Start Up No.1,084: working with Walmart’s robots, Microsoft facial recognition wipe, a trillion for a green economy?, Google Stadia not a crowdpleaser, and more


Let’s talk about how HBO’s Chernobyl series depicted radiation. CC-licensed photo by Frost Bite Photography on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Visually intact. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

As Walmart turns to robots, it’s the human workers who feel like machines • The Washington Post

Drew Harwell:

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The nation’s largest private employer has unleashed an army of robots into more than 1,500 of its jumbo stores, with thousands of automated shelf-scanners, box-unloaders, artificial-intelligence cameras and other machines doing the jobs once left to human employees.

The swarm is already remaking how the retailer’s more than 1 million US “associates” go about their daily work. Given the chain’s ubiquity across the country, the local Walmart store also is likely to become the first place millions of Americans meet a real-life, working robot.

Walmart executives have promised the all-hours robot workhorses will let employees endure less drudgery and enjoy “more satisfying jobs,” while also ensuring shoppers see cleaner stores, fuller shelves and faster checkouts.

But the rise of the machines has had an unexpected side effect: Their jobs, some workers said, have never felt more robotic. By incentivizing hyper-efficiency, the machines have deprived the employees of tasks they used to find enjoyable. Some also feel like their most important assignment now is to train and babysit their often inscrutable robot colleagues.

Customers, too, have found coexisting with machines to be confusing, if not alarming.

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Microsoft quietly deletes largest public face recognition data set • Financial Times

Madhumita Murgia:

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Microsoft, which took down the database days after the FT reported on its use by companies, said: “The site was intended for academic purposes. It was run by an employee that is no longer with Microsoft and has since been removed.”

Two other data sets have also been taken down since the FT report was published in April, including the Duke MTMC surveillance data set built by Duke University researchers, and a Stanford University data set called Brainwash.

Brainwash used footage of customers in a café called Brainwash in San Francisco’s Lower Haight district, taken through a livestreaming camera. Duke did not respond to requests for comment. Stanford said it had removed the data set after a request by one of the authors of a study it was used for. A spokesperson said the university is “committed to protecting the privacy of individuals at Stanford and in the larger community”.

All three data sets were uncovered by Berlin-based researcher Adam Harvey, whose project Megapixels documented the details of dozens of data sets and how they are being used.

Microsoft’s MS Celeb data set has been used by several commercial organisations, according to citations in AI papers, including IBM, Panasonic, Alibaba, Nvidia, Hitachi, Sensetime and Megvii. Both Sensetime and Megvii are Chinese suppliers of equipment to officials in Xinjiang, where minorities of mostly Uighurs and other Muslims are being tracked and held in internment camps.

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Good work by Harvey with Megapixels, but that sound is the stable door closing while the horse heads off into the distance.
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Smartphone shipment forecast cut to 1.35 billion for 2019 as uncertainty prevails • Canalys

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The latest numbers show that smartphone shipments will reach 1.35 billion units in 2019, a year-on-year decline of 3.1%. Due to the many uncertainties surrounding the US/China trade talks, the US Executive Order signed on 15 May and subsequent developments, Canalys has lowered its forecasts to reflect an uncertain future.

Canalys’ base assumption is that restrictions will be imposed stringently on Huawei, once the 90-day reprieve expires, having a significant impact on its ability to roll-out new devices in the short term, especially outside of China. Canalys anticipates that Huawei is taking steps to mitigate the effect of component and service supply issues, but its overseas potential will be hampered for some time. The US and China may eventually reach a trade deal to alleviate the pressure on Huawei, but if and when this will happen is far from clear.

Canalys’ published forecasts reflect what will happen should there be no major political changes. “It is important to note that market uncertainty is clearly prompting vendors to accelerate certain strategies to minimize the short- and long-term impact in a challenging business environment, for example, shifting manufacturing to different countries to hedge against the risk of tariffs. But with recent US announcements on tariffs on goods from more countries, the industry will be dealing with turmoil for some time,” said Nicole Peng, VP, Mobility.

“We expect the other major smartphone vendors will have short-term opportunities while Huawei struggles. Samsung will be the biggest winner, thanks to its aggressive device strategy and its ability to quickly ramp up production, through the Korean firm may struggle to entirely fill the shortfall,” said Rushabh Doshi, Research Director, Canalys. “It will take other vendors until late 2019 to react to the new opportunities. Samsung’s control over component supply gives it a major advantage.”

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No 10 denies claim by chancellor that emissions target will cost UK £1tn • The Guardian

Seth Jacobson:

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Downing Street has shot down claims made by the chancellor, Philip Hammond, that tackling the climate crisis would cost £1tn and require spending cuts for schools, hospitals and the police force.

No 10 said plans to create a net zero carbon economy would cost no more than the UK’s existing plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The firm response will be seen as a rare rebuke for Hammond, who warned Theresa May that reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero could cost the country £1tn and lead to industries becoming “economically uncompetitive” without government subsidies.

In a letter to the prime minister, Hammond said the proposed 2050 net zero target – one of the most far-reaching proposed in the world – would mean less money for schools, the NHS and police forces, the Financial Times reported.

