesswork out of camping. It lets users find and instantly book fully private campsites in vetted, bucolic settings, all within a few hours’ drive of major cities. The sites themselves are all custom-designed by D’Agostino and follow a standardized footprint: They consist of hand-sewn canvas expedition tents from Colorado, set on an elevated deck with Adirondack chairs. You’re also guaranteed to find Brazilian wood picnic tables and sun showers strewn around the campsites, as well as portable camping toilets, fire pits, cookware, and grills. As for the sleeping arrangements? Air mattresses with featherbed toppers, not sleeping bags, are the name of the game.
Tentrr beta-launched last summer with just 50 campsites in New York state, while D’Agostino figured out how to get liability insurers on board with his slice of the sharing economy. Despite the soft opening, the app has already logged $4 million in funding and 1,500 bookings—40 percent of them by people who’d never gone camping before.
In the days leading up to Memorial Day, Tentrr will move past its beta phase with a newly expanded collection of roughly 150 campsites spread across the U.S. Northeast. By July 4 an additional 100 sites will gradually come online, not including a 50-site expansion into the Pacific Northwest. Next year, D’Agostino plans to tackle the “San Francisco-Yosemite corridor, the American Southwest, and counterclockwise around the perimeter of the U.S., all within a few hours of major metropolitan cities, until all of the country’s top-50 hubs are served.” His ultimate vision, however, is global.
Google on Wednesday revealed several new updates for its most popular hardware and services as part of its annual I/O conference. While the developer-centric event has historically focused on Google products like Android and Chrome, this year’s announcements revolved mainly around the search giant’s advancements in artificial intelligence, or AI. That’s been a common theme among Silicon Valley’s top companies lately, setting up AI as the next big tech battleground.
The smart speaker battle is heating up: Just days after Amazon revealed a new Echo device with a screen, Google announced a slew of new capabilities for its own connected speaker, the Home.
The most significant upgrade is that Home users will be able to make hands-free phone calls through the device. Calls to the U.S. and Canada will be free, while Home owners can choose to link their phone number to the gadget. (Amazon recently announced a similar feature, but calling is limited to Echo-to-Echo communication for now).
Because Google Home can tell the difference between various users’ voices, it will know to call the right person depending on who’s placing the call. During a live demo, Google’s Rishi Chandra asked to call his mom, then said that if his wife had uttered the same phrase, the Home would have known to call Chandra’s mother-in-law instead.
Google is also launching a new Home feature called “proactive assistance,” which is basically a different term for notifications (another feature that arrived on the Echo this month.) When the Home’s microphone lights up, users will be able to ask the Home if it has any important updates to share, such as a change to an upcoming calendar appointment or a flight delay.
The Google Assistant can “see”
The Google Assistant digital aide is getting a big visual upgrade. In the coming months, users will be able to point their phone at a sign in a different language and watch as it’s translated before their very eyes. Or, if they aim their phone at a theater, it could show upcoming showtimes and an option to buy tickets. That’s all thanks to Google’s Lens app, which is similar to the Bixby Vision feature Samsung offers on its Galaxy S8 and S8+ smartphones.
Furthermore, the Google Assistant is coming to Apple iPhones as a standalone app. It won’t be baked in at the operating system level like Siri is, so it will be limited in how useful it is for iPhone owners. But it can still do things like the Lens features above.
Android O updates
Google offered new information about what to expect from its next major Android update, which for now is referred to as “Android O.”
One highlight: When downloading an app for the first time, Android may ask if you’d like it to fill in your username if you’ve already used that service in Google Chrome.
Google is also making it easier to copy-and-paste text in Android. If you tap an address, for example, it will automatically select the entire address instead of just a portion of it, and from there it will suggest pasting it into Google Maps.
Other core Android O updates will improve security and battery life and add a picture-in-picture mode, which will let users minimize a video so that it only occupies a portion of the screen.
New Android software for low-end phones
Google is working on a version of Android called Android Go that’s optimized to work on low-end phones with under 1GB of memory (most high-end phones have around 4GB.) Go is also built to help users budget their bandwidth: When using the Android Go version of YouTube, for instance, users will be able to preview videos and see exactly how much data they will eat up before deciding to stream a full clip.
Android Go is similar in spirit to Google’s Android One program, which offers low-cost Android devices to users in developing markets.
Virtual reality without a phone
Google is one of several tech companies pursuing the “holy grail” of virtual reality: Headsets that don’t need to be connected to a computer or smartphone to work. To that end, the search giant announced that standalone VR headsets will be available starting later this year.
HTC — maker of the Steam-compatible Vive headset — and PC maker Lenovo are among the first partners working on these headsets. The search giant collaborated with chipmaker Qualcomm to come up with a reference design.
