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Update January 2019


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Technology
 

Robots walk, talk, pour beer and take over CES tech show

The Walker robot grabs a soda can during a demonstration at the Ubtech booth at CES International, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Matt O’Brien & Joseph Pisani

Las Vegas (AP) - Robots that walk, talk, pour beer and play ping pong have taken over the CES gadget show in Las Vegas again. Just don’t expect to find one in your home any time soon.

Most home robot ventures have failed, in part because they’re so difficult and expensive to design to a level of intelligence that consumers will find useful, says Bilal Zuberi, a robotics-oriented venture capitalist at Lux Capital. But that doesn’t keep companies from trying.

“Roboticists, I guess, will never give up their dream to build Rosie,” says Zuberi, referring to the humanoid maid from “The Jetsons.”

But there’s some hope for others. Frank Gillett, a tech analyst at Forrester, says robots with more focused missions such as mowing the lawn or delivering cheeseburgers stand a better shot at finding a useful niche.

Robots that deliver

There are so many delivery robots at CES that it’s easy to imagine that we’ll all be stumbling over them on the sidewalk - or in the elevator - before long. Zuberi says it’s among the new robot trends with the most promise because the field is drawing on some of the same advances that power self-driving cars.

But it’s hard to tell which - if any - will still be around in a few years.

Segway Robotics, part of the same company that makes electric rental scooters for Lime, Jump and Bird, is the latest to get into the delivery game with a new machine it calls Loomo Delivery. The wheeled office robot can avoid obstacles, board elevators and deliver documents to another floor.

A similar office courier called the Holabot was unveiled by Chinese startup Shenzhen Pudu Technology. CEO Felix Zhang says his company already has a track record selling robots in China, where its Pudubot robot - which looks like shelves on wheels - navigates busy restaurants as a kind of robotic waiter.

Nearly all of these robots use a technology called visual SLAM, short for simultaneous localization and mapping. Most are wheeled, though there are outliers - such as one from German automotive company Continental, which wants to deploy walking robotic dogs to carry packages from self-driving delivery vans to residential front doors.

A delivery robot will need both sophisticated autonomy and a focused mission to stand out from the pack, says Saumil Nanavati, head of business development for Robby Technology. His company’s namesake robot travels down sidewalks as a “store on wheels.” The company recently partnered with PepsiCo to deliver snacks around a California university campus.

Robots for dogs

Does man’s best friend need a robotic pal of its own? Some startups think so.

“There’s a big problem with separation anxiety, obesity and depression in pets,” says Bee-oh Kim, a marketing manager for robotics firm Varram.

The company’s $99 robot is essentially a moving treat dispenser that motivates pets to chase it around. A herd of the small, dumbbell-shaped robots zoomed around a pen at the show - though there were no canine or feline conference attendees to show how the machines really work.

Varram’s robot takes two hours to charge and can run for 10 hours - just enough time to allow a pet’s guilt-ridden human companion to get home from work.

Robots on
grandparent watch

Samsung is coming out with a robot that can keep its eye on grandparents.

The rolling robot can talk and has two digital eyes on a black screen. It’s designed to track the medicines seniors take, measure blood pressure and call 911 if it detects a fall.

Samsung didn’t say when Samsung Bot Care would be available, but some startups are putting similar ideas in action. Israeli company Intuition Robotics used CES to announce the upcoming commercial launch of ElliQ, a robotic voice assistant that can sit on end tables and help older adults communicate with family members without having to fiddle with a computer.

Robot friends

Lovot is a simple robot with just one aim - to make its owner happy.

It can’t carry on long conversations, but it’s still social - approaching people so they can interact, moving around a space to create a digital map, responding to being embraced.

Lovot’s horn-shaped antenna - featuring a 360-degree camera - recognizes its surroundings and detects the direction of sound and voices.

Lovot is the brainchild of Groove X CEO Kaname Hayashi, who previously worked on SoftBank’s Pepper, a humanoid robot that briefly appeared in a few U.S. shopping malls two years ago. Hayashi wanted to create a real connection between people and robots.

“This is just supporting your heart, our motivation,” he says.