Downing Street said analysis from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) showed that the cost of a net zero carbon economy would “fall within our existing spending plans”.

A spokeswoman for No 10 would not comment directly on the letter, but warned against any cost estimates which conflated economic costs with public spending.

“There are a lot of figures out there on this issue that don’t factor in the benefits or consider the costs of not doing this,” she said.

“The costs related to meeting this target are whole-of-the-economy costs, not a fiscal cost, and so it’s not really right to frame it as a trade-off for public spending,” she said.

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Seems a bit weird for Hammond to make such an elementary error in calculation, unless he’s just trying to kill the whole thing – which would be disastrous.
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Google Stadia launches 4K game-streaming in November for $9.99/mo • TechCrunch

Lucas Matney:

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Top-level details are the company’s Stadia Pro service will launch in November for $9.99 per month. The price gets you 4K 60fps streaming but you’ll need at least a 35 mbps internet connection to get that speed. Alongside the streaming capabilities, you’ll get access to some Stadia games with the Pro subscription.

At launch, the service is coming to the USA, UK, Canada, Belgium, Finland, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden. Users in Hawaii, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands aren’t supported on Stadia.

We also learned that playing Stadia on a mobile device will be confined to the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a at launch so that means no iOS or iPadOS devices at launch though you’ll be able to play in the Chrome browser on your Mac. Not a ton of love for Apple devices though.

Google will be offering a free base subscription next year that lets gamers who purchase titles from the Stadia store stream them for free at 1080p 30fps. This is a major announcement and something that Google really slid into the stream at the very end, but this is really going to put some pressure on the company to have some quality free content to keep gamers interested in the Pro tier.

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This will be going up against Apple Arcade, an all-you-can-eat games fest targeting iOS and macOS (and tvOS.. well, Apple TV) devices which is probably going to launch about the same time for the same money but will work offline and won’t require you to buy games.

Dedicated gamers already have consoles; “no console” isn’t an attraction for them. Not gonna lie, looks tough for Google.
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Why HBO’s “Chernobyl” gets nuclear so wrong • Forbes

Michael Shellenberger:

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HBO tries to clean-up some of the sensationalism with captions at the very end of the series. None note that claiming a baby died by “absorbing” radiation from its father is total and utter pseudoscience.

There is no good evidence that Chernobyl radiation killed a baby nor that it caused any increase in birth defects.

“We’ve now had a chance to observe all the children that have been born close to Chernobyl,” reported UCLA physician Robert Gale in 1987, and “none of them, at birth, at least, has had any detectable abnormalities.”

Indeed, the only public health impact beyond the deaths of the first responders was 20,000 documented cases of thyroid cancer in those aged under 18 at the time of the accident.

The United Nations in 2017 concluded that only 25%, 5,000, can be attributed to Chernobyl radiation (paragraphs A-C). In earlier studies, the UN estimated there could be up to 16,000 cases attributable to Chernobyl radiation.

Since thyroid cancer has a mortality rate of just one percent, that means the expected deaths from thyroid cancers caused by Chernobyl will be 50 to 160 over an 80-year lifespan.

At the end of the show, HBO claims there was “a dramatic spike in cancer rates across Ukraine and Belarus,” but this too is wrong.

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I loved this series, but yes, it overstates the risks. The simple fact that it took such a colossal screwup and almost wilful ignorance of the reactor’s state – ignoring the xenon pit (well worth reading; the Wiki article is great), the computer’s advice to shut down – to make it blow up shows that even crappy old reactors are hard to break. The risk of a truly enormous explosion if the core had reached groundwater was real, though.

Nuclear is the safest form of electrical generation – in terms of lives lost per gigawatt – until we get some numbers on wind turbines and solar panels. (The pollution from manufacturing the latter might count against it.) And nuclear is ideal for providing a base load.
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Michelin rolls out an airless tyre that will be “puncture-proof” • Car and Driver

Sebastian Blanco:

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Michelin’s new Unique Puncture-Proof Tire System (Uptis) does away with one of the defining aspects of tires as we’ve known them for more than 100 years: the air inside. Unlike past attempts at airless tires, Uptis functions the way other modern tires do and, Michelin claims, will provide a similar driving experience.

Unveiled at the company’s sustainable-mobility-focused Movin’On Summit in Montreal today, Uptis is a tire without a traditional sidewall that carries its load by the top thanks to a new resin-embedded fiberglass material that Michelin was granted over 50 patents for.

“The idea was to develop a technology that was strong enough to carry the load but light enough to replace the air,” Cyrille Roget, technical and scientific communication director for the Michelin Group, told Car and Driver. “If you have a load on the tire and you cut all the spokes at the bottom, you will see that nothing will change, demonstrating that the load is carried by the top of it, not by the under parts.” Other airless tires, he said, often carry the load at the bottom of the tire, which is very inefficient and causes extra heating due to compression.

