‘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)

European coronavirus app platform gains traction with governments

By Douglas Busvine

BERLIN (Reuters) – A European technology platform to support smartphone apps that can help trace people at risk of infection by the new coronavirus is gaining support from governments, one of its prime movers said on Friday.

Seven countries have either formally supported the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT https://www.pepp-pt.org) initiative or tasked one of its members with developing a national app, German tech entrepreneur Chris Boos told Reuters.

PEPP-PT has emerged as a leading proponent of the use of Bluetooth short-range communications between personal devices as a proxy for measuring the risk that a person infected with coronavirus can pass it on.

“A lot of larger countries have dedicated their app teams to build on top of what we’re supplying,” Boos, a co-initiator of PEPP-PT and founder of business automation startup Arago, said in an interview.

He listed Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Malta, Spain and Switzerland, adding that another 40 countries had registered and were in the process of being brought onboard.

More than 200 scientists and technologists are collaborating on PEPP-PT, conceived as the backbone for national apps that would comply with Europe’s strict privacy rules and be able to “talk” to each other across borders.

Technologists are rushing to devise digital methods to fight a disease that has infected more than 2 million people worldwide, 150,000 of whom have died.

Automating the assessment of who is at risk and telling them to see a doctor, get tested or self isolate, is seen by advocates as a way to speed up a painstaking task that typically entails phone calls and door knocks.

DATA PRIVACY

The approach is based on work https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/04/09/science.abb6936 by researchers at Oxford University’s Big Data Institute who argue that if 60% of a population uses such an app that would be enough to suppress the pandemic.

This would be tough to reach if apps are voluntary. But even with lower takeup one infection can be prevented by every 1 or 2 people using an app, Oxford’s Christophe Fraser told a separate video briefing.

A schism has however opened up among technologists around issues of data privacy, with some favouring decentralized approaches that do not host sensitive data on a main server over more centralized systems.

Boos said PEPP-PT could work in either setting. “Both models have their pros and cons … A country has to pick which system it needs.”

Italy has backed a contact tracing app developed by Milan startup Bending Spoons, a member of PEPP-PT, while Germany plans to roll out an app under development by the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute, another participant.

In France, the INRIA digital research institute is also working to develop an app based on PEPP-PT. “We are fully committed to make this pan-European initiative a success,” said INRIA head Bruno Sportisse.

PEPP-PT has faced criticism from supporters of a decentralized protocol called DP-3T , with early backer Marcel Salathe of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne publicly dissociating himself from it on Friday.

Boos said DP-3T still had a role to play. He also responded to criticism that PEPP-PT was too secretive, promising to publish its documentation for public review on Friday.

Friday’s briefing on video conferencing app Zoom was hacked by someone who posted racist comments. The case of so-called Zoom-bombing, Boos conceded, was a reminder of the need to make sure the PEPP-PT platform safe and secure.

(Reporting by Douglas Busvine; Editing by David Holmes)

‘Wild West’: Caution urged on facial recognition rollout in U.S. schools

Reuters
By Matthew Lavietes

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A lack of regulation about the use of facial recognition technology at U.S. schools has alarmed education officials and lawmakers who say more research is needed before rolling it out widely.

Schools are fertile territory for the technology as high-profile profile shootings in recent years have exacerbated officials’ and parents’ fears about safety, security experts said.

“Right now, it’s like the Wild West (when it comes to facial recognition technology),” said Mike Matranga, executive director of security at Texas City Independent School District, which has installed facial recognition software at all of its schools.

“Any tool in the hands of the wrong person, is bad. That’s why we have to have good policies in place,” Matranga told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The rise of cloud computing and AI technologies have popularised the use of facial recognition globally, from tracking criminals to unlocking smartphones.

But as cameras appear at unlikely spots across the globe, activists raise fears about lost privacy and say society might be on the doorstep of a dystopia where Big Brother sees all.

Two U.S. Democratic senators introduced a bill in February that would place a moratorium on federal use of facial recognition until lawmakers regulate it.

But regulation has yet to be introduced for its use in schools.

Proponents say the technology can enhance school security by identifying individuals deemed by schools or law enforcement as potential threats.

The software takes statistical measurements of people’s facial features.

It then compares them to databases of faces that schools have created – which typically include local sexual predators, students who have been expelled, parents who have lost custody of their children.

But critics argue facial recognition cameras have potential for abuse and should be thoroughly researched before rolling out the technology on minors.

