Showing posts with label Commerce Technology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Commerce Technology. Show all posts

April 6, 2016

Autonomous Driving Taxis to be Tested in Singapore

Photo: nuTonomy
As car companies large and small make steady but incremental progress towards the commercialization of autonomy in consumer vehicles, the big question is when we're going to finally see (and be able to benefit from) full, level 4 autonomy. The kind of autonomy where you don't have to pay attention at all, and your car simply takes you where you want to go. This is what's going to completely change transportation, turning time spent getting from where you are to where you want to be from a frustrating experience into a productive (or relaxing) one.
So far, we can buy cars that come equipped with autonomous braking, autonomous parking, and autonomous highway driving, but fully urban autonomy has only been demonstrated by a few, and not in a form that's ready for consumers to take advantage of. An MIT spinout called nuTonomy(which closed a $3.6M seed funding round in January) is ready to change everything by deploying a fully autonomous urban taxi service in downtown Singapore. Using your phone, you'll call a self-driving car to you, tell it your destination, and then sit back and let the car drive you there. This would be a massive advance for both autonomous cars and urban mobility, and we talked with nuTonomy co-founder and CEO Karl Iagnemma about how they're going to make it happen.
nuTonomy was launched in 2013, but the company was based on robotics research at MIT that goes back almost a decade. Karl Iagnemma and Emilio Frazzoli, nuTonomy's CEO and CTO, both directed mobility-focused robotics labs from MIT, and most recently, Frazzoli was part of an MIT experiment in Singapore which set up autonomous golf carts to ferry tourists around a park for a week. Singapore and MIT have been collaborating on research projects like these since 2007, and autonomy is one of the results of this partnership: part of nuTonomy's 25-member core team comes directly from the team that developed those autonomous golf carts. 

