Category Archives: Technology

silicon valley & technology news

Touching Objects in Virtual Reality Is Now Possible

Virtual reality allows the user to enter a different world through sight and sound. Several researchers and companies are adding a third element to the virtual experience: the sense of touch.

Researchers in haptics, meaning the feeling of touch, are incorporating this sense into virtual reality with real-world applications. 

French company Go Touch VR created a device called VRtouch that straps onto the fingertips. The device applies varying pressure to the fingertips that correlates to what the user is seeing, touching and lifting in the virtual world. 

“That will open enormous possibilities,” said Eric Vezzoli, co-founder of Go Touch VR.

Applications for the touch device include allowing users to undergo training in a safe virtual environment.

Vezzoli said strapping three of the VR touch devices on each hand — the thumb, forefinger and middle finger — are ideal.

“We can use up to six fingers. Why? Because three fingers are enough to manipulate light objects. For example, if you’re writing, you use just three fingers. But (in) VR, there’s no mass, there’s no weight. So, just three fingers is just enough,” Vezzoli said.

Training in virtual reality with the sense of touch may include surgical preparation in a medical procedure or learning in an industrial setting. A different application can be found in the advertising world.

“You can, for example, visit an apartment — virtual apartment. You can open a cabinet. You can touch the bed — feel its softness, and that generates a physical connection with the buyer that can increase the chance of sale,” said Vezzoli.

The company’s clients include the carmaker BMW. Go Touch VR hopes its haptic device will interest content producers, major corporations and the military, as virtual reality is more widely used in the real world.

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AI Can Read! Tech Firms Race to Smarten Up Thinking Machines

Seven years ago, a computer beat two human quizmasters on a Jeopardy challenge. Ever since, the tech industry has been training its machines even harder to make them better at amassing knowledge and answering questions.

And it’s worked, at least up to a point. Just don’t expect artificial intelligence to spit out a literary analysis of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace any time soon.

Research teams at Microsoft and Chinese tech company Alibaba reached what they described as a milestone earlier this month when their AI systems outperformed the estimated human score on a reading comprehension test. It was the latest demonstration of rapid advances that have improved search engines and voice assistants and that are finding broader applications in health care and other fields.

The answers they got wrong — and the test itself — also highlight the limitations of computer intelligence and the difficulty of comparing it directly to human intelligence.

Error! Error!

“We are still a long way from computers being able to read and comprehend general text in the same way that humans can,” said Kevin Scott, Microsoft’s chief technology officer, in a LinkedIn post that also commended the achievement by the company’s Beijing-based researchers.

The test developed at Stanford University demonstrated that, in at least some circumstances, computers can beat humans at quickly “reading” hundreds of Wikipedia entries and coming up with accurate answers to questions about Genghis Khan’s reign or the Apollo space program.

The computers, however, also made mistakes that many people wouldn’t have.

Microsoft, for instance, fumbled an easy football question about which member of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers got the most interceptions in the 2015 season (the correct answer was Kurt Coleman, not Josh Norman). A person’s careful reading of the Wikipedia passage would have discovered the right answer, but the computer tripped up on the word “most” and didn’t understand that seven is bigger than four.

“You need some very simple reasoning here, but the machine cannot get it,” said Jianfeng Gao, of Microsoft’s AI research division.

Human vs. machine

It’s not uncommon for machine-learning competitions to pit the cognitive abilities of computers against humans. Machines first bested people in an image-recognition competition in 2015 and a speech recognition competition last year, although they’re still easily tricked. Computers have also vanquished humans at chess, Pac-Man and the strategy game Go.

And since IBM’s Jeopardy victory in 2011, the tech industry has shifted its efforts to data-intensive methods that seek to not just find factoids, but better comprehend the meaning of multi-sentence passages.

Like the other tests, the Stanford Question Answering Dataset, nicknamed Squad, attracted a rivalry among research institutions and tech firms — with Google, Facebook, Tencent, Samsung and Salesforce also giving it a try.

