‘Digital twins’ can help create healthier cities after coronavirus

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The use of new technologies, such as virtual reality, by planners to help design more sustainable and healthier cities has accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic, urban experts said on Friday.

The respiratory disease, which has infected more than 5 million people worldwide, has already triggered the widespread use of robots, drones and artificial intelligence to track the virus and deliver services.

Now, planners and authorities are also turning to new technologies – including so-called Digital Twins of cities, or virtual three-dimensional replicas – to tackle future health crises, said Michael Jansen, chief executive of Cityzenith, a Chicago-based technology firm.

“A Digital Twin that could track the progress of the virus in real-time is the perfect platform for aggregating and distributing information at scale in a crisis,” he said.

“Digital Twins would also help assess and implement economic recovery plans for affected cities and urban regions,” he said.

Virtual Singapore, a digital twin of the island city, models and simulates climate change, infrastructure planning and public health studies, and can be used in crisis management, a spokesman at the Government Technology Agency said.

Modeling a city’s street grids, transport networks, buildings and population can help planners predict how design changes would affect them, said Fabian Dembski, a researcher at the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart (HLRS).

“Cities are complex. But if we can simulate factors such as climate, air quality, traffic flow and movement of people, then planning decisions can be more efficient, equitable, and inclusive,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“But even these models and simulations do not capture human emotions, which play a big role in the success of urban design.”

EMOTIONAL RESPONSE

Dembski and other researchers built a digital twin of Herrenberg, a small city near Stuttgart in Germany.

They then invited residents to use an app to record their emotional responses to simulated scenarios in public spaces.

Using virtual reality, about 1,000 residents noted whether they felt comfortable, happy or unsafe in those areas.

“The idea was to see what they thought made a good public space, and use that data to support planners and architects to improve spaces where residents didn’t feel happy – like areas with heavy traffic or poor lighting,” Dembski said.

“As a planner, you don’t have that kind of information beforehand, and this is a democratic way to do it,” he said, adding that respondents included women, older people, migrants and people with disabilities who are otherwise excluded.

Digital Twins are particularly helpful for cities that are vulnerable to climate change, or are in environmentally fragile areas, as problems can be simulated to find solutions, he said.

Researchers are now modeling pandemics – which have affected urban planning decisions in the past – and also hope to simulate the effects of factors such as regional migration and gentrification on cities, Dembski said.

Technological tools such as Digital Twins “offer the possibility of testing a variety of different concepts,” said Thomas Sprissler, the mayor of Herrenberg.

“Considerably more innovative ideas can be tried out that might otherwise never be tested in reality,” he said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

How cat videos could cause a ‘climate change nightmare’

By Umberto Bacchi

TBILISI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A stone’s throw from a power station on the barren outskirts of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, a grey warehouse surrounded by metal containers hums to the sound of money.

Inside, hundreds of computer servers work continuously to solve complicated mathematical equations generating the digital currency Bitcoin – burning enough electricity to power tens of thousands of homes in the process.

“Any high-performance computing … is energy intensive,” explained Joe Capes of global blockchain company The Bitfury Group, which operates the facility in Tbilisi.

Cryptocurrencies are one of several new technologies, like artificial intelligence and 5G networks, that climate experts worry could derail efforts to tackle global warming by consuming ever-growing amounts of power.

Data centres processing and storing data from online activities, such as sending emails and streaming videos, already account for about 1% of global electricity use, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

That’s about the same amount of electricity that Australia consumes in a year.

But as societies become more digitalised, computing is expected to account for up to 8% of the world’s total power demand by 2030, according to some estimates, raising fears this could lead to the burning of more fossil fuels.

“If we don’t take into account the carbon footprint, we are going to have a climate change nightmare coming from information technology,” said Babak Falsafi, a professor of computer and communication science at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne.

EFFICIENT DATA

One solution is to improve the efficiency of data centres, which is something operators are naturally prone to do since electricity accounts for a large share of their running costs, according to data experts.

“As a rule of thumb, a megawatt costs a million dollars per year … This obviously catches management’s attention,” said Dale Sartor, who oversees the U.S. Department of Energy’s Center of Expertise for Data Centers in Berkeley, California.

