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A Toaster on Wheels to Deliver Groceries? Self-Driving Tech Tests Practical Uses

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Last Thursday morning in the desert town of Scottsdale, Ariz., a tiny robotic car turned onto a neighborhood street and pulled up to a home with a Spanish-tiled roof and synthetic grass in the front yard.

Not even half the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, the toylike vehicle had no driver and no passengers. Instead, it held six bags of groceries from the Fry’s Food Store down the road. One observer oohed and aahed over how cute the car seemed.

Designed by a start-up called Nuro, the vehicle was making a test run as part of a partnership with Fry’s on an autonomous delivery service. Starting this week, Nuro said, two of these small, electric cars will chug along local streets at no faster than 25 miles an hour to deliver groceries to nearby homes.

If it all looked a bit ridiculous, that’s because self-driving is still a technology in search of a purpose. With driverless passenger services from the likes of Waymo, Uber and General Motors slow to become realities, the autonomous industry is casting about for practical uses — and hitting upon experiments like food deliveries from cars that make a golf cart seem spacious.

Other start-ups are now moving self-driving technology off roads altogether and onto sidewalks, avoiding the risks of traffic. (There are regulatory hurdles here, too.) Postmates, a San Francisco delivery start-up, announced plans last week to offer a service that features a robotic shopping cart that runs along sidewalks and has digital eyes that blink every now and again. Still other companies are targeting long-haul trucking, in which driverless vehicles carry cases of beer and other goods, but not passengers.

“After maybe biting off more than they could chew, people are concentrating on one particular part of the problem they might be able to actually make money from,” said Tarin Ziyaee, who worked on autonomous technologies at Apple and who recently left Voyage, a company that is bringing self-driving cars to retirement communities.

As a whole, autonomous vehicles are still three to four years from the point where they can make regular trips with no safety drivers, said Don Burnette, chief executive and founder of the driverless trucking company Kodiak Robotics. Autonomous passenger services, he added, are more like seven to 10 years away.

“The more people work on urban self-driving, the more they realize what a long road it is,” he said.

Nuro was founded in 2016 by Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu, two key engineers from Google’s self-driving project, which eventually morphed into the Waymo autonomous business. (Both have the same parent company, Alphabet.) Nuro, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., and has raised $92 million in funding, decided to focus on creating tiny self-driving cars — they measure 104 inches long by 43 inches wide by 70 inches high — that would solely make local deliveries.

Mr. Ferguson said there was an opportunity to automate all the trips that Americans make to local stores for goods and services — like buying groceries and picking up laundry — citing statistics that these errands account for a significant portion of all car journeys.

“If we can reduce the cost of these deliveries and get them to you faster than you could make the trip yourself,” he said, “there would be no reason for you to get in the car.”

While that endgame is nowhere close to reality, Mr. Ferguson said it was closer than autonomous passenger services. That’s because Nuro does not have to worry about the comfort and safety of anyone in the vehicle. And by making the delivery automobiles much smaller than a regular car, it can also increase the margin of error on the roads.

“There is a qualitative difference when you don’t have to worry about passengers,” he said.

The trouble is that when testing this technology, Nuro cannot put someone in the mini-vehicle who can take over in case of emergency. So the start-up began by tests in full-size cars. It is now confident enough in its technology to put its tiny vehicles on public roads.

Mr. Ferguson, who often refers to Nuro’s mini cars as rolling toasters, acknowledged that the idea can seem “weird.” But, he said, he ultimately sees them as a safer way of getting autonomous technology rolling.

Last Thursday, the Nuro cars looked even odder on second glance — because they were being trailed by regular-size vehicles. A dark Toyota Prius with a small wireless antenna perched on its rooftop was following just behind the self-driving robots. This was what the company calls a shadow car, which ferries technicians who can remotely take control of the robotic vehicle if anything goes wrong.

Nuro declined to discuss its financial arrangement with Fry’s. It said that a delivery today using its mini autonomous vehicles costs $6. Once it removes most of the human labor from deliveries, Mr. Ferguson said, the company can reduce the cost further and eventually serve people that cannot afford deliveries today.

