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Monthly Archives: April 2017

Amazon is to babysit several robots

Her new job at Amazon is to babysit several robots at a time, troubleshooting them when necessary and making sure they have bins to load. On a recent afternoon, a claw at end of the arm grabbed a bin off a conveyor belt and stacked it on another bin, forming neat columns on wooden pallets surrounding the robot. It was the first time Amazon had shown the arm, the latest generation of robots in use at its warehouses, to a reporter.

Complicating the equation even more, Amazon is also on the forefront of automation, finding new ways of getting robots to do the work once handled by employees. In 2014, the company began rolling out robots to its warehouses using machines originally developed by Kiva Systems, a company Amazon bought for $775 million two years earlier and renamed Amazon Robotics. Amazon now has more than 100,000 robots in action around the world, and it has plans to add many more to the mix.

The robots make warehouse work less tedious and physically taxing, while also enabling the kinds of efficiency gains that let a customer order dental floss after breakfast and receive it before dinner.

Dave Clark, the top executive in charge of operations at Amazon, said the company wanted the machines to perform the most monotonous tasks, leaving people to do jobs that engage them mentally.

“It’s a new item each time,” Mr. Clark said. “You’re finding something, you’re inspecting things, you’re engaging your mind in a way that I think is important.”

The robots also cut down on the walking required of workers, making Amazon pickers more efficient and less tired. The robots also allow Amazon to pack shelves together like cars in rush-hour traffic, because they no longer need aisle space for humans. The greater density of shelf space means more inventory under one roof, which means better selection for customers.

The Amazon warehouse in Florence shows the latest example of the kinds of jobs machines can do better thanpeople. Eight mechanical arms are in operation at the facility, a warehouse where large quantities of merchandise are broken down into smaller units and distributed to Amazon fulfillment centers across the country.

The arms go by the awkward name of robotic palletizers, but workers have given them a dash of personality, sticking signs on each one naming them after Stuart, Dave and other minion characters from the “Despicable Me” movies. Unlike the warehouse robots in Kent, which were based on the machines Amazon got through its Kiva acquisition, these arms come from an outside company.

Amazon began installing them late last year, not long after it opened the warehouse in Florence. The robot arm is configured to pick up only bins of a standard size, not objects of other dimensions. In a demonstration of future possibilities, Amazon showed a virtual reality simulation used to prototype new robot concepts, including an arm with a forklift attachment that moved pallets.

When Amazon installed the robots, some people who had stacked bins before, like Ms. Scott, took courses at the company to become robot operators. Many others moved to receiving stations, where they manually sort big boxes of merchandise into bins. No people were laid off when the robots were installed, and Amazon found new roles for the displaced workers, Mr. Clark said.

“The people didn’t go anywhere,” he said.

The question going forward is: What happens when the future generations of robots arrive?

For now, there are warehouse tasks — for example, picking individual items off shelves, with all their various shapes and sizes — where people outperform robots. Amazon has added 80,000 warehouse employees in the United States since adding the Kiva robots, for a total of more than 125,000 warehouse employees. And it says the

But start-ups and researchers are scrambling to overcome the many remaining technical obstacles. Amazon even sponsors an annual contest to encourage more innovation in the category.

Mr. Ford, the author, believes it is just a matter of time before the employment picture in Amazon’s warehouses changes.

“My assumption is this technology will eventually displace a lot of people in those warehouses,” Mr. Ford said. “I would not say that overnight huge numbers of jobs disappear. Maybe the first indication is they don’t get rid of those people but the pace of job creation slows down.”

Amazon’s Mr. Clark said history showed that automation increases productivity and, in some cases, demand from consumers, which ultimately creates more jobs. He said warehouse workers would continue to work in technologically rich environments.

Toshiba Closer Chip Unit

A goal, Toshiba says, is to sign a contract this month, but other bidders are still not excluded from talks (Toshiba had also been in discussions with bidders led by the American company Western Digital and Foxconn of Taiwan).

The company has been trying to unload its chip business as part of efforts to strengthen its balance sheet after huge losses at Westinghouse, its American nuclear unit, which filed for bankruptcy in March.

