Locked Out: A Biometric Brouhaha

The Wall Street Journal: “The rise of facial-recognition technology such as Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Hello and Apple Inc.’s Face ID means computers now seem to be passing judgment on users’ appearances. When a face doesn’t measure up, people are left to ponder whether they look their best, whether they use too much makeup, why they changed their hairstyle—and perhaps whether they even look like themselves. Users report their devices won’t unlock unless they wear the same makeup as when they set it up. Others complain it can’t identify them in the morning when they first tilt phone to face on the pillow. Men who shave their beards say their phones suddenly treat them like a passing stranger.”

“Windows Hello aims to balance security with usability, said Dave Bossio, a Microsoft program manager. An algorithm uses the infrared camera on laptops and other devices to create a mathematical model based on facial ‘landmarks’ like the eyes, nose and mouth. Makeup, glasses, beards, lighting and other factors can affect the system, and widening the range of acceptability too much creates a security risk, he said.”

“To avoid the makeup problem, Apple’s engineers designed a camera system that projects 30,000 infrared dots across a user’s face to create a 3-D model stored on the phone, according to people familiar with the project. Apple said the chances the iPhone X could be unlocked by a random person’s face are one in a million.”

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Ocean Medallion: Smooth Cruising on a ‘Smart’ Ship

Quartz: John Padgett, chief experience and innovation officer of Carnival Cruises, “previously worked for Disney, where he was instrumental in the creation of the MagicBand, a wristband meant to help reduce the aggravations of the typical Disney vacation … At Carnival, Padgett and his team quickly set out to create Carnival’s own version of the Disney MagicBand, called the Ocean Medallion. It uses AI to take the MagicBand technology to another level. Instead of just alleviating the ‘friction’ of typical travel experiences (lines, room keys, paying for things) it will use data to anticipate what you want to do, eat, and see.”

“The Medallion, offered first on Carnival’s Princess cruise line, is about the size of a quarter … It facilitates boarding and cuts down on wait times. It can be used to pay for things on the cruise, it unlocks the door to your room as you approach, and can be used on the ship-wide gambling platform. Carrying the Medallion means the staff knows your name and where you are. If you order a drink, they can come find you to deliver it. If you go to another bar on board, the staff already knows what you like. The Medallion also updates your information, keeping track of your likes and dislikes, what activities you enjoy, and what you consume. It anticipates other activities you’ll enjoy and the side trips you’ll want to take.”

“In many ways the Medallion is a beta launch of the first fully wired smart city. What it takes to make it work could one day be used on land. Padgett says the technology is innovative because the preferences you reveal are updated in real time. You order a Martini and every crew member on the ship instantly knows more information about you, and is that much closer to determining whether you might enjoy trying scuba diving—or just kicking back in your stateroom with an old episode of The Love Boat.”

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Bingo Box: China Leads Robo-Retail Revolution

The New York Times: “A global race to automate stores is underway among several of the world’s top retailers and small tech start-ups, which are motivated to shave labor costs and minimize shoppers’ frustrations, like waiting for cashiers … Companies are testing robots that help keep shelves stocked, as well as apps that let shoppers ring up items with a smartphone … China, which has its own ambitious e-commerce companies, is emerging as an especially fertile place for these retail experiments.”

“One effort is a chain of more than 100 unmanned convenience shops from a start-up called Bingo Box, one of which sits in a business park in Shanghai. Shoppers scan a code on their phones to enter and, once inside, scan the items they want to buy. The store unlocks the exit door after they’ve paid through their phones … Not to be outdone, JD, another big internet retailer in China … put readable chips on items to automate the checkout process. At its huge campus south of Beijing, JD is testing a new store that relies on computer vision and sensors on the shelves to know when items have been taken.”

“While such technologies could improve the shopping experience, there may also be consequences that people find less desirable. Retailers like Amazon could compile reams of data about where customers spend time inside their doors, comparable to what internet companies already know about their online habits … In China, there is less public concern about data privacy issues. Many Chinese citizens have become accustomed to high levels of surveillance, including widespread security cameras and government monitoring of online communications.”

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Are You Smarter Than a Kohler Toilet?