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Grr. “For which Michelin was granted over 50 patents”, I think. This sounds impressive, until you look at the stats for punctures: the average (American) driver will experience five flat tyres in their lifetime. In other words, perhaps one every four years. And of course air isn’t just for inflation; it also provides damping against potholes and bumps. So this needs to have a lot more going for it than just being puncture-proof, or else needs to be used in very adverse situations.
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Quantum leaps, long assumed to be instantaneous, take time • Quanta Magazine

Philip Ball:

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When quantum mechanics was first developed a century ago as a theory for understanding the atomic-scale world, one of its key concepts was so radical, bold and counter-intuitive that it passed into popular language: the “quantum leap.” Purists might object that the common habit of applying this term to a big change misses the point that jumps between two quantum states are typically tiny, which is precisely why they weren’t noticed sooner. But the real point is that they’re sudden. So sudden, in fact, that many of the pioneers of quantum mechanics assumed they were instantaneous.

A new experiment shows that they aren’t. By making a kind of high-speed movie of a quantum leap, the work reveals that the process is as gradual as the melting of a snowman in the sun. “If we can measure a quantum jump fast and efficiently enough,” said Michel Devoret of Yale University, “it is actually a continuous process.”

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You can take the plunge into the Nature paper, or the slightly less cold plunge into the rest of the article. Both are pretty mindboggling. Though empirically, of course a quantum leap can’t happen “instantaneously” because there’s no such thing; there’s only “measurably fast” and “immeasurably fast”. Sadly, though, knowing that it’s “measurably fast” won’t help us build nuclear fusion reactors or faster-than-light drives.
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Apple backs off crackdown on parental-control apps • The New York Times

Jack Nicas:

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After promoting its latest software updates in a splashy two-hour presentation on Monday morning, Apple articulated its new policy in a short blog post on a section of its website for developers.

The post said parental-control apps could now use two technologies that Apple had recently cited as grounds for their removal from iPhones.

One technology, mobile device management, or MDM, enables parents to take control of a child’s phone. The other is a virtual private network, or VPN, which parents can use to block certain apps on a child’s phone.

In the post, Apple said the apps could use the technologies if they didn’t “sell, use or disclose to third parties any data for any purpose” and included that promise in their privacy policies.

“These apps were using an enterprise technology that provided them access to kids’ highly sensitive personal data,” an Apple spokeswoman said in a statement. “We do not think it is OK for any apps to help data companies track or optimize advertising of kids.”

She did not say whether Apple had found evidence of the apps doing so. The app makers deny such activity. The spokeswoman declined to say why Apple had changed its mind.

Fred Stutzman, the chief executive of Freedom, an app that helped people track and limit their time on iPhones, said, “My reaction is: Why this last year of pain? And we end up exactly in the same place.”

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Stutzman says the policy cost his company more than $1m since its implementation in August, which suggests to me that Freedom was doing pretty well. Not great PR work by Apple, though.
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Apple restricts ads and third-party trackers in iPhone apps for kids • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:

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Apple has told developers to stop including third-party trackers in apps designed for kids — or they face having their apps pulled from the app store.

The tech giant quietly updated its guidelines for apps that are submitted to the app store’s kids category following the keynote address at its annual developer conference on Monday.

“Apps in the kids category may not include third-party advertising or analytics,” the new guidelines say. Previously, the guidelines only restricted behavioral advertising tracking.

Apple also currently prohibits apps in the kids category from including links that point outside the app or contain in-app purchasing.

Apple has come under fire for its recent marketing campaign claiming “what happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone,”  which critics say is misleading. All too often apps include ads or tracking code that allows app makers to collect information about the device, including its location and other data, and send it back to base so companies can better target its users with ads, learn more about how you use the app, and more.

Just last week, the Washington Post found over 5,400 app trackers were uploading data from an iPhone over a single week — even at night when the phone owner was asleep.

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Wonder if Google will follow suit.
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How China is wiping memories of Tiananmen Square off the internet • VICE News

David Gilbert:

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It was a Friday evening in May in the Nanxi district of Yippin, a Chinese city of around 4.5 million people, when Deng Chuanbin posted a picture of a bottle of wine on Twitter.

The bottle’s label featured the word “ba jiu,” a near homophone of “89,” and below it was an image depicting the iconic Tiananmen Square “Tank Man.”

Deng, a documentary filmmaker who has in the past worked with well-known Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, then thought better of it and quickly deleted the image. But the damage was done; within 30 minutes, the police were at his door. They confiscated his phones and computers, and arrested him. He’s been in detention ever since.

Deng is one of at least 27 activists, artists, and netizens who have been detained, questioned or disappeared since the start of May, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a coalition of Chinese and international human rights NGOs. Their offense: “picking quarrels” — a charge the Chinese government levels at those who dare to even reference the Tiananmen Square protests. These 27 are “likely just a drop in the bucket” of all those affected, the group said Monday.

The Chinese military killed as many as 10,000 people during Beijing’s vicious crackdown on pro-democracy protesters 30 years ago. But today, those victims and the horrific events of June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square have been virtually wiped from China’s collective memory.

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Is this true, though? Somehow Tiananmen lives on in China, even through the fact that it’s an avoided topic – a roadblock that emerges in the way that it leads to censorship.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,084: working with Walmart’s robots, Microsoft facial recognition wipe, a trillion for a green economy?, Google Stadia not a crowdpleaser, and more

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