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Beware Uber Drivers! The Robot Cars Are Coming

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Uber Self-Driving Car

Uber announced that that the world’s first self-driving Uber cars are on the road in Pittsburgh, the Steel City. The road ahead is still long, but the implications are staggering.

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“We’re inviting our most loyal Pittsburgh customers to experience the future first,” says the Uber announcement. “If a Self-Driving Uber is available, we’ll send it along with a safety driver up front to make sure the ride goes smoothly.” Besides the safety driver, there’ll be an engineer who monitors the car at all times.

In 2015 Uber established a strategic partnership with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to jointly develop technologies for self-driving cars at the company’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, near the CMU campus. In a recent move to boost Uber’s research and production capabilities for autonomous vehicles, the company acquired Otto, a technology startup that makes self-driving trucks.

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The first “Self-Driving” Uber is a hybrid Ford Fusion equipped with a variety of sensors including radars, laser scanners, and high-resolution cameras to map details of the environment, as well as Artificial Intelligence (AI) software to coordinate everything. It’s worth noting that Ford, a top traditional car maker, is betting on autonomous cars. Ford, which is doubling the size of its Silicon Valley operations, announced four key investments for its self-driving cars, expected to be first used by ride-sharing operators like Uber and then made available to consumers.

The company is now focused on getting the technology right and ensuring its safety. In the future, the company believes this technology will mean less congestion, more affordable and accessible transportation, and far fewer lives lost in car accidents.

All seems to indicate that the impact of self-driving cars will be huge. Besides enhanced driving safety, self-driving cars could radically change everyday life, at least in major cities, by reducing the need for owning a car. With fleets of self-driving cars on demand – autonomous Zipcars, or Ubers without drivers – ready to pick up users in minutes, at the tap of a phone app, owning a car could become a hassle instead of a need.

So What About Uber Drivers?

Self-Driving Uber

Self-Driving Uber

The “Uber Economy” seems a very powerful trend. At the same time, traditional taxi drivers feel threatened by Uber’s modern app technology and flexible business model, and demand regulatory restrictions. Uber knows that it is vulnerable to regulatory attacks based on the employment status of its drivers, and has a creative solution – no drivers. And now it’s Uber drivers who feel threatened by automation.

“We know that many drivers will have questions about this technology,” said Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick in a news release co-authored with Otto founder Anthony Levandowski, now VP for self-driving technology at Uber. “It’s still very early: Self-Driving Ubers have a safety driver in the front seat because they require human intervention in many conditions, including bad weather. Even when these technology issues get fixed, we believe ridesharing will be a mix—with services provided by both drivers and Self-Driving Ubers. This is because of the limits of self-driving software and the skyrocketing demand for better transportation which people-powered transport is uniquely able to solve.”

“Technology also creates new work opportunities while disrupting existing ones… Self-Driving Ubers will be on the road 24 hours a day, which means they will need a lot more human maintenance than cars today.”

That’s certainly true, but kind of misleading, because car maintenance specialists – especially for cars full of electronic wizardry – need skills different from those of drivers, so that the people involved won’t be the same. Also, there are lots of Uber drivers – tens of thousands in New York City alone – and the company won’t need that many engineers and maintenance specialists.

In fact, this is a general trend: automation technology does create new jobs, but the new jobs are far fewer than the jobs lost, and have higher skill requirements. The question is, what to do with the masses of unemployable people. The raw logic of capitalism would suggest to let them starve, but hopefully that can’t happen in a modern society. The only viable alternative is to give everyone a guaranteed basic income with no strings attached, no ifs and no buts, sufficient for a modest but decent life.

Images and video from Uber.

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Bitcoin Giant Bitmain Enters the High Stakes AI Race

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Artificial Intelligence

The Sophon, named for a fictional proton-sized supercomputer, could be the tool to train neural networks in data centers worldwide. It is the latest project being developed by Bitmain Technologies Ltd., the bitcoin mining giant that has carved out a dominant position in bitcoin mining.

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Such chips, called application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), could unleash a new wave of distributed computing, according to Michael Bedford Taylor, a University of Washington professor who studies bitcoin mining and chips.

Sophon is due to debut before the end of the year.

Bitmain Has The Know-How

Bitmain has the background to play a role in the expanding artificial intelligence industry. The company designs the silicon that goes in bitcoin mining equipment, assembles the machines and sells them worldwide, in addition to its own bitcoin mining operation and the ones that it manages for other mining pools.

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Bitmain’s founders are not averse to playing a spoiler role.

Jihan Wu, the co-founder of Bitmain, supports the New York Agreement that seeks to double the bitcoin block size under the SegWit2X proposal, a move that some in the bitcoin community view as an attempt to give the miners control over bitcoin.

Some also believe Wu was behind the recent bitcoin split known as bitcoin cash, which at least one of Bitmain’s miners supported, a contention that Wu has denied. Wu points out that he was among the supporters of Bitcoin Unlimited, an earlier bitcoin scaling proposal that did not get activated.

Why Wu Supports Forks

Wu nonetheless said splits should be allowed. He said a fork is inevitable since people in the bitcoin community do not agree on how to best scale bitcoin.

Wu met Micree Zhan, Bitcoin’s co-founder, when Zhan was running DivaIP in 2010, a company that made a device that allowed a user to stream a TV show on a computer screen.

In 2011, Wu needed a chip designer to build a mining operation and approached Zhan. Zhan first designed an ASIC to run SHA-256, the cryptographic calculation used in bitcoin, at maximum efficiency. It took him six months to finish the job. His first rig, Antminer S1, was ready in November 2013.

Bitmain felt the sting of the 2014 Mt. Gox meltdown. But by 2015, bitcoin’s price bottomed out and later recovered. In the meantime, Bitmain introduced its Antminer S5.

