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Amazon Web Services makes pitch to retailers

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AWSAmazon is giving AWS more tools to lure retailers.Reuters

  • Amazon is pitching Amazon Web Services as a way to enable retailers to become more like Amazon.com’s own retail operation.
  • It’s in the face of stiff competition from competing cloud providers Google and Microsoft, which have beefed up their offerings.
  • AWS will still likely lose at least some of its retail business, as retailers move to what they see as more neutral platforms that can offer the same benefits.

On January 11, Phil Thompson, industry CTO for retail at Amazon Web Services, stood in front of an assembled group of retail professionals at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show in Manhattan.

His pitch: let us help you.

“This is the industry I believe that really needs to take advantage of it,” he told the retailers, referring to AWS’ technological prowess.

It was Amazon’s only official appearance at the event, apart from the AWS booth on the expo floor itself. 

Amazon Web Services is still the largest and most complete cloud services provider for most industries, including retail. It generated more than $25.6 billion in revenue in 2018, a 47% increase year over year, according to Amazon’s most recent earnings report.

Amazon is also the largest online retailer in the US, estimated to account for half of all online sales, Emarketer data shows.

AWS can’t ignore the retail part of its parent company’s business. Amazon.com is listed as the top case study for the retail industry on the AWS website, before it lists customers like Under Armour, Brooks Brothers, and Lululemon.

“They really can’t pretend that they’re not hosting their own retail site,” Dave Bartoletti, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, said to Business Insider. “I don’t think it’s unholy. I think they’re saying why not use the best platform like we do? And maybe we can help you be like us.”

Read more: Amazon generated $30 billion in cash last year, and it could be just the ammunition the company needs to start a price war

Making other companies more like Amazon

Instead of downplaying the AWS-Amazon.com connection, Amazon’s pitch is that AWS gives retailers the tools to sell like Amazon. It recently revealed two new tools aimed at retailers: Amazon Forecast and Amazon Personalize.

Forecast is “based on the same technology used at Amazon.com,” according to the AWS website, and it uses machine learning to attempt to deliver predictions for how much demand there will be for a retailer’s product.

Personalize is something most Amazon.com customers already know: it is the same technology that enables personalized recommendations for products. Amazon is now making it available for other retailers to use.

Earlier in 2018, Amazon also added Connect, which is an AWS tool based off of the structure Amazon built for its own customer call center.

“We took it, all of those algorithms, all those machine-learning things that we’ve been learning over the last 20 years, that we’ve been fine-tuning and refining,” Thompson said of the two new offerings while on stage at the NRF conference.We took that and said we’re going to make that available as a service to AWS users.”

Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services, or AWS, the retail giant's cloud-computing business.Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services.Mike Blake/Reuters

“Many retailers choose AWS for the same reasons that customers across all industries do: they want their builders to have the most functionality, access to the largest partner ecosystem, and the strongest security and operational performance,” a spokesperson for AWS told Business Insider.

“But, many of these retailers have also asked AWS to help them leverage Amazon’s decades of experience serving retail customers around the world, which is why we’ve built services like Amazon Personalize, Amazon Forecast, and Amazon Connect — all of which incorporate Amazon.com innovations and technology to help AWS’s retail customers operate more efficiently and deliver better customer experiences at lower cost.”

An ‘existential threat’

Making a retailer more like Amazon could prove a compelling pitch to retailers struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing business environment. 

But as Amazon becomes a larger company and broader retailer with its large number of private labels and expanding physical store footprint, retailers may become more wary of hosting all of their data on an Amazon server farm.

That’s not because their data is in danger. According to Amazon’s own rules, it can’t use customers’ content for any unauthorized purposes. Amazon has nothing to gain from using its customers’ data for nefarious purposes, but it has everything to lose, Bartoletti notes. 

If they started using data that they’re hosting for people to learn about their businesses, they’d be out of business so fast,” he said. “They have such a Chinese wall up between these businesses, the retail business at Amazon is not learning anything from what retail customers are doing with AWS.”

But just because Amazon says it won’t peek into the data doesn’t mean large retailers are apt to trust it.

Walmart, by far the US’ largest retailer, is working on integrating its cloud services with Microsoft’s Azure platform, Walmart CTO Jeremy King said during a separate panel at the NRF’s conference. But Walmart doesn’t want its partners and vendors to use AWS either, according to a report in the WSJ from 2017.