“Academics love competitions,” said Pranav Rajpurkar, the Stanford doctoral student who helped develop the test. “All these companies and institutions are trying to establish themselves as the leader in AI.”

Limits of understanding

The tech industry’s collection and digitization of huge troves of data, combined with new sets of algorithms and more powerful computing, has helped inject new energy into a machine-learning field that’s been around for more than half a century. But computers are still “far off” from truly understanding what they’re reading, said Michael Littman, a Brown University computer science professor who has tasked computers to solve crossword puzzles.

Computers are getting better at the statistical intuition that allows them to scan text and find what seems relevant, but they still struggle with the logical reasoning that comes naturally to people. (And they are often hopeless when it comes to deciphering the subtle wink-and-nod trickery of a clever puzzle.) Many of the common ways of measuring artificial intelligence are in some ways teaching to the test, Littman said.

“It strikes me for the kind of problem that they’re solving that it’s not possible to do better than people, because people are defining what’s correct,” Littman said of the Stanford benchmark. “The impressive thing here is they met human performance, not that they’ve exceeded it.”

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China Online Quiz Craze Lures Prize Seekers, Tech Giants

It seems like a game everyone wins: Some of China’s biggest tech companies, looking to hook in new consumers, are using cash prizes to draw millions of contenders to mobile-based online quiz shows.

Up to 6 million people at a time log into the free, live games on their smartphones to answer a series of rapid-fire questions in an elimination battle, with those remaining sharing the prize money.

Over the weekend, search engine giant Baidu and video game maker NetEase launched their own online shows, joining news feed platform Toutiao, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd-owned UCWeb and Wang Sicong, the scion of Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin.

But how they will cash in on the games and stay on the right side of government censors might prove to be a tricky question.

The trivia games have drawn some controversy, heightened by a broader crackdown on online content during the last year under President Xi Jinping, from livestreams and blogs to a campaign against internet addiction.

This month, one quiz show, “Millions Winner,” backed by internet security company Qihoo 360, apologized after it was chastised by a regulator for listing Taiwan and Hong Kong, over which China claims sovereignty, as independent countries in a question.

How firms will monetize the craze is also not yet clear, though some companies, such as online retailer JD.com, have already jumped on the trend, sponsoring shows to help raise their profiles. Many of the games show ads to players during the shows.

“If you ask me why I do this, to be honest, I don’t really know if I can make money,” Zhou Hongyi, chairman of Qihoo, said at an event where he presented a contestant with a 1 million yuan ($156,115.84) prize check two weeks ago. “But from a user’s perspective, I think this is really fun.”

The quiz mania underlines the fierce appetite of China’s consumers for internet entertainment, a trend helping drive billions of dollars of investment into digital news portals, online gaming, internet advertising and television content.

“I heard about this game from a friend who won 1,700 yuan in one day. I immediately decided to join up myself,” Wang Ting, a 26-year-old graduate student in Qingdao, told Reuters. She now spends three hours each day on her phone playing the games.

Uncertain future

Questions, read by a live host, might include: “From which country were pineapples imported to China in the 16th century?” “In which dynasty was the lamb hot pot invented?” or “How many fingers does Mickey Mouse have?”

Contestants get 10 seconds — a time frame designed cut out cheating — to select the correct answer from a choice of three.

Winnings can be up to 3 million yuan per game, but are often split between many winners.

Toutiao parent Bytedance said that “millions of our users” had taken part in its live quiz “Million Dollar Hero” since the show launched at the start of January. It also has a tougher “Hero Game” with harder questions and bigger prizes.

“We’ve been running for just two weeks, so it’s still in the very early stages, but it’s encouraging to see how the game has taken off across the country, and with all age groups,” the company said in a statement to Reuters.

Toutiao, a highly popular news feed app, was valued at around $20 billion in a fundraising last year, sources close to the company told Reuters.

Raymond Wang, managing partner at Beijing law firm Anli Partners, said the shows were a “relatively low-cost way to get to users,” but cautioned there were political and technical risks.