Tech’s big gadget show edges closer to gender equity

In this Jan. 8, 2018, file photo a model performs at a display for Sony cameras after a Sony news conference at CES International in Las Vegas. Critics have been on the case of one of the tech industry’s largest trade shows for not including enough female speakers. That seems to be changing this year at CES, the huge consumer-electronics show in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Barbara Ortutay
New York (AP) - The world’s largest tech conference has apparently learned a big lesson about gender equity.
CES, the huge annual consumer-electronics show in Las Vegas, caught major flak from activists in late 2017 when it unveiled an all-male lineup of keynote speakers for the second year in a row. Although it later added two female keynoters, the gathering’s “boys’ club” reputation remained intact. It didn’t help that one of the unsanctioned events latching on to CES last year was a nightclub featuring female “robot strippers.”
This year, four of the nine current keynoters are women. GenderAvenger, the activist group that raised a ruckus last year, recently sent CES organizers a congratulatory letter and awarded the show a “Gold Stamp of Approval” for a roster of keynote and “featured” speakers that it says is 45 percent women - 60 percent of them women of color.
It’s a significant change for CES, which like most tech conferences remains disproportionately male, just like the industry it serves. Even absent the robot dogs, sci-fi worthy gadgets and “booth babes” CES has been known for, you could readily peg it as a technology show from the bathroom lines alone - where men shift uncomfortably as they wait their turn while women waltz right in.
The four-day CES show opened Tuesday, though media previews began Sunday. Keynoters this year include IBM CEO Ginni Rometty; Lisa Su, CEO of chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices; and U.S. Transportation Security Elaine Chao. The entire featured speaker list is currently half female, although the exact percentage won’t be known until after the event. “There is no question we keep trying to do better,” said Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, which organizes CES.
“Diversity is about having people who see things differently - frankly, disagree with you and tell you that you are stupid,” said Tania Yuki, CEO of social media analytics company Shareablee and an attendee of CES for the past several years. The big question, she says, is whether CES has really listened to its critics.
CES is the place to be for tech companies and startups to show off their latest gadgets and features. More than 180,000 people are expected to attend this year, and some 4,500 companies will be on the convention floor. Among them are newcomers like Tide maker Procter & Gamble, defense contractor Raytheon and tractor seller John Deere - all eager to burnish their technology bona fides.
But really leveling the playing field often means more than inviting female CEOs to speak. For starters, women and people of color are underrepresented in the tech industry, especially in leadership and technical roles. So, conference organizers might need to look harder, or be more flexible in who they invite to speak.
There are also optics. While recent attendees say “booth babes” - scantily clad women hawking gadgets - no longer seem to be a presence, some companies still hire “fitness models,” largely young women wearing tight-fitting outfits, to demo products. This can make it difficult for the few women at the show who are there as executives, engineers and other technologists, as men mistake them for models, too.
“When you are talking about scantily clad models you are setting a tone,” said Bobbie Carlton, the founder of Innovation Women, a speaker bureau for women. “It is a slippery slope and you end up with this type of mentality that runs through industry, where women are objectified and are only useful if they look good.”
More optics: Until recently, a porn convention taking place immediately after CES appeared more diverse than CES itself. Not a good look for the tech confab.
There are also logistical challenges, Carlton said. For example, women often work for smaller companies, which can find it more challenging to “send someone cross-country to stay at a fancy hotel for three days,” she said.
Rajia Abdelaziz is CEO of invisaWear, a startup that makes smart “safety jewelry.” While she’s attending CES this year, she said it wasn’t worth the $10,000 it would cost her company to have its own convention-floor booth. In addition to the cost concerns, Abdelaziz notes that her products are primarily aimed at women - and there just aren’t that many of them at CES.
Women are also still more likely to be responsible for the home and for child care, so they might turn down speaking opportunities if the timing doesn’t work for them, Carlton said.
CES has tried to make some concessions. For example, it offers private pods for women to pump breast milk at the event. But it doesn’t offer child care support, unlike the smaller Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing conference, a fall event aimed at women in computer science.
Organizers note that children are not permitted at CES. Although kids are also banned from Grace Hopper, that conference still manages to offer free child care for attendees.
Still, Yuki is hopeful that CES is on the right track. “It’s a big conference,” she said. “You can only turn a very big ship very slowly.”


Privacy and other matters with Facebook’s video-call gadget

This file image provided by Facebook shows the company’s product called Portal. (Facebook via AP)

Barbara Ortutay

New York (AP) - It’s rare that a new gadget these days serves a true need. Rather, it creates a want.

You certainly don’t need the Facebook Portal, whose primary purpose is to let you make the types of video calls you can already make on Facebook’s Messenger app. And given the company’s poor record on user privacy, do you even want it? Or a similar device from Amazon or Google?