Bitmain now employs 600 people in Beijing.

Also read: Bitmain clarifies its ‘bitcoin cash’ fork position

Ready To Take On Google

Bitmain has since developed a deep learning chip with improved efficiency. Users will be able to build their own models on the ASICs, enabling neural networks to deliver results at a faster pace. Google’s DeepMind unit used this technique to train its AlphaGo artificial intelligence.

Bitmain plans to sell the chips to any company looking to train its own neural nets, including firms like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. Bitmain could build its own data centers with thousands of deep learning rigs, renting out the computation power to clients the way it does with bitcoin mines.

Professor Taylor said companies like Bitmain that have excelled in bitcoin mining could take on the Googles and Nvidias since they have developed the skills to survive in an ultra-competitive and highly commoditized industry, and have the system level design expertise and the ability to reduce data center costs.

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Dutch Police Use Augmented Reality to Investigate Crime Scenes

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Dutch police are undertaking an experiment to see if augmented reality can help officers at a crime scene, according to the New Scientist.

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Using an AI system video from the body cameras worn on the officers at the scene will relay back to experts who can guide the officers by making virtual notes which the officers will be able to see via a smartphone or head-mounted device.

Dragos Datcu, principal researcher at augmented reality (AR) company Twnkls in Rotterdam, the Netherlands said:

We now have good enough software and hardware to use augmented reality at crime scenes.

What’s great about the new AI system is the fact that experts can get involved with what the crime scene investigators are doing regardless of where they are located.

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So by viewing the footage that is sent from a camera on the police vest, a chemical specialist in one location can view it while a forensic scientist in another location can too. The system is similar to the popular Pokémon Go smartphone game that has grabbed the attention of millions of people around the world.

Not Suitable for Making an Arrest

However, while the technology may prove beneficial in providing an extra pair of eyes for investigating crime scenes, when it comes to making an actual arrest the technology is not suitable for that just yet.

According to Nick Koeman, innovation adviser from the National Police of the Netherlands, the officers undertaking the AI system trial found the extra information distracting.

Of course, some may simply say that ensuring a complete team is at the scene of a crime would be more beneficial for an investigation; however, that is not always possible due to budget cuts and time constraints.

As such the use of an AI system that can cut down on the number of people involved at a crime scene without sacrificing on the required thoroughness could potentially provide the answer that many police departments are searching for.

Not only that, but by reducing the number of people at a scene it cuts the potential possibility of contaminating evidence. The use of AI gives people the chance to assess the evidence and discover additional clues without being at the crime scene.

AI could also help in court cases by helping to recreate a scene for a jury, but as Michael Buerger, professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio states, legal challenges are likely to raise when augmented reality (AR) is used in the courts.

Featured image from Shutterstock.

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Apple Patent Reveals Siri-Assisted iMessage P2P Payments Platform

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Apple has filed a patent application for a “virtual assistant in a communication session.” On first glance, application 14/713,410 might scare developers of chat bots and the like, but Apple is specific in the scope of their claims – Siri, their virtual assistant platform, will be able to directly communicate with either user in an iMessage conversation and then be able to act on the instructions given. The other participant of the conversation will not see messages intended to Siri, nor messages sent from Siri to the user activating her. This is somewhat different from current implementations of chat bots and virtual assistants in chat programs, in that the classical chat bot for, say, IRC, would be accessible by most of the users of the chatroom.

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Siri Sharing Location Information Between iMessage Participants

Source: USPTO

Siri will also be able to privately give information requested of the other party, even if the other party has not provided it. In the above image, Siri lets the user know that everyone will arrive within five minutes, clearly flexing the GPS data available to her from the other user’s iPhone. One would assume a massive update to the iMessage user agreement will be necessary, and the privacy implications of voluntarily allowing an AI to be involved in every conversation are clear. However, as shown, the default is for the user to give permission for their location information to be shared. If Siri is ever compromised, so too could every conversation on the famously secure iMessage protocol.

Siri Scheduling Meetings Between Participants

Source: USPTO

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However, Siri is not involved in conversations until she is summoned. She is added as another participant when the user summons her or, presumably, adds her manually. As seen in the image above, she can schedule meetings in addition to her other functionalities. However, perhaps most interesting, and most appetizing for malicious hackers, is the prospect shown in the below image. Users who have their financial details linked to their Apple account (which is to say, most or all users) are able to send money via iMessage at the stroke of a message.

Siri Faciliating P2P Payments in iMessage

Source: USPTO

As you can see, Siri suggests giving the funds via cash, likely due to the small amount. According to the patent application, Siri first figures out what options are available to both party, and then presents options. Both users appear to use Bank of America and Paypal, but Siri recommends cash. Both the illustrations and their descriptions in the application make it unclear which option the user selects, although the logo to the left of the success message indicates that cash was, indeed, used. Also shown are some security features in the actual sending of funds, including a thumb print scan and password. One would assume that Apple Pay will play a role in all this, and speculation has abounded that the new platform is meant to rival the Venmo system.

About a year ago, reports were in circulation that Apple and banks were discussing the implementation of such a system, and indeed this patent was first filed over a year ago. Presumably it will see ratification within the next year or two, supposing that other major AI developers like Microsoft choose not to contest it on some of its broader implications.

Microsoft and Google would surely oppose paying patent licensing fees to Apple in order to instantiate their own AI peer-to-peer payment systems, and for the most part, the patent application seems to indicate that Apple would then have sole dominion over that field. Therefore, with numerous dogs in the fight including Cortana, the future of this patent and/or the platform itself (failure to acquire a patent would not prohibit Apple from creating the platform, necessarily) is still very much up in the air. More is sure to surface in the coming months, and Hacked will keep you posted.

Images from Shutterstock and USPTO.

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