Energy demand from data centres in the United States has remained largely flat over the past decade as improvements in computing have allowed processors to do more with the same amount of power, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

But that is set to change, predict tech analysts.

The 50-year-old trend known as Moore’s Law, which has seen computer chips double in capacity every two years, is expected to slow down as it becomes harder to add any more transistors to a chip.

Some companies have been looking at other ways to make savings.

In Georgia, where most electricity is generated by hydropower, Bitfury deployed a system to reduce the energy needed to cool down its heating servers.

Cooling can account for up to half of a data centre’s total energy use, the company says.

While some of its processors are still cooled with outside air, others are immersed inside metal tanks filled with a special liquid with a low boiling point.

As the liquid boils, the vapour transfers heat away from the processors, keeping them fresh and allowing the company to do away with fans and save water.

“Air is free … but it is not efficient,” explained Capes, who heads Bitfury’s liquid cooling technology subsidiary, adding that the system consumes 40% less electricity than traditional air cooling solutions.

Others have taken similar steps.

A Google data centre in Finland uses recycled seawater to reduce energy use while some companies have opened facilities near the Arctic Circle to benefit from naturally cold air.

But improving efficiency “can only get you so far”, said Elizabeth Jardim, a senior corporate campaigner at environmental group Greenpeace. “At some point you will have to address the type of energy that is powering the facility.”

Tech giants including Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft have committed to using only renewable energy but some still use fossil fuels, and more needs to be done to bring others on board, she said.

Jardim suggested governments enact policies to incentivise tech companies to procure green energy and increase transparency around the data sector’s carbon footprint.

LESS CAT VIDEOS

Meanwhile, internet users can also play a role by switching to greener companies or simply reducing their data use, said Jardim.

“Right now data pretty much is equivalent to energy, so the more data something takes the more energy you can assume it’s using,” she said.

Simply sending a photo by email can emit about the same amount of planet-warming gases as driving a car for a kilometre, said Luigi Carafa, executive director of the Climate Infrastructure Partnership, a Barcelona-based non-profit.

“The problem is we don’t really see this, so we don’t perceive it as a problem at all,” he said by phone.

A 2019 study by energy supplier OVO Energy found that if Britons sent one less email a day the country could reduce its carbon output by the equivalent of more than 81,000 flights from London to Madrid.

Global online video viewings alone generated as many carbon emissions as the whole of Spain in 2018, according to French think tank The Shift Project.

“People can already reduce their carbon emissions today if they stop watching cat videos,” said Falsafi, the Lausanne professor, who heads the university’s research centre for sustainable computing, EcoCloud.

“Unfortunately, they are neither aware of the issue nor incentivised to reduce carbon emissions.”

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Despite robot efficiency, human skills still matter at work

Despite robot efficiency, human skills still matter at work
By Caroline Monahan

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Artificial intelligence is approaching critical mass at the office, but humans are still likely to be necessary, according to a new study by executive development firm, Future Workplace, in partnership with Oracle.

Future Workplace found an 18% jump over last year in the number of workers who use AI in some facet of their jobs, representing more than half of those surveyed.

Reuters spoke with Dan Schawbel, the research director at Future Workplace and bestselling author of “Back to Human,” about the study’s key findings and the future of work.

Q: You found that 64% of people trust a robot more than their manager. What can robots do better than managers and what can managers do better than robots?

A: What managers can do better are soft skills: understanding employees’ feelings, coaching employees, creating a work culture – things that are hard to measure, but affect someone’s workday.

The things robots can do better are hard skills: providing unbiased information, maintaining work schedules, problem solving and maintaining a budget.

Q: Is AI advancing to take over soft skills?

A: Right now, we’re not seeing that. I think the future of work is that human resources is going to be managing the human workforce, whereas information technology is going to be managing the robot workforce. There is no doubt that humans and robots will be working side by side.

Q: Are we properly preparing the next generation to work alongside AI?

A: I think technology is making people more antisocial as they grow up because they’re getting it earlier. Yet the demand right now is for a lot of hard skills that are going to be automated. So eventually, when the hard skills are automated and the soft skills are more in demand, the next generation is in big trouble.

