Gizmocrazed – Future Technology News Artificial Intelligence, Medical Breakthroughs, Virtual Reality Mon, 22 Jan 2018 05:32:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Amazon Go app is now available ahead of cashier-less store opening Mon, 22 Jan 2018 05:32:14 +0000 Amazon Go app is now available ahead of cashier-less store opening
A new type of store is opening in Seattle with Amazon Go’s app-enabled technology.

Image: amazon

At Amazon’s new grocery store of the future you need an app just to get into the store.

Amazon Go is opening its first physical location for the grocery-shopping public in Seattle on Monday. But before any shoppers can start stuffing bags full of groceries and simply walk out the door, they’ll have to download an app.

The Amazon Go shopping app is available through the Apple App Store, Google Play, and Amazon’s own Appstore, and people are already peeking at what it does. 

Already many reviews have come in about the app, including this beta user who’s all in: “The app is pretty basic. The overall experience is pretty magical. I find myself wishing that every store had the same Just Walk Out technology. Unfortunately, downloading this app does not enable you to skip the checkout line at your local grocer (they will call that shoplifting).”

Anyone can download the app, but it’s only useful for Seattle shoppers once the grab-and-go shop opens Monday morning. For those who plan on heading down, the app gives you access into the store (you won’t make it past the entry point without it) and then sends you a receipt of all the items you walked out with. (A New York Times reporter attempted to shoplift but didn’t get past the all-seeing eyes of Amazon.)

The app serves as a cashier of sorts since there’ll be no humans scanning your groceries. But it’s not all computers and cameras in the store. The same shoplifting NYT reporter said attendants are scattered throughout the store to help with any problems or questions, and a human will be checking IDs for alcohol purposes.

So apps and robots haven’t replaced us quite yet. But as one reviewer succinctly wrote, “Welcome to the future.”

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Sphero lays off dozens as it shifts focus to education Mon, 22 Jan 2018 05:31:12 +0000 Sphero lays off dozens as it shifts focus to education

Sphero was ready to conquer the world last year. The company quintupled its product release schedule, flying high with the help of a Disney licensing deal that gave the world several Star Wars droids and talking Spider-Man and Lightning McQueen robots.

But following a holiday season that failed to live up to expectations, the company recently laid off 45 staff members globally, TechCrunch has learned, a move it says has impacted departments company-wide.

The majority of the layoffs were centered in the company’s Colorado headquarters, but staff cuts also affected its global offices in the U.K. and Hong Kong. 

“We restructured our team on Friday to better align with our product needs,” a spokesperson for the company told TechCrunch. “As we look to our product development schedule for 2018 and beyond, we weren’t going to go that deep, so we had to make some changes for how the teams were structured.”

The move is a step back for the company and a bit of a surprise for those who have been following its trajectory from afar. After participating in Disney’s accelerator back in 2014, the hardware startup got a small investment from the entertainment goliath and began production on a BB-8 toy released alongside 2015’s blockbuster Star Wars return, The Force Awakens.

In 2017 alone, the company released new toys based on R2D2, The Last Jedi‘s BB-9E, Spider-Man and Pixar’s Cars franchise, along with Sphero Mini, a smaller, sub-$50 version of the smartphone controlled ball that started it all. 

The startup had bolstered its headcount to meet the demands of its much accelerated output.

It’s telling, of course, that the layoffs come so soon after the holidays. While not disastrous, the finally tally pointed to the need for a rethink in strategy going forward. “[Sales weren’t] exactly what we had expected,” the spokesperson said. “We still consider ourselves a young startup. It’s the right time to pivot.”

The decrease comes as it shifts toward a product roadmap more in line with the pre-2017 days — putting it at closer to one to two products per year. “That might be our sweet spot,” the spokesperson added. “We’re still pretty young, but the one part of our business that continues to shine is what we’re doing in education. This allows our company to focus on that vision.”

This restructuring finds Sphero investing much more of its existing resources into the education side of its business. The company has been operating in the category for some time, leveraging its hardware creations in an offering designed to target schools, but that side has largely taken a backseat to Sphero’s more commercial offerings until now. 

Educational robotics — STEM/STEAM specifically — is an extremely competitive space, as well. CES last week was overloaded with companies big and small pushing into the category with a variety of different platforms, and from the looks of things, next month’s Toy Fair in New York won’t be much different. 

Sphero Spider-Man

But Sphero has the marked advantage of building on top of its own popular robotics platform. In fact, it ran popular pilot programs in its native Colorado that garnered coverage in places like Wired and The New Yorker last year and in 2016.

The company’s SPRK+ Education offers educators and parents a platform for teaching coding and robotics. Sphero’s package lets kids program its connected toys through coding, offering a real world robotics platform on the cheap.