Even so, it was unclear how much demand there would be for the service. Joe Schott, 60, who saw the tiny Nuro car pass his bicycle on a recent afternoon, said it was ideal for his sister, who is disabled. “It’s hard for her to get groceries in and out of her car,” he said.

But Keri Diggins, 45, who shops at Fry’s and teaches sociology at a local college, questioned how much the service would suit people who are elderly or physically impaired.

“A car can’t take the food to your doorstep,” she said.

When one of Nuro’s cars pulled up to the curb in Scottsdale last week, I noticed it had small motorcycle rearview mirrors on it, even though the mirrors serve no practical purpose. Federal regulations for low-speed vehicles require the use of rearview mirrors, Mr. Ferguson said.

“It’s easier for us just to put them on than to try to get exemptions,” he said.

To see how well the cars worked, I walked up to the vehicle and punched a PIN code into a small digital touch pad. The doors opened upward, revealing two compartments filled with grocery bags.

As I leaned forward to grab them, I hit my head on the open door. Then, reaching for the other bags, I hit my head again.

It was a moment that showed how difficult it can be to design machines that interact with humans. In creating its robot, Nuro had not provided as much headroom as it should have — and people behave in inexplicable ways.

“We’ll take the blame for the first one,” Mr. Ferguson said with a smile. “The second one is on you.”

In a newer design, he added, the doors will open higher, so tall people will not hit their heads.

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The 3 Best Canadian Tech Stocks I Would Buy With $3,000 for 2021

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The majority of the Canadian tech stocks went through the roof in 2020 and delivered outsized returns. However, tech stocks witnessed sharp selling in the past 10 days, reflecting valuation concerns and expected normalization in demand. 

As these high-growth tech stocks shed some of their gains, I believe it’s time to accumulate them at current price levels to outperform the broader markets by a significant margin in 2021. Let’s dive into three tech stocks that have witnessed a pullback and are looking attractive bets. 

Lightspeed POS

Lightspeed POS (TSX:LSPD)(NYSE:LSPD) stock witnessed strong selling and is down about 33% in the last 10 days. I believe the selloff in Lightspeed presents an excellent opportunity for investors to invest in a high-growth and fundamentally strong company. 

Lightspeed witnessed an acceleration in demand for its digital products and services amid the pandemic. However, with the easing of lockdown measures and economic reopening, the demand for its products and services could normalize. Further, it faces tough year-over-year comparisons. 

Despite the normalization in demand, I believe the ongoing shift toward the omnichannel payment platform could continue to drive Lightspeed’s revenues and customer base. Besides, its accretive acquisitions, growing scale, and geographic expansion are likely to accelerate its growth and support the uptrend in its stock. Lightspeed stock is also expected to benefit from its growing average revenue per user, innovation, and up-selling initiatives.     

Shopify 

Like Lightspeed, Shopify (TSX:SHOP)(NYSE:SHOP) stock has also witnessed increased selling and has corrected by about 22% in the past 10 days. Notably, during the most recent quarter, Shopify said that it expects the vaccination and reopening of the economy to drive some of the consumer spending back to offline retail and services. Further, Shopify expects the pace of shift toward the e-commerce platform to return to the normal levels in 2021, which accelerated in 2020.

Despite the normalization in the pace of growth, a strong secular shift towards online commerce could continue to bring ample growth opportunities for Shopify, and the recent correction in its stock can be seen as a good buying opportunity. 

Shopify’s initiatives to ramp up its fulfillment network, international expansion and growing adoption of its payment platform are likely to drive strong growth in revenues and GMVs. Moreover, its strong new sales and marketing channels bode well for future growth. I remain upbeat on Shopify’s growth prospects and expect the company to continue to multiply investors’ wealth with each passing year. 

Docebo 

Docebo (TSX:DCBO)(NASDAQ:DCBO) stock is down about 21% in the last 10 days despite sustained momentum in its base business. The enterprise learning platform provider’s key performance metrics remain strong, implying that investors should capitalize on its low stock price and start accumulating its stock at the current levels. 

Docebo’s annual recurring revenue or ARR (a measure of future revenues) continues to grow at a brisk pace. Its ARR is expected to mark 55-57% growth in Q4. Meanwhile, its top line could increase by 48-52% during the same period. The company’s average contract value is growing at a healthy rate and is likely to increase by 22-24% during Q4. 