“We shouldn’t be using our kids as guinea pigs,” said Monica Wallace, a New York state Democratic legislator.

Wallace introduced a bill late last year that would force schools in her state’s government to halt the use of facial recognition for a year. During that time, the bill proposes the State Education Department should study the technology thoroughly.

“Let’s not just take the vendors’ word that this is the best system in the world and that it’s going to keep our children safe. We have to look deeper into it,” said Wallace in a phone interview.

Schools should be investing in methods that have already been proven to promote safer environments, like promoting social and emotive learning, or hiring mental health counselors and security officers, she said.

ROLLOUT

But as state lawmakers weigh a vote on the bill, some schools in Wallace’s district have already implemented the technology.

Lockport City School District adopted facial recognition-equipped cameras early this year for safety reasons.

School district officials did not reply to several requests for comment.

Some school districts go further, using facial recognition to enforce disciplinary action.

When students are suspended at one of Texas City Independent School District’s, they are added to the system. If they are on school property during their suspension, the software alerts security officials.

Technology companies say it is beyond their control how schools use their products once a sale is completed.

“It’s really up to the schools to create the policy framework around how they’re going to use the technology,” said Mike Vance, senior director of product management at RealNetworks, one of the firms selling AI software to U.S. schools.

“The schools own all of the data and rules,” he added.

CONCERNS

Data privacy is a bone of contention for critics of schools using the technology, who warn that schools may not be equipped to stave off sophisticated hackers from stealing sensitive information.

“If someone steals your social security number, you can get a new one. You can’t get a new face,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights advocacy group.

While acknowledging potential risks, proponents say incorporating facial recognition for safety takes precedent while school officials wait for the U.S. government’s input.

“It may be years before they act,” said Matranga, referring to legislators. “By that time there could be several mass shootings that have taken place.”

There have been over 1,500 shootings at U.S. schools between 1970 and 2019, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database maintained by the Naval Postgraduate School, which is operated by the U.S. Navy.

School shootings in 2019 and 2018 were nearly four times as high as the average rate per year since researchers began collecting the information.

In one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, 26 people, including 20 children, were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012.

HOSTILE ENVIRONMENTS?

Jason Nance, a law professor at the University of Florida, has researched links between high-profile shootings and a trend of intensifying security at U.S. schools.

Increased surveillance can foster hostile environments that may lead to even more disorder, according to a report he published in 2016.

The report said strict security measures send a clear signal to students they are “dangerous, violent and prone to illegal activity”.

These practices also create a “school-to-prison pipeline” for students with a prior history of disobedience, Nance said in an interview.

“If that student misbehaves in some type of a slight manner because he or she is being watched very carefully, that student could be suspended again, expelled, or introduced to the justice system.”

U.S. college campuses are more reluctant than schools to introduce facial recognition technology, according to Fight for the Future.

The group got more than 50 prominent U.S. universities to commit to rule out facial recognition for surveillance on their campuses.

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) announced last month it had abandoned plans to install facial recognition surveillance systems on its campus, following a backlash by students.

Greer said the use of facial recognition technology should not be up to school officials alone.

“This should not be decided by some school official who maybe has their students’ best interest in mind, but might not have the expertise to know the potential harms of using technology like this,” said Greer.

“If left up to companies that make and sell this technology it would be everywhere,” Greer added.

(Reporting by Matthew Lavietes, Editing by Astrid Zweynert 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)

South Korean mother given tearful VR reunion with deceased daughter

By Minwoo Park

SEOUL (Reuters) – Wearing virtual reality goggles, Jang Ji-sung burst into tears as her 7-year-old daughter, Na-yeon, emerged from behind piles of wood in a neighborhood park, her playground until she died from blood-related diseases three years ago.

“Mom, where have you been? Have you been thinking of me?” Na-yeon said, prompting a choked-up Jang to reply: “Always.”

Jang tried to reach closer, only to see her hands penetrate the virtual figure wearing her daughter’s favorite violet dress and carrying a pink purse featuring Elsa and Anna, sisters from Disney’s animated musical “Frozen”.

“I really want to touch you just once,” Jang said, her voice and hands quivering. “I really missed you.”

The tearful reunion, aired last week in a documentary by South Korean broadcaster MBC, was made possible by virtual reality (VR) technology which embodied Na-yeon in a digital avatar modeled upon a child actor using photos and memories from her mother.

The documentary, entitled “Meeting You”, struck a chord with many South Koreans while highlighting the growing scope of the new technology beyond gaming.