“[Education] is something we can actually own,” the company’s spokesperson says hopefully. “Where we do well are those experiences we can 100-percent own, from inception to go-to-market.”

Sphero co-founder and CTO Ian Bernstein also recently left the company to spin out out a new startup, Misty Robotics. It isn’t designed to be a direct competitor, focusing instead on home assistant robotics, but former staffers did join Bernstein at the new company. Misty will also have its own programmable robot, though its offering, the Misty I, is focused primarily on adult developers.

Robotic Implants Could Help Remedy a Rare Birth Defect Mon, 22 Jan 2018 03:40:29 +0000 Robotic Implants Could Help Remedy a Rare Birth Defect

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Robots are finding new ways to get under our skin, and that’s a good thing.

Lab-grown organs are carving their place in medicine, as scientists can today grow miniature brains, kidneys and more in the lab to conduct research or even treat patients. In fact, in 2011, doctors successfully transplanted the first lab-grown organ—a trachea— into a cancer patient who needed theirs removed. But growing custom organs from a patient’s stem cells is neither cheap nor simple, and it may not be the ideal solution in all cases. It sounds straight out of science-fiction, but robotic surgeons, toiling away while embedded in the body, could offer an alternative means to regenerate tissues rather than growing them from scratch.

Recently, an international team of researchers brought the future of in vivo robotic surgeons closer to the present day. In a study published Wednesday in Science Robotics, scientists and engineers built a robotic implant that could someday offer a viable solution to a rare, but potentially fatal, birth defect.

Bridging the Gap

Long-gap esophageal atresia (LEA) is a rare birth defect that affects roughly 1 in 4,000 babies born in the United States. These children enter the world without a complete esophagus, and they need to be fed through a tube until their condition is remedied. In most cases, children undergo a treatment called the Foker process. A surgeon ties sutures to the upper and lower disconnected segments of the esophagus, keeping the knots outside of the body. Over the span of a few weeks, the surgeon increases the tension on the sutures, slowly stretching the esophagus segments. Over time, the esophagus segments grow and they are then attached. While the esophagus grows, children are sedated and placed on a ventilator to ensure they remain motionless.

Researchers believe they can simplify this process with a tiny robot housed in the human body, attached to the organ it is stretching. This robotic assistant would be sown to the esophagus and do the job of the surgeon—steadily providing tension to grow tissue.


To test their device, researchers designed an experimental procedure that was tested in pigs. The researchers left the esophagus intact and just lengthened it to simplify the procedure—they just wanted to see if it could work safely. Indeed, the organ lengthened—new tissues and cells grew— but didn’t stretch, which is exactly what researchers were looking for. This is significant, noted Dr. Pierre Dupont of Boston Children’s Hospital and an author on the study, because previous methods for repairing tubular organs couldn’t coax cells to proliferate and generate new tissue.

What’s more, the pigs remained awake, mobile and even gained a few pounds while the robot assistants did their job. Researchers believe their device, if it’s used in humans, could allow children to remain awake during an organ lengthening treatment. Dupont says their robotic device was designed with “intelligence and adaptability” and automatically applies force only when it’s safe. When the pigs were eating, for example, the robot would take a break; it would jump into action when the pigs rested. That removes the delicate manual labor involved with adjusting the position of the organ and sutures inside the patient.

While the method has been demonstrated successfully in the pig esophagus the team is now moving on to the guts to test their robots’ ability to treat short bowel syndrome.

“Bowel growth is a big market,” says Dupont. He and his fellow researchers have targeted this area of medicine because the expenses for the procedure are high. “The bowel is a more multifunctional and complex organ,” said Dupont. Therefore, more factors need to be taken into consideration when growing the new tissue.

Space Photos of the Week: *You* Just Try to Snap a Pic at 100,000 MPH Mon, 22 Jan 2018 02:53:13 +0000 Space Photos of the Week: *You* Just Try to Snap a Pic at 100,000 MPH

Say hello to Jupiter’s south pole! The Juno spacecraft snapped this photo during its tenth orbit around the planet, all while speeding at over 100,000 miles per hour. The cyclones and storms in this image are highlighted in false color, and while they might appear lovely and small—they’re not! Some of these storms are bigger than entire continents on Earth.

What is this alien landscape? This is Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. A hotbed (coldbed, really) of alien chemistry, this moon is covered with lakes and rivers—but not like we have here on Earth. Titan is covered in lakes mixed with methane, ethane, and nitrogen, which is what we see here in this image of Titan’s second largest lake, Ligeia Mare.