Wang Ran, a prominent investor and head of Beijing-based private investment bank CEC Capital Group, posed a question on his WeChat account about the future of the online quiz show trend.

“A) Growing numbers will jump into the market. B) Someone will win 10 million yuan in one go. C) Authorities will strictly crack down on it. 10 seconds. Go!”

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Social Media Has Mixed Effect on Democracies, Says Facebook

Facebook took a hard look in the mirror with a post Monday questioning the impact of social media on democracies worldwide and saying it has a “moral duty” to understand how it is being used.

Over the past 18 months, the company has faced growing criticism for its limited understanding of how misinformation campaigns and governments are using its service to suppress democracy and make people afraid to speak out.

“I wish I could guarantee that the positives are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can’t,” wrote Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s product manager of civic engagement.

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook has been looking more critically at how it is being used. Some of what it found raises questions about company’s long-standing position that social media is a force for good in people’s lives.

In December, in a post titled “Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?” the company wrote about its potential negative effects on people.

The self-criticism campaign extended to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s personal goals. Each year he publicly resolves to reach one personal goal, which in the past included learning Mandarin, reading more books and running a mile every day.

This year, Zuckerberg said his goal is to fix some of the tough issues facing Facebook, including “defending against interference by nation states.”

Foreign Interference

During the 2016 U.S. election, Russian-based organizations were able to reach 126 million people in the U.S. with 80,000 posts, essentially using social media as “an information weapon,” wrote Chakrabarti. The company made a series of changes to make politics on its site more transparent, he wrote.

False News

Facebook is trying to combat misinformation campaigns by making it easier to report fake news and to provide more context to the news sources people see on Facebook.

“Even with these countermeasures, the battle will never end,” Chakrabarti wrote.

One of the harder problems to tackle, he said, are so-called “filter bubbles,” people only seeing news and opinion pieces from one point of view. Critics say some social media sites show people only stories they are likely to agree with, which polarizes public opinion.

One obvious solution – showing people the opposite point of view – doesn’t necessarily work, he wrote. Seeing contrarian articles makes people dig in even more to their point of view and create more polarizations, according to many social scientists, Chakrabarti said.

A different approach is showing people additional articles related to the one they are reading.

Reaction to Facebook’s introspection was mixed with some praising the company for looking at its blind spots. But not everyone applauded.

“Facebook is seriously asking this question years too late,” tweeted Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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Amazon Opens Store With No Cashiers, Lines or Registers

No cashiers, no lines, no registers — this is how Amazon sees the future of in-store shopping.

The online retailer opened its Amazon Go concept store to the public Monday, selling milk, potato chips and other items typically found at a convenience shop. Amazon employees have been testing the store, which is at the bottom floor of the company’s Seattle headquarters, for about a year.

The public opening is another sign that Amazon is serious about expanding its physical presence. It has opened more than a dozen bookstores, taken over space in some Kohl’s department stores and bought Whole Foods last year, giving it 470 grocery stores.

But Amazon Go is unlike its other stores. Shoppers enter by scanning the Amazon Go smartphone app at a turnstile. When they pull an item of the shelf, it’s added to their virtual cart. If the item is placed back on the shelf, it is removed from the virtual cart. Shoppers are charged when they leave the store.

The company says it uses computer vision, machine learning algorithms and sensors to figure out what people are grabbing off its store shelves.

Amazon says families can shop together with just one phone scanning everyone in. Anything they grab from the shelf will also be added to the tab of the person who signed them in. But don’t help out strangers: Amazon warns that grabbing an item from the shelf for someone else means you’ll be charged for it.

At about 1,800 square feet, the store will also sell ready-to-eat breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Items from the Whole Foods 365 brand are also stocked, such as cookies, popcorn and dried fruit.

The company had announced the Amazon Go store in December 2016 and said it would open by early 2017, but it delayed the debut while it worked on the technology and company employees tested it out.