“People would often think that technology is something that’s cold. We decided to participate to see if technology can comfort and warm your heart when it is used for people,” said Lee Hyun-suk, director of the Seoul-based VIVE Studios, who led the project.

Kim Jong-woo, who produced the documentary, said he focused on “remembering” Na-yeon instead of recreating her, so Jang and her family would feel as if her daughter had lived on.

For Jang, her last wish was to tell Na-yeon she loved her and has never forgotten her.

“It’s heartbreaking that her time has stopped at the age of 7,” Jang said, with a faint smile. “But I was so happy to see her that way.”

(Reporting by Minwoo Park and Dogyun Kim; Writing by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Older of two Colorado teens charged in deadly shooting rampage pleads not guilty

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – The older of two Colorado teens accused of a cocaine-fueled shooting spree that killed one classmate and wounded eight others at a Denver-area charter school, pleaded not guilty on Thursday to murder and attempted murder charges, prosecutors said.

Devon Erickson, 19, jailed without bond since the May 7 rampage, entered his plea in Douglas County District Court to all 44 felony counts against him, including conspiracy, weapons offenses and theft, a spokeswoman for District Attorney George Brauchler said in a statement.

Erickson’s lawyers also gave the court notice they will pursue a “mental health defense,” and the judge ruled the defendant must cooperate with any psychiatric examination ordered in the case, spokeswoman Vikki Migoya said in an email.

The judge ruled in September there was sufficient evidence for Erickson to stand trial in the attack.

Erickson is accused along with Alec McKinney, 16, of bursting into the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School they attended in Highlands Ranch, south of Denver, and opening fire with guns they stole from Erickson’s parents.

The pair were arrested after several fellow students tried to fight back, including 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo, who was killed. Eight students were wounded, one of them struck by errant gunfire from a private security guard.

Police say the two suspects had used an ax and crowbar to break into a safe containing the firearms they stole – three pistols and a .22-caliber rifle – and consumed cocaine before storming the school.

According to an arrest warrant affidavit, Erickson later told police he “didn’t want anyone to get shot” but the handgun he was carrying discharged when he was hit by the other students rushing him.

McKinney, who was born female but identifies as male, is alleged to have told investigators he was bullied at school for his transgender status and planned the attack out of revenge, enlisting Erickson to help him carry out the plot.

If convicted of first-degree murder, Erickson faces a life sentence without the possibility of parole, or the death penalty should prosecutors seek capital punishment.

McKinney, although charged as an adult, would face a maximum punishment of 40 years in prison because he was a juvenile when the crime was committed.

The attack occurred less than a month after the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in nearby Littleton, Colorado, where two students shot and killed 13 people before committing suicide.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Steve Gorman and Tom Brown)

U.S. companies facing worker shortage race to automate

U.S. companies facing worker shortage race to automate
By David Randall

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. companies are responding to the lowest unemployment rate in almost 50 years by increasing their focus on automation in order to maintain healthy margins as labor costs tick higher, a Reuters analysis of corporate earnings transcripts shows.

The attempt to save money through technology does not come down to just installing more robots in factories. Instead, companies appear to be confronting the lack of low-cost workers by investing in software and machines that can perform tasks ranging from human resources management to filling prescriptions.

Citigroup Inc, for instance, said that it is expanding its cloud infrastructure to replace routine tasks that used to require human labor. Health insurance company UnitedHealth Group told investors that its automation efforts should save the company over $1 billion next year. And Corona beer brewer Constellation Brands Inc said that its spending on automation should increase the efficiency in which it packs bottles in a variety pack, shaving costs.

Those investments are helping keep wage growth in line despite historically-low unemployment. Average hourly earnings were unchanged in October despite the unemployment rate falling to 3.5% from 3.7%, while the annual increase in wages fell slightly to 2.9%.

“I’m not at all worried about margin pressure from wages” because of increased productivity due to corporate spending on automation, said Jonathan Golub, chief U.S. equities strategist at Credit Suisse Securities.

Overall, companies have discussed automation on quarterly earnings calls more than 1,110 times since the beginning of the year, a 15% increase from this time last year and nearly double the mentions by this time in October, 2016, according to Refinitiv data. Corporate orders of robotics alone rose 7.2% over the first half of this year compared with 2018, totaling $869 million in spending, according to the Association for Advancing Automation.