Are you gobsmacked? Believe it or not, this is Jupiter, the same planet whose south pole we just flew under. In this mind-blowing photo, Jupiter’s famous bands are on full display. Textures in the cloud tops highlight the depths of the storms—some that go many miles below the upper atmosphere. Juno took this photo on December 16, during its most recent orbit.

This glittering image is of galaxy cluster Abell 1758. This massive cluster was first discovered in 1958 (hence the last two numbers in its name) and was first thought to be a single cluster—just an especially large one. It wasn’t until scientists took another look 40 years later that they realized it was actually two clusters. Each one contains hundreds of galaxies, and while they seem so quaint and illuminating in this image, these two massive clusters are just beginning to merge together.

Welcome to globular star cluster NGC 3201. From this distant vantage point, the cluster almost seems like one single star, speckled with the dust of starlight around it. The European Southern Observatory captured this photo as a part of its Digitized Sky Survey 2, an atlas of the sky that astronomers use to study the stars. We’re still so far away—let’s get a bit closer!

That’s better. Now that we’ve zoomed in on cluster NGC 3201, we can begin to make out the specks of individual stars. Clusters like these, some of the oldest known objects in the universe, contain millions of stars. This particular cluster is 16,000 light years from Earth and is so large its mass is equivalent to 254,000 times that of our sun.

It’s Hubble’s turn to spy on NCG 3201. This close up image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, appears almost as though the camera is inside the cluster of stars. We’re now close enough to see the color of stars: blue, white, and orange. Just this week, scientists using the Very Large Telescope in Chile discovered a black hole in NGC 3201—the first stellar mass black hole found in a cluster of this kind.

Inside Amazon’s surveillance-powered no-checkout convenience store Sun, 21 Jan 2018 15:01:18 +0000 Inside Amazon’s surveillance-powered no-checkout convenience store

By now many have heard of Amazon’s most audacious attempt to shake up the retail world, the cashless, cashierless Go store. Walk in, grab what you want, and walk out. I got a chance to do just that recently, as well as pick the brain of one of its chief architects.

My intention going in was to try to shoplift something and catch these complacent Amazon types napping. But it became clear when I went in that this wasn’t going to be an option. I was never more than a foot or two from an Amazon PR rep, and as Dilip Kumar, the projects VP of Technology, convinced me, they’d already provided against such crude attacks on their system.

As you might have seen in the promo video, you enter the store (heretofore accessible to Amazon employees only) through a gate that opens when you scan a QR code generated by the Amazon Go app on your phone. At this moment (well, actually the moment you entered or perhaps even before) your account is associated with your physical presence and cameras begin tracking your every move.

The many, many cameras.



I wondered when the idea of Amazon’s cashierless store was first proposed how it would be accomplished. Cameras on the ceiling, behind the display cases, on pedestals? What kind? Proximity and weight sensors, face recognition? Where would this all be collated and processed?

Amazon’s approach wasn’t as complex as I expected, or rather not in the way I expected. Mainly the system is made up of dozens and dozens of camera units mounted to the ceiling, covering and recovering every square inch of the store from multiple angles. I’d guess there are maybe a hundred or so in the store I visited, which was about the size of an ordinary bodega or gas station mart.

These are ordinary RGB cameras, custom made with boards in the enclosure to do some basic grunt computer vision work, presumably things like motion detection, basic object identification, and so on.

They’re augmented by separate depth-sensing cameras (using a time-of-flight technique, or so I understood from Kumar) that blend into the background like the rest, all matte black.

The images captured from these cameras are sent to a central processing unit (for lack of a better term, not knowing exactly what it is), which does the real work of quickly and accurately identifying different people in the store and objects being picked up or held. Picking something up adds it to your “virtual shopping cart,” and you can pop it in a tote or shopping bag as fast as you like. No need to hold it up for the system to see.






This is where the secret sauce is, Kumar told me, and I believe him. As banal a problem as it may seem to determine which similarly dressed person picked up which nearly identical yogurt cup, it’s very difficult to get right at the speed and accuracy level needed in order to base an entire business on it.

A student, after all, with the resources available these days, could probably design a version of this store in a few weeks that would work 80 percent of the time. But to get it right 99.9 percent of the time, frictionlessly and instantly, is a challenge that requires a great deal of work.

Notably, there is no facial recognition used (I asked). Amazon perhaps sensed early on that this would earn them rebuke from privacy-conscious shoppers, though the idea of those people coming to this store strikes me as unlikely. Instead, the system uses other visual cues and watches for continuity between cameras — you’re never not in sight of a lens, so it’s easy for the system to see a shopper move from one camera to another and make the connection.

Should there be a technical problem with a camera or it gets sauce on its lens somehow, the system doesn’t break down entirely. It’s been tested with cameras missing, though naturally it wouldn’t be long before a replacement is put in place and the system re-re-calibrates.