 Senate Democrats have said they would try to block any rewrite of the tax code that included these measures, arguing that they would make a mockery of Republican promises to provide relief for the middle class. And Republicans have to overcome their own disagreements before they can introduce their framework.

President Trump has been dining with senators from both parties, reaching across the aisle out of concern that it will be impossible to pass a tax bill with only Republican votes.

DowDuPont Revises Breakup Plan

The activists spoke and the chemicals giant (eventually) responded.

DowDuPont will still break itself into three businesses — an agricultural company, a materials science specialist and a specialty products business — but the allocation will be different.

It won’t be the six businesses that the hedge fund Third Point had pushed for in May, but it will take into account its warnings about units being “stranded” in the new materials science company. DowDuPont had faced a barrage of challenges from activists that also included Jana Partners, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Shares rose and three activist investors that pushed for changes — Third Point, Glenview Capital Management and Trian Partners — hailed the move.

The company also promised details of plans for share buybacks and dividend payments, The Financial Times reported.

Mike Cagney, the Social Finance chief executive who announced on Monday that he would step down, had always had the support of SoFi’s board, even as his behavior raised questions.

That backing allowed him to build the fast-growing start-up, now valued at more than $4 billion.

But there were costs. Among them were the complaints we detailed on Tuesday, and employees who spoke to The Times said that Mr. Cagney would brag about his genitalia and his sexual conquests at late-night, wine-soaked gatherings.

Other executives around him behaved in a similar manner:

• Nino Fanlo, the chief financial officer and a former executive at Goldman Sachs and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, is said to have talked openly about women’s breasts and once offered female employees bonuses for losing weight. He also said that women would be happier as homemakers. (Mr. Fanlo said it was “patently false” that he did not respect women and said that his team included women who had received promotions and professional accolades.)

• Employees said they caught colleagues having sex with supervisors at SoFi’s office in Healdsburg, Calif. Yulia Zamora, who worked as an underwriter at SoFi from 2015 to 2016, described the company as a frat house: “You would find people having sex in their cars and in the parking lot. It was a free-for-all.”

Mr. Cagney has also been accused by colleagues of being too aggressive with the business.

He once decided to put customer service representatives in charge of lending determinations, despite their lack of experience in the area. SoFi also did not have enough money to fund all the loans it was making and employees who dealt with customers were told to lie and say that people would get the money within 72 hours.


The Avro Arrow Jet Fighter

The plane was designed and built in the 1950s in what was then the fringes of Toronto. Its swept-back delta wings and early electronic flight controls gave it the look of tomorrow, as did its blinding white, matte black and Day-Glo orange paint.

In 1959, before the plane could enter military duty, the program was scrapped. Early models were cut apart and their blueprints destroyed along with the machines used to make the aircraft.

But before production began, the nine test models were fired off on rockets over Lake Ontario from a military artillery range near the marina to gauge their flightworthiness

Many other Canadians born long after blowtorches were used to cut up the planes also know the story and lament what could have been, stoking the idea, sometimes verging on conspiracy theory, that the Arrow’s cancellation is an example of the United States thwarting a Canadian ambition.

And for a project that was cut down in its prime, the Arrow has enjoyed a remarkable cultural afterlife. Each decade seems to bring yet another Arrow history.

Dan Aykroyd starred in a somewhat fictionalized mini-series about the fighter plane. One museum’s collection boasts a full-size model of the Arrowwhile another is building a flying replica. The hometown of its test pilot has monuments to both him and the plane.

Now members of Toronto’s financial community, led by John Burzynski, the chief executive of the Toronto-based Osisko Mining, have raised about 850,000 Canadian dollars to pay for the sonar search.

There had been failed efforts in the past to hunt for the models, each weighing 500 pounds and about 12 feet long and 10 feet wide. The inspiration to try again came out of a meeting Mr. Burzynski had with several other Canadian businessmen in a Chicago hotel bar about 18 months ago.

At the time, there was considerable attention to an ultimately successful expedition to find two ships from a doomed expedition in the 1840s to map the Northwest Passage through what is now Canada’s Arctic.

The Avro Arrow was initiated by a postwar Liberal government and was to have been Canada’s main contribution to Norad, the joint air defense alliance with the United States. Powered by two jet engines of a new Canadian design, the Arrow was supposed to swoop up to Canada’s Arctic at nearly twice the speed of sound and shoot down Soviet bombers making their way to North America with nuclear payloads.