Fund managers and analysts say that corporate spending on automation is contributing to positive earnings surprises. Nearly 83% of companies in the S&P 500 that have release third quarter earnings so far have reported earnings above expectations, compared with an average 65% beat rate since 1994, according to I/B/E/S data from Refinitiv.

“You’re seeing companies benefit in ways that aren’t easy to see when you look at the balance sheet, and all those investments start to add up and help protect margins,” said Matt Watson, a portfolio manager at James Investment Research.

Watson said that he is now buying companies that are benefiting from the use of automation because they trade at much more attractive valuations than the companies that provide it, which he is steering clear of.

FedEx Corp, for example, is investing in systems to both automate its shipping facilities and is testing robots that can handle some deliveries, he said. He is also buying shares of broker-dealer LPL Financial Holdings Inc, which is automating more of its client-relations platform to increase efficiency, he said.

“You don’t need to get into the nitty gritty when it’s back-of-the-napkin obvious that these companies are saving money” through increased productivity, Watson said.

The fastest-growing sectors of automation are in logistics and healthcare, said Jeremie Capron, head of research at ROBO Global, the company behind the $1.2-billion Robo Global Robotics & Automation ETF <ROBO.P>. The firm’s ETF is up nearly 20% for the year to date, in line with the performance of the benchmark S&P 500 index.

Capron sees the greatest opportunity in companies like Zebra Technologies Corp <ZBRA.O>, which makes radio-frequency identification device readers and real-time location systems that are used in hospitals and e-commerce fulfillment centers, he said. Shares of the company are up nearly 30% for the year to date.

Declining costs and a new generation of smaller systems should continue to push revenue growth in the sector, he said.

“We’ve hit the level where you don’t need great engineering skills to deploy automation because the software has made it so much easier to use,” he said. “You’re seeing not only large multi-national groups automate, but those technologies are increasingly available to smaller and mid-sized businesses.”

(Reporting by David Randall; Editing by Alden Bentley and Nick Zieminski)

Explainer: NASA aims to build on moon as a way station for Mars

FILE PHOTO: Tourists take pictures of a NASA sign at the Kennedy Space Center visitors complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida April 14, 2010. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Joey Roulette

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – Unlike the Apollo program that put astronauts on the moon 50 years ago, NASA is gearing up for a long term presence on Earth’s satellite that the agency says will eventually enable humans to reach Mars.

“Now, NASA is working to build a sustainable, open architecture that returns humanity to our nearest neighbor,” Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of the U.S. space agency, said in a statement to a Senate committee on Wednesday.

“We are building for the long term, going to the Moon to stay, and moving beyond to Mars.”

The next manned mission to the moon will require leaps in robotic technologies and a plan for NASA to work with private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to help cut the cost of space travel.

Using NASA’s Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket being built for a debut flight in late 2020, the agency is aiming to return humans to the moon by 2024 in an accelerated timeline set in March by the Trump administration.

No humans have launched from U.S. soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.

NASA officials say exploration of the moon and Mars are intertwined, with the moon becoming a testbed for Mars and providing an opportunity to demonstrate new technologies that could help build self-sustaining extraterrestrial outposts.

We are working right now, in fact, to put together a comprehensive plan on how we would conduct a Mars mission using the technologies that we will be proving at the moon,” Bridenstine told reporters on Monday, adding that a mission to the Red Planet could come as soon as 2033.

Technologies that can mine the moon’s subsurface water ice to sustain astronaut crews, but also to be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen for use as a rocket propellant, could be crucial for missions to Mars. The planet is reachable in months-long missions when at its closest orbital approach of 35.8 million miles from Earth’s utilization versus curiosity,” said roboticist and research professor at Carnegie Mellon University William Whittaker, comparing the Artemis program, as the new lunar mission has been dubbed, with Apollo. Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the moon in Greek mythology.

POLITICAL PRIORITIES

The last manned mission to the moon was almost a half-century ago in 1972, when Cold War-era tensions underscored President John F. Kennedy’s push to prove technologies that landed the first humans on the lunar surface.

“That’s 50 years of non-progress; I think we all ought to be a little ashamed that we can’t do better than that,” said Buzz Aldrin, who joined Neil Armstrong in walking on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Bridenstine said shifting political priorities were the key reason NASA had not returned to the surface of Earth’s natural satellite since then. “If it wasn’t for the political risk, we would be on the moon right now,” said the NASA chief, who is working to woo Republican and Democratic lawmakers to approve additional taxpayer funds for the program.