In addition to the cameras, there are weight sensors in the shelves, and the system is aware of every item’s exact weight — so no trying to grab two yogurts at once and palm the second, as I considered trying. You might be able to do it Indiana Jones style, with a suitable amount of sand in a sack, but that’s more effort than most shoplifters are willing to put out.

And, as Kumar noted to me, most people aren’t shoplifters, and the system is designed around most people. Building a system that assumes ill intent rather than merely detecting discrepancies is not always a good design choice.

There is in fact a human in the loop should the system find itself in a bind, but Kumar said this was rare enough that it hardly needed to be considered. He also said that the difficulty of monitoring the store doesn’t increase with square footage, though of course you’ll need more cameras and more processing power.

It’s also been tested with serious crowds; we were there during a slow time in the mid-afternoon, but shortly before that was the lunch rush, they told me, when dozens rather than a handful of people could be found walking in and out without doing anything more than showing their phone to a sensor at the entrance.

There may not be cashiers, but there are staff: stockers who replenish inventory; an ID checker (and erstwhile sommelier I’m sure) in the wine and beer section, and chefs in the back throwing together fresh sandwiches and meal kits. Someone also hovers in the entrance area to help people with the app, answer questions, and take returns.

The selection was mainly grab-and-go lunches and snacks, with the usual handful of household items you grab at the bodega on the way home. Prices were what you’d expect at a supermarket rather than a convenience store, though.

As for the expected Amazon gambits that leverage its existing properties and hooks, few are to be found. The app is self-contained, and your purchases are tracked there rather than on your “main” Amazon account. Prime members don’t get lower prices. Whole Foods has a little section of its own but there’s no broader partnership (and no plans to convert any of those stores to Go, though I can’t imagine why not).

Overall I’m impressed with the seamlessness of the system, and I can see these things successfully operating here and there.

On the philosophical side, I’m troubled, of course — a convenience store you just walk out of is a friendly mask on the face of a highly controversial application of technology: ubiquitous personal surveillance.

It’s a bit overkill, I think, to replace a checker or self-checkout stand with a hundred cameras that unblinkingly record every tiny movement. What’s to gain? 20 or 30 seconds of your time back? Lack of convenience has hardly been a complaint for this market — it’s right there in the name: “convenience store.”

Like so many ways companies are applying tech today, this seems to me an immense amount of ingenuity and resources being used to “solve” something that few people care about and fewer still consider a problem. As a technical achievement it’s remarkable, but then again, so is a robotic dog.

The store works — that much I can say for it. Where Amazon will take it from here I couldn’t say, nor would anyone respond meaningfully to my questions along these lines. Amazon Go will be open to the public starting this week, but whether anyone will find it to be anything more than a novelty is yet to be seen.

NASA Just Proved It Can Navigate Space Using Pulsars. Where to Now? Sun, 21 Jan 2018 14:53:16 +0000 NASA Just Proved It Can Navigate Space Using Pulsars. Where to Now?

Half a century ago, astronomers observed their first pulsar: a dead, distant, ludicrously dense star that emitted pulses of radiation with remarkable regularity. So consistent was the object’s signal that astronomers jokingly nicknamed it LGM-1, short for “little green men.”

It wasn’t long before scientists detected more signals like LGM-1. That decreased the odds that these pulses of radiation were the work of intelligent extraterrestrials. But the identification of other pulsars presented another possibility: Perhaps objects like LGM-1 could be used to navigate future missions to deep space. With the right sensors and navigational algorithms, the thinking went, a spacecraft could autonomously determine its position in space by timing the reception of signals from multiple pulsars.

The concept was so beguiling that, when designing the gold plaques aboard the Pioneer spacecraft, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake chose to map the location of our solar system relative to 14 pulsars. “Even then, people knew that pulsars could act like beacons,” says Keith Gendreau, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. But for decades, pulsar navigation remained a tantalizing theory—a means of deep space navigation relegated to space opera novellas and episodes of Star Trek.

Then, last week, Gendreau and a team of NASA researchers announced that they had finally proven that pulsars can function like a cosmic positioning system. Gendreau and his team performed the demonstration quietly last November, when the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (a pulsar-measuring instrument the size of a washing machine, currently aboard the International Space Station) spent a weekend observing the electromagnetic emissions of five pulsars. With the help of an enhancement known as the Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (aka Sextant), Nicer was able to determine the station’s position in Earth’s orbit to within roughly three miles—while it was traveling in excess of 17,000 miles per hour.

