Cute Robots Invade the Smithsonian

Known as the largest education, and research complex in the world, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC is a collection of 19 museums that house more than 140 million unique items. It’s no wonder it’s been called “the nation’s attic.” But there’s a novel addition to the venerable complex — a smart new technology that interacts with visitors. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti introduces us to the Smithsonian’s newest resident.


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Why is Facebook Keen on Robots? It’s Just the Future of AI

Facebook announced several new hires of top academics in the field of artificial intelligence Tuesday, among them a roboticist known for her work at Disney making animated figures move in more human-like ways.

 

The hires raise a big question — why is Facebook interested in robots, anyway?

 

It’s not as though the social media giant is suddenly interested in developing mechanical friends, although it does use robotic arms in some of its data centers. The answer is even more central to the problem of how AI systems work today.

 

Today, most successful AI systems have to be exposed to millions of data points labeled by humans — like, say, photos of cats — before they can learn to recognize patterns that people take for granted. Similarly, game-playing bots like Google’s computerized Go master AlphaGo Zero require tens of thousands of trials to learn the best moves from their failures.

 

Creating systems that require less data and have more common sense is a key goal for making AI smarter in the future.

 

“Clearly we’re missing something in terms of how humans can learn so fast,” Yann LeCun, Facebook’s chief AI scientist, said in a call with reporters last week. “So far the best ideas have come out of robotics.”

 

Among the people Facebook is hiring are Jessica Hodgins , the former Disney researcher; and Abhinav Gupta, her colleague at Carnegie Mellon University who is known for using robot arms to learn how to grasp things.

 

Pieter Abbeel, a roboticist at University of California, Berkeley and co-founder of the robot-training company Covariant.ai, says the robotics field has benefits and constraints that push progress in AI. For one, the real world is naturally complex, so robotic AI systems have to deal with unexpected, rare events. And real-world constraints like a lack of time and the cost of keeping machinery moving push researchers to solve difficult problems.

 

“Robotics forces you into many reality checks,” Abbeel said. “How good are these algorithms, really?”

 

There are other more abstract applications of learnings from robotics, says Berkeley AI professor Ken Goldberg. Just like teaching a robot to escape from a computerized maze, other robots change their behavior depending on whether actions they took got them closer to a goal. Such systems could even be adapted to serve ads, he said — which just happens to be the mainstay of Facebook’s business.

 

“It’s not a static decision, it’s a dynamic one,” Goldberg said.

In an interview, Hodgins expressed an interest in a wide range of robotics research, everything from building a “compelling humanoid robot” to creating a mechanical servant to “load and unload my dishwasher.”

 

While she acknowledged the need to imbue robots with more common sense and have them learn with fewer examples, she also said her work in animation could lead to a new form of sharing — one in which AI-powered tools could help one show off a work of pottery in 3-D, for example.

 

“One thing I hope we’ll be able to do is explore AI support for creativity,” she said.

 

For Facebook, planting a flag in the hot field also allows it to be competitive for AI talent emerging from universities, Facebook’s LeCun said.

 

Bart Selman, a Cornell computer science professor AI expert, said it’s a good idea for Facebook to broaden its reach in AI and take on projects that might not be directly related to the company’s business — something that’s a little more “exciting” — the way Google did with self-driving cars, for example.

 

This attracts not just attention, but students, too. The broader the research agenda, the better the labs become, he said.


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Fashion Firms Upend Design Routine to Focus on Speed, Trends

Prototypes? Passe. Fashion company Betabrand saw that knitwear was a hot style in sneakers and wanted to quickly jump on the trend for dressier shoes. It put a poll up on its website asking shoppers what style they liked, and based on that had a shoe for sale online in just one week.

 

What web shoppers saw was a 3-D rendering — no actual shoe existed yet. Creating a traditional prototype, tweaking the design and making a sample would have taken six to nine months, and the company might have missed out on the interest in knit.

 

“The web attention span is short,” said Betabrand CEO Chris Lindland. “So if you can develop and create in a short time, you can be a real product-development machine.”

Shoppers looking at the shoe online could examine the peekaboo detail or check out how the sole was put together, as they would from photos of a real product. They don’t get the actual shoes instantaneously — they have to wait a few months. But the use of digital technology in designing and selling means hot trends are still getting to people far faster than under the old system.

 

“Retailers and brands who are embracing this are going to be winners of the future,” said David Bassuk, managing director of consulting group AlixPartners. “This is flipping the business model on its head.”

 

It’s a big cultural change for clothing makers. For decades, the process meant designers sketched ideas on paper, a design got approved, and the sketches went to a factory that created prototypes. Designers and product developers made tweaks and sent prototypes back and forth. Once a final version was approved, it was sent to the factory to be copied for mass production. Getting something from design to a store could take at least a year.