Although nuTonomy is developing automotive technology, it's essentially a software company. Software, while not always the most visible part of an autonomous driving system, is at this point arguably the most important (and most difficult). As companies like Google have demonstrated, we have the (very expensive) hardware that's necessary for autonomous urban vehicles, but the software that tells those vehicles what to do based on the data their sensors collect is still a work in progress. This is nuTonomy's secret sauce: They believe that their autonomous driving software is better than anyone else’s. So much better, in fact, that they're planning to launch a pilot of a fully autonomous taxi service in Singapore later this year.
When we say "fully autonomous," we're talking about Level 4 autonomy, or full self-driving automation. A Level 4 autonomous vehicle "is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip;" all you have to do is provide a destination and (possibly) open and shut the doors. Google's autonomous cars, in contrast, are currently at Level 3, with limited self-driving automation, where the driver is expected to be available for occasional control. It's a big step from Level 3 to Level 4, but the benefits are enormous: in addition to leaving the driving completely to the car, it also means that the car is capable of driving itself with no human inside, which is what makes a robotic taxi service possible.
For nuTonomy, as with most autonomous car companies, the progress towards full autonomy is incremental. Part of nuTonomy's business involves providing autonomous features to automotive OEMs and tier 1 manufacturers. For Jaguar Land Rover, for example, nuTonomy is working on a variety of autonomous features that will end up in dealerships in the coming years. "There's a real opportunity for companies like ours to be providers of this technology," nuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma told IEEE Spectrum. "The reason for that is the technology in this area isn't primarily automotive technology—it's really being drawn from the robotics community, technology that's been developed in robotics research labs over the last 20 years. We come to this problem as natives."
The problem with incremental progression towards autonomy in personal vehicles, Iagnemma explains, is fundamentally one of cost: "you're not trying to sell a feature to a customer, who might only be willing to pay a couple thousand dollars, which really constrains your sensor and computer cost." Removing consumer ownership from the equation with a commercial vehicle, like a robotic taxi, completely changes things, however: "Now you're trading against the cost of a human driver, so you have a lot fewer constraints on your cost," Iagnemma says. "And it's very likely that the technology will reach the market earlier in the form of this autonomous mobility-on-demand system."
A mobility-on-demand system only really makes commercial sense in urban areas, and urban areas are the most challenging for autonomous vehicles because of the density and complexity of information that needs to be understood in order to make safe and productive decisions. "This is one of the core problems of autonomous vehicles," Iagnemma tells us, "and a problem that a lot of groups in our community are really struggling with." 
“We saw an opportunity to build on a lot of the work that myself and Emilio [Frazzoli] were doing at MIT over the past 15 years, and apply it to this problem. The result is that we feel that we have an approach to the planning and decision making problem that is state of the art and robust. It's not hand-engineered if-then statements in code, it's a rigorous algorithmic process that's translating specifications on how the car should behave into verifiable software. And that's something that's really been lacking in the industry.”
IEEE Spectrum: How is nuTonomy's approach to planning and decision making for autonomous vehicles unique?
Karl Iagnemma: What nuTonomy is focusing on as a company is this decision making problem: how will cars be smart enough to navigate in urban environments? And it's not sufficient to just be safe: being safe is the necessary condition. But for people who want to use the technology, you not only have to be safe, but you have to drive in some sense the way a human drives.
Sometimes, for example, human drivers actually break the rules of the road. They do it in a principled and safe way, but it's something you do almost every time you get behind the wheel of a car. So one of the really unique and differentiating things that we're doing is building into our decision-making engine the ability for cars to actually violate the rules of the road when it's necessary to do so, it in a safe and reliable manner. 
How do you teach your software to make decisions like these?
We use a fundamentally new approach to the problem called formal logic. Formal logic is a set of tools that can be used in applications where you have safety critical semi-autonomous or automated systems that have to have verifiable software and respond to very complex scenarios. 
Basically, we provide the car with a list of rules, like the rules of the road, and then also a list of preferences, like instructions about how humans drive. We rank-order these rules and preferences: there are rules you can't violate, like colliding with something, and there are things that you'd ideally like to do, if possible. And then we use algorithmic processes to translate these rules into logical structures that are verifiable, meaning that we're sure that the structures that come out of these rules exactly represent and adhere to the rules that we define.
This verifiability is a huge benefit, because when you take an alternative approach, which is to just manually hand-engineer a ruleset, it's very difficult to convince yourself that that ruleset exactly represents the rules you'd ideally like the car to follow, especially when the ruleset is large and the situations are complex.
All humans drive differently, and some humans are comfortable with decisions that would make other drivers uncomfortable. How will you handle this variability in your software?
In my opinion, there's something of a fallacy right now in the community where we say, "the car should drive like a human." What we gloss over is that humans tend to drive in different ways, but in essence, what we mean is that an autonomous car should drive like an average, reasonable, confident, safe driver.
When these cars actually get deployed is, I think there's going to be some segment of the population that's just not going to be comfortable with autonomous vehicles. They're not going to like the way the car drives because it's going to drive differently than how they would drive, and that may create some anxiety or mistrust of the automation. I think what we're going to evolve to, as a community, is the ability to customize the performance of the car. The car will remain safe, of course, it'll just drive more how you might personally drive. But we're not there yet.
At some point, autonomous vehicles will have to make what are commonly called "ethical" decisions in the interest of safety. How will your cars be programmed do this?
As of today, we don't have any procedure for what we would commonly think of as ethical decision making. I'm not aware of any other group that does either. I think the topic is a really important one. It's a question that's very important to pose, but it's going to take a while for us to converge to a technical solution for it. We'd love to be able to address that question today, but we just don't have the technology.
The other part of it, not that this is a bad thing, is that we're putting more of a burden on the autonomous car than we do on the human driver. Human drivers, when faced with emergency situations where they might have to make a difficult ethical decision, aren't always able to make a reasonable ethical decision in that short amount of time. What level of performance are we going to hold autonomous cars to? The answer is, quite probably, a higher level of performance than we would hold a human driver to, or most people won't accept the technology. That may be unfair, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it's wrong. 
Even with its unique and sophisticated software, it's somewhat surprising that a company as young (and small) as nuTonomy could very well be the first company in the world to deploy a true Level 4 autonomous vehicle in commercial operation in an urban area. A substantial part of what is making this possible is the location: Singapore. Beyond MIT's existing academic partnership in Singapore, the government is very proactive about adopting autonomous vehicle technology, Iagnemma explains: "We see Singapore as one of the best markets in the world for this technology. They have a progressive approach towards appropriate legislation around autonomous vehicles, and then working with technology providers, car manufacturers, and other groups to insure that they'll be able to operate in a reasonable way."
The environment in the United States is very different, Iagnemma says. It's obviously a huge market for any vehicle manufacturer, but there's no consistent regulatory framework, and government agencies are frustrating to work with. Singapore, on the other hand, is small, nimble, and actively interested—providing both political and financial support. "Singapore is completely aligned behind this technology,” he says. “They want it to happen, and they're going to make sure it does."
This year, nuTonomy plans to launch a small scale pilot study of a fully autonomous on-demand mobility system in One North, a business park in Singapore near the national university. The pilot will (nuTonomy hopes) prove both the technology and the business case for a robotic taxi service in an area where it will have both practical relevance and commercial viability. nuTonomy has had test and development cars on the road in Singapore for several months now, and by the end of this year, one could take you for a ride.