Q: Which countries are using AI the most?

A: India and China, and then Singapore. The countries that are gaining more power and prominence in the world are using AI at work.

Q: If AI does all the easy tasks, will managers be mentally drained with only difficult tasks left to do?

A: I think it’s very possible. I always do tasks that require the most thought in the beginning of my day. After 5 or 6 o’clock, I’m exhausted mentally. But if administrative tasks are automated, potentially, the work day becomes consolidated.

That would free us to do more personal things. We have to see if our workday gets shorter if AI eliminates those tasks. If it doesn’t, the burnout culture will increase dramatically.

Q: Seventy percent of your survey respondents were concerned about AI collecting data on them at work. Is that concern legitimate?

A: Yes. You’re seeing more and more technology vendors enabling companies to monitor employees’ use of their computers.

If we collect data on employees in the workplace and make the employees suffer consequences for not being focused for eight hours a day, that’s going to be a huge problem. No one can focus for that long. It’s going to accelerate our burnout epidemic.

Q: How is AI changing hiring practices?

A: One example is Unilever. The first half of their entry-level recruiting process is really AI-centric. You do a video interview and the AI collects data on you and matches it against successful employees. That lowers the pool of candidates. Then candidates spend a day at Unilever doing interviews, and a percentage get a job offer. That’s machines and humans working side-by-side.

(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Bernadette Baum)

China’s robot censors crank up as Tiananmen anniversary nears

People take pictures of paramilitary officers marching in formation in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Pe

By Cate Cadell

BEIJING (Reuters) – It’s the most sensitive day of the year for China’s internet, the anniversary of the bloody June 4 crackdown on pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square, and with under two weeks to go, China’s robot censors are working overtime.

Censors at Chinese internet companies say tools to detect and block content related to the 1989 crackdown have reached unprecedented levels of accuracy, aided by machine learning and voice and image recognition.

“We sometimes say that the artificial intelligence is a scalpel, and a human is a machete,” said one content screening employee at Beijing Bytedance Co Ltd, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to media.

Two employees at the firm said censorship of the Tiananmen crackdown, along with other highly sensitive issues including Taiwan and Tibet, is now largely automated.

Posts that allude to dates, images and names associated with the protests are automatically rejected.

“When I first began this kind of work four years ago there was opportunity to remove the images of Tiananmen, but now the artificial intelligence is very accurate,” one of the people said.

Four censors, working across Bytedance, Weibo Corp and Baidu Inc apps said they censor between 5,000-10,000 pieces of information a day, or five to seven pieces a minute, most of which they said were pornographic or violent content.

Despite advances in AI censorship, current-day tourist snaps in the square are sometimes unintentionally blocked, one of the censors said.

Bytedance and Baidu declined to comment, while Weibo did not respond to request for comment.

A woman takes pictures in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

A woman takes pictures in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

SENSITIVE PERIOD

The Tiananmen crackdown is a taboo subject in China 30 years after the government sent tanks to quell student-led protests calling for democratic reforms. Beijing has never released a death toll but estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand.

June 4th itself is marked by a cat-and-mouse game as people use more and more obscure references on social media sites, with obvious allusions blocked immediately. In some years, even the word “today” has been scrubbed.

In 2012, China’s most-watched stock index fell 64.89 points on the anniversary day, echoing the date of the original event in what analysts said was likely a strange coincidence rather than a deliberate reference.

Still, censors blocked access to the term “Shanghai stock market” and to the index numbers themselves on microblogs, along with other obscure references to sensitive issues.

While companies censorship tools are becoming more refined, analysts, academics and users say heavy-handed policies mean sensitive periods before anniversaries and political events have become catch-alls for a wide range of sensitive content.

In the lead-up to this year’s Tiananmen Square anniversary, censorship on social media has targeted LGBT groups, labor and environment activists and NGOs, they say.

Upgrades to censorship tech have been urged on by new policies introduced by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). The group was set up – and officially led – by President Xi Jinping, whose tenure has been defined by increasingly strict ideological control of the internet.

The CAC did not respond to a request for comment.