The Portal is part of a new category of gadgets best described as screens for making video calls, listening to music and responding to voice commands for tasks you can also do on your phone. Unlike tablets, these microphone- and camera-equipped screens are meant to rest at a fixed location in your living room, kitchen or, gasp, your bedroom.

If you are a tech trailblazer willing to try new things - and have no qualms on privacy - here are some things to consider.

Why have one

Facebook’s $349 Portal Plus is a great device for making video calls using Messenger. It’s also gigantic - 15.6 inches, measured diagonally, or roughly the size of the window of many microwave ovens. There’s also a smaller sibling, simply called the Portal, at $199.

Both models are designed to do one thing and one thing well - let you chat with other people on their own Portal or through the regular Messenger app. Yes, the Portal can do a few things more, such as tap Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, but these features feel tacked on, much like trying to cook breakfast sausages with a toaster created just to cook hot dogs.

Unless you are in a long-distance relationship and want to spend hours each evening gazing into your sweetheart’s eye (while also getting dinner and laundry done), you can certainly live without one, just as you can live without a hot dog cooker. That’s especially true if you are concerned about the number of screens in your home, especially screens that could be watching you.

Google’s Home Hub ($129) and Amazon’s Echo Show ($230) can do a lot more, but their video-calling capabilities aren’t as good as the Portal’s. With Home Hub, for instance, you can see the person calling you, but the device itself has no camera for two-way videos.

If video calling is your thing, you’re better off with a Portal. The device’s camera can recognize people in a room and follow them as they move around. So you can literally pace up and down while you argue with your mother. (Facebook says it doesn’t use facial-recognition technology to identify individuals.)

Portal also has a cute “story time” feature that adds face masks and other animation while you to kids on the other side of the call.

The Google and Amazon devices don’t do either.

Siloed Systems

All three devices allow you to add multiple users, so different people in your household can call their circle of friends. But you’re locked into that company’s messaging system.

Try explaining to your 87-year-old grandfather why he can’t FaceTime you on the Portal or Skype on the Home Hub. Hell will freeze over before you can get him to sign up for Facebook just to chat with his great-grandchildren. And you haven’t even mentioned the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal yet.

The good news is you can make calls from these devices to smartphones, though in the Portal’s case, you need the device to tell the animated stories. Traveling parents likely won’t be lugging one to read to their kids at home.

As for compatibility, Facebook’s Messenger has more than 1 billion users, and many of your friends are likely already on it, at least in the United States. But Portal doesn’t work with Facebook’s WhatsApp, which is popular overseas. Setting up the device is relatively simple.

The Home Hub works with Google’s Duo messaging service, so friends and relatives will have to at least install the Duo app on their phones. It’s also difficult to set up. After much cursing and online searches for the right settings, I still get error messages. Google press representatives didn’t immediately respond to help requests.

On the Echo Show, the recipient of your call needs to have the Alexa app, if not an Echo device with a screen. You need to set it up on a phone first by giving Alexa access to your contacts list and making sure this person is on it. You can also call others on Skype after connecting your Skype account.

Privacy Matters

Clearly a lot of thought went into making the Portal optimal for connecting with friends and family. It’s just a shame that it comes in a year full of privacy scandals for the company.

True, Google has had its share of privacy issues this year, including an Associated Press report that it tracks people’s location even when they tell it not to. But with Facebook, it’s something new every few weeks, culminating with revelations this week from The New York Times that Facebook shared user data with more than 150 other companies without people’s explicit permission.

While it’s possible to use Messenger on the phone without having a Facebook account, Portal still requires one. Facebook says it’s to enable other features, such as displaying Facebook photos on your Portal. But these features aren’t essential to video calling - just essential to fold the Portal experience into Facebook’s massive advertising system.

Facebook says it doesn’t listen to, view, record or store the content of your calls, so if you believe Facebook - and that’s a big if - it’s not going to try to target ads based on whom you talk to or what’s hanging on your walls in the background.

But other information, such as the length and frequency of your calls, is fair game and may be used for advertising purposes - such as ads for video-calling services.

No doubt to address privacy concerns, Facebook has included a plastic cover for the Portal’s camera. You can also turn it off using a button.

But promises and plastic covers aren’t enough when Facebook has shown carelessness with its users’ data over and over.
 


UPDATE

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Robots walk, talk, pour beer and take over CES tech show


Tech’s big gadget show edges closer to gender equity


Privacy and other matters with Facebook’s video-call gadget