With the continued expansion of its customer base, geographical expansion, innovation, and opportunistic acquisitions, Docebo could deliver strong returns in 2021 and beyond.

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Manitoba to invest $6.5 million in new systems

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WINNIPEG – The province of Manitoba is investing $6.5 million over three years to replace technical systems used in healthcare facilities, including replacing current voice dictation and transcription services with more modern systems and upgrading the Provincial Health Contact Centre (PHCC)’s triage, call-recording and telephone systems, Health and Seniors Care Minister Heather Stefanson (pictured) announced.

“Our government is investing in the proper maintenance of information and communications technology to ensure digital health information can be safely stored and shared as needed,” said Stefanson. “These systems will ensure healthcare facilities can continue to provide high-quality services and allow Manitobans to get faster access to healthcare resources and information.”

Dictation, transcription and voice-recognition services are used by healthcare providers to write reports. There are currently approximately 80 healthcare sites across Manitoba using some combination of dictation, transcription and voice-recognition services. Many of these systems are nearing the end of their usable lifespans.

“Across our health system, radiologists and nuclear medicine physicians use voice-dictation services to help create diagnostic reports when reading imaging studies like ultrasound, nuclear medicine studies, X-rays, angiography, MRI and CT scans,” said Dr. Marco Essig, provincial specialty lead, diagnostic imaging, Shared Health. “Enhanced dictation and voice-recognition services will enable us to work more efficiently and provide healthcare providers with quicker access to these reports that support the diagnoses and treatment of Manitobans every day.”

The project will replace telephone-based dictation and transcription with voice-recognition functions, upgrade voice-recognition services for diagnostic imaging and enhance voice-recognition tools for mobile devices.

“Investing in more modern voice-transcription services will help our health-care workers do the administrative part of their jobs more quickly and effectively so they can get back to the most important part of their work – providing top-level healthcare and protecting Manitobans,” said Stefanson. “The transition to the new system will be made seamlessly so that services disruptions, which can lead to patient care safety risks, will not occur.”

The new systems will be compatible with other existing systems, will decrease turnaround times to improve patient care and will be standardized across the province to reduce ongoing costs and allow regional facilities to share resources as needed, Stefanson added.

The PHCC is a one-stop shop for incoming and outgoing citizen contact and supports programs such as Health Links–Info Santé, TeleCARE TeleSOINS and After-Hours Physician Access, as well as after-hours support services to public health, medical officers of health, home care and Manitoba Families.

The current vendor that supplies communications support to the PHCC is no longer providing service, making it an opportune time to invest in an upgraded system that will provide better service to Manitobans, the minister said, adding the project will provide the required systems and network infrastructure to continue providing essential services now and for the near future.

“The PHCC makes more than 650,000 customer service calls to Manitobans per year to a broad spectrum of clients with varied health issues. This reduces the need for people to visit a physician, urgent care or emergency departments,” said Stefanson. “The upgrade will also allow Manitobans in many communities to continue accessing the support they need from their home or local health centre, reducing the need for unnecessary travel.”

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Telus and UHN deliver services to the marginalized

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Telus’s Health for Good program has launched the latest of its specially equipped vans to provide medical services to the homeless and underserved, this time to the population of Toronto’s west end. The project relies not only on the hardware and software – the vans and technology – but on the care delivered by trained and socially sensitive medical professionals.

For the Toronto project, those professionals are working at the University Health Network’s Social Medicine program and the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre. The city’s Parkdale community, in the west end, has a high concentration of homeless and marginalized people.

First launched in 2014, Telus’s Health for Good program has delivered mobile clinics to 13 Canadian cities, from Victoria to Halifax. Originally designed to deliver primary care, the program pivoted to meet the needs of patients in the COVID-19 pandemic, said Nimtaz Kanji, Calgary-based director of Telus Social Purpose Programs.

Angela Robertson of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre (CHC) asserted that marginalized people are particularly susceptible to the spread of COVID-19, as they don’t have access to the basic precautions that prevent its spread.