Google Photos makes real-life albums now
Move over, Shutterfly. Google announced a new service that creates photo books based on the images in your phone’s gallery. If you’re using the Google Photos app, you’ll be able to search for images of a specific person. From there, Google Photos can choose the best photos and arrange them in an album that you can order.
Google also announced other sharing-centric features for Google Photos. You can, for instance, choose to share your entire photo library with your spouse or a family member. If you don’t want them seeing your entire collection, you can limit the sharing to only include photos of specific people, like your kids.
For the first time, a power utility has teamed up with Tesla to use its battery packs for extra grid power during peak usage times. Vermont’s Green Mountain Power (GMP) is not only installing Tesla’s industrial Powerpacks on utility land, it’s also subsidizing home Powerwall 2s for up to 2,000 customers. Rather than firing up polluting diesel generators, the utility can use them to provide electricity around the state. At night, when power usage is low, they’re charged back up again.
Green Mountain Power said the idea started after a power outage knocked out over 15,000 homes. “Three customers who had Powerwalls never lost power, so it carried their home through,” GMP CEO Mary Powell told WCAX-TV. “And unlike a generator, they didn’t have to worry about hooking it up, they didn’t have to worry about whether it was fueled.”
Once in operation, the Powerwalls will stay charged in your home. During times of peak electricity usage when its normal power sources (hydro, nuclear, wind, etc.) max out, GMP will draw from its Powerpacks and the consumer-installed Powerwalls. At night, when demand is low, the batteries are recharged.
Tesla says GMP is the first utility to do such a large-scale “grid-smoothing” installation. “There hasn’t been any really successful large-scale trial, so that’s why this is so exciting,” said Tesla CTO J.B. Straubel. “It’s been in development at Tesla for quite some time, but this is our first real deployment.”
GMP is offering 7kW Powerwalls for $15 a month or a flat fee of $1,500. That’s quite a bargain compared to the regular $3,000 price, but again, it’s only available for 2,000 homes. That’s presumably enough, however, to provide peak power backup in conjunction with the company’s industrial Powerpacks.
GMP thinks the Tesla batteries are not only less polluting than regular generators, but more economical too. “[Backup generators] are some of the dirtiest and … costliest forms of generation,” says Powell. “So when we can produce 10 megawatts of energy, that is an alternative to that peaking generation, that has tremendous economic value.”
Most of us talk to our computers on a semi-regular basis, but that doesn’t mean the conversation is any good. We ask Siri what the weather is like, or tell Alexa to put some music on, but we don’t expect sparkling repartee — voice interfaces right now are as sterile as the visual interface they’re supposed to replace. Facebook, though, is determined to change this: today it unveiled a new research tool that the company hopes will spur progress in the march to create truly conversational AI.
The tool is called ParlAI (pronounced like Captain Jack Sparrow asking to parley) and is described by the social media network as a “one-stop shop for dialog research.” It gives AI programmers a simple framework for training and testing chatbots, complete with access to datasets of sample dialogue, and a “seamless” pipeline to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. This latter is a crucial feature, as it means programmers can easily hire humans to interact with, test, and correct their chatbots.
Abigail See, a computer science PhD at Stanford University welcomed the news, saying frameworks like this were “very valuable” to scientists. “There’s a huge volume of AI research being produced right now, with new techniques, datasets and results announced every month,” said See in an email to The Verge. “Platforms [like ParlAI] offer a unified framework for researchers to easily develop, compare and replicate their experiments.”
In a group interview, Antoine Bordes from Facebook’s AI research lab FAIR said that ParlAI was designed to create a missing link in the world of chatbots. “Right now there are two types of dialogue systems,” explains Bordes. The first, he says, are those that “actually serve some purpose” and execute an action for the user (e.g., Siri and Alexa); while the second serves no purpose, but is actually entertaining to talk to (like Microsoft’s Tay — although, yes, that one didn’t turn out great).
“What we’re after with ParlAI, is more about having a machine where you can have multi-turn dialogue; where you can build up a dialogue and exchange ideas,” says Bordes. “ParlAI is trying to develop the capacity for chatbots to enter long-term conversation.” This, he says, will require memory on the bot’s part, as well as a good deal of external knowledge (provided via access to datasets like Wikipedia), and perhaps even an idea of how the user is feeling. “In that respect, the field is very preliminary and there is still a lot of work to do,” says Bordes.
It’s important to note that ParlAI isn’t a tool for just anyone. Unlike, say, Microsoft’s chatbot frameworks, this is a piece of kit that’s aimed at the cutting-edge AI research community, rather than developers trying to create a simple chatbot for their website. It’s not so much about building actual bots, but finding the best ways to train them in the first place. There’s no doubt, though, that this work will eventually filter through to Facebook’s own products (like its part-human-powered virtual assistant M) and to its chatbot platform for Messenger.