Even by the standards of military programs, the Arrow’s cost spiraled out of control as the manufacturer, the British-owned A.V. Roe Canada, struggled with creating an entirely new aircraft design and new engines while also pioneering electronic flight controls and weapons guidance systems. Then came the launch by the Soviet Union of Sputnik, the first satellite.

From that point on, it was assumed that any nuclear Armageddon would be delivered by missiles. Just as its production was ramping up, the Arrow had no more reason for being.

The Arrow’s cost and its capabilities doomed its future for any other role or for sales in other markets, said Erin Gregory, an assistant curator at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa who is working with Mr. Burzynski’s group.

On Feb. 20, 1959, the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker killed the program and bought American interceptor missilesto replace the Arrow. Overnight at least 25,000 people, many highly skilled, were jobless.

While most historians agree that even a Liberal government would have made the same move, Mr. Diefenbaker’s decision was highly unpopular in Ontario. Various theories aside, government documents from the time indicate that the United States tried to help Canada fund the project in 1958 but was rebuffed.

An unusually stormy summer in southern Ontario has played havoc with the hunt for the models. The morning Mr. Shaver and his son came to the docks, high waves prevented the ThunderFish Alpha from doing much more than zigzag around the marina before being loaded back on its truck.

Last week, however, Mr. Burzynski’s group found one of the models lying upside down on the rocky lake bed and covered in zebra mussels. A photograph shows that its nose is broken or bent, making the model somewhat resemble a seal turning its head.

Top of Technology When You Write

The one technology constant in my career as a journalist seems to be Microsoft Word. I take notes for all of my stories in it on a MacBook Pro. I’ve tried Google Docs and OneNote, but can’t stick with them for reasons I can’t explain. I have a feeling I might be cremated with a copy of Microsoft Word.

Like most people, I buy a lot of stuff on Amazon, and I’ve tried most of their gadgets. I used an Echo for a while. My family mainly used it to turn on a lamp through a WeMo light switch with our voices. My kids enjoyed asking Alexa to play scatological sound effects. I enjoyed that too, if I’m being honest.

What do or don’t you like about their tech products that you use?

I find some of the things you can do on the Echo pretty silly and much easier on a smartphone app. I’ll give you an example. A while back I was installing a sprinkler system in my garden that was connected to a wireless control unit. I found out I could use the control unit with Alexa to turn on the sprinklers with my voice.

 When I told Alexa to turn the sprinklers on, a geyser of water shot up six feet in the air from a pipe I hadn’t properly secured. I yelled every Alexa command I could think of to turn it off, but apparently she didn’t like my syntax, and the water kept gushing. I finally just opened the app for the sprinkler unit and turned it off. Also, most people have their sprinklers on timers so they don’t need voice control.

What are your favorite websites, apps or other tech tools for keeping on top of technology news?

I get so much of my news diet, technology or otherwise, through Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Facebook. I have configured my phone to send me a text message every time Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, tweets because he’ll occasionally make news that way.

Another reason I’m not the most avid Echo user is that I like the sound from my Sonos speaker system better. Roughly 70 percent of the time I’m using Sonos to stream KCRW’s Eclectic24 music mix. The rest of the time, it’s Spotify and KUOW, my local NPR station. I pay for a Spotify family plan, which keeps my daughter’s playlists from contaminating my own and vice versa.

I am a contrarian on the Apple Watch, which I believe has been unfairly maligned by tech pundits. I love mine, and I get pretty frustrated by a lot of Apple products. I’m a runner and cyclist and track all of my workouts with it. I use Siri on the watch to respond to text messages.

Apple somehow managed to create a wearable device versatile enough that you can wear it on a run and with a suit. That’s impressive.

Are there technologies that you’re not crazy about?

I’ve never cared for reading books on screens, even though I almost exclusively read newspapers and magazines on my phone and computer.

I’m also skeptical of most kitchen gadgetry. I bought an Anova sous vide wand, which cooks meat and other proteins at precise, low temperatures in water baths. In most cases, I feel the results aren’t worth the effort. A cast iron pan is much cheaper