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US Tests Nuclear Power System to Sustain Astronauts on Mars

Initial tests in Nevada on a compact nuclear power system designed to sustain a long-duration NASA human mission on the inhospitable surface of Mars have been successful and a full-power run is scheduled for March, officials said on Thursday.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration and U.S. Department of Energy officials, at a Las Vegas news conference, detailed the development of the nuclear fission system under NASA’s Kilopower project.

Months-long testing began in November at the energy department’s Nevada National Security Site, with an eye toward providing energy for future astronaut and robotic missions in space and on the surface of Mars, the moon or other solar system destinations.

A key hurdle for any long-term colony on the surface of a planet or moon, as opposed to NASA’s six short lunar surface visits from 1969 to 1972, is possessing a power source strong enough to sustain a base but small and light enough to allow for transport through space.

“Mars is a very difficult environment for power systems, with less sunlight than Earth or the moon, very cold nighttime temperatures, very interesting dust storms that can last weeks and months that engulf the entire planet,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

“So Kilopower’s compact size and robustness allows us to deliver multiple units on a single lander to the surface that provides tens of kilowatts of power,” Jurczyk added.

Testing on components of the system, dubbed KRUSTY, has been “greatly successful — the models have predicted very well what has happened, and operations have gone smoothly,” said Dave Poston, chief reactor designer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Officials said a full-power test will be conducted near the middle or end of March, a bit later than originally planned.

NASA’s prototype power system uses a uranium-235 reactor core roughly the size of a paper towel roll.

President Donald Trump in December signed a directive intended to pave the way for a return to the moon, with an eye toward an eventual Mars mission.

Lee Mason, NASA’s principal technologist for power and energy storage, said Mars has been the project’s main focus, noting that a human mission likely would require 40 to 50 kilowatts of power.

The technology could power habitats and life-support systems, enable astronauts to mine resources, recharge rovers and run processing equipment to transform resources such as ice on the planet into oxygen, water and fuel. It could also potentially augment electrically powered spacecraft propulsion systems on missions to the outer planets.

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Move Over Traditional Billboards. Make Way for 3-D Holographic Ads

Move over traditional billboards. Three-dimensional, slightly hypnotic holograms may soon replace two-dimensional signs and ads. Several companies with this technology said 3-D holograms will revolutionize the way businesses and brands talk to potential customers.

“It’s already replacing billboards, LED screens, LCD screens, because there hasn’t been any revolution in the display industry for decades,” said Art Stavenka, founder of Kino-mo, a company with offices in London and Belarus. 

The main hardware of the technology is a blade that emits a strip of light creating holograms of images and words. Multiple blades can be synchronized for larger holograms.

“As soon as this piece of hardware spins, you stop seeing hardware and you start seeing (a) hologram, and the piece of hardware spins fast enough so a human eye does not see any rotation, and it sees the amazing holographic image,” said Stavenka.

Another company developing this type of device is Hologruf, with a presence in both the U.S. and China. 

“In the not so distant future on every street corner, there will be these types of ad displays just like in a science fiction movie,” said Hologruf’s Quan Zhou. 

The applications for 3-D holographic displays include shopping centers, train stations and restaurants. 

For franchises such as fast food restaurants that want these displays in more than one location, “they have the capability to manage multiple devices around the world from a central location,” said Hologruf’s co-founder, Ted Meng. 

The cost of a blade ranges anywhere from around $1,300 to just over $3,000, depending on the manufacturer. 

The competition has begun for this technology. Kino-mo has customers in 50 countries on almost every continent. It will be releasing an outdoor version sometime in 2018. Hologruf said it already has a product to replace outdoor billboards.

“We can make it to be water proof, wind proof and work under all kinds of extreme environmental conditions,” said Zhou.

So what would Tokyo or Times Square in New York look like in a few years? Stay tuned.

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Traditional Billboards Make Way for 3-D Holographic Ads

Those two-dimensional billboards that dot the landscape of many cities around the world may soon be replaced — with 3-D holograms. Companies working on this technology say it will revolutionize the way businesses and brands talk to potential customers. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee got a glimpse of advertising’s future at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

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