The Wall Street Journal: “For some innovators, the next frontier is the room in your house most likely to have a lock on the door: the bathroom. Showcasing their goods at this year’s CES tech show, these companies acknowledge a need for privacy in that inner sanctum—then proceed to show off cameras, microphones and other sensors they’d like you to install there … consider a mirror that turns on motion-activated lights when you get up in the middle of the night, or tells you the weather in the morning. Consider setting the shower on to the perfect temperature just by asking, before you climb in. There are even ‘intelligent’ toilets in the works though how intelligent they’ll be remains to be seen.”

“Some startups see the bathroom the way others now look at the automobile: ready for an open-platform operating system of its own. CareOS—a subsidiary of a French firm which also owns connected toothbrush maker Kolibree—designed an entire health and beauty hub … While a camera in the bathroom sounds like something you’d want to cover with duct tape, CareOS chief technology officer Ali Mouizina says all of your data is stored locally. The system won’t even share it with any other smart home or media hubs in your house, unless you want it to. After all, he said, the bathroom is ‘a private place, a very special place’.”

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AI Machines as Managers

The Wall Street Journal: “There is evidence computers may be better suited to some managerial tasks than people are. Humans are susceptible to cognitive traps like confirmation bias. People using intuition tend to make poor decisions but rate their performance more highly, according to a 2015 University of New England analysis of psychological studies. And in an increasingly quantitative business world, managers are asked to deliver more data-driven decisions—precisely the sort at which machines excel.”

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London, comments: “What managers do mostly is identify potential, build teams, assign tasks, measure performance and provide feedback. Generally speaking, humans aren’t very good at these tasks. Someday, we might not need managers anymore.”

“Companies that make and use workforce-management software … say machines are no substitute for human judgment and ability to manage interpersonal relations. Instead, they say their software speeds up administrative work and uses data to help human managers improve decisions they previously made only by drawing upon gut instinct and experience … Sue Siegel, GE’s chief innovation officer, said she wouldn’t rule out one day working for a machine.” She comments: “If the robot has personality and a sense of humor and can understand the human condition, hey, who knows?”

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Toyota Yui: Your Father the Car

The Wall Street Journal: “If you love your car, Toyota Motor Corp. thinks your car should love you back. That’s the reasoning behind the company’s artificial-intelligence project, dubbed Yui: an onboard virtual assistant that gauges your mood, indulges in personal chitchat and offers to drive if it senses you are sleepy or distracted. In one Toyota video, shown at the Tokyo Motor Show, a woman sits on a seaside cliff, talking about her father with her car. ‘He sounds like a great father,’ says Yui, in a baritone male voice. ‘You’re a bit like him,’ the woman says.”

“To be sure, rarely do futuristic vehicles at auto shows make it to the roads. But Toyota plans to start testing a car equipped with Yui on Japanese roads in 2020. In autonomous-driving mode, the seats recline and massage your back in a manner Toyota says will slow your breathing and calm you down … Toyota imagines Yui being treated like a friend or family member, with whom access to social-media accounts is shared.”

“It wants to monitor your social-media posts to know if you are obsessed with a particular band or sports team. It also wants to monitor the news, so it has potential context when you look happy or sad. Did your favorite team drop out of the playoffs? Did your favorite singer come out with a new song? … Not all car makers see people wanting a humanlike relationship with their cars … ‘I’d rather not have this, because I’m a private person,’ said Yasuko Takahashi, a 54-year-old office worker… ‘I’d rather have the cars talk to each other, instead of me,’ she said.”

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Technology Cannot Hug a Customer

The New York Times: “Technology, some hotels are finding, has its limits. ‘Technology cannot hug a repeat guest,’ said George Aquino, the vice president and managing director of AHC+Hospitality … That is the reason his company, which manages several hotels, has been running a training program for some of its managers and other staff members to improve their hospitality skills, connect with local business leaders and learn more about local tourist offerings.”

“Similar programs are sprouting in other cities, involving not just hotels but also restaurants and even cities themselves, which see the personal touch as giving them a competitive edge. For business travelers, in particular, talking to someone knowledgeable about a city can lead to a good restaurant. And it can also help expand business leads.”