Last November, the CAC introduced new rules aimed at quashing dissent online in China, where “falsifying the history of the Communist Party” on the internet is a punishable offence for both platforms and individuals.

The new rules require assessment reports and site visits for any internet platform that could be used to “socially mobilize” or lead to “major changes in public opinion”, including access to real names, network addresses, times of use, chat logs and call logs.

One official who works for CAC told Reuters the recent boost in online censorship is “very likely” linked to the upcoming anniversary.

“There is constant communication with the companies during this time,” said the official, who declined to directly talk about the Tiananmen, instead referring to the “the sensitive period in June”.

Companies, which are largely responsible for their own censorship, receive little in the way of directives from the CAC, but are responsible for creating guidelines in their own “internal ethical and party units”, the official said.

SECRET FACTS

With Xi’s tightening grip on the internet, the flow of information has been centralized under the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department and state media network. Censors and company staff say this reduces the pressure of censoring some events, including major political news, natural disasters and diplomatic visits.

“When it comes to news, the rule is simple… If it is not from state media first, it is not authorized, especially regarding the leaders and political items,” said one Baidu staffer.

“We have a basic list of keywords which include the 1989 details, but (AI) can more easily select those.”

Punishment for failing to properly censor content can be severe.

In the past six weeks, popular services including a Netease Inc news app, Tencent Holdings Ltd’s news app TianTian, and Sina Corp have all been hit with suspensions ranging from days to weeks, according to the CAC, meaning services are made temporarily unavailable on apps stores and online.

For internet users and activists, penalties can range from fines to jail time for spreading information about sensitive events online.

In China, social media accounts are linked to real names and national ID numbers by law, and companies are legally compelled to offer user information to authorities when requested.

“It has become normal to know things and also understand that they can’t be shared,” said one user, Andrew Hu. “They’re secret facts.”

In 2015, Hu spent three days in detention in his home region of Inner Mongolia after posting a comment about air pollution onto an unrelated image that alluded to the Tiananmen crackdown on Twitter-like social media site Weibo.

Hu, who declined to use his full Chinese name to avoid further run-ins with the law, said when police officers came to his parents house while he was on leave from his job in Beijing he was surprised, but not frightened.

“The responsible authorities and the internet users are equally confused,” said Hu. “Even if the enforcement is irregular, they know the simple option is to increase pressure.”

(Reporting by Cate Cadell. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

Exclusive: Amazon rolls out machines that pack orders and replace jobs

FILE PHOTO: A 6-axis robotic arm picks up sorting containers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

By Jeffrey Dastin

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc is rolling out machines to automate a job held by thousands of its workers: boxing up customer orders.

The company started adding technology to a handful of warehouses in recent years, which scans goods coming down a conveyor belt and envelopes them seconds later in boxes custom-built for each item, two people who worked on the project told Reuters.

Amazon has considered installing two machines at dozens more warehouses, removing at least 24 roles at each one, these people said. These facilities typically employ more than 2,000 people.

That would amount to more than 1,300 cuts across 55 U.S. fulfillment centers for standard-sized inventory. Amazon would expect to recover the costs in under two years, at $1 million per machine plus operational expenses, they said.

The plan, previously unreported, shows how Amazon is pushing to reduce labor and boost profits as automation of the most common warehouse task – picking up an item – is still beyond its reach. The changes are not finalized because vetting technology before a major deployment can take a long time.

Amazon is famous for its drive to automate as many parts of its business as possible, whether pricing goods or transporting items in its warehouses. But the company is in a precarious position as it considers replacing jobs that have won it subsidies and public goodwill.

“We are piloting this new technology with the goal of increasing safety, speeding up delivery times and adding efficiency across our network,” an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement. “We expect the efficiency savings will be re-invested in new services for customers, where new jobs will continue to be created.”

Amazon last month downplayed its automation efforts to press visiting its Baltimore fulfillment center, saying a fully robotic future was far off. Its employee base has grown to become one of the largest in the United States, as the company opened new warehouses and raised wages to attract staff in a tight labor market.

