From The Editors Technology

Farm Robots are Replacing Human Agricultural Workers Faster than we Thought

Having overwhelmed the urban way of life, technology is now spreading its tentacles across rural America, what with robotics taking over the agricultural sector in a big way.

More and more autonomous machines are performing a host of labor-intensive jobs such as planting, plowing, weeding, pruning and harvesting, to name a few.

The speed with which agricultural mechanization is happening is, in part, due to the Trump administration’s stringent immigration policies – one of the contributors to the acute shortage in the supply of farm workers.

But again, blaming Trump for all of America’s woes would be a tad unfair, in that farm labor shortage was a reality even before he took over the Oval Office, though there is no denying the fact that his policies may have somewhat compounded the problem.

A 2017 survey of agricultural labor availability, conducted by the California Farm Bureau Federation, found that farmers across the Golden State were facing difficulty getting enough workers to fulfill a variety of their agricultural requirements, including “planting, cultivating and harvesting food and other crops.”

About 55 percent of the surveyed growers reported experienced worker shortages, while 69 percent of those who depended on seasonal workers reported “shortages of varying degrees,” especially where the work required the “most intensive hand labor, such as harvesting tree fruits and grapes.”

“The findings are consistent with results from a similar 2012 survey conducted by CFBF, in which over half of all respondents reported shortages,” the survey report said.

The shortage could also not be blamed on any lack of alacrity on the part of farmers in terms of recruiting efforts and offering higher wages and other incentives; the reality is that there just weren’t enough potential employees available to hire.

“The survey respondents included farm employers growing a diverse range of crops and commodities across the state, including both labor-intensive crops and those that do not require significant employee involvement,” said the report.

“A large majority of the respondents grow tree fruit, winegrapes or nuts; respondents also included growers of table grapes, vegetables, rice, wheat, corn, hay and nursery crops, as well as dairy and livestock producers.”

It, therefore, makes sense for growers to turn to mechanized and robotic alternatives to address the worsening labor situation, and they are not complaining as they discover that the transition can drive better yields and reduce their input costs.

An increasing number of large farming companies are, in fact, championing the automation cause by investing in technology firms and by testing these next-gen farm robotics made possible by advancements in processor technology.

“We’re seeing more and more of a move towards just technology in general, whether it’s robotics or mechanization,” Ryan Jacobsen – a wine grape grower and CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau – told CNBC last year.

“We’ve seen some incredible improvements there, and for us to remain competitive in California just because of so many areas of cost and the lack of needed individuals to help us bring in the harvest we’re going to have to rely upon this technology,” Jacobsen added.

Fendt, a German manufacturer of agricultural equipment, has been developing high-precision small Xaver robots that are designed to operate in swarms 24/7.

These field robots of the near future are light-weight, mobile and cloud-controlled, with fewer sensors, robust control units and a clear hardware structure, making them “extremely reliable and productive.”

The Fendt website says that “the use of a large number of small, identical robots operating in a swarm enables smooth running of the job, even in the event of the failure of a single unit.”

“Their light weight results in a high level of safety and negligible soil compaction,” claims the website.

Then there are harvest robots that use electronic sensors and techniques based on technologies used in advanced driver-assist systems and semi-autonomous cars.

“What I tell people is, we’re like self-driving cars,” Gary Wishnatzki – a Florida strawberry farmer and co-founder of Harvest Croo Robotics – told CNBC.

“We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to be better than the humans — and believe me humans damage a lot of fruit, too, when they’re picking and packing it,” he added.

To give you an idea of how efficient these agricultural robots can be, a single strawberry-harvesting robot can autonomously do the work of 30 farm employees, autonomously picking clean a 25-acre strawberry field in a matter of three days.

While the burgeoning agricultural mechanization industry and the advent of farming robotics are expected to drastically cut down the need for human intervention, there will always be a place for skilled workers.

“I don’t think automation or robotics will ever replace the farm worker,” Tom Nassif – CEO Western Growers, the trade association for agricultural producers in the West and Southwest – told CNBC.

“It will certainly cut down on the number of people we need to plant, thin and harvest our crops,” he added.

Precision farming, an offspring of the agriculture-technology marriage, is expected to become a $240 billion market by 2050, according to Goldman Sachs.

Lawrence De Maria, an analyst at William Blair, compares the surge in precision farming using advanced robotics to the Green Revolution, in so far as driving agricultural productivity is concerned.

“I think that this is the next great wave of agricultural productivity,” De Maria told Investor’s Business Daily.

He added: “The implementation of precision agriculture with automation will drive yields and reduce input costs for growers.

“It could rival the Green Revolution and mechanization as great drivers of agricultural productivity.”

Europe is not far behind when it comes to innovative agricultural technologies, what with Spanish company Agrobot working on a strawberry harvester, with as many as twelve robotic arms that can pick fruits more deftly than human hands can ever manage, and what’s more is that the machines are capable of unmanned navigation, as well.

England-based Dogtooth Technologies is developing its own version of a robotic fruit- harvester capable of not only autonomously locating and harvesting fruits that are ripe and ready for the picking but also grading their quality.

So, for better or for worse, an agricultural revolution is imminent; in fact, it’s happening as you read this!

From The Editors Technology

New Hypersonic Aircraft Will Cut Down NY-London Flight Time to Just 90 Minutes

Earlier this week, Atlanta-based aerospace startup Hermeus announced its plans to develop a hypersonic aircraft capable of transporting passengers from New York to London in just ninety minutes at speeds of up to 3,800 miles per hour (6115.5 kilometers per hour).