At the time, a Walmart spokesperson told the WSJ: “It shouldn’t be a big surprise that there are cases in which we’d prefer our most sensitive data isn’t sitting on a competitor’s platform.”

AWS likely realizes it will never hook these large retailers who sell a wide variety of goods like Amazon does. Instead, it’s likely that other retail players who already partner with Amazon to sell their goods — or don’t directly compete in categories like luxury goods — are prepared to partner with AWS.

Over time, Amazon’s bold moves may eventually scare off even these retailers, however.

“I do think more and more retailers might find it easier to work with a company that they don’t see existential threat competition from down the road,” Bartoletti said.

AWS had a large head start in cloud computing, but now other players like Microsoft and Google are catching up in their offerings, if not yet in market share. It is now completely possible to build a retail platform using these services, unlike five years ago, Bartoletti said.

“The good thing for retailers is the options keep getting better,” he said.And the difference between the cloud platforms keeps getting smaller.”

Many retailers are happy with Amazon’s suite of cloud services. But Bartoletti said he expects to continue to see retailers move off of AWS and onto competitors’ platforms.

“I think it would be crazy if we didn’t see that just because of [retailers] feeling an existential threat,” Bartoletti said.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’

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Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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Lamborghini’s latest Huracán is a supercar with a supercomputer

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Over the past few decades, technology has made vehicles safer and easier to drive. Anti-lock brakes, traction control, torque vectoring and other bits of tech keep cars on the road instead of flying into a ditch when things get hairy. It’s why newer cars typically handle corners better than older cars.

At Lamborghini, they’ve taken things further with their new Lamborghini Dinamica Veicolo Integrata or LDVI system. The Engine Control Unit (ECU) takes data from the entire car and uses it to adjust how the new Huracán EVO Spyder drives in real time (actually in less than 20 milliseconds. But that’s about as close as you can get to real time). Cars have been doing some form of this for a while but the Italian automaker needs to be able to do this at incredible speeds and in environments your typical sedan or SUV doesn’t encounter.

At Lamborghini, they’ve taken things further with their new Lamborghini Dinamica Veicolo Integrata or LDVI system. The Engine Control Unit (ECU) takes data from the entire car and uses it to adjust how the new Huracán EVO Spyder drives in real time (actually in less than 20 milliseconds. But that’s about as close as you can get to real time). Cars have been doing some form of this for a while but the Italian automaker needs to be able to do this at incredible speeds and in environments your typical sedan or SUV doesn’t encounter.

With this technology, Lamborghini is able to take the raw power of an all-wheel-drive supercar with a V10 engine and 630 horsepower and tame it, just enough, so your average driver (who can shell out $287,400) can enjoy themselves behind the wheel of the all-wheel-steering vehicle without, you know, flying into a ditch.

To achieve this, the LVDI is actually a super fast central processing unit that takes in data about the road surface, the car’s setup, the tires and how the driver is driving the vehicle. It then uses that info to control various aspects of the Huracan.

The system works in concert with the Lamborghini Piattaforma Inerziale (LPI) version 2.0 hardware sensors. This system uses gyroscopes and accelerometers located at the car’s center of gravity. It measures the vehicle’s movements and shares that data with the LVDI computer.

Lamborghini says the system is so in tune with all aspects of a drive that it can actually predict the best driving setup for the next moment. In other words, if you’re behind the wheel flying around corners on a back road, the system will recognize your behavior as you enter a corner and adjust itself.

“Where it’s possible to do a bigger jump in the future is with the intelligent use of four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering and the movement and control of the torque wheel by wheel in a way that can be more predictable and that is what we have with the Huracan EVO,” said Maurizio Reggiani, chief technology officer of Automobili Lamborghini.

Lamborghini is thinking about a world beyond a completely gas-powered engine though — it has a pipeline for hybrid and electric vehicles. But Reggiani notes that Lamborghini will probably be the last automaker to leave behind a large growling power plant.

Putting all that power to the ground in a controllable way requires an incredible amount of technology — that’s where LVDI and other pieces of technology come in. The automaker believes the result is a driving experience that matches exactly what the driver wants, regardless of the mode the car is in. Whether it be Strada, Sport, or the track ready Corsa, the vehicle (in a controlled way) should deliver.