February 12, 2015

Apple Computer, Apple iPhone Next Apple ieCar

Image: AP/Press Association Images 
LAST WEEK IT was reported that a mysterious Apple van was making its way around San Francisco.
After writing about how the van could be used for a self-driving car, we got an unsolicited email from an employee at Apple about “vehicle development” at the company.
This person said employees from electric car maker Tesla were ”jumping ship” to work at Apple.
“Apple’s latest project is too exciting to pass up,” the person said. “I think it will change the landscape and give Tesla a run for its money.”
Apple has about 50 employees who previously worked at Tesla, according to LinkedIn. Many of those hires were engineers who interned at Tesla.
Most of the engineers Apple has hired from Tesla specialize in mechanics, manufacturing, and robotics.
We can think of a couple of possibilities here. Apple may indeed be building some kind of vehicle, although this seems way outside the company’s core.
More likely, it’s working on new iPhone-to-car experiences that will be better than what Tesla offers in its own vehicles.
Apple has an initiative called CarPlay that lets you control certain a car’s entertainment and other systems with your smartphone. It was supposed to come out in 2014, but has been delayed, and has only just started to emerge on cars like the 2015 Hyundai Sonata.
Tesla Texas
Source: Paul Sancya/AP/Press Association Images
iPhone entry?
So perhaps this Apple employee is talking about things like using your iPhone to unlock and drive a CarPlay-partner car without needing a key — Tesla began offering this with its 6.0 system update last year.
Or perhaps a much deeper set of integrated experiences with navigation, audio, and other systems.
Whether or not Apple is working on a car of its own, the company seems to compete with Tesla for top talent.
Tesla has hired about 150 people from Apple so far, according to Bloomberg, and Apple has reportedly tried to appeal to potential Tesla hires with $250,000 signing bonuses and huge salary hikes.

December 16, 2014

The Sex of Education of Grindr’s Product’s Manager ‘Joel'

Joel Simkhai, right, confers with Matthew Norris, Grindr’s product manager, at headquarters in Los Angeles. CreditKendrick Brinson for The New York Times 