​“We’ve set out on a journey to revolutionize the global transportation infrastructure, bringing it from the equivalent of dialup into the broadband era, by radically increasing the speed of travel over long distances,” Hermeus co-founder and CEO AJ Piplica said in a press release.

The release announced the Seed round, which, in addition to being led by Khosla Ventures, had participation from other private investors, as well.

The May 13 release also announced the advisory board, which includes the likes of former Blue Origin president Rob Meyerson, former Lockheed Martin Skunk Works general manager Rob Weiss, and former FAA associate administrator George Nield, among others.

“Collectively, these advisors help define the Hermeus strategy with respect to safety, markets, technology, and development in order to accelerate innovation in aviation and connect the globe,” said the press release.

As fancy as the idea of a Mach 5-capable commercial aircraft boasting a 4,600-mile range may appear to be, Hermeus says it will be based on current technology and materials; nothing radically out of the ordinary.

“The product’s design enables it to operate with minimal changes to current aviation infrastructure,” says the company website.

Hermeus CEO Skyler Shuford echoed this when he told Ars Technica that the company was not “getting into anything too miraculous,” adding: “We want to do engineering, not science.”

Khosla Ventures founder Vinod Khosla said that not only can the Hermeus aircraft revolutionize commercial aviation with drastically-reduced flight times but it can also have “great societal and economic impact.”

Ars Technica reports that titanium is one of the primary materials that Hermeus plans to use on the super-plane, while the “propulsion system will be powered by a turbine-based, combined-cycle engine.”

Shuford also told the website that it would take around five years to develop a demonstrator vehicle capable of Mach 5 speeds and another three to five years to produce one for commercial operations.

Hermeus, by the way, is not the first company to go the hypersonic way, what with Boeing HorizonX, Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems coming together last year to invest $37.3 million in Oxfordshire, England-based aerospace company Reaction Engines, which is working on its own version of a hypersonic propulsion system.

Also, Spokane, Washington-based startup HyperSciences has used SeedInvest, an online platform for equity-based crowdfunding, to raise $9.2 million on a ram accelerator system that can be used to launch a projectile at 6,700 mph, about nine times the speed of sound.

Last year, NASA awarded a $125,000 grant to the startup to develop a “robust, cost effective, automated hypersonic launch system and encapsulated projectile bus  capable of delivering small payloads to altitudes as high as 100Km.”

About Hermeus

Hermeus was founded as recently as last year by AJ Piplica (CEO), Glenn Case (Chief Technical Officer), Mike Smayda (Chief Product Officer) and Skyler Shuford (Chief Product Officer), all of whom have previously worked for Atlanta-based Generation Orbit, where they helped develop the Air Force’s X-60A hypersonic rocket plane.

Smayda and Shuford also have the distinction of having worked at SpaceX – Elon Musk’s Hathorne, California-based spaceflight company.

The company recently opened offices at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Georgia, just north-east of state capital Atlanta.

Hermeus describes itself as a “startup developing a Mach 5 aircraft with the goal of massively reduced flight times and increased safety for long haul, business class air travel.”

The company’s Board of Advisors includes:

o Rob Meyerson – Former President, Blue Origin

o Rob Weiss – Former EVP/GM Lockheed Martin Skunk Works

o Keith Masback – Former CEO, US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation; Director, Source Operations, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency; Director, ISR Integration, US Army.

o Katerina Barilov – Founder, Sparkplug capital+ and Managing Director, Shearwater Aero Capital

o Dr. George Nield – Former Associate Administrator, FAA

o Mitch Free – Founder and CEO, ZYCI and Former Director of Technical Operations, Northwest Airlines

From The Editors Technology

Japan Begins Testing the ALFA-X – Its Next-Gen Bullet Train Capable of Doing 400 KMPH

A collaborative endeavor between Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Hitachi, the ALFA-X went into testing on Friday (May 10), a phase that is expected to last at least three years.

Although capable of reaching a maximum speed of 400 kilometers per hour (about 249 miles per hour), it will carry passengers at around 360 kmph (224 mph) when it becomes operational sometime in 2030.

Even at the reduced speed, the ALFA-X will be one of the fastest bullet trains in the world, if not the fastest.

The test runs of the 10-car train with a 72-foot-long nose will be conducted twice a week after midnight between the cities of Sendai and Aomori, about 280 kilometers (174 miles) apart as the crow flies.

According to DesignBooms, a shorter 52-foot-nose version will also be tested to determine which of the two offers the best aerodynamic experience in terms of wind resistance and noise.

Some of the main features of the ALFA-X include vibration sensors, temperature sensors, and, of course, the dramatically elongated futuristic-looking nose for minimizing wind pressure and noise, especially when passing through tunnels.

For braking, the train has been equipped with roof-mounted air brakes and magnetic plates on its underside.

But, before commuters get to experience the blistering speed of ALFA-X, they will have already been introduced to another bullet train, the Shinkansen N700S.

The train is undergoing tests now and is expected to go operational in 2020 on the Tokaido Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka; the timing intended to coincide with the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

However, its maximum speed of 300 kmph (186 mph) will be well short of the speeds the ALFA-X is designed to achieve.

The N700S will comprise 16 cars, two of which will be driving cars – one on each end – while the remaining 14 will be dedicated to a maximum of 1,323 passengers.

Again, the all-important nose has been given due attention, with a ‘dual supreme wing type’ design to improve airflow and reduce noise, particularly the sonic boom-type effect experienced when passing through tunnels.

However fast it goes during the tests, the ALFA-X will never be able to match the speed of Japan Railway’s maglev (magnetic levitation) train which was able to reach 603 kmph (around 375 mph) on a test track in 2015.

Here’s a look at some of the world’s fastest trains currently in service.