Now, some companies have designers sketching on high-resolution tablets with software that can email 3-D renderings of garments with specifications straight to factories, as better technology makes the images look real and the pressure to get shoppers new products swiftly intensifies. The goal is to reduce to six months or less the time it takes to get to store shelves.

 

Even chains like H&M, which once set the standard for speed by flying in frequent small batches, are realizing that’s not fast enough. H&M, which has seen sales slow, is starting to digitize certain areas of its manufacturing process.

 

For clothing makers and retailers, the shift means design decisions can happen closer to when the fashions actually hit the shelves or website. That means less guessing so stores aren’t stuck with piles of unsold clothes that need to be discounted.

 

The 3-D technology is used in just 2 percent of the overall supply networks, estimates Spencer Fung, group CEO of Li & Fung, which consults with more than 8,000 retailers including Betabrand and 15,000 suppliers globally. But he believes that will change as retailers begin prioritizing speed and realize that cutting down on design time and prototypes saves money.

 

“You can actually essentially create an entire collection before you even cut one garment,” said Whitney Cathcart, CEO of the Cathcart Technologies consulting firm. “So it reduces waste, it reduces lead times, it allows decision making in real time, so the entire process becomes more efficient.”

 

Fung imagines a scenario where a social media post with a celebrity in a red dress gets 500,000 “likes.” An alert goes to a retailer that this item is trending. Within hours, a digital sample of a similar dress is on its website. A factory can start to produce the dress in days.

 

“Consumers see it and they want it now,” says Michael Londrigan of fashion college LIM in New York. “How do you bring it to market so you don’t miss those dollars?”

 

Nicki Rector of the Sonoma Valley area in California bought a pair of Betabrand’s Western-style boots last summer based on the 3-D rendering.

 

“It looked real,” said Rector, who examined the images of the heel and the insoles. She didn’t worry about buying off a digital image, reasoning that if you’re buying online you can’t really know how something’s going to fit until you put it on your feet. She said knowing it was designed from customer input also helped make the wait OK.

 

Betabrand has sold 40,000 pairs of shoes priced from $128 to $168 over the past year, all from digital renderings, and plans to add 15 to 20 such projects this year.

At a Levi Strauss & Co. research and development facility in San Francisco, designers use programs that offer the look of a finished garment and let them make changes like adding pockets quickly, rather than requiring a new prototype. When they’re set, they can send a file to the factory for mass production. Using digital samples can shorten the design time to one week or less from an eight-week timeframe, Levi’s says.

 

Few companies are yet selling directly to shoppers off digital renderings like Betabrand, and are instead showing them to store buyers or to factories rather than using traditional samples.

 

Xcel Brands uses them for its own brand of women’s tops and for the company’s Judith Ripka jewelry line. The company, which also makes clothes for Isaac Mizrahi and Halston, will start using them for other brands within the year. CEO Robert D’Loren hopes to start putting 3-D samples on its website next year.

 

Tommy Hilfiger has an interactive touchscreen table where buyers can view every item in the collection and create custom orders. And Deckers Brands, the maker of Ugg boots, is using digital renderings of the classic boot in 10 colors, eliminating the need for 10 prototypes for store buyers. That helps reduce cost and increases speed.

 

Using digital designs also mean the exact specifications for different Levi’s design finishes can be uploaded to a machine that uses lasers to scrape away at jeans. No need to teach employees how to execute a designer’s vision, in a minute and a half the lasers have given the jeans the exact weathered look that took workers wielding pumice stones twenty minutes to half an hour.

 

“Thirty years ago, jeans were only available in three shades — rinse, stonewash and bleach,” said Bart Sights, head of the Levi’s Eureka lab. “Our company now designs 1,000 finishes per season.” Such a long lead time “pushes production and creation too far away.” Levi’s latest technology alleviates this issue, he said.


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Twitter Suspended 58M Accounts in Last Quarter of ’17, AP Says

Twitter suspended at least 58 million user accounts in the final three months of 2017, according to data obtained by The Associated Press. The figure highlights the company’s newly aggressive stance against malicious or suspicious accounts in the wake of Russian disinformation efforts during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Last week, Twitter confirmed a Washington Post report that it had suspended 70 million accounts in May and June. The huge number of suspensions raises questions as to whether the crackdown could affect Twitter’s user growth and whether the company should have warned investors earlier. The company has been struggling with user growth compared with rivals like Instagram and Facebook.

The number of suspended accounts originated with Twitter’s “firehose,” a data stream it makes available to academics, companies and others willing to pay for it.

The new figure sheds light on Twitter’s attempt to improve “information quality” on its service, its term for countering fake accounts, bots, disinformation and other malicious occurrences. Such activity was rampant on Twitter and other social media networks during the 2016 campaign, much of it originating with the Internet Research Agency, a since-shuttered Russian “troll farm” implicated in election disruption efforts by the U.S. special counsel and congressional investigations.