Development of NASA’s flagship rocket, Space Launch System, whose main contractor is Boeing Co, is taking years longer than expected with cost overruns of nearly $2 billion, a federal audit released in June found. Those delays could push the rocket&rsquo;s first launch to June 2021, potentially endangering NASA’s plan to reach the moon by 2024.

“Cost and schedule matter,” Bridenstine said. &ldquo;So we are working rapidly to put together a team that can assess the cost and schedule of these programs and create a realistic baseline that we can work toward.&rdquo;

Bridenstine, under mounting pressure to meet the White House’s 2024 deadline, demoted two longtime heads of NASA’s human exploration division last week in a slew of administrative shakeups amid dwindling congressional support for the lunar initiative.

Charlie Duke, who piloted the lunar-landing module during the last lunar mission, Apollo 16, said leadership in the Apollo missions was “bold without being careless.”

“Don’t be so risk-averse that you don’t fly,” he said.

He added that the decision to put astronauts on top of a massive Saturn V rocket, the launch vehicle used by NASA for the Apollo program, “was a very gutsy call. They went through it carefully and they determined it was OK.”

(Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Tom Brown)

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)

As companies embrace AI, it’s a tech job-seeker’s market

Students wait in line to enter the University of California, Berkeley's electrical engineering and computer sciences career fair in Berkeley, California, in September. REUTERS/Ann Saphir

By Ann Saphir

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Dozens of employers looking to hire the next generation of tech employees descended on the University of California, Berkeley in September to meet students at an electrical engineering and computer science career fair.

Boris Yue, 20, was one of thousands of student attendees, threading his way among fellow job-seekers to meet recruiters.

But Yue wasn’t worried about so much potential competition.  While the job outlook for those with computer skills is generally good, Yue is in an even more rarified category: he is studying artificial intelligence, working on technology that teaches machines to learn and think in ways that mimic human cognition.

His choice of specialty makes it unlikely he will have difficulty finding work. “There is no shortage of machine learning opportunities,” he said.

He’s right.

Artificial intelligence is now being used in an ever-expanding array of products: cars that drive themselves; robots that identify and eradicate weeds; computers able to distinguish dangerous skin cancers from benign moles; and smart locks, thermostats, speakers and digital assistants that are bringing the technology into homes. At Georgia Tech, students interact with digital teaching assistants made possible by AI for an online course in machine learning.

The expanding applications for AI have also created a shortage of qualified workers in the field. Although schools across the country are adding classes, increasing enrollment and developing new programs to accommodate student demand,  there are too few potential employees with training or experience in AI.

That has big consequences.

Students attend the University of California, Berkeley's electrical engineering and computer sciences career fair in Berkeley, California, in September. REUTERS/Ann Saphir

Students attend the University of California, Berkeley’s electrical engineering and computer sciences career fair in Berkeley, California, in September. REUTERS/Ann Saphir  Too few AI-trained job-seekers has slowed hiring and impeded growth at some companies, recruiters and would-be employers told Reuters. It may also be delaying broader adoption of a technology that some economists say could spur U.S. economic growth by boosting productivity, currently growing at only about half its pre-crisis pace.

Andrew Shinn, a chip design manager at Marvell Technology Group who was recruiting interns and new grads at UC Berkeley’s career fair, said his company has had trouble hiring for AI jobs.

“We have had difficulty filling jobs for a number of years,” he said. “It does slow things down.”

“COMING OF AGE”

Many economists believe AI has the potential to change the economy’s basic trajectory in the same way that, say, electricity or the steam engine did.

“I do think artificial intelligence is … coming of age,” said St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard in an interview. “This will diffuse through the whole economy and will change all of our lives.”

But the speed of the transformation will depend in part on the availability of technical talent.

A shortage of trained workers “will definitely slow the rate of diffusion of the new technology and any productivity gains that accompany it,” said Chad Syverson, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

U.S. government data does not track job openings or hires in artificial intelligence specifically, but online job postings tracked by jobsites including Indeed, Ziprecruiter and Glassdoor show job openings for AI-related positions are surging. AI job postings as a percentage of overall job postings at Indeed nearly doubled in the past two years, according to data provided by the company. Searches on Indeed for AI jobs, meanwhile increased just 15 percent. (For a graphic, please see https://tmsnrt.rs/2CEi4eG

Universities are trying to keep up. Applicants to UC Berkeley’s doctoral program in electrical engineering and computer science numbered 300 a decade ago, but by last year had surged to 2,700, with more than half of applicants interested in AI, according to professor Pieter Abbeel. In response, the school tripled its entering class to 30 in the fall of 2017.