The Shanghai Maglev – 431 kmph (267 mph)

Based on magnetic levitation (maglev) technology, the Shanghai Maglev debuted way back in 2004.

The superfast train operates between Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport and the Longyang metro station on the outskirts of Shanghai, completing the 30-km (19-mile) run in just over seven minutes.

Fuxing Hao CR400AF/BF – 400 kmph (249 mph)

China’s Fuxing Hao CR400AF and CR400BF, nicknamed “Dolphin Blue” and “Golden Phoenix,” respectively, are the fastest non-maglev trains currently in operation.

While “Fuxing Hao” means “rejuvenation” in Chinese, the letters CR before the 400AF/BF stands for Chinese Railway.

Operating between Beijing South and Shanghai Hongqiao Station, the two trains carry up to 556 passengers each in just under five hours, which is half the time it takes on the conventional track between the two points.

Shinkansen H5 and E5 Series – 360 kmph (224 mph)

It has been 55 years since Japan launched the Hikari high-speed train service between Tokyo and Osaka, cutting down the travel time between the country’s two largest cities by a good three hours; it brought down the nearly seven-hour trip to just four hours.

Owned by Hokkaido Railway Company (JR Hokkaido), the high-speed H5 series has been operating on the Tohoku and Hokkaido Shinkansen services since its debut in March 2016.

The E5 series is operated by East Japan Railway Company (JR East) on Tohoku Shinkansen services since March 2011 and on Hokkaido Shinkansen services since March 2016. (Wikipedia).

The Italo and Frecciarossa – 354 kmph (220 mph)

The high-speed Italo and Frecciarossa, or “red arrow,” owned by NTV and Trenitalia, respectively, are among the fastest in Europe, capable of transporting passengers between Milan and Rome, or between Milan and Florence, in less than three hours.

Haramain Western Railway – 350 kmph (217 mph)

Saudi Arabia’s high-speed rail service between the cities of Mecca and Medina was officially inaugurated in Sep 2018.

The 453-kilometer (281 mi) distance between the two holiest cities in the country is covered in a mere two and a half hours at 300 km/h (190 mph), although the electric trains operating on the route are capable of higher speeds.

Deutsche Bahn ICE – 330 kmph (205 mph)

The Siemens-designed high-speed train Valero, used by DeutscheBahn ICE (Inter-City Express), makes for a spectacular sight as it speeds through Germany’s scenic countryside.

With DeutscheBahn’s long-term plans to operate these trains between Frankfurt and London, the Velaro has been designed to fit through the Channel Tunnel.

Korail KTX – 330 kmph (205 mph)

Having debuted in 2004, South Korea’s high-speed rail network may not be the newest but surely finds a place among the fastest.

The latest route connecting Incheon International Airport in the west to the eastern coastal town of Gangneung, with a stopover in Seoul, opened in 2018 – just in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Thalys – 300 kmph (186 mph)

One of Europe’s more important train services, the Thalys operates multiple services daily, connecting Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, and Cologne.

The Brussels-to-Paris service remains the most profitable, accounting for half the entire revenue, despite the extension of the German route to as far as Dortmund in 2015.

From The Editors Technology

Oculus Quest: The All-In-One VR Headset is Now Available for Order; Ships May 21

Facebook-owned Oculus launched its first ever standalone headset, the Oculus Go, in May last year.

Based on a mobile operating system, pretty much like the Gear VR, and with only three degrees of freedom, the $199 Oculus Go was pretty much limited in scope.

But now, Oculus is ready to ship out its most powerful all-in-one autonomous VR headset, yet – the Oculus Quest, previously referred to as Project Santa Cruz.

Oculus Quest is fundamentally a Rift-compatible headset that doesn’t need to be connected to a PC to be able to play compatible games.

Like the Oculus Rift, the Oculus Quest has two motion touch controllers, capable of being tracked in space, with six degrees of freedom (DoF), all of which translates to a more immersive virtual reality experience.

Since the Quest is a standalone device there are no wires or external sensors to contend with, which means you can play games without the worry of being weighed down by all the extraneous hardware.

And, as mentioned earlier, you don’t really need a PC to run this VR contraption – thanks to the four motion control sensors, as well as a new inside-out tracking technology called Insight.

Insight uses the four ultra-wide-angle sensors on the front of the headset together with computer vision algorithms to help track your position in real-time.

If you are wondering about safety issues like bumping into a wall while you’ve got the headset on, you need not worry because Oculus’ Guardian system allows you to set up virtual boundaries to let you know when you’re nearing the limit you’ve marked for yourself.

“The Oculus Guardian System is designed to display in-application wall and floor markers when users get near boundaries they defined,” says Oculus.

“When the user gets too close to the edge of a boundary, translucent boundary markers are displayed in a layer that is superimposed over the game or experience.”.

First announced back in 2016 under the codename Project Santa Cruz, as mentioned earlier, Quest will ship on May 21 with at least fifty titles, including hits like Robo Recall, Beat Saber, Moss, Superhot VR, and Creed: Rise to Glory, Journey of the Gods, Space Pirate Trainer, Sports Scramble, and even the new Star Wars game Vader Immortal.

During his keynote at the Oculus Connect 5 last year, Mark Zuckerberg said that the Quest platform was going to include three key features to provide that fully-immersive virtual reality experience that gamers are always looking for in a VR headset.

“First, it needs to be standalone that way there are no wires that are going to break your feeling of presence and you’re going to be able to take it with you,” said the Facebook CEO.

“Second, it’s got to support hands because that’s how we’re going to interact with people and objects in virtual reality,” he explained.

“And third, it has to offer six degrees of freedoms so you can move through a virtual space just like you would a physical one,” he added.

