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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Bar Moxy Debuts Soft-Serve Vending Machine

The Wall Street Journal: “Make way for soft-serve vending machines … Bar Moxy, an all-day dining and drinking spot located in Midtown’s Moxy Times Square hotel, is unveiling such a machine this week—the first of its kind in New York City, according to the hospitality company Tao Group, which manages the hotel’s food and beverage operations.”

“The vending machine, which accepts credit cards, cash and Apple Pay, offers two flavors: vanilla with a spicy boost from Mike’s Hot Honey, a chile-infused sweetener, and dairy-free chocolate … The technology for dispensing soft-serve from a vending machine is fairly straightforward: Users make their selections from a video display, then wait less than a minute for the order to be processed and delivered through a small opening at the front of the machine. A spoon pops out of another opening.”

“Tao Group managing partner Matt Strauss won’t say how much the company spent for the ice-cream machine. But Rich Koehl, vice president of Stoelting Foodservice, the device’s Wisconsin-based manufacturer, said its list price is $68,000 .. Tao Group must sell a few hundred servings each month to cover costs, including for the ice cream, which it makes using its own recipe, Mr. Strauss said. The machine’s real value, he added, could come from the buzz it generates, potentially driving more customer traffic to Bar Moxy as a result.”

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Applestone ‘Butchers’ The Vending Machine

Quartz: “It’s midnight and you need a steak. What do you do? If you live near Stone Ridge or Accord, New York, you just head to the nearest Applestone Meat Co. 24-hour butcher shop. You won’t find a bleary-eyed staff of overnight shifters working though. A row of vending machines, organized by type of meat—beef, pork, lamb, sausages, and ground meat—stand ready, stocked with steaks, chops, and burgers-to-be.”

“Applestone … envisioned the system as way to reach more customers, and make the shopping process more seamless. It’s more for busy families, less about the ability to get grass-fed burgers in the middle of the night—though that would be an excellent use of them, as well … That said, anyone who wants a smile with their ribeye can purchase meat from a customer service window at the Stone Ridge store from 11am to 6pm daily. Customer service, it turns out, isn’t totally dead.”

“Vending machines are a national obsession in Japan, where they sell pretty much everything imaginable, and ramen dispensers popped up in San Francisco earlier this year. And the French have oyster vending machines.”

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How Text & Chat Gets Satisfaction

The Washington Post: “The biggest shift in customer service since the 1-800 number is underway. Some 20 million businesses now use Facebook Messenger each month to talk with customers. Apple is leading companies as diverse as Lowe’s, Marriott and Wells Fargo into taking service queries, scheduling deliveries and even paying for purchases over iMessage. And Facebook’s WhatsApp, already used by 3 million businesses, including many outside the United States, is building a business around charging companies to better serve us over chats.”

“Business messaging isn’t the same as chatbots, which are programs that try — and often fail — to provide automatic answers to questions. This is about talking to real people, though some companies blend both automation and humans. Messaging a business can bring new kinds of frustrations. Not every company is prepared for 21st-century customer service; some put the newbie employees on chat duty — others rely too much on robots.”

“LivePerson, a company that makes support software used by 18,000 companies, says when given the option, 70 percent of people chose a “message us” button over a “call us” button on a company website or app. And it says customer satisfaction rates are 25 percent higher for chatting and messaging than for calling.”

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How FreshDirect Lives Up To Its Name

The Wall Street Journal: “FreshDirect launched its online-only service in 2002 in New York. Its green and orange trucks now provide next-day delivery to customers across the New York-New Jersey, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas, with plans to expand into Boston next … Amazon, Target Corp. and other large companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to expand food delivery and build out their grocery e-commerce operations. Supermarket chain owner Koninklijke Ahold Delhaize NV’s Peapod unit, the longest-running online grocery service in the U.S., has expanded to 24 markets and is investing in technology to cut its handling and delivery costs.”

“The grocers are trying to solve one of the toughest problems in home delivery: Getting food to doorsteps in the same condition consumers would expect if they went to the store themselves … FreshDirect’s logistic hurdles start well before delivery. It must get products from its suppliers to the building, process the food, then pick, pack and ship orders before the quality degrades. That is why its new facility has 15 different temperature zones … Software determines the most efficient route for each order, and tells workers which items to pick … The site has shaved the time it takes to fulfill an order by 75%, according to FreshDirect, and doubled the number of items picked per hour, compared with the pace at its old facility in Long Island City, Queens.”

“The stakes in getting the technology right are high. FreshDirect is competing with grocery chains that often fill online orders through their stores, using a mix of staff and third-party services like Instacart Inc .. Online-only operations with centralized warehouses tend to be more efficient than logistics run out of stores, because they use fewer workers and can position goods for faster fulfillment, said Judah Frommer, a food retail analyst with Credit Suisse … FreshDirect says its relatively small scale also can be an advantage since it doesn’t have to be all things for all shoppers.” FreshDirect Chief Executive Jason Ackerman comments: “We focus on being the best local food, fresh food retailer. And a lot of the tech is to support that.”

