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The end of check-out lines? Retailers explore grab-and-go shopping

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Michael Liedtke and Joseph Pisani, The Associated Press


Published Friday, February 8, 2019 4:27PM EST


Last Updated Friday, February 8, 2019 5:36PM EST

SAN FRANCISCO — Get ready to say good riddance to the checkout line.

A year after Amazon opened its first cashier-less store, startups and retailers are racing to get similar technology in stores throughout the world, letting shoppers buy groceries without waiting in line.

If they work, cashier-less stores will not only save time but maybe money too, for both cost-cutting merchants and customers whose shopping habits are dissected.

From cameras and sensors, the stores will know when shoppers pick up a product and put it down, and can send them a discount to tempt them to buy it. Merchants will be able to create more space for merchandise, better track when shelves need replenishing and draw more business from the hordes of customers who detest long lines.

But the monitoring system underlying cashier-less technology is bound to raise new privacy issues and worries about customer data falling into the wrong hands, especially if stores deploy facial recognition software in the omnipresent cameras watching shoppers.

“It could be scary, and it could be creepy,” says Peter Trepp, CEO of FaceFirst, a Los Angeles company that so far has only sold its facial recognition tools to retailers trying to identify shoplifters and other criminals. “But if it’s used to give people a 30 per cent coupon on something they want that is going to be a nice benefit. That kind of experience will help people embrace the technology.”

Amazon has a head start in the U.S., opening 10 convenience stores in three cities: Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle. The stores sell salads and sandwiches for lunch, everyday items like toilet paper and Advil, and groceries such as Cheerios and raw ground beef.

Shoppers scan an app to enter the Amazon Go store, grab what they want and walk out. Cameras and sensors on the ceiling track what’s taken so their credit or debit cards are automatically charged when they leave. Shoppers will know how long it took to shop, since Amazon sends an alert with their shopping time.

“It was just a phenomenal experience,” said Tom Hadfield, who bought a Coke Zero in a minute and five seconds at one of the Go stores in San Francisco while visiting the city recently.

Hadfield, who runs a technology startup in Austin, Texas, said it reminded him of the first time he rode an Uber.

“You just know it’s going to be the future,” he said.

Amazon doesn’t say how much money its cashier-less stores make. But analysts from RBC Capital Markets recently visited Amazon Go’s two San Francisco stores to come up with a number. Based on their observations of traffic patterns, they estimated about 400 to 700 customers per day will visit each of the roughly 2,000-square-foot Amazon Go stores, generating sales of $1.1 million to $2 million annually, assuming an average purchase of $10. At the high end of that range, it works out to twice the sales of a typical U.S. convenience store, RBC calculated.

Several startups are pitching technology to retailers who want to create Amazon Go-like stores of their own. One of the companies, called AiFi, says it has signed deals with the Carrefour chain in France and Zabka convenience stores in Poland. Others, including Zippin, Grabandgo, Trigo Vision and Inokyo, say they are negotiating deals with retailers in the U.S. and other parts of the world, although none are ready to identify them yet.

“Once a few big retail chains begin to deploy this technology, it’s going to snowball and we will see more and more of them doing it,” says Michael Suswal, co-founder of Standard Cognition, another cashier-less technology startup.

So far, companies working on the technology are finding ways to do without facial recognition. Their systems rely on cameras for identifying objects rather than people. Like Amazon, they rely on tailored smartphone apps to identify who is entering the store and to process the sale for whatever products are taken.

Both Standard Cognition and Zippin opened small stores in San Francisco last year that have held invitation-only demonstrations or been open for limited hours with a scant selection of merchandise.

“I like the idea of being able to come into a store, grab what you want and just walk out,” says Tomonori Nishimura, a 30-year-old researcher for Fujitsu Laboratories after getting a bag of Funyuns at Standard’s small store in San Francisco recently.

Amazon appears the most likely to make cashier-less stores a more common sight, partly because it can afford to open stores with the technology already built into them, given its current market value of about $800 billion — ranking among the most valuable companies in the world.

But the country’s biggest retailers are also trying to speed up the shopping process. Sam’s Club, the warehouse-style club owned by Walmart, opened a test store in Dallas that has no cashiers. Instead, shoppers use their smartphones to scan products and pay. 7-Eleven is testing something similar at 14 stores in Dallas.

“Waiting in line is torture,” says 7-Eleven’s Gurmeet Singh, the company’s chief digital officer and chief information officer.

Though, he added, there are no plans to get rid of cashiers. He wants people to have a choice on how they pay.

As cashier-less stores become more common, there will likely be more political pressure to ensure they still offer an option to pay by cash to avoid discriminating against lower-income consumers without bank accounts and credit cards. In anticipation of that likelihood, Standard Cognition already has set up a separate kiosk for all-cash purchases in its test store.

RBC believes Amazon eventually will also introduce its cashier-less technology in its Whole Foods supermarkets, though Amazon says it has no plans to do so. For now, Amazon seems to have its eye on smaller stores: Late last year it introduced a 450-square-foot version of Amazon Go that can be plopped into office buildings or hospitals, like a walk-in vending machine.

“Within five years, I think just about everyone will have experienced what autonomous checkout is like,” says Suswal of Standard Cognition. “And within 10 years, regular checkout stands will be very rare.”

——

Pisani reported from New York.

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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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