A key to its goal of a leaner workforce is attrition, one of the sources said. Rather than lay off workers, the person said, the world’s largest online retailer will one day refrain from refilling packing roles. Those have high turnover because boxing multiple orders per minute over 10 hours is taxing work. At the same time, employees that stay with the company can be trained to take up more technical roles.

The new machines, known as the CartonWrap from Italian firm CMC Srl, pack much faster than humans. They crank out 600 to 700 boxes per hour, or four to five times the rate of a human packer, the sources said. The machines require one person to load customer orders, another to stock cardboard and glue and a technician to fix jams on occasion.

CMC declined to comment.

Though Amazon has announced it intends to speed up shipping across its Prime loyalty program, this latest round of automation is not focused on speed. “It’s truly about efficiency and savings,” one of the people said.

Including other machines known as the “SmartPac,” which the company rolled out recently to mail items in patented envelopes, Amazon’s technology suite will be able to automate a majority of its human packers. Five rows of workers at a facility can turn into two, supplemented by two CMC machines and one SmartPac, the person said.

The company describes this as an effort to “re-purpose” workers, the person said.

It could not be learned where roles might disappear first and what incentives, if any, are tied to those specific jobs.

But the hiring deals that Amazon has with governments are often generous. For the 1,500 jobs Amazon announced last year in Alabama, for instance, the state promised the company $48.7 million over 10 years, its department of commerce said.

PICKING CHALLENGE

Amazon is not alone in testing CMC’s packing technology. JD.com Inc and Shutterfly Inc have used the machines as well, the companies said, as has Walmart Inc, according to a person familiar with its pilot.

Walmart started 3.5 years ago and has since installed the machines in several U.S. locations, the person said. The company declined to comment.

Interest in boxing technology sheds light on how the e-commerce behemoths are approaching one of the major problems in the logistics industry today: finding a robotic hand that can grasp diverse items without breaking them.

Amazon employs countless workers at each fulfillment center who do variations of this same task. Some stow inventory, while others pick customer orders and still others grab those orders, placing them in the right size box and taping them up.

Many venture-backed companies and university researchers are racing to automate this work. While advances in artificial intelligence are improving machines’ accuracy, there is still no guarantee that robotic hands can prevent a marmalade jar from slipping and breaking, or switch seamlessly from picking up an eraser to grabbing a vacuum cleaner.

Amazon has tested different vendors’ technology that it may one day use for picking, including from Soft Robotics, a Boston-area startup that drew inspiration from octopus tentacles to make grippers more versatile, one person familiar with Amazon’s experimentation said. Soft Robotics declined to comment on its work with Amazon but said it has handled a wide and ever-changing variety of products for multiple large retailers.

Believing that grasping technology is not ready for prime time, Amazon is automating around that problem when packing customer orders. Humans still place items on a conveyor, but machines then build boxes around them and take care of the sealing and labeling. This saves money not just by reducing labor but by reducing wasted packing materials as well.

These machines are not without flaws. CMC can only produce so many per year. They need a technician on site who can fix problems as they arise, a requirement Amazon would rather do without, the two sources said. The super-hot glue closing the boxes can pile up and halt a machine.

Still other types of automation, like the robotic grocery assembly system of Ocado Group PLC, are the focus of much industry interest.

But the boxing machines are already proving helpful to Amazon. The company has installed them in busy warehouses that are driving distance from Seattle, Frankfurt, Milan, Amsterdam, Manchester and elsewhere, the people said.

The machines have the potential to automate far more than 24 jobs per facility, one of the sources said. The company is also setting up nearly two dozen more U.S. fulfillment centers for small and non-specialty inventory, according to logistics consultancy MWPVL International, which could be ripe for the machines.

This is just a harbinger of automation to come.

“A ‘lights out’ warehouse is ultimately the goal,” one of the people said.

(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; additional reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington and Josh Horwitz in Shanghai; editing by Greg Mitchell and Edward Tobin)

AI must be accountable, EU says as it sets ethical guidelines

FILE PHOTO: An activist from the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of non-governmental organisations opposing lethal autonomous weapons or so-called 'killer robots', protests at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, March, 21, 2019. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse/File Photo

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Companies working with artificial intelligence need to install accountability mechanisms to prevent its being misused, the European Commission said on Monday, under new ethical guidelines for a technology open to abuse.