“A consulting program based in Tucson, Certified Tourism Ambassadors, trains hospitality workers. Mickey Schaefer, the chief executive and founder, said she had developed the idea in 2006 while working for the American Academy of Family Physicians to plan its conventions. Hospitality workers sometimes did not know their own cities, leading to bad experiences, she said … The program, she said, ‘is more than just helping the customer. It is helping them find the richness of whatever they are interested in.’ She added that the program also instills civic pride.”

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Is Ecom a Jobs Engine?

The New York Times: Michael Mandel, an economist, “asserts that the move toward e-commerce is creating more jobs than are being lost in the brick-and-mortar retailing industry — and that these new jobs are paying much higher wages than traditional retail jobs … He says that government numbers and conventional industry classifications don’t properly count all the jobs associated with e-commerce — in particular, the numbers miss large parts of the industry like fulfillment centers and distribution warehouses.”

“Mr. Mandel has combed through the job statistics on a county-by-county basis and come to this counterintuitive view: From December 2007 to May 2017, by his count, the e-commerce industry has created 397,000 jobs in the United States, and this compares with the loss of 76,000 jobs in the traditional retail industry. And those jobs related to e-commerce, he says, pay about 30 percent more than the brick-and-mortar ones.”

“To Mr. Mandel, it’s not that e-commerce jobs are directly replacing traditional retail jobs. Rather, he describes a world in which some of what he calls ‘unpaid household labor’ that we all do when we drive to the mall, park, shop and bring the goods home has been transferred into the labor market.” As for automation and robots, he thinks “it will take longer for them to replace humans than we think.”

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Deep Thinking: ‘Artificial’ Trumps ‘Intelligence’

LARB: From a review of Deep Thinking, by Garry Kasparov, the chess champion defeated by Deep Blue, a machine, in 1997: “The history of computer chess is the history of artificial intelligence. After their disappointments in trying to reverse-engineer the brain, computer scientists narrowed their sights. Abandoning their pursuit of human-like intelligence, they began to concentrate on accomplishing sophisticated, but limited, analytical tasks by capitalizing on the inhuman speed of the modern computer’s calculations.”

“This less ambitious but more pragmatic approach has paid off in areas ranging from medical diagnosis to self-driving cars. Computers are replicating the results of human thought without replicating thought itself. If in the 1950s and 1960s the emphasis in the phrase ‘artificial intelligence’ fell heavily on the word ‘intelligence,’ today it falls with even greater weight on the word ‘artificial’ … If a machine can search billions of options in a matter of milliseconds, ranking each according to how well it fulfills some specified goal, then it can outperform experts in a lot of problem-solving tasks without having to match their experience or insight.”

Also: “A bit of all-too-human deviousness was also involved in Deep Blue’s win. IBM’s coders, it was later revealed, programmed the computer to display erratic behavior — delaying certain moves, for instance, and rushing others — in an attempt to unsettle Kasparov. Computers may be innocents, but that doesn’t mean their programmers are.”

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Machine Platform Crowd: The Future Today

The Wall Street Journal: Machine Platform Crowd, a new book by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, “is a book for managers whose companies sit well back from the edge and who would like a digestible introduction to technology trends that may not have reached their doorstep—yet … In the authors’ terminology, ‘Machine’ is shorthand for computers running software that, with new AI techniques called ‘deep learning,’ essentially teaches itself how to make judgments superior to those of humans. ‘Machine’ also encompasses the disappearance of employees in the services sector, leaving only the customer, robots and software—what the authors refer to as ‘virtualization.'”

“‘Platform’ refers to digital environments that bring economic actors together, exploiting free, or nearly free, online access, reproduction and distribution. Uber and Airbnb are examples of new platforms. ‘Crowd’ refers to information resources created by the uncredentialed, the nonexpert and, with rare exceptions, the unpaid. Wikipedia and the Linux operating system comprise the two most impressive achievements of the crowd.”

​”Messrs. McAfee and Brynjolfsson argue that, in the latest phase of the second machine age, incumbent businesses will be pushed aside if they fail to understand how new machines and software, platforms, and the crowd enlarge the scope of digital technologies—just as manufacturers that had appeared and thrived in the first phase of the first machine age were displaced when electricity supplanted steam power in the early 20th century.”

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