At the University of Illinois, professor Mark Hasegawa-Johnson last year tripled the enrollment cap on the school’s intro AI course to 300. The extra 200 seats were filled in 24 hours, he said.

Carnegie Mellon University this fall began offering the nation’s first undergraduate degree in artificial intelligence. “We feel strongly that the demand is there,” said Reid Simmons, who directs CMU’s new program. “And we are trying to supply the students to fill that demand.”

Still, a fix for the supply-demand mismatch is probably five years out, says Anthony Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor. The company has algorithms that trawl job postings on company websites, and their data show AI-related job postings having doubled in the last 11 months. “The supply of people moving into this field is way below demand,” he said.

 

A JOB-SEEKER’S MARKET

The demand has driven up wages. Glassdoor estimates that average salaries for AI-related jobs advertised on company career sites rose 11 percent between October 2017 and September 2018 to $123,069 annually.

Michael Solomon, whose New York-based 10X Management rents out technologists to companies for specific projects, says his top AI engineers now command as much as $1000 an hour, more than triple the pay just five years ago, making them one of the company’s two highest paid categories, along with blockchain experts.

Liz Holm, a materials science and engineering professor at Carnegie Melon, saw the increased demand first-hand in May, when one of her graduating PhD students, who used machine learning methods for her research, was overwhelmed with job offers, none of which were in materials science and all of them AI-related. Eventually, the student took a job with Proctor & Gamble, where she uses AI to figure out where to put items on store shelves around the globe. “Companies are really hungry for these folks right now,” Holm said.

Mark Maybury, an artificial intelligence expert who was hired last year as Stanley Black and Decker’s first chief technology officer, agreed. The firm is embedding AI into the design and production of tools, he said, though he said details are not yet public.

“Have we been able to find the talent we need? Yes,” he said. “Is it expensive? Yes.”

The crunch is great news for job-seeking students with AI skills. In addition to bumping their pay and giving them more choice, they often get job offers well before they graduate.

Derek Brown, who studied artificial intelligence and cognitive science as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, got a full-time post-graduation job offer from Salesforce at the start of his senior year last fall. He turned it down in favor of Facebook, where he started this past July.

(Additional reporting by Jane Lee; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Sue Horton)

Massive U.S. defense policy bill passes without strict China measures

U.S. Army soldiers carry a large U.S. flag as they march in the Veterans Day parade on 5th Avenue in New York November 11, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Segar

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate passed a $716 billion defense policy bill on Wednesday, backing President Donald Trump’s call for a bigger, stronger military and sidestepping a potential battle with the White House over technology from major Chinese firms.

The Senate voted 87-10 for the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act or NDAA. The annual act authorizes U.S. military spending but is used as a vehicle for a broad range of policy matters as it has passed annually for more than 50 years.

Since it cleared the House of Representatives last week, the bill now goes to Trump, who is expected to sign it into law.

While the measure puts controls on U.S. government contracts with China’s ZTE Corp and Huawei Technologies Co Ltd because of national security concerns, the restrictions are weaker than in earlier versions of the bill.

This angered some lawmakers, who wanted to reinstate tough sanctions on ZTE to punish the company for illegally shipping products to Iran and North Korea.

In another action largely targeting China, the NDAA strengthens the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews proposed foreign investments to weigh whether they threaten national security.

Lawmakers from both parties have been at odds with the Republican Trump over his decision to lift his earlier ban on U.S. companies selling to ZTE, allowing China’s second-largest telecommunications equipment maker to resume business.

But with his fellow Republicans controlling both the Senate and House, provisions of the NDAA intended to strike back at Beijing and opposed by the White House were softened before Congress’ final votes on the bill.

Separately, the NDAA authorizes spending $7.6 billion for 77 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, made by Lockheed Martin Corp.

And it would prohibit delivery of the advanced aircraft to fellow NATO member Turkey at least until after the production of report, another measure that was stricter in earlier versions of the bill.

U.S. officials have warned Ankara that a Russian missile defense system Turkey plans to buy cannot be integrated into the NATO air and missile defense system. They are also unhappy about Turkey’s detention of an American pastor.

The fiscal 2019 NDAA was named to honor McCain, the Armed Services Committee chairman, war hero, long-time senator and former Republican presidential nominee, who has been undergoing treatment for brain cancer.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by James Dalgleish and David Gregorio)