JESSE ENGEL IS playing an instrument that’s somewhere between a clavichord and a Hammond organ—18th-century classical crossed with 20th-century rhythm and blues. Then he drags a marker across his laptop screen. Suddenly, the instrument is somewhere else between a clavichord and a Hammond. Before, it was, say, 15 percent clavichord. Now it’s closer to 75 percent. Then he drags the marker back and forth as quickly as he can, careening though all the sounds between these two very different instruments.
“This is not like playing the two at the same time,” says one of Engel’s colleagues, Cinjon Resnick, from across the room. And that’s worth saying. The machine and its software aren’t layering the sounds of a clavichord atop those of a Hammond. They’re producing entirely new sounds using the mathematical characteristics of the notes that emerge from the two. And they can do this with about a thousand different instruments—from violins to balafons—creating countless new sounds from those we already have, thanks to artificial intelligence.
Engel and Resnick are part of Google Magenta—a small team of AI researchers inside the internet giant building computer systems that can make their own art—and this is their latest project. It’s called NSynth, and the team will publicly demonstrate the technology later this week at Moogfest, the annual art, music, and technology festival, held this year in Durham, North Carolina.
The idea is that NSynth, which Google first discussed in a blog post last month, will provide musicians with an entirely new range of tools for making music. Critic Marc Weidenbaum points out that the approach isn’t very far removed from what orchestral conductors have done for ages—“the blending of instruments is nothing new,” he says—but he also believes that Google’s technology could push this age-old practice into new places. “Artistically, it could yield some cool stuff, and because it’s Google, people will follow their lead,” he says.
The Boundaries of Sound
Magenta is part of Google Brain, the company’s central AI lab, where a small army of researchers are exploring the limits of neural networks and other forms of machine learning. Neural networks are complex mathematical systems that can learn tasks by analyzing large amounts of data, and in recent years they’ve proven to be an enormously effective way of recognizing objects and faces in photos, identifying commands spoken into smartphones, and translating from one language to another, among other tasks. Now the Magenta team is turning this idea on its head, using neural networks as a way of teaching machines to make new kinds of music and other art.
Apple is reportedly planning on upgrading all three of its MacBook products at WWDC this year, according to a report from Mark Gurman at Bloomberg.
The company is said to be working on three updated models: a MacBook Pro with Intel’s latest Kaby Lake processor, a more powerful version of the 12-inch MacBook, and an updated 13-inch MacBook Air, which could get a faster processor as well. But sadly, there’s no word on a better screen. Apple really wants you to think of the 13-inch MacBook Pro as the Air’s successor.
While none of the updates sound like particularly major changes from a hardware perspective, it’s encouraging to see that Apple is taking at least some of the criticism of its latest MacBook Pros to heart and updating the laptop line with Intel’s newest processors. It’s unclear whether other concerns like RAM flexibility and uneven USB-C performance in some models will be addressed. You’ll definitely still need dongles.
The MacBook and MacBook Air are certainly due for an update, having been last refreshed in 2016 and 2015, respectively. WWDC 2017 is scheduled to take place from June 5th to June 9th.
The Washington Post is launching an augmented-reality series today, the start of a push into AR-enhanced storytelling this year.
The first series uses AR to let people explore innovative buildings around the world, starting with the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg, Germany, whose structure lets visitors hear and see the same thing no matter where they sit. Readers can access the story on the Post’s app on iOS devices, then point their smartphone’s camera at the ceiling of any room they’re in and tap play. The real ceiling is transformed into the concert hall ceiling while an audio narration by Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott plays. Users can also tap a prompt to read an accompanying article by Kennicott.
With AR’s obvious application to visual stories, Kennicott said there’s a question of whether AR will replace the need for critics like him. To him, the answer is that AR can enhance, rather than replace the experience, and hence make criticism more interesting and relevant to readers. “It’s a great way to get people a lot more than what they’re getting from a photographer or video,” Kennicott said.
The series will continue with at least two more installments through the end of the summer. The Post hopes to do around six AR series total this year and plans to expand the AR stories to Android and its Rainbow app.
The Post deliberately started small, with the first video in the series only running about 10 seconds, said Joey Marburger, the Post’s head of product. “With that quick experience, you get more out of the story,” he said. “But we didn’t want it to be the only way you can experience the story. We didn’t want to overdo it.”
Audi is sponsoring the series. Its first ad will appear as a visual, and future ads will take the form of AR branded stories in upcoming installments.
AR is still a new experience for most people and requires prompts to get people to try it. It also doesn’t make sense for every story. But the Post made it a priority this year because unlike virtual reality, it’s less expensive, doesn’t require a headset and advertiser demand is there, Marburger said. The series took six people in editorial and engineering to produce, which is comparable to the size of teams it puts on other projects.