Using the local Wi-Fi network, the Oculus Quest can “cast” what’s happening on the VR screen to a TV monitor or a smartphone running the Oculus app; some games will even allow the smartphone user to play along.

Like the Oculus Go, the Quest affords 1600 x 1440 pixels of resolution per eye, with the headset’s graphics driven by a reasonably powerful Snapdragon 835 processor.

However, without the powerful GPU support of a PC, you can expect the graphics to be somewhat below par.

It’s all very good to have an all-in-one standalone but if you have to charge the headset every now and again, then the whole purpose is killed, regardless of how immersive an experience it promises.

But no worries there as the Oculus Quest boasts a lithium-ion battery with 2-3 hours playtime, depending on the title you’re playing.

Key Features, Specifications, Availability, and Price

o    OLED display panel
o 1600 x 1440 pixels of resolution per eye
o Powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor
o Lithium-ion battery with 2-3 hours playtime
o Does not need to be tethered to a PC | completely wireless
o Improved touch controls
o 6 degrees of freedom head and hand tracking
o Ships with 50+ titles
o Available in two variants: 64 GB of storage ($399) or 128 GB of storage ($499)
o Available for pre-order on the Oculus Store
o You can also pre-order in the US on Amazon, Best Buy, NewEgg, Microsoft, Micro Center, and Walmart
From The Editors Technology

Facebook Co-Founder Chris Hughes Thinks It’s Time to Break Up the Company

In an opinion piece, published Thursday (May 9) in The New York Times, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has called for regulators to break up the company.

Hughes blames the company’s slipshod privacy practices, violent rhetoric, fake news, and its lackadaisical response to Russian propaganda for the sharp decline in “Mark’s personal reputation and the reputation of Facebook” in the last couple of years.

Despite the fact that Hughes co-founded Facebook fifteen years ago and hasn’t been a part of the company in any capacity in a decade, he feels “a sense of anger and responsibility” for the way the company has gone about conducting its affairs.

According to Hughes, Zuckerberg’s obsession for growth, even if it came at the expense of security and ethics, led him to misuse the overwhelming influence and unbridled power he wields in the company.

“Mark’s influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government,” writes Hughes, going on to add that Zuckerberg is the sole deciding authority when it comes to Facebook’s algorithm configurations.

It effectively means that he is the one who determines “what people see in their News Feeds, what privacy settings they can use and even which messages get delivered.”

“I’m disappointed in myself and the early Facebook team for not thinking more about how the News Feed algorithm could change our culture, influence elections and empower nationalist leaders,” he adds.

And the fact that the people around Mark are of the yes-sir-you’re-right-sir kind; a support team that “reinforces his beliefs” rather than question them; is rather worrying, Hughes laments.

Not too long ago, Zuckerberg was under tremendous investor pressure to step down as Facebook chairman after an NYT report accused the company of hiring a Washington-based consultant, Definers Public Affairs, to malign its critics and competitors.

According to the report, “Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros.”

The NYT investigation also revealed that Facebook didn’t even spare its business relationships, “lobbying a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.”

The report went on to claim that a Definers affiliate called NTK Network – a conservative news site – ran dozens of articles attacking tech giants Apple and Google for indulging in “unsavory business practices.”

In fact, one particular story went to the extent of calling Apple CEO Tim Cook “hypocritical” for criticizing Facebook over privacy concerns, when the Cupertino-based company itself collects “reams of data from users.”

While an embattled Zuckerberg was still reeling from the NYT assault, another damaging piece by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan came along to add to the man’s miseries.

Calling him an incapable leader of “the broken behemoth that is Facebook,” Sullivan wrote that Zuckerberg hides, denies, blame-shifts and “speaks in the worst kind of fuzzy corporate clichés.”

Citing what she called “two stunning pieces of journalism,” including the NYT story and another by feature writer Eli Saslow in the Washington Post, she said that Facebook is like a “rudderless ship sailing toward the apocalypse — and we’re all along for the ride.”

“A company with Facebook’s massive reach and influence requires robust oversight and that can only be achieved through an independent chair who is empowered to provide critical checks on company leadership,” Facebook investor and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer was quoted by Business Insider as saying, at the time.

All of Facebook’s woes can, essentially, be traced back to the “data breach” scandal involving British political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, which surfaced in March 2018.

Facebook reportedly harvested the data of some 50 million Facebook users to help Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Cambridge Analytica, however, denied any wrongdoing on its part in regard to the alleged breach.

According to Facebook, Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge University professor, used an app on its platform to collect information from 270,000 users on the pretext of a “personality test” – which the users volunteered for – and then, in a clear breach of trust, shared the data with Cambridge Analytica.

The consultancy, in turn, used it to unfairly benefit Trump’s 2016 campaign; not only that, Kogan even shared the data of the volunteers’ friends.

Coming back to Thursday’s opinion piece, Hughes has also called for the creation of a dedicated agency to keep a strict vigil on tech companies.

Unhappy with Facebook’s monopolistic approach, and that’s putting it mildly, he suggests that the company should be broken up into multiple companies, and also forced to reverse its acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp to create a level playing field.

“First, Facebook should be separated into multiple companies. The F.T.C., in conjunction with the Justice Department, should enforce antitrust laws by undoing the Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions and banning future acquisitions for several years,” Hughes suggests.

Citing the antitrust claims against Whole Foods, which it settled by selling off Wild Oats brand and stores, he says that it’s still not too late for the Federal Trade Commission to act.

Hughes’ piece was bound to raise a few hackles in the Menlo Park company, and it did.