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Alibaba Puts Tech in ‘FashionAI’ Boutique

Axios: “Everything is automated and powered by artificial intelligence — or soon will be — in a new fashion shop opening tomorrow in Hong Kong. From the time you enter, using an app to open an electronically locked sliding glass door, to the time you leave, you may never see another human apart from other shoppers …the objective is to merge e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retail — to make shoppers see them as one organism.”

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United Breaks Privacy with Passenger App

The Wall Street Journal: “United rolled out a new app to its flight attendants earlier this year with so much information about people, the airline has been reluctant to turn on all the functionality. The tool can show flight attendants information on each frequent flier’s five previous flights—green if it was a good flight, yellow or red if something went wrong, like a delay. But United is worried some customers might consider that stalking … Personal milestones like birthdays are left to the judgment of flight attendants. They can decide whether they think a customer would appreciate the recognition or recoil.”

“The devices can give flight attendants real-time information on tight flight connections for passengers, confirm whether a wheelchair has been ordered for a customer and help keep track of unaccompanied minors. Many now allow flight attendants to offer instant compensation for maladies like spilled coffee or broken entertainment screens. Better service onboard in coach will go to those with higher status.”

“Airlines acknowledge the devices have made the job more complex for flight attendants. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, says the devices can reduce situational awareness. If flight attendants have to study the screen to correctly recognize each customer, they may not be spending as much time staying alert to what’s going on in the cabin.” She comments: “I’m a little shocked there hasn’t been more backlash. I think the public has generally decided they like the personalized service, they like to be able to resolve their issues faster, not have to tell people as much. And they’ve sort of sacrificed their privacy for those conveniences.”

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MacBlur: Apple Melds Laptops & iPhones

The Wall Street Journal: “Laptops, which haven’t been exciting for years, are about to get interesting again … Many manufacturers are already using mobile chips from smartphones in laptops running Google’s Chrome OS, and are starting to put them in laptops running Microsoft Windows. Apple Inc. already designs its own chips, which are arguably the fastest mobile processors in the world—will it use them in its own MacBooks? A shift in this direction would blur the line between laptops and mobile devices further, changing our expectations of computers large and small.”

“So imagine something that looks like a MacBook and works like a MacBook, but has the guts of an iPhone. In addition to things like facial recognition and AR capabilities, it could have longer battery life, built-in always-on connectivity to fast 5G networks, and more … The size of the circuitry on a microchip, known as a process node, determines its power consumption, performance and cost. The smaller the transistors on the chip, the wider the variety of stuff you can put on it, such as wireless modems, GPS receivers, image processors and the like. Each new silicon breakthrough is named after the ever-smaller distance between certain chip components, measured in nanometers.”

“Apple is also pushing capabilities such as on-device artificial intelligence, which could enable better voice recognition and other capabilities, and the company aims to support only its own graphics software in the future. Because Apple’s in-house chip designers only have one customer—Apple—they’re able to tune its silicon to run all these things as fast as possible.”

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Computers Teach Humans To Be More Human

The Wall Street Journal: “Can a computer program make humans more human? That’s the goal of new software aimed at making call-center agents better at their jobs by assessing performance on phone etiquette and social skills like empathy and patience … Cogito is one of several companies developing analytics tools that give agents feedback about how conversations with customers are going.”

“Its software measures in real time the tone of an agent’s voice, their speech rate, and how much each person is talking … That dance is sometimes out of sync, such as when an agent speaks too quickly or too much, cuts a customer off, has extended periods of silence or sounds tired … When the software detects these mistakes, a notification pops up on a window on an agent’s screen to coax them to change their strategy.”

“These tools don’t understand every nuance of what a person says—which, for now, might assuage privacy concerns about companies listening in on conversations and analyzing that data.”

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Reefer Madness: The New Meaning of ‘Fresh’

The Wall Street Journal: “Refrigerated containers known as “reefers” can keep food fresh for more than a month, allowing distributors to safely send everything from orange juice to lobsters around the world. In the past, those trips were mostly reserved for bananas because only major distributors like Chiquita Brands International Inc. could afford to hire cargo ships with large refrigerated spaces. Meanwhile, the growing affluence of the global population, especially in Asia, has boosted demand for more-expensive foods.”

“The main reefer trade is from the Southern Hemisphere to the north. Exporters in places like South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand move fresh produce to supplement demand in the north during the winter months. The U.S. and Canada are also exporters of vegetables, citrus and other fruit along with meat and seafood, mainly to Asia.”

“One of the smaller customers, Peru’s Sun Fruits Packs SA, last year shipped 700 reefers of grapes to Philadelphia and 220 containers of avocados to Spain and the Netherlands … It takes as long as 18 days to ship grapes from Peru to Philadelphia. The fruit “is put to sleep” in a controlled atmosphere that delays the ripening process before it’s distributed to supermarkets across the East Coast.”

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