AI projects should be transparent, have human oversight and secure and reliable algorithms, and they must be subject to privacy and data protection rules, the commission said, among other recommendations.

The European Union initiative taps in to a global debate about when or whether companies should put ethical concerns before business interests, and how tough a line regulators can afford to take on new projects without risking killing off innovation.

“The ethical dimension of AI is not a luxury feature or an add-on. It is only with trust that our society can fully benefit from technologies,” the Commission digital chief, Andrus Ansip, said in a statement.

AI can help detect fraud and cybersecurity threats, improve healthcare and financial risk management and cope with climate change. But it can also be used to support unscrupulous business practices and authoritarian governments.

The EU executive last year enlisted the help of 52 experts from academia, industry bodies and companies including Google, SAP, Santander and Bayer to help it draft the principles.

Companies and organizations can sign up to a pilot phase in June, after which the experts will review the results and the Commission decide on the next steps.

IBM Europe Chairman Martin Jetter, who was part of the group of experts, said guidelines “set a global standard for efforts to advance AI that is ethical and responsible.”

The guidelines should not hold Europe back, said Achim Berg, president of BITKOM, Germany’s Federal Association of Information Technology, Telecommunications, and New Media.

“We must ensure in Germany and Europe that we do not only discuss AI but also make AI,” he said.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee, additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan in London; editing by John Stonestreet, Larry King)

Ethical question takes center stage at Silicon Valley summit on artificial intelligence

FILE PHOTO: A research support officer and PhD student works on his artificial intelligence projects to train robots to autonomously carry out various tasks, at the Department of Artificial Intelligence in the Faculty of Information Communication Technology at the University of Malta in Msida, Malta February 8, 2019. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

By Jeffrey Dastin and Paresh Dave

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Technology executives were put on the spot at an artificial intelligence summit this week, each faced with a simple question growing out of increased public scrutiny of Silicon Valley: ‘When have you put ethics before your business interests?’

A Microsoft Corp executive pointed to how the company considered whether it ought to sell nascent facial recognition technology to certain customers, while a Google executive spoke about the company’s decision not to market a face ID service at all.

The big news at the summit, in San Francisco, came from Google, which announced it was launching a council of public policy and other external experts to make recommendations on AI ethics to the company.

The discussions at EmTech Digital, run by the MIT Technology Review, underscored how companies are making a bigger show of their moral compass.

At the summit, activists critical of Silicon Valley questioned whether big companies could deliver on promises to address ethical concerns. The teeth the companies’ efforts have may sharply affect how governments regulate the firms in the future.

“It is really good to see the community holding companies accountable,” David Budden, research engineering team lead at Alphabet Inc’s DeepMind, said of the debates at the conference. “Companies are thinking of the ethical and moral implications of their work.”

Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president for global affairs, said the internet giant debated whether to publish research on automated lip-reading. While beneficial to people with disabilities, it risked helping authoritarian governments surveil people, he said.

Ultimately, the company found the research was “more suited for person to person lip-reading than surveillance so on that basis decided to publish” the research, Walker said. The study was published last July.”

Kebotix, a Cambridge, Massachusetts startup seeking to use AI to speed up the development of new chemicals, used part of its time on stage to discuss ethics. Chief Executive Jill Becker said the company reviews its clients and partners to guard against misuse of its technology.

Still, Rashida Richardson, director of policy research for the AI Now Institute, said little around ethics has changed since Amazon.com Inc, Facebook Inc, Microsoft and others launched the nonprofit Partnership on AI to engage the public on AI issues.

“There is a real imbalance in priorities” for tech companies, Richardson said. Considering “the amount of resources and the level of acceleration that’s going into commercial products, I don’t think the same level of investment is going into making sure their products are also safe and not discriminatory.”

Google’s Walker said the company has some 300 people working to address issues such as racial bias in algorithms but the company has a long way to go.

“Baby steps is probably a fair characterization,” he said.