In a statement published by CNN’s Hadas Gold, former UK deputy prime minister and the current global affairs head at Facebook, Nick Clegg, said:

“Facebook accepts that success comes accountability. But “But you don’t enforce accountability by calling for the breakup of a successful American company.” 

From The Editors Technology

Key Takeaways From Microsoft Build 2019 – the Company’s Annual Developer Conference

The recently concluded Microsoft Build 2019 – the tech giant’s annual conference for developers and IT professionals – was held from May 6 to May 8 at the  Washington State Convention Center in Downtown Seattle, Washington.

More than 6,000 technologists, developers and business leaders, representing thousands of organizations from across the globe, attended the three-day event.

The conference kicked off with an insightful keynote address by CEO Satya Nadella, who touched upon the company’s achievement in its various divisions, including Azure, Cortana, Office 365, Xbox, and Edge, to name a few.

Following the lead of other tech giants like Facebook, Google and Apple, the Redmond-based company appeared to be more focussed on discouraging users, including business people, from over-indulgence in screen time.

The new features being built into most of the company’s services is indicative of this new approach, in terms of delivering more user- and developer-friendly products, rather than giving great technology that may not find practicality with many people.

“I do believe Microsoft is making real changes to focus on what I would call ‘technology that solves real problems’ versus staring at the amazement of technology that some may not want,” Moore Insights & Strategy president Patrick Moorhead was quoted by Engadget as having said.

“This is a pragmatic shift and I know goes all the way up to Satya. Apple for consumer markets has been good at this and Google is getting better at this but still has some tech for tech’s sake,” he told the technology blog.

Today’s Microsoft is not the Microsoft we knew of before Satya Nadella took over from Steve Ballmer as CEO in early 2014.

The incoming CEO’s approach was to focus primarily on bringing the company’s products and services to platforms people preferred, rather than trying to force unnecessary technology on them.

This user-driven push was glaringly obvious, and excitingly so, in practically all the new features announced for the company’s various products and services, including Edge, AI, Office 365 and Azure, among others.

After having worked with Chromium open source – the force behind Google Chrome – to enhance the user experience of its proprietary browser Edge, Microsoft is now bringing Internet Explorer to the browser by way of a new tab.

The company is also adding a new privacy feature to the browser by giving users three security options to choose from – Unrestricted, Balanced and Strict – for a more transparent and personalized experience.

Depending on the option chosen, Edge will control how third parties keep a tab on you across the internet.

‘Collections’ is another upcoming feature on Edge that will allow you to collate, share and export content as neatly formatted documents with Office integration.

At Microsoft Ignite last year, the company announced several new AI features for MS Office – one of the most extensively used office suites in the world – including “Ideas.”

Basically, “Ideas” uses AI to make life easier for users trying to create documents in Office applications by suggesting ideas, design changes, and other useful tips, which not only helps in creating the perfect document but speeds up the work as well, thereby increasing employee productivity.

For example, when you’re trying to create a PowerPoint presentation, “Ideas,” which can be accessed with a single click of the mouse, suggests layouts, images you can insert, and other useful tips that are sure to improve the quality of your presentation.

Excel also got the AI boost, allowing it to recommend charts and identify data outliers, thereby helping users with tasks like a virtual assistant.

The company is now bringing this useful feature to Word, which would take it way beyond spell check.

It will suggest grammar corrections, better phrasing, and even more inclusive language, all of which will contribute toward making you a better writer over a period of time.

“For AI features, there has to be a minimum bar of quality for you to trust it,” Malavika Rewari – Senior Product Marketing Manager, Office Intelligence – told Engadget.

She added: “We don’t release something unless it’s meeting that bar.

“And we release it in phases: First we dogfood [test] internally within Microsoft and do a lot of usability studies

“We then go to early adopters, Insider programs and early release programs, where we go to a more diverse data set.

“And then we go to consumers and then commercial users.”

The company is also working on improving the Cortana experience by making it a smarter, more interactive assistant rather than something you shout out standard commands to – thanks to Semantic Machines, a Berkeley, California-based natural language startup Microsoft acquired last year.

“Combining Semantic Machines’ technology with Microsoft’s own AI advances, we aim to deliver powerful, natural and more productive user experiences that will take conversational computing to a new level,” the company wrote in a May 2018 blog.

If the demo at the conference is anything to go by, the new, more human-like Cortana will allow you to talk to it more conversationally, without having to phrase commands.

“The next generation of intelligent assistant technologies from Microsoft will be able to do this by leveraging breakthroughs in conversational artificial intelligence and machine learning pioneered by Semantic Machines,” says Microsoft.

Another announcement that merits a mention is the Fluid Framework concept that has the potential to revolutionize the way we work with documents.

It will allow you to break down your documents into different components that can be included in other documents.

To give an example, you can take a part of Word document and drop it into another document, and any changes made to it will reflect on the original file in real time.

Developers can have a go at it later this year when Microsoft launches a Fluid Framework software development kit.

While there were many other significant announcements at the show, the point to reiterate is the fact that the company is now working on finding ways to make its products and services more people-centric.

From The Editors Technology

Germany Opens ‘eHighway’ – The Country’s First Electric Autobahn for Hybrid Trucks

In a move to fight emission from diesel-guzzling trucks, Germany has introduced an environment-friendly haulage system, starting with a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) ‘eHighway,’ with overhead electric lines to power its fleet of hybrid trucks.

Using special roof-mounted equipment, the trucks will be able to feed on power from the electrified lines and travel at speeds of up to 90 kilometers per hour (56 mph) on the dedicated stretch of the Autobahn.