The clinic is located near a Pizza Pizza franchise; homeless people shelter under its overhang on the weekends, she said. Some have encampments under nearby bridges.

“The public health guidelines and requirements call for things that individuals who are homeless don’t have,” Robertson said. “If the response calls for isolation, that suggests people have places to isolate in.”

And in the shelter system, pre-COVID, the environment was very congregate, with many people in the same physical space, said Robertson. Some homeless persons, in order to keep themselves safe, have created encampments, and the city has opened up some hotel rooms across the city to create spaces for physical distancing.

Even proper hand-washing and hygiene becomes a challenge for the homeless.

“COVID calls for individuals to practice constant hand-washing. Oftentimes, individuals who are homeless use public washroom facilities that may be in restaurants or coffee shops, and many of those spaces are now closed. So there are limitations to accessing those facilities. It’s not like they’re in a community where there are public hand-washing facilities for people who are homeless.”

The mobile health clinic allows the CHC to take “pop-up testing” into communities where there is high positivity and where additional COVID testing is needed. The CHC can take testing into congregate sites and congregate housing to provide more testing, Robertson said.

“The other piece that we will use the van to do is, when the vaccine supply gets back online, and when the health system gets to doing community vaccinations … we hope that we can be part of that effort.”

COVID has contributed to a spike in cases of Toronto’s other pandemic: opioid overdoses. Some community members are reluctant to seek care because of the stigma attached to substance abuse; and COVID has a one-two punch for users.

The first rule of substance abuse is, don’t use alone; always be with someone who can respond to a potential overdose, ideally someone who can administer Nalaxone to reverse the effects of the overdose, Robertson said. “It’s substance abuse 101,” and the need for social distancing makes this impossible.

Secondly, COVID has affected the supply chain of street drugs. As a result, they’re being mixed increasingly with “toxic” impurities like Fentanyl that can be deadly.

The van itself is a Mercedes Sprinter, modified by architectural firm éKM architecture et aménagement and builder Zone Technologie, both based in Montréal. According to Car and Driver magazine, the Sprinter line – with 21 cargo models and 10 passenger versions – is “considered by many to be the king of cargo and passenger vans.”

Kanji said the platform was chosen for its reputation for reliability and robustness.

While the configuration is customized for each mobile clinic, it generally consists of two sections: A practitioner’s workstation and a more spacious and private examination room, so patients can receive treatment with privacy and dignity, Kanji said. The Parkdale clinic is 92 square feet.

“While the layouts vary across regions, they typically include an examination table and health practitioners’ workstation, including equipment necessary to provide primary healthcare,” the Telus vice-president of provider solutions wrote in an e-mail interview. The Parkdale Queen West mobile clinic is designed for primary medical services, including wound care, mobile COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts, harm reduction services, mental healthcare and counseling.

The clinic equipped with an electronic medical record (EMR) from TELUS Health and TELUS LTE Wi-Fi network technology.

Practitioners will be able to collect and store patient data, examine a patient’s results over time, and provide better continuity of care to those marginalized citizens who often would have had undocumented medical histories.

The EMR system is Telus Health’s PS Suite (formerly Practice Solutions). It is an easy-to-use, customizable solution for general and specialty practices that captures, organizes, and displays patient information in a user-friendly way. The solution allows for the electronic management of patient charts and scheduling, receipt of labs and hospital reports directly into the EMR, and personalization of workflows with customizable templates, toolbars, and encounter assistants.

But like others tested for COVID, it’s a 24-48 hour wait for results. Pop-up or not, how does the mobile team get results to patients who have no fixed address?

The CHC set up a centre for testing in a tent at the Waterfront Community Centre. Swabs are sent to the lab. “We are responsible for connecting back with community members and their results,” Robertson said.

“This is the value of having Parkdale Queen West being in front of the testing, because many of the community members who are homeless we know through our other services, and there is some trust in folks either coming to us to make arrangements to collect their results, or we know where they are.”

This is a key element of the program, said Kanji – leveraging community trust. In Vancouver downtown east side, for example, where there is a high concentration of marginalized members of the indigenous community, nurse practitioners are accompanied by native elders in a partnership with the Kilala Lelum Health Centre.

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