(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin and Paresh Dave in San Francisco; Editing by Greg Mitchell)

‘AI’ to hit hardest in U.S. heartland and among less-skilled: study

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Midwestern states hit hardest by job automation in recent decades, places that were pivotal to U.S. President Donald Trump’s election, will be under the most pressure again as advances in artificial intelligence reshape the workplace, according to a new study by Brookings Institution researchers.

The spread of computer-driven technology into middle-wage jobs like trucking, construction, and office work, and some lower-skilled occupations like food preparation and service, will also further divide the fast-growing cities where skilled workers are moving and other areas, and separate the high- skilled workers whose jobs are less prone to automation from everyone else regardless of location, the study found.

But the pain may be most intense in a familiar group of manufacturing-heavy states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa, whose support swung the U.S. electoral college for Trump, a Republican, and which have among the largest share of jobs, around 27 percent, at “high risk” of further automation in coming years.

At the other end, solidly Democratic coastal states like New York and Maryland had only about a fifth of jobs in the high-risk category.

The findings suggest the economic tensions that framed Trump’s election may well persist, and may even be immune to his efforts to shift global trade policy in favor of U.S. manufacturers.

“The first era of digital automation was one of traumatic change…with employment and wage gains coming only at the high and low ends,” authors including Brookings Metro Policy Program director Mark Muro wrote of the spread of computer technology and robotics that began in the 1980s. “That our forward-looking analysis projects more of the same…will not, therefore, be comforting.”

The study used prior research from the McKinsey Global Institute that looked at tasks performed in 800 occupations, and the proportion that could be automated by 2030 using current technology.

While some already-automated industries like manufacturing will continue needing less labor for a given level of output – the “automation potential” of production jobs remains nearly 80 percent – the spread of advanced techniques means more jobs will come under pressure as autonomous vehicles supplant drivers, and smart technology changes how waiters, carpenters and others do their jobs.

That would raise productivity – a net plus for the economy overall that could keep goods cheaper, raise demand, and thus help create more jobs even if the nature of those jobs changes.

But it may pose a challenge for lower-skilled workers in particular as automation spreads in food service and construction, industries that have been a fallback for many.

“This implies a shift in the composition of the low-wage workforce” toward jobs like personal care, with an automation potential of 34 percent, or building maintenance, with an automation potential of just 20 percent, the authors wrote.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Pentagon looks to exoskeletons to build ‘super-soldiers’

Keith Maxwell, Senior Product Manager of Exoskeleton Technologies at Lockheed Martin, demonstrates an Exoskeleton during a Exoskeleton demonstration and discussion, in Washington, U.S., November 29, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Army is investing millions of dollars in experimental exoskeleton technology to make soldiers stronger and more resilient, in what experts say is part of a broader push into advanced gear to equip a new generation of “super-soldiers.”

The technology is being developed by Lockheed Martin Corp with a license from Canada-based B-TEMIA, which first developed the exoskeletons to help people with mobility difficulties stemming from medical ailments like multiple sclerosis and severe osteoarthritis.

Worn over a pair of pants, the battery-operated exoskeleton uses a suite of sensors, artificial intelligence and other technology to aid natural movements.

For the U.S. military, the appeal of such technology is clear: Soldiers now deploy into war zones bogged down by heavy but critical gear like body armor, night-vision goggles and advanced radios. Altogether, that can weigh anywhere from 90 to 140 pounds (40-64 kg), when the recommended limit is just 50 pounds (23 kg).

“That means when people do show up to the fight, they’re fatigued,” said Paul Scharre at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), who helped lead a series of studies on exoskeletons and other advanced gear.

“The fundamental challenge we’re facing with infantry troops is they’re carrying too much weight.”

Lockheed Martin said on Thursday it won a $6.9 million award from the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center to research and develop the exoskeleton, called ONYX, under a two-year, sole-source agreement.

Keith Maxwell, Senior Product Manager of Exoskeleton Technologies at Lockheed Martin, speaks during a Exoskeleton demonstration and discussion, in Washington, U.S., November 29, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

Keith Maxwell, Senior Product Manager of Exoskeleton Technologies at Lockheed Martin, speaks during an Exoskeleton demonstration and discussion, in Washington, U.S., November 29, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

Keith Maxwell, the exoskeleton technologies manager at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, said people in his company’s trials who wore the exoskeletons showed far more endurance.

