Supercars and Robots Push Honda Toward the Autonomous Future – BRETT BERK 06.24.17 07:00 AM


For all its prowess, there’s something weird about the NSX. Acura’s supercar uses a quartet of motors—three electric, one gas—to put power to any given wheel just when you need it most, making the supercar explosive, agile, and confidence-inspiring.

Here’s the odd part: As seamlessly as the NSX supports and elevates your driving skills, it’s hard to pin down how involved the car is. This is a common measuring stick for six-figure cars: Does it let you engage in and own your aggressions and mistakes, or is an interventionist, taking control or overriding at the first sign of trouble?

The NSX doesn’t fit easily onto this scale. Going into a tight corner too hot on a rural back road, it allows the driver to venture onto the knife-edge of trouble. And when it finally steps in to course correct, it somehow makes you feel like you nailed the turn yourself. Not scolding. Magic. The kind of magic that makes Honda more ready for the connected, shared, autonomous driving future than its doubters might assume.


This tingly feeling is familiar—or, perhaps, familial. Honda, Acura’s parent company, has long prided itself on innovation that uses technology to enhance the human experience, making it less stressful and more fun. The NSX isn’t the only unassuming tech to roll out of an R&D department that functions independent of sales, marketing, and manufacturing, almost like a startup incubator.

In every division—robotics, aviation, powersports, racing, power tools, automobiles, newfangled mobility—the company strip mines the uncanny valley, removing the boundaries between human and machine, while making the experience habitable and approachable. Consider Honda’s nearly 20-year project developing artificially intelligent, humanoid robots like Asimo. Or its geeky UniCUB stool-cum-unicycle, its self-stabilizing motorcycle, or its marginally medical Walking Assist motorized leg-supports.

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Robot Hackers Could Be the Future of Cybersecurity – By Larry Greenemeier on August 4, 2016

The final round of DARPA’s Cyber Grand Challenge pits computers against one another as human programmers watch the future of cybersecurity unfold

At a live event August 4 in Las Vegas at the annual Def Con hacker conference, seven Cyber Grand Challenge finalists are preprogramming their computers to play a digital version of “capture the flag.” Credit: Courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto Thinkstock Images \ Memitina

At a live event August 4 in Las Vegas at the annual Def Con hacker conference, seven Cyber Grand Challenge finalists are preprogramming their computers to play a digital version of “capture the flag.” Credit: Courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto Thinkstock Images \ Memitina

A dozen years ago the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held its first “grand challenge”—to see if autonomous automobiles could cross a 240-kilometer stretch of the Mojave Desert on their own. Mechanical problems and mishaps ended the race before any of the competitors had gone more than 12 kilometers. DARPA, the U.S. Department of Defense’s research arm, is looking for a better outcome Thursday in its inaugural Cyber Grand Challenge, where seven autonomous computers battle one another in what the agency claims is the “world’s first all-machine hacking tournament.”

DARPA announced the competition a couple of years ago, challenging computer programmers to create machines that could find and fix flaws in their software without human intervention. At a live event Thursday evening in Las Vegas at the annual Def Con hacker conference, seven Cyber Grand Challenge finalists are preprogramming their computers to play a digital version of “capture the flag.” The key to victory and the $2 million prize is to successfully defend one’s digital “flags”—bits of data written into programs running on the computers—from other teams’ cyber attacks while at the same time attacking competitors’ computers to find their flags.

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Robots on Track to Bump Humans From Call-Center Jobs – By TREFOR MOSS June 21, 2016 5:30 a.m. ET

Philippines’ outsourcing industry races to expand higher-end services as hedge against automation, which is already shaking up India

 In the Philippines, the outsourcing sector has high turnover. But outsourcing company TaskUs showed the WSJ's Eva Tam how adopting Silicon Valley startup culture at its workplaces helps retain talent. -- Photo: Eva Tam

In the Philippines, the outsourcing sector has high turnover. But outsourcing company TaskUs showed the WSJ’s Eva Tam how adopting Silicon Valley startup culture at its workplaces helps retain talent. — Photo: Eva Tam

MANILA—The Philippines’ economically important call-center industry has joined the growing list of businesses at risk of being gobbled up by automation.

In recent years, the Philippines, like India, has capitalized on its relatively large pool of English speakers to attract Western companies eager to cut costs by shifting customer service and other tasks to lower-wage countries.

But, as technology improves, an increasing number of the Philippines’ 1.2 million call-center workers, whose pay is modest by U.S. standards, are likely to have their outsourcing jobs outsourced to customer-service robots.

Robots already are starting to displace some humans from low-end tasks such as monitoring the performance of digital networks, according to Benedict Hernandez, an executive at the IT and Business Process Association of the Philippines, the industry trade group. And, while robots aren’t yet smart enough to replace the human phone operators who do jobs like fielding calls from bank clients or helping people reset their modems, they will be within five years or so, according to Mr. Hernandez and other outsourcing specialists.