That control allows a driver to do something that typically takes months if not years to master: drifting. It goes against what the car wants to do — lose traction. But in Sport mode it’s possible. To do that, the vehicle has to figure out (in real time and safely) things like what angle it wants to slide. The Huracán EVO Spyder has to understand that you want to drift and not fight that. If it does, it will jerk the car (and driver) back into alignment.

Lamborghini Huracan EVO Spyder

To relive your Fast and Furious dreams, the automaker started where lots of companies start with new technology: In the simulator. But a computer can’t faithfully reproduce the real world. Mostly that has to do with tires, a variable that’s tough to predict because of the density of the rubber’s compound and its wear.

Then, of course, there’s the driver. We all drive differently but the experience must be the same for everyone. It’s important that even with all that technology, it’s still a driving experience. “We don’t want to have something that substitutes the driver. We want to have a car that is able to understand what the driver wants to do,” Reggiani said.

Lamborghini is known for large engines, intense growls, striking design and bank-busting prices. But the reality is all that power would be useless if drivers couldn’t actually control the car. The automaker’s latest system makes that possible for everyone. Sure, only a select few can own a Lamborghini, but everyone can appreciate a system that makes driving safer while simultaneously more fun.

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This device makes it easy for the elderly to stay in touch with their loved ones

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Only 20 percent of over-75s in the UK have a smartphone compared to 95 percent of 16-to-24-year-olds. Digital technologies change fast, become obsolete quickly and usually need you to spend a bit of time learning how to use them.

This helps explain why most older adults tend to use what they know best when it comes to communicating, which usually means a phone call via a landline or basic mobile, instead of a quick text or social media update.

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But it doesn’t have to be this way. My colleague Massimo Micocci and I have recently designed a more modern device we hope will help older people stay in more frequent touch with instant updates, but that has a familiar feel to it. By drawing on smart materials and what we call “design metaphors”, we hope to make new technology more accessible.

When older people don’t have access to instant messaging, a phone call or a visit may be the only way for friends and family to check their loved ones are well. And doing so more than (or even) once a day might not be feasible or wanted.

Similarly, older people might feel that ringing their relatives morning and night just to let them know they’re OK would be an inconvenience. And while you can buy specialized monitoring devices that record people’s movements around their home, these often feel like an invasion of privacy.

With this in mind, we developed something that lets older people broadcast their status to their families like a social media update. Our device (which is designed for research purposes rather than commercial development) looks like an analogue radio. But it lets users transmit information about their activity captured from a wearable heartbeat sensor in a way that is entertaining and intuitive, and only shared with selected group of followers.

The keep-in-touch. Author provided

The information includes how energetic their current activity is, for example whether they are conducting an active task such as gardening, or a relaxing and restful one such as reading a book.

By designing the device to evoke technology with which people will feel instantly familiar, we’re using the principle of design metaphor. Most people find it easier to interact with devices that resemble products they have already used.

In cognitive psychology, this is known as inferential learning, referring to when someone applies established knowledge in their brain to a new context. The design of our “radio” device makes it easier for users to work out how to use it, based on their previous interactions with traditional radios – even though it has a very different function.

Giving users control

There are plenty of systems that enable people to monitor older family members. But usually these are fully passive, where the older adults are observed directly through cameras and sensors around their homes. Or they are fully active, for example mobile phones that require the older adults to stop what they’re doing and respond right away.

Instead, our device lets people choose the level of communication they want. It runs in the background and doesn’t transmit detailed information such as images of people in their homes. This makes it a much less intrusive way of letting someone know you’re OK.

We also wanted to make the device very easy to understand, interpret and remember. So rather than having an information screen that showed text or images, we wanted to create a display that used so-called smart materials to convey what the user was doing.

In this context, smart materials are those that can change color, shape, viscosity or how much light they emit. Our research showed that light-emitting materials were the best way of conveying messages without words for both under and over-60s.

The “radio” is just a research prototype but it has allowed us to understand that the combination of innovative materials and familiar artefacts can be a successful way to encourage aging users to adopt new technologies. In this way, smart materials and design metaphors could help bridge the digital gap and promote innovation among older consumers.

This article is republished from The Conversation by Gabriella Spinelli, Reader in Design Innovation, Brunel University London under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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