It is the kind of view that may for some induce a feeling of dread or alienation, and yet for Mr. Simkhai is a source of exhilaration. Standing at the cliff edge on a cool recent morning, he surveyed his adopted city from his new ridge top and pronounced himself content.
“I look down at that view and I feel, like, totally connected,” said the man who built a fortune on the widely accepted perception that the totality of any one human being can effectively and, for the purposes of “connecting,” be rendered in a photo the size of a thumbnail and an accompanying biographical text of no more than 140 characters — fewer if the search engine optimization of one’s brand is a concern.
It has been nearly six years since Mr. Simkhai, a wiry and slight California transplant, born in Israel in the year of the American bicentennial, introduced the world to Grindr, a geosocial networking app geared toward men who — whether they define themselves as gay or bisexual or merely “curious” — take a lively interest in those of their sex.
In both free and subscription-based versions, Grindr employs the GPS function of a smartphone to allow a user to identify men within relative proximity. With a tap on a screen, a cascade of images appears on a user’s iPhone or Android, as in a video game. Each photo is accompanied by snippet of profile text and, where previously the text was superimposed on the profile, in an iteration introduced this month without fanfare, Grindr quietly refined its format to suppress text in a semiconcealed swipe-up screen.
“Grindr is a very, very visual experience,” Mr. Simkhai said. “I’m not really a big believer in words.”
By tapping on an individual image, any given Grindr user is given the option to chat, send photos, share a precise location and — provided things go according to the implicit promise of the app’s architecture — sooner or later to do a good deal more than that. “I’m not saying inner beauty is not important,” Mr. Simkhai said. “But the visual leads to the drive to desire and to be desired.”
If Grindr did not altogether revolutionize online meetings, it has been on the market long enough to have inspired many imitators, apps with names like Scruff and Mister and Hornet and Jack’d; to have given critics of its technical shortcomings plenty of grounds for complaint; and to have provided material for moralists who accuse it of fostering misogyny and racism; and, also, as the blogger Choire Sicha once did, to characterize it as “the biggest, scariest gay bar” in the world.
Yet it remains the killer networking app in gay social media, with an estimated four million users in 192 countries, reportedly including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Ghana, places where by being overtly gay, people sometimes risk death. Its founder shirks the label “hookup app,” preferring to frame Grindr as an online meeting place. But the distinction is largely lost on such users as a Berlin-based performance artist who embarked in September on a project titled “Save the Date,” for which he planned on using Grindr to arrange sexual encounters with a different man daily for a year, or another artist who in October mounted an installation in which his raunchy Grindr conversations were projected publicly on a wide-screen.
The title of the piece was “Wanna Play?”
“You know, I never had any master plan to shift a culture,” said Mr. Simkhai, a regular on the circuit-party scene. “I made something because I wanted it for myself.”
While the idea for a geolocative man-finder had been floating around in Mr. Simkhai’s consciousness for a long time, he said, it was not until the Apple iPod Touch appeared and with it a generation of smartphones equipped to harvest GPS data that he was able to put his plan into play. With the help of a Scandinavian software developer he met online and a $2,000 grubstake, he devised and started the app in 2009.
“I was thinking about what was out there at the time,” Mr. Simkhai said one afternoon at the Grindr office, a suite of rooms on the ground floor of a nondescript West Hollywood office building.
“Craigslist was so anonymous and explicit,” he said. “And on Craigslist, you have no real identity. It’s just a post. It’s not your face or maybe not even a real ID.”
With Grindr, Mr. Simkhai said: “You can’t change your identity so much. Most dating sites require you to post a face pic and we think a lot about do we force you to post a picture of yourself, rather than a cat or scenery, because those scenery pics really drive me nuts.”
Hanging on a wall behind Mr. Simkhai’s desk is a variety of masks, including one resembling Hannibal Lecter’s face restraint, references to the Grindr logo, which is a mask. Given the historic necessity for gay men to live in concealment, a mask may seem a curious choice of logo, and yet it is not altogether at odds with Mr. Simkhai himself, who though he wears his paradoxes lightly can sometimes seem like two very unalike personalities in the body of one small man.
Close to 40, he appears far younger and has about him the air of an overgrown adolescent. Head of a successful privately held and far-reaching international business, he is so low-key as to be easily be mistaken for a parking attendant. Boyishly handsome, with a toothy smile and a shock of dark hair, he claims to be beset by physical insecurities.
“Grindr made me get fit and go to the gym more, get better abs,” said Mr. Simkhai, who occasionally posts a shirtless photograph on his own profile. “People criticize it for being superficial, but I didn’t invent that in human nature. What Grindr does is makes you raise your game.”