But pulsar navigation’s greatest benefits will be felt not in low-Earth orbit (there are better, more precise ways to track spacecraft as local as the ISS), but farther out in space. Today’s deep space missions navigate using a global system of radio antennas called the Deep Space Network. “The DSN gives really good range information,” says Gendreau, who served as principal investigator on the Nicer mission. “If you know the speed of light and you have highly accurate clocks, it can can ping these spacecraft and infer their distance with very high precision.”

But the DSN has some major limitations. The farther away a spacecraft gets, the less reliable the DSN’s location measurements become; the network can detect distance just fine, but struggles to determine the spacecraft’s lateral position. Far-flung missions also take longer to deliver radio waves to ground-based satellites, and more time to receive instructions from mission planners here on Earth, reducing the speed at which they can react and operate by minutes, hours, or even days. What’s more, the network is quickly becoming oversaturated; like an overburdened WiFi network, the more spacecraft that chart a course for deep space, the less bandwidth the DSN will have to split between them.

Pulsar navigation stands to address all of the DSN’s shortcomings, particularly its bandwidth issues. A spacecraft equipped to scan the depths of space for pulsar beacons could calculate its absolute position in space without communicating with Earth. That would free up transmission capacity on the DSN, and buy valuable time for executing maneuvers in deep space.

“It all comes back to the A-word: autonomy,” says NASA’s Jason Mitchell, an aerospace technologist at Goddard and project manager for the Sextant project. When a spacecraft can determine its location in space independently of infrastructure on Earth, “it lets mission planners think about navigating in places they wouldn’t otherwise be able to navigate,” he says. Pulsar navigation could allow spacecraft to perform maneuvers behind the sun, for example (signals to and from the DSN cannot cut through our parent star). In the more distant future, missions at the fringes of our solar system and beyond—in the Oort cloud, for example—could perform maneuvers in real time, based on self-determined coordinates, without having to wait on instructions from Earth.

But pulsars aren’t the only way to find one’s way in the distant solar system. Joseph Guinn—a deep-space navigation expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is unaffiliated with the Nicer project—is developing an autonomous system that could use cameras to detect objects, using their positions to determine a spacecraft’s coordinates. He calls it a deep-space positioning system (DPS for short), and it works by detecting reflections from space rocks in the asteroid cloud orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. (Those reflections mimic the function of the Global Positioning System, the network of satellites orbiting Earth at a height of 12,540 miles.) Its killer feature is that it can tell a spacecraft where it is relative to an object of interest. Pulsar navigation, by contrast, can only tell a spacecraft its absolute position in space. Think of it this way: Pulsar navigation can tell you where you’re at inside your office building, while DPS can tell you that your boss is standing right behind you.

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Target-relative measurements notwithstanding, DPS has its drawbacks. Just like GPS, DPS becomes less reliable once you’re above it. “If you get sufficiently far out in the solar system, and you can’t see anything because the light is so diminished, then you might find yourself in a position where pulsar navigation is the only game in town,” Guinn says. After all, he says, pulsars all exist far, far outside our solar system; “you don’t have to worry about getting up above those.”

The ideal solution would be to equip spacecraft to execute multiple forms of navigation: transmitters and receivers for communicating with the Deep Space Network here on Earth; a deep-space positioning system; and a high-precision sensor like Nicer for detecting and timing the arrival of pulsar emissions in deep space. If the DSN is overwhelmed, or if the spacecraft needs to navigate autonomously in real-time, the DPS can take over. Too dark for DPS? Pulsar nav can grab the baton. When one system fails or is pushed beyond its limits, another can relieve it of its duties.

There’s a big need for this redundancy in critical systems like navigation. “The nice thing about pulsar navigation is it functions very independently of all other methods of navigation, which could be hugely valuable,” Gendreau says. That’s probably why, according to him, mission planners have expressed interest in including pulsar navigation aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which will be designed to carry humans deeper into space than any vehicle in history. (Guinn says that a plan to make Orion capable of deep-space positioning is also in the works, and that SpaceX, too, is “very interested in it.”)

The challenge, when it comes to redundancy, will be finding space for all this equipment. On space missions, every ounce counts. More weight requires more fuel, and more fuel requires more money. The Nicer observatory, alone, is the size of a washing machine. If pulsar navigation wants to earn a place aboard deep space transports, it’ll need to shed a few pounds.

Nike's Sony PlayStation-themed sneakers are so nerdy, and everyone loves it Sun, 21 Jan 2018 05:31:39 +0000 Nike's Sony PlayStation-themed sneakers are so nerdy, and everyone loves it

Love PlayStation? Love Nike? Perfect, because these are the kicks for you — even if you don’t like basketball.

George Paul, small forward on the Oklahoma City Thunder, worked with Nike and Sony to create the PG-2 “PlayStation” sneakers, one of the nerdiest, tech-infused sneakers ever created. 