Developed by Siemens, Volkswagen, and Swedish truck maker Scania, the system is being tested by a group of logistics companies in the real-world traffic scenario of the A5 between Langen/Mörfelden and Weiterstadt, one of Germany’s busiest sections of the Autobahn, south of Frankfurt in the state of Hesse.

The hybrid diesel-electric trucks developed for the multi-million-euro project are designed to run on an electric motor when traveling on the test stretch of the A5 and switch over to their diesel-powered hybrid engine when the situation demands.

A sensor-fitted pantograph on the roof of the trucks detect the presence of overhead cables and automatically extend upwards to make the all-important connection for the electric motor to take over.

Data collected from the test runs, which started on Tuesday (May 5), will be analyzed before the system can be fine-tuned for a country-wide implementation.

If all goes well, about eight percent of Germany’s Autobahn network could end up as eHighways.

Not only will they provide real-time power to the hybrids, but will also serve as charging areas for these trucks, thereby enabling them to carry on in battery mode even on non-electrified roads until there’s no more juice left in the tank; that’s when the hybrid diesel engine will take over.

The test phase alone has set the Environment Ministry back by a whopping €15 million ($16 million), not including the €14.6 million already spent on infrastructures such as masts, cables and electricity.

Powered by energy from renewable sources, the overhead cables run in both directions on the four-lane test stretch.

According to Siemens, the system is as efficient as electric rail and far more flexible, in that it can be integrated with the existing road infrastructure.

During the pilot phase of the project, which is expected to last until 2022, experts at the Technical University of Darmstadt will study the impact of the electrified Autobahn on regular traffic.

As the hybrid vehicles do not need to reduce speed while making or breaking the overhead connection, they will have no effect on the traffic flow, say the project developers.

The university, which is conveniently located near the test Autobahn, will also be able to determine whether the environmental benefits are substantial enough to justify the investment for an all-out expansion, as concerns over the cost to benefit ratio have been raised by certain quarters.

Hessian Motor Trade Association’s vice president Michael Kraft is not convinced about the economic viability of the system, saying that the vehicles are “only suitable for very specific requirements and will play a minor role in the long term,” reported the Hessenschau.

State secretary at the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter, is of the opinion that “electrified trucks are particularly efficient solution on the road to carbon-neutral transportation

The Hesse state eHighway project is the first of three pilots announced for the country, including the states of Schleswig-Holstein and Baden-Württemberg.

While construction of the test track in Schleswig-Holstein is already underway and expected to be completed within the year, work on the Baden-Württemberg track is yet to begin.

From The Editors Technology

Google Employees Worldwide Stage Sit-in to Protest Retaliation at Workplace

Google employees held a #NotOKGoogle sit-in on Monday (May 1) at offices around the world to protest against the so-called “culture of retaliation” being pursued by the company against workers for staging a #GoogleWalkout last year.

“From being told to go on sick leave when you’re not sick, to having your reports taken away, we’re sick of retaliation,” organizers of the ‘Google Walkout For Real Change’ tweeted. “Six months ago, we walked out. This time, we’re sitting in. 11am tomorrow.”

“Today, Googlers from around the world are gathering at 11 am local time to sit together and show retaliation is #NotOkGoogle,” the organizers said in another tweet.

“The stories we’ve been collecting will be shared, our demands will be read, and all will be in solidarity with those withstanding this chilling practice.”

The sit-in comes a week after the organizers released a letter, accusing the Sundar Pichai-led company of pursuing a “culture of retaliation, which too often works to silence women, people of color, and gender minorities.”

Signed by Meredith Whittaker, Claire Stapleton, and 10 others, the letter goes on to say: “Retaliation isn’t always obvious. It’s often confusing and drawn out, consisting of icy conversations, gaslighting, project cancellations, transition rejections, or demotions.”

Whittaker is the head of Google’s Open Research Group and the Google Measurement Lab, while Stapleton is the marketing manager at YouTube.

The Mountain View tech giant, however, declined to comment on the sit-in when approached by Tech Crunch and Fox News other than give a standard scripted statement, which said:

“We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and publicly share our very clear policy. To make sure that no complaint raised goes unheard at Google, we give employees multiple channels to report concerns, including anonymously, and investigate all allegations of retaliation.”

Last year, more than 20,000 Google employees around the world staged a walk-out, following a damaging New York Times report on the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against Andy Rubin, the creator of Android mobile software.

The en-masse walk-out was also a protest against pay inequality and abuse of power to victimize employees that did not tow the company line.

“We were disgusted by the details of the recent New York Times article, which provided the latest example of a culture of complicity, dismissiveness, and support for perpetrators in the face of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse of power,” the #GoogleWalkout organizers told Fox News at the time.

“Sadly, this is part of a longstanding problem, one further amplified by systemic racism. We know this culture well,” the statement said.

Both Whittaker and Stapleton have allegedly been victimized for organizing the #GoogleWalkout, leaving them with no option but to call for the #NotOKGoogle sit-in to protest the injustices meted out to them and others, since.

In fact, last month, Whittaker posted a message to a number of internal Google mailing lists, accusing the company of disbanding its external AI ethics council earlier in the month.

She was allegedly told that she would lose her job if she didn’t “abandon” her role at AI Now Institute and her work on AI ethics.

Stapleton said she was threatened with demotion two months after the walk-out and faced even more retaliation when she brought the matter to the notice of Human Resources.

“My manager started ignoring me, my work was given to other people, and I was told to go on medical leave, even though I’m not sick,” Stapleton wrote

Although the company was forced to conduct an investigation and reverse the demotion decision after she hired a lawyer, the environment remained “hostile.”

“While my work has been restored, the environment remains hostile and I consider quitting nearly every day,” she wrote.