Grindr. CreditGrindr 
Though he has inarguably effected seismic changes in contemporary gay male culture, altering not only how men meet, but also how they portray and even see themselves, he thinks of himself, he said, primarily as a service provider.
“If someone had said to me 10 years ago is, ‘Is it your dream to be a C.E.O. and manage people?’ I would have said no,” said Mr. Simkhai, who is a charter member of the Young Presidents’ Organization, an international network of chief executives under the age of 45; a multimillionaire capable of gleefully reporting that he redeemed a $14 Yelp coupon for lunch; and a marketing wizard who admits to having conceived of the influential Grindr cascade of thumbnail images while stoned.
“I’m still wowed by how Joel took Grindr and made it so central to queer male culture, how he used its ability to mimic a social network and slide past a lot of nongay people’s ick factors,” said Jaime Woo, a Canadian writer and the author of “Meet Grindr,” a 2013 exploration of the app and its cultural aftereffects.
If Mr. Simkhai has had to give thought to the “ick factor,” it is for the simple reason that Grindr is governed by Apple’s puritanical terms of service and thus remains among the least prurient of the so-called hookup apps.
“We were constrained by Apple in the beginning,” in terms of what was permissible on the site, Mr. Simkhai said: no suggestive images, no underwear shots or pictures below the waist. And, while the app’s moderators, who are half a world away in India, are not always successful in screening out images of dubious taste, it remains dominated by inoffensive face photos, headless selfies of torsos viewed in bathroom mirrors and the occasional image of a mountain meadow or the Golden Gate Bridge.
“I see us as more of a bar than a sex club,” Mr. Simkhai said. “If you go to a bar, you don’t want to see someone with his genitals hanging out.” And if, as Mr. Simkhai said, there would be a “certain ickiness” to Grindr devolving into a mere digital sex club, that is not to suggest the desired endpoint for him or any other user is to organize a holiday food drive or a Scrabble tournament.
“Outside the gay community, people would probably say it’s just a hookup app,” Mr. Simkhai said. “And absolutely, sex is going on. But it’s more than that, because there’s always the possibility you will hit the jackpot and find someone who will move you. It has this potential for making a huge impact in your life.”
It is surely that video-game promise that keeps people coming back to the app, the Candy Crush allure of a score. In pursuit of it, the Grindr founder himself hooks up once a week on average, he said, more often when he is on the road. Agnostic about type, Mr. Simkhai is clear on “deal-breakers.” Smoking is one; another is people who live with cats.
“I like brunettes and always end up with blonds, so I don’t think I have a shiksa thing, but apparently I do,” Mr. Simkhai said one afternoon not long ago over lunch at Ammo, an organic Hollywood restaurant, where he ordered with the caution of someone adhering to a strict food plan.
Son of a Tehran-born Israeli diamond dealer and a teacher-turned-jeweler, Mr. Simkhai arrived in this country at 3. He was raised first on Roosevelt Island and later in Mamaroneck, a middle-class Westchester suburb, the middle of three boys, each of whom, as things turned out, is gay. The youngest is the New York fashion designer Jonathan Simkhai. “I downloaded the app, and searched through it a little,” he said recently by telephone. “But I haven’t used it that much, because I’m a bit of a hopeless romantic and always looking for a relationship and to have kids.”
Educated at Tufts University, Joel Simkhai had no particular specialization in information technology.
“When I first thought about Grindr, I had no idea how to make it happen, technically,” Mr. Simkhai said. “But that’s something I’m good at, taking the challenge of something people tell me can’t be done and then figuring it out.”
If the initial challenge was devising a way to meet men without resorting to traditional gay gathering places, the bars that are now largely a thing of the past, the new one for Mr. Simkhai is how to reduce the intervals of time between first contact and connection.
“What I think about a lot is speeding up the process,” Mr. Simkhai said. “That’s why the image and the visual are super important. I can tell you I’m in good shape, but if you look at the photo, you know, and then we can get past the awkwardness, having the same conversations over and over. You can get closer to the magic of what might happen.”
That is the theory, anyway.
Until then, and like most users surveyed, Mr. Simkhai tends to check his Grindr profile hourly — whether in restaurants once the bill has been paid; in clubs where from opposite corners of the room men cruise each other online; or in Starbucks or Duane Reades, where some repair to find new proximate populations.
“It’s a habit,” said Mr. Simkhai, who has been in relationships of up to two years but who is currently single. “People think I can have any boy I want, that I can point and have. And I would love that, but it’s not my reality. So I’m on the app 10 times a day looking, because you never know when you might have that magical, transformative encounter.”
That much is certain. You do not.

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