Designed by Tony Hardman, the same lead designer behind Paul’s first sneaker, the PG-1, the new model (in case it wasn’t already completely obvious) is inspired by a PlayStation 4 and its DualShock 4 controller.

Paul says he wanted to make a PlayStation-themed sneaker because he considers himself “one of the biggest gamers in the NBA” and he’s taken his gaming with him everywhere, ever since he received a PlayStation 2 for Christmas as kid.

Dude really loves his PlayStation and it shows. You’ll find elements like the controller’s buttons (circle, X, square, triangle) embossed in its patent leather and PlayStation-colored shoelace eyelets. 

On each sneaker’s tongue, there’s a logo (one for George Paul and one for PlayStation) that lights up when you press it. Sony says they “illuminate and pulsate blue just like when turning on the console.” These lights also don’t need to be charged up. They’re battery-powered and will last about 150 hours. Pretty sweet.

On the back of one of the sneakers, there’s a barcode that owners can scan to redeem a special Paul George theme for their PlayStation 4.

It’s a slick collaboration. Basketball sneakers are usually pretty controversial, but so far it seems like most people dig it:

Of course, there’s at least one person is wondering what the heck is up with in the gaming world recently:

If you’re in the #dopekicks camp, you can pick them up on Feb. 10 for $110. Given the early reaction, they’ll probably sell out. 7dab 40b4%2fthumb%2f00001

Mike Moritz and the declining America worker Sun, 21 Jan 2018 05:31:05 +0000 Mike Moritz and the declining America worker

Storied Sequoia investor Mike Moritz threw fire into the tech Twitter gumbo with his observations of hard-working Chinese workers and slothful Silicon Valley engineers. Moritz, a billionaire, clearly needs page views to fund his retirement.

The major money quote about Silicon Valley is this: “In recent months, there have been complaints about the political sensibilities of speakers invited to address a corporate audience; debates over the appropriate length of paternity leave or work-life balances; and grumbling about the need for a space for musical jam sessions. These seem like the concerns of a society that is becoming unhinged.”

He compares those petit concerns with the work ethic of Chinese workers who “appear about 10am and leave at midnight.” He focuses in on women, “Many of these high-flyers only see their children — who are often raised by a grandmother or nanny — for a few minutes a day.” And he emphasizes the Chinese and their spendthrift ways: “It is also striking to the western eye how frequently a tea bag is reused.”

Reaction to the piece was strong, as one can imagine. TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos posted her rebuttal yesterday, saying “Moritz has hit a few balls out of the park, yes. But that doesn’t mean we should take his opinion as gospel. In fact, I would argue that mega-billionaires like Moritz have absolutely no place telling anyone how hard they should be working, in the U.S. or anywhere else.”

David Heinemeier Hansson, a partner at Basecamp and inventor of the Ruby on Rails programming framework, put it even more bluntly in a tweet:

That seems par for the course among hundreds of other commenters online and across Twitter.

To me though, Moritz’ comments are reasonably accurate, at least as far as stereotyping a country of 1.38 billion people and a region of a million or more goes. It’s clear that the Chinese work harder in tech on average, and that Chinese workplaces have many less frills than Silicon Valley workplaces. This has been known for years, and is not news.

The far more interesting thread in this story is why it was so inflammatory in the first place. Sure, he conflated paternity leave and asking for a musical rehearsal room, and made it seem as if parents shouldn’t see their kids. And he’s a billionaire. I get the hashtag class warfare angle here.

However, the post was inflammatory precisely because we are starting to feel the pain of competition again in the American economy. For the first time, white collar workers in the United States are facing what our blue collar brethren have experienced the past three decades: sliding salaries and benefits as their jobs were outsourced, the downsizing of the American dream.

America liked the arrangement where clean, high-value design and services stayed in the United States and hard, dirty jobs like manufacturing, heavy industry, and rare earth mining were outsourced to China. Americans did the productive work, the Chinese did the hard work. Americans made the money, the Chinese got paid a couple of yuan.

Capitalism was “introduced” in China in 1980 with the opening of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. 37 years later, and the country’s GDP is nearly the same size as the United States. China as a whole has worked extraordinarily hard to get to where it is today. Are we really surprised then that those same industrious Chinese workers suddenly continue working hard in the high-tech industry and start to compete toe-to-toe with American tech giants?

In the startup circles in the Valley and New York City that I hang out in, paternity leave has come up on numerous occasions. There are multiple founders in my network that offer unlimited vacation for their startups, and offer free lunches, massages, and other accoutrements on top of dizzying salaries. All at startups. In some cases even before the series A but almost always afterwards.