Employee protests at Google appear to have become a recurrent feature of late, as there was another protest between the #GoogleWalkout and the #NotOkGoogle that comes to mind.

About a month after the #GoogleWalkOut, an employee backlash over the company’s clandestine ‘Dragonfly’ search engine project in China snowballed into near- unmanageable proportions for the tech giant.

Ever since the company’s secret and highly questionable project in China was exposed in August, the search engine titan had faced fierce criticism from investigative journalists and human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, in addition to mounting dissent among its own workforce.

An open letter demanding the immediate scrapping of the controversial tailored-version of Google’s popular search engine for China was published online late last year.

What started off as a 10-signatory letter entitled “We are Google employees. Google must drop Dragonfly,” was later backed by hundreds of signatories, which kept growing as murkier details continued to emerge.

The  letter started with a categorical demand to halt Dragonfly, calling the project “Google’s effort to create a censored search engine for the Chinese market that enables state surveillance.”

“We are among thousands of employees who have raised our voices for months,” read the letter.

“International human rights organizations and investigative reporters have also sounded the alarm, emphasizing serious human rights concerns and repeatedly calling on Google to cancel the project,” it continued. “So far, our leadership’s response has been unsatisfactory.”

“Many of us accepted employment at Google with the company’s values in mind, including its previous position on Chinese censorship and surveillance, and an understanding that Google was a company willing to place its values above its profits,” the letter read.

“After a year of disappointments including Project Maven, Dragonfly, and Google’s support for abusers, we no longer believe this is the case. This is why we’re taking a stand.”

From The Editors Technology

Tesla Set to Launch Right-Hand Drive Version of Model 3 in the UK, Next Week

In a Thursday tweet (Apr 25), Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed his company’s plan to launch the RHD version of its latest and, relatively, more affordable electric vehicle, the Tesla Model 3, in the UK next week.

The UK order page goes live “around May 1 or 2,” followed shortly by Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, while deliveries are expected to begin sometime in the latter half of 2019.

Also, if Musk’s tweet is anything to go by, the company is “hoping to cover all of Eastern Europe this year,” as well.

The billionaire entrepreneur did not offer any timelines, though; however, with his penchant for taking to Twitter at the drop of a hat, we can rest assured there’ll be more from him on that.

Meanwhile, keeping in mind Musk’s reputation of over-committing at times, there is always the possibility that the UK launch may not happen as early as he promises.

But again, with Electrek reporting that an RHD version of the Model 3 was spotted on the I-280 in California, last month, it appears his company is ready to meet the deadline, this time around.

As for pricing for the UK market, there hasn’t been a formal announcement, so far, but Musk did say last month that with country-specific taxes & import duties, we can expect a 25% hike on the US price of $35,000, which would mean a starting price of around £33,900 across the Atlantic.

It goes without saying, that with the UK launch and subsequent launches in other RHD countries, Tesla is looking to offset the loss of $702 million ($4.02 per share) it suffered in the first quarter of 2019 – largely, a consequence of low delivery numbers and issues with costs and pricing adjustments.

Although a loss was on the cards, nobody was expecting it to be as huge as it turned out to be, as Kelley Blue Book’s executive publisher Karl Brauer pointed out in an emailed statement, according to Tech Crunch.

“Everyone expected a first-quarter loss for Tesla, but nobody expected it to be this big,” he wrote. “What’s interesting is how there really isn’t a single, substantial factor driving this.”

According to Brauer, the contributing factors include tax rebate loss, increasing competition, and the saturation of the “initial rush” for the Model 3, not to mention competition from within from other Tesla alternatives.

However, he is hopeful that Tesla would somehow ride the tide and see this lean phase through.

“This is the new normal for Tesla,” he told Tech Crunch.

As for Musk, he’s happy to blame the 37 percent revenue loss in QI on the season, saying that people were disinclined to buying cars in winter.

Is he suggesting that all automakers experience a drop in sales revenue during the winter season? Or is it just Tesla cars they don’t like buying in winter?

Musk has, however, said that the company would change its production and delivery strategy to avoid a repeat of Q1.

“We don’t want a situation again like we had in Q1, where essentially, all the cars were arriving to customers worldwide, all at the same time,” Musk said.

“So it just makes sense to plan production according to demand moving forward,” he added.

As for the Model 3 variants being made available in the UK, your guess is as good as mine!

Will the company offer RHD versions of the two new Model 3 variants it announced last year?

In a series of tweets in mid-2018, Musk announced two new variants of the Model 3 – the dual-motor, all-wheel drive (AWD) Model 3 and the Performance version, which Musk said was capable of zero to 60mph in just 3.5 seconds

While the single motor rear-wheel-drive base model option remains, US buyers can opt for an upgraded version at an additional $5,000, which would not only give them AWD, but also an improved range of 310 miles and a zero to 60mph time of 4.5 seconds, with a top speed of 140mph.

To put that in perspective, the base Model 3 has a maximum range of 220 miles and its stationary to sixty miles per hour time is 5.6 seconds.

The $78,000 Performance version is not only good enough to give the BMW M3 a run for its money – in terms of speed and handling – but it can also “beat anything in its class on the track,” claims Musk – a tall claim, indeed, considering the fact that the M3 is quite a gladiator in the sports sedan arena.

As mentioned, the Performance is capable of zero to sixty in a mere 3.5 seconds, in addition to having a top speed of 155 mph, with a maximum range of 310 miles on a fully juiced-up battery.

The two-motor configuration in the AWD Model 3, including Performance, is conceptualized along the lines of the Model S, with the front motor optimized for range and the one on the back built for power.

Musk claims the car is capable of safely taking you to your destination on any one engine, should the other break down.