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Sure, Alphago—a Google computer that plays the game Go—beat Lee Sedol, the world’s reigning master of the game. AI once again effortlessly outmaneuvered us poor bags of flesh. The machine revolution is nigh!

Except there’s one crucial thing AlphaGo couldn’t do: pick up those black and white Go stones and put them down on the board. A Google programmer had to do that.

“Maybe the hardest part is not playing the game but moving the pieces,” says Siddhartha Srinivasa, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s only half kidding. Srinivasa is an expert in robot manipulation—the art of grabbing, holding, and using objects. And this, it turns out, is the real challenge for our emerging Skynet. Robots are increasingly able to understand the world, but they’re terrible at handling it. If robots are really going to start helping us out in everyday life, they’re going to have to get more than smart. They’re going to have to get physical.

As an example, take a look at the Amazon Picking Challenge. In this contest, robots had to grab loose objects—like a package of Oreos or a rubber duck—and put them in a container. The winner took fully 20 minutes to grapple with a mere 10 items. “Like watching paint dry,” as one observer noted. The other teams did far worse; a toddler could have beaten them all.

The physical world defeats our bots because it’s been designed by and for humans. We’re masterful at dealing with mess and uncertainty. We intuitively grok the behavior of stacks of crap, things that roll over on their sides. Bots don’t. “Just look at your own desk,” Srinivasa says. “It’s filled with clutter, because humans are expert at dealing with clutter.”

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Will minimum wage hikes lead to a huge boost in automation? Only if we’re lucky. – Updated by Matthew Yglesias on April 2, 2016, 9:00 a.m. ET

Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images

Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images

As states like California and cities like Seattle boost their minimum wages up to $15 an hour, critics warn that job losses will be inevitable. In particular, one major line of criticism from outlets like the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Forbes’s Tim Worstall is that big increases in pay floors only lead to job loss via automation. Both critics point to initiatives at McDonald’s and Wendy’s to automate more of the service process, and warn that robots, rather than workers, will be the real winners if liberals succeed in boosting minimum pay.

This is doubly wrong. On the one hand, there’s little guarantee that increased minimum wages really will increase the pace at which labor-saving technology is developed. On the other hand, there’s no reason to think this would be a bad scenario. California’s minimum wage hike pushes the issue beyond the terrain in which it’s been studied.

If minimum wage hikes really do spur the creation and adoption of high-quality new equipment to automate elements of, say, the food service industry, then that would be a very positive outcome that implies minimum wage hikes are a great idea. Productivity-enhancing technology, after all, is a crucial pillar of social and economic progress. The problem in recent years is that we haven’t had nearly enough of it.

Given that, a huge increase in automation is really the optimistic outcome. The thing to worry about is that this won’t happen, not that it will.

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Welcome to the robot-based workforce: will your job become automated too? – Julia Carrie Wong Saturday 19 March 2016 10.24 EDT

From waitstaff to care companions and legal researchers, the future of the machine worker is here. But where does that leave humans

Meet Mabu: the personal health companion who has conversations with chronic illnesses patients, providing emotional and psychological support.

“It’s pure magic,” Eatsa promises.

At San Francisco’s first fully automated restaurant, meals appear in little glass cubbies, just 90 seconds after customers order and pay on wall-mounted iPads. It’s a human-less experience – no waitstaff, no cashier, no one to get your order wrong and no one to tip.

It’s also a parlor trick.

The moment before the meal appears, the see-through display screen that fronts the cubbies goes black for the few seconds when you might catch sight of the hand that feeds you.

Eatsa has not yet achieved total automation. The company admits it employs a small kitchen staff, and one employee is present in the front of the house, answering questions about how to order and dodging questions about what’s going on behind the wall of magic cubbies. (“Whatever you imagine,” he teases.)

But the restaurant, which opened in August and has already expanded to Los Angeles, offers a glimpse of a fast-approaching reality, where whole categories of tasks that were once the exclusive province of humans can be accomplished quicker, cheaper, and more reliably by machines.

The future is here, and no one’s job is safe.

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Why Stephen Hawking is more afraid of capitalism than robots – Updated by Brian Resnick on February 27, 2016, 10:10 a.m. ET

Professor Stephen Hawking speaks during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics at the Olympic Stadium on August 29, 2012, in London, England. — Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In October, a Reddit user asked Stephen Hawking if he thinks robots are coming to take all of our jobs.

“In particular, do you foresee a world where people work less because so much work is automated?” the user asked the renowned physicist on an Ask Me Anything thread.

The question isn’t crazy. Computers are getting smarter and more efficient all the time. It’s conceivable that we one day will reach a point where machines’ output is simply much more valuable than humans’.

Hawking didn’t discount the notion that machines may replace us. But he said whether this is good or bad depends on how the wealth produced by machines is distributed. That is, Hawking is more concerned about capitalism than he is about robots. He wrote:

…Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

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