All of those benefits make sense at some level — talent is scarce, and after several decades of research, companies found out that treating humans well is ultimately a win-win for everyone.

So why are we worried about China? If our workplace policies are really creating ideal conditions for productivity, aren’t we the ones who are benefitting? The Chinese will work themselves to death, and Americans who are working smarter will reap the rewards.

The challenge of course is that it’s just not true. Startups are really, really hard to build. In the early years, they take hundreds of hours a week, and there are only a handful of employees to do those hours. A startup with a 35 hour workweek and unlimited vacation is almost certainly going to lose to a startup working 100 hours a week, even if the former’s workers are better rested and more productive.

That’s why Moritz was so inflammatory. He’s clearly wrong on a moral and human level, but, he’s clearly right in a realpolitik way. The anger we feel is both that we have a billionaire lecturing us about work, and that we also know deep down that he may well be right. If we want to protect the work environment that many have fought hard to create, then it’s time to get back to work.

Featured Image: Vince Talotta/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Electronic Skin Puts the World in the Palm of Your Hand Sun, 21 Jan 2018 05:30:03 +0000 Electronic Skin Puts the World in the Palm of Your Hand

(Credit: Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf e.V.)

Someday, physically touching our electronic devices will be as archaic as standing up from the recliner to change the channel. Voice recognition systems and home assistants can turn on lights, pull up podcasts and order paper towels on command. Cameras in video game systems and televisions can do our bidding with a gesture.

And to the list of hands-free methods of component control, we can add electronic skin.

E-skins have been garnering a lot of attention from software and material engineers over the past few years. Akin to slapping on a Band-Aid, e-skins can track internal health data such as muscle movement, heart rate and brain activity. Some can even track external factors such as ultraviolet light exposure on the body.

Denys Makarov and his colleagues at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf in Germany developed a new e-skin that marries new and old technology to allow people to manipulate virtual objects without touch.

Magnetic field sensors, which can be purchased easily, are not novel inventions. According to Makarov, people have been using them for years to monitor angular motion and displacement. But he and his fellow researchers translated this technology into electronic skins that serve as interfaces with electronics.

“We’re beginning to realize an electronic skin that’s a flexible and ultrathin device, which can reconstruct spatial position of the body, finger or palm, for example, with respect to the source of the magnetic field,” says Makarov.

It is the first e-skin with angle sensors that can translate directional and axial perception. In a recently published study, the e-skin helps users perform an array of virtual tasks. When worn like a wristwatch, test users could type on a remote, virtual keypad without touching the actual pad—the device captured, digitized and translated movements of their finger onto an external screen via a magnet attached to their fingertip.

In another demonstration, users placed the e-skin on their palm. When they placed their hand directly above a magnetic field source and rotated their hand, their motion adjusted the intensity of a virtual light source. Adjusting dials without ever touching them could come in…handy…for people who are tackling a dirty job, for example.


(Credit: Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf e.V.)

The crux of the effort in designing the e-skin was aimed at making it durable and functional.

“If you want to have it on the skin, obviously you want it resistant to moisture, and sweat. You want to have it temperature stable, and that’s why we were putting a lot of efforts into developing proper encapsulation,” said Makarov. The final product is a small, but sturdy apparatus with a total thickness of 3.5µm at the site of the sensor.

The device could have future applications in navigation, robotics, regenerative medicine, sports, gaming as well as virtual and augmented reality interactions. The team hopes to improve the senor’s sensitivity by two to three orders of magnitude. They also aim to calibrate the device to Earth’s magnetic field.

The future of controlling things like a Jedi seems to be getting closer every day.

Very cool it is.

Rocket Lab Test Flight Launches Three CubeSats to Orbit Sun, 21 Jan 2018 02:53:17 +0000 Rocket Lab Test Flight Launches Three CubeSats to Orbit

The launch company Rocket Lab has amusing names for its missions. The first, in May, was called “It’s a Test” (it was). When the staff debated what to call the second launch of their diminutive Electron rocket, so sized (and priced) specifically to carry small satellites to space, they said, “Well, we’re still testing, aren’t we?”

They were. And so “Still Testing” became the name of Rocket Lab’s second launch, which took place on January 20, at around 8:45 pm Eastern Standard Time. In December, the company canceled multiple attempts before rescheduling the launch window for 2018. The livestreamed rocket lifted off from the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, headed for someplace with an even better view.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the launch (or any test launch, for that matter), the rocket was carrying real payloads for real customers: three small satellites, one for a company that images Earth and two for one that monitors weather and ship traffic. But why on Earth would a satellite company choose a rocket-in-progress when there are so many reliable launchers out there? After all, even established rockets blow up sometimes.