“You get to the fight fresh. You’re not worn out,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell, who demonstrated a prototype, said each exoskeleton was expected to cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

B-TEMIA’s medically focused system, called Keeogo, is sold in Canada for about C$39,000 ($30,000), company spokeswoman Pamela Borges said.

The United States is not the only country looking at exoskeleton technology.

Samuel Bendett at the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded U.S. research and development center, said Russia and China were also investing in exoskeleton technologies, “in parallel” to the U.S. advances.

Russia, in particular, was working on several versions of exoskeletons, including one that it tested recently in Syria, Bendett said.

The CNAS analysis of the exoskeleton was part of a larger look by the Washington-based think tank at next-generation technologies that can aid soldiers, from better helmets to shield them from blast injuries to the introduction of robotic “teammates” to help resupply them in war zones.

T

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. tech giants eye Artificial Intelligence key to unlock China push

A Google sign is seen during the WAIC (World Artificial Intelligence Conference) in Shanghai, China, September 17, 2018. REUTERS/Aly Song

By Cate Cadell

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – U.S. technology giants, facing tighter content rules in China and the threat of a trade war, are targeting an easier way into the world’s second-largest economy – artificial intelligence.

Google, Microsoft Inc and Amazon Inc showcased their AI wares at a state-backed forum held in Shanghai this week against the backdrop of Beijing’s plans to build a $400 billion AI industry by 2025.

China’s government and companies may compete against U.S. rivals in the global AI race, but they are aware that gaining ground won’t be easy without a certain amount of collaboration.

“Hey Google, let’s make humanity great again,” Tang Xiao’ou, CEO of Chinese AI and facial recognition unicorn Sensetime, said in a speech on Monday.

Amazon and Microsoft announced plans on Monday to build new AI research labs in Shanghai. Google also showcased a growing suite of China-focused AI tools at its packed event on Tuesday.

Google in the past year has launched AI-backed products including a translate app and a drawing game, its first new consumer products in China since its search engine was largely blocked in 2010.

The World Artificial Intelligence Conference, which ends on Wednesday, is hosted by China’s top economic planning agency alongside its cyber and industry ministries. The conference aims to show the country’s growing might as a global AI player.

China’s ambition to be a world leader in AI has created an opening for U.S. firms, which attract the majority of top global AI talents and are keen to tap into China’s vast data.

The presence of global AI research projects is also a boon for China, which aims to become a global technology leader in the next decade.

Liu He, China’s powerful vice premier and the key negotiator in trade talks with the United States, said his country wanted a more collaborative approach to AI technology.

“As members of a global village, I hope countries can show inclusive understanding and respect for each other, deal with the double-sword technologies can bring, and embrace AI challenges together,” he told the forum.

Beijing took an aggressive stance when it laid out its AI roadmap last year, urging companies, the government and military to give China a “competitive edge” over its rivals.

STATE-BACKED AI

Chinese attendees at the forum were careful to cite the guiding role of the state in the country’s AI sector.

“The development of AI is led by government and executed by companies,” a Chinese presenter said in between speeches on Monday by China’s top tech leaders, including Alibaba Holding Ltd chairman Jack Ma, Tencent Holdings Ltd chief Pony Ma and Baidu Inc CEO Robin Li.

While China may have enthusiasm for foreign AI projects, there is little indication that building up local AI operations will open doors for foreign firms in other areas.

China’s leaders still prefer to view the Internet as a sovereign project. Google’s search engine remains blocked, while Amazon had to step back from its cloud business in China.

Censorship and local data rules have also hardened in China over the past two years, creating new hoops for foreign firms to jump through if they want to tap the booming internet sector.

Nevertheless, some speakers paid tribute to foreign AI products, including Xiami Corp chief executive Lei Jun, who hailed Google’s Alpha Go board game program as a major milestone, saying he was a fan of the game himself.

Alibaba’s Ma said innovation needed space to develop and it was not the government’s role to protect business.

“The government needs to do what the government should do, and companies need to do what they should do,” he said.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Darren Schuettler)