Twitter declined to comment on the data. But its executives have said that efforts to clean up the platform are a priority, while acknowledging that its crackdown has affected and may continue to affect user numbers.

Twitter has 336 million monthly active users, which it defines as accounts that have logged in at least once during the previous 30 days. The suspensions do not appear to have made a large dent in this number. Twitter maintains that most of the suspended accounts had been dormant for at least a month, and thus weren’t included in its active user numbers.

Following the Post report, which caused Twitter’s stock to drop sharply, Chief Financial Officer Ned Segal took to Twitter to reassure investors that this number didn’t count in the company’s user metrics. “If we removed 70M accounts from our reported metrics, you would hear directly from us,” he tweeted last Monday.

Shares recovered somewhat after that tweet. The stock has largely been on an upswing lately, and more than doubled its value in the past year.

Twitter is taking other steps besides account deletions to combat misuse of its service, working to rein in hate and abuse even as it tries to stay true to its roots as a bastion of free expression. Last fall, it vowed to crack down on hate speech and sexual harassment, and CEO Jack Dorsey echoed the concerns of critics who said the company hadn’t done enough to curb such abuse.


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Egypt Targets Social Media With New Law

Egypt’s parliament has passed a law giving the state powers to block social media accounts and penalize journalists held to be publishing fake news.

Under the law passed on Monday social media accounts and blogs with more than 5,000 followers on sites such as Twitter and Facebook will be treated as media outlets, which makes them subject to prosecution for publishing false news or incitement to break the law.

The Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media, headed by an official appointed by President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, will supervise the law and take action against violations.

The bill prohibits the establishment of websites without obtaining a license from the Supreme Council and allows it to suspend or block existing websites, or impose fines on editors.

The law, which takes effect after it is ratified by Sissi, also states that journalists can only film in places that are not prohibited, but does not explain further.

Supporters of Sissi say the law is intended to safeguard freedom of expression and it was approved after consultations with judicial experts and journalists.

But critics say it will give legal basis to measures the government has been taking to crack down on dissent and extend its control over social media.

Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the vague wording of the law allows authorities to interpret violations and control the media.

“That power of interpretation has been a constant powerful legal and executive tool that was used to justify excessive aggressive and exceptional measures to go after journalists,” he told Reuters.

Hundreds of news sites and blogs have been blocked in recent months and around a dozen people have been arrested this year and charged with publishing false news, many of them journalists or prominent government critics.

 


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Classic 1965 Ford Mustang Given Self-driving Abilities

Scientists from Cranfield University in Britain have teamed up with the engineering firm Siemens to retro-fit a classic 1965 Ford Mustang with driverless technology. They recently tested it on a racetrack at the Goodwood Festival of Speed — considered the largest motoring garden party in the world. VOA’s Julie Taboh has more.


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Artificial Intelligence Cannot Replace Doctors, Can Work Alongside Them

Robots can do a lot of things people can do… but can they replace doctors? A London-based artificial intelligence company says its AI robot doctors can diagnose patients just as well as a human clinician. But some general practitioners say the service can never replicate the level of care given by human doctors. VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo reports.


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Twitter Suspends 2 Accounts in Mueller Indictments

Social networking site Twitter Saturday suspended two accounts linked to 12 Russian spies indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

On Friday, a federal grand jury charged the 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking Democratic computer networks in 2016 in the most detailed U.S. accusation yet that Moscow meddled in the election to help Republican Donald Trump.

Twitter said Saturday it had suspended the accounts @DCLeaks_ and @Guccifer_2 that were named in the indictment, which alleges a wide-ranging conspiracy involving sophisticated hacking and staged release of documents.

The indictment alleges that from around June 2016 the conspirators released tens of thousands of stolen emails and documents “using fictitious online personas, including ‘DCLeaks’ and ‘Guccifer 2.0.’”

In a statement Saturday, a Twitter spokesman said: “The accounts have been suspended for being connected to a network of accounts previously suspended for operating in violation of our rules.”

Twitter in recent months has purged suspicious user accounts in a bid to prevent the dissemination of fake news and “encourage healthy conversation,” the company said this month.

Friday’s indictment was the first by Mueller that directly charges the Russian government with meddling in the election. The Kremlin denies it interfered.

Speaking at a cybersecurity conference in Philadelphia on Saturday, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the indictments proved that the United States “will not tolerate interference with our democratic processes and that there will be consequences for foreign meddling.”


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Machine Transforms Household Trash into Fuel

British inventor Nik Spencer believes household garbage is a valuable and underrated resource. That’s because trash happens to be the perfect fuel for his latest invention: the Home Energy Resources Unit, or HERU. VOA’s Julie Taboh has more.


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