Rocket Lab

The short answer is that smallsats—which the Electron was built to transport, exclusively—are by nature expendable. Smallsat makers like Planet and Spire, the two clients on this mission, have ever-growing, genetically similar populations of orbiters. So losing one or two in a less-than-successful test flight? Probably worth the risk. Smallsat companies are willing to put their hardware on this particular liftoff line because the Electron is poised to be the first commercially bookable rocket built specifically for small payloads, which typically have to piggyback on big, expensive rockets with big, expensive payloads that don’t launch often enough and aren’t always headed to their orbit of choice. In the next decade, 3,483 small satellites (between 1 and 100 kilograms) will go to space, generating just over $2 billion of launch revenue, according to the Small Satellite Markets, 4th edition report, which research and consulting firm Northern Sky Research released last month. In this future world where thousands more smallsats provide environmental, economic, and even political intelligence, as well as Earth-covering internet, the test-steps necessary to get on up to space quickly, cheaply, and precisely seem worth the risk not just to Planet and Spire but, perhaps, to you and me.

But boy, was there risk. While Rocket Lab’s first Electron didn’t explode and did reach space—and so gets at least an A- for its first attempt—“It’s a Test” didn’t quite get to orbit. After an investigation, Rocket Lab determined that, four minutes post-blastoff, ground equipment (provided by a third party) temporarily stopped talking to the rocket. When communication breaks down, Official Procedures demand that safety officials stop the flight. And so they did..

But the rocket itself, according to the same investigation, was sound—so the company moved on to a test delivery. “It’s really the next logical step,” says Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder.

Beck seems uncannily logical about the risks his young company is taking. When asked about his feelings about launching actual stuff on “Still Testing,” he replied that doing so certainly involved extra actual tasks. “I’m not sure if you can become extra nervous or extra excited,” he said. That sentiment fits with the launches’ pragmatic names. And those fit with New Zealanders’ general pragmatic streak, says Beck (he cites some of the country’s names for flowing water: “River One,” “River Two,” “River Three”).

For their part, Planet and Spire are here for that no-nonsense-ness. Planet already has around 200 satellites in orbit, so adding one to its flock of so-called “Doves” would be good but not critical. Besides, says Mike Safyan, Planet’s director of launch, “we picked one we wouldn’t miss too much”: a sat named Pioneer. It’s a double meaning, says Safyan. First, it’s an homage to NASA’s old missions, on whose shoulders they stand.

Second meaning: They are pioneers. “There is this New Space wave that Planet is very much at the forefront of and Rocket Lab is very much at the forefront of,” says Safyan.

This is what the forefront looks like, by the way: You can book space on an Electron rocket online—just click the size of your smallsat!—the same basic way you’d book a bunk on Airbnb.

Spire, too, is into it. Jenny Barna met Peter Beck before she had her current job, as the director of launch at Spire, whose satellites aim to keep track of aeronautical and nautical-nautical traffic, as well as weather. Back in her days at SSL, which makes spacecraft and communications systems, a coworker invited her to a presentation Beck was giving on-site. She listened to Beck describe Rocket Lab’s technology, and his vision for a vehicle that provided frequent, affordable launches just for little guys—in an industry that caters to huge sats, and makes smallsats second-class passengers—and she was intrigued. “I remember sitting there thinking how lucky I am to be working at this industry at this time,” she says. And after she moved to Spire, she led the company to sign on as one of Rocket Lab’s first customers. It’s currently contracted for up to 12 launches.

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That’s a lot! But Spire has to launch a lot. The company wants access to space every month, so they can produce their satellites in small batches, send them up, iterate, and launch the next generation. So far, Spire has launched 40 satellites. They’ve done it on the rockets of Russia (Soyuz and Dnepr), Japan (H-IIB), and India (PSLV), and the rockets of the US’s Orbital (Antares) and ULA (Atlas V). And now, they’ll ride with Rocket Lab, picking on a rocket of their own satellites’ size.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll ever only use Rocket Lab. Or Orbital. Or ULA. They plan to keep their eggs distributed—partly because even when it’s not just a test, rockets still blow up, the eggs breaking along with them. “It’s just part of the industry,” says Barna.

When Barna spoke of “Still Testing” a few days before the initial launch window, she was straight-up about the possibility that this particular rocket wouldn’t carry the eggs safely to space. “We know that a million things have to go perfectly for this to be successful,” she said. “We hope they make history.”

They did, and deployed the three-satellite payload into orbit. And pending analysis of this seemingly successful test, Rocket Lab will skip its planned third test and jump straight into official operations, in early 2018. “We’ve got a lot of customers that need to get on orbit,” says Beck.

Suggestion for the third flight’s name: “This Is Not a Test.”