If you don’t already know, the all-wheel-drive system in an electric vehicle works differently from that of a petrol or a diesel car where the front and back axles are mechanically connected via a driveshaft so that power is transferred from a single source to all four wheels.

Tesla makes the Model 3 an all-wheel drive by putting another motor up front to power the front wheels, which in effect means that the only connection between the two axles is the surface it drives on, referred to as “through-the-road” system.

From The Editors Technology

Ford Invests $500M in Rivian; Partnership to Produce Ford-Branded EV on the Startup’s EV Platform

Ford is all set to invest $500 million in automotive startup Rivian in a “strategic partnership” that will see both the Michigan-based companies work together to develop a Ford-branded all-new battery electric vehicle using the startup’s flexible skateboard platform.

Calling it a “strategic partnership,” Rivian founder and CEO R.J. Scaringe said that it “marks another key milestone” in the company’s endeavor to expedite the “transition to sustainable mobility.”

“Ford has a long-standing commitment to sustainability, with Bill Ford being one of the industry’s earliest advocates, and we are excited to use our technology to get more electric vehicles on the road,” he said.

“We are excited to invest in and partner with Rivian,” Ford’s executive chairman Bill Ford said in a statement.

“I have gotten to know and respect RJ, and we share a common goal to create a sustainable Future for our industry through innovation,” he added.

“As we continue in our transformation of Ford with new forms of intelligent vehicles and propulsion, this partnership with Rivian brings a fresh approach to both,” said Jim Hackett – president and CEO of Ford.

“At the same time, we believe Rivian can benefit from Ford’s industrial expertise and resources,” he added.’

Meanwhile, Ford North-America Product Communications manager, Mike Levine, said in a tweeted statement that the Rivian investment was “in addition to Ford’s previously announced $11 billion investment in Evs,” adding that the company had “already confirmed two key fully electric vehicles: a Mustang-inspired crossover coming in 2020 and a zero-emissions version of the best-selling F-150 pickup.”

Having maintained a low profile for almost a decade,  Rivian announced its all-electric 5-passenger pickup truck, capable of clocking 0 to 60 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds in its top configuration, as recently as November 2018.

Established in 2009, Rivian had since been surreptitiously developing its line of electric vehicles, officially launching its first two products – the R1T pickup truck and the R1S SUV – at the 2018 Los Angeles auto show.

To give you an idea of the company’s expertise in developing EVs, and what it can develop together with Ford, let’s take a look at what the startup has already achieved with the R1T.

At 215.5-inch long and 79.3-inch wide, the R1T is a tad larger than a Honda Ridgeline or a Nissan Navara, with a generously spacious cabin that comfortably accommodates five passengers.

Futuristically designed, the vehicle has a full-width LED light bar on the front, it’s continuity broken by two vertical sets of round LEDs housed inside oval “stadium lights.”

In the absence of a traditional grille, the truck looks pretty neat and flat front-on, with just a skid plate and a couple of recovery hooks at the lower edge.

As Rivian was a relatively unknown entity in the industry, it was imperative that the vehicle’s design stood out to give the brand the desired recognition, which it seems to have done, considering the recent announcement.

“We don’t have history, we are a new brand,” Jeff Hammoud, Rivian VP of vehicle design had said at the time.

“You’ll be able to describe this [truck] to your friends quite easily,” he added.

As is the current trend in so far as electric vehicles are concerned, the R1T sits on a “skateboard” platform, but what Riviana has done differently is that it has integrated four compact  – yet powerful -electric motors.

Each motor has a 147 kW power output or 197 horsepower, which translates to a combined output of 788 hp,  vindicating Scaringe’s claim of “nearly 800 horsepower.”

However, it’s a bit more complicated than that, as the R1T is being offered in three battery-pack configurations of 105-kWh, 135-kWh, and 180-kWh – each offering a different “input to gearbox” power of 300kW, 522kW and 562kW and a range of 230+, 300+ and 400+ miles, respectively.

The 105-kWh model is rated 402 hp and 413 pound-feet of torque; the 135-kWh version should give 754 hp, plus 826 pound-feet of torque; while the 180-kWh R1T will be rated 700 horsepower and 826 pound-feet of torque.

Post-purchase, online upgrades will allow buyers to “unlock” more power, somewhat along the lines of Tesla’s “Ludicrous Mode” upgrades via software.

The RT1 also boasts a payload capacity of 800 kg and a towing capacity of 5,000 kg, in addition to a plethora of other features.

“The R1T’s lockable Gear Tunnel aft of the cab, which extends from one side of the vehicle to the other, provides more than 350 liters of space for hauling gear of any size, whether it be snowboards, golf bags or strollers,” claims Rivian.

The company also says that the R1T will be equipped with an extensive array of sensors for autonomous highway driving, including “camera, lidar, radar, ultrasonic and a high precision GPS coupled with high definition maps.”

According to the automaker, the R1T is expected to hit the roads sometime in the last quarter of 2020.

Rivian is doing a Tesla here by releasing the higher versions first – much like the Palo Alto-based company did with the Model 3.

This means, we can expect to see the 400+ and 300+ miles range versions at launch, while the 230+ miles base version will release “within 12 months of the start of production.”

The R1T will sell at a starting price of $69,000, which is not cheap by any stretch, however, it does offer fantastic value for all those dollars – at least on paper, for now.

Coming back to the Ford-Rivian tie-up, Wednesday’s press release said that Rivian would continue to remain an “independent company,” with the investment being “subject to customary regulatory approval.”

As part of the deal, Ford’s president of Automotive, Joe Hinrichs, will join the startup’s seven-member board once the investment formalities are over and done with.