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News Roundup: F8, Robot phones, and MacOS

A roundup of the week’s tech news including the new Boston Dynamics, AI waiters, and predicting gentrification.

F8

Facebook held its annual developer conference this week. The company kindly laid out its 10 year plan for world domination, including video, search, messaging, connectivity, Artificial Intelligence and Virtual/Augmented Reality.

fb-rm

There was a big focus on FB Messenger and the introduction of bots; the company has partnered with over 30 companies to provide automated customer service, and will open up the platform to allow others to develop their own bots. M, Facebook’s own chatbot assistant is reportedly still months away from released.

The company also revealed it had poached one of Google’s executive to lead its new hardware division. The company laid out its vision for the day when AR/VR glasses were indistinguishable from regular spectacles, as well as revealing its design for a high-quality 3D-360 video capture system.

Internet.org and Facebook’s Free Basics service may have a low take-up, but more than half of users switch to a paid service within a month of joining, suggesting Zuckerberg’s Facebook for All plan is slowly working.

We also learned that FB at Work – the social network’s attempt at moving into the enterprise, is still happening, but has been delayed until later this year.

The pro-immigration Zuckerberg wasn’t afraid to take a pot-shot at Donald Trump. “Now, as I look around and travel around the world, I'm starting to see people and nations turning inward against this idea of a connected world,” he said. “I hear fearful voices call for building walls and reducing trade and stopping immigration.”

A spokesperson for Trump wasn’t very impressed. “I think I'll take Mark Zuckerberg seriously when he gives up all of his private security, moves out of his posh neighborhood, and comes live in a modest neighborhood near a border town,” she told NBC.

Who needs chatbots, when you’ve got robot phones?

While automated chatbots are taking over customer service, and artificial intelligence will be taking over the world, Sharp have made the most adorable little robot phone you’ll ever see.

The $1800 RoBoHon, first revealed last year and due to go on sale next month, is a walking, talking cute-as-a-button robot with smartphone capabilities. Apparently its AI capabilities will enable it not only to understand voice commands, but also recognise your face and greet you by name.

Standing at nearly 8 inches and featuring arms & legs, it’s not particularly practical to put in your pocket. Despite the steep price tag and general ridiculousness of the product, Sharp hopes to sell 5000 RoBoHons a month.

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Sadly, requests by IDG Connect to adopt one of the little dudes have so far come to nothing, as a Sharp spokesperson says they’re not sending the little buggers out of their home country, perhaps due to lack of passport.

Quite what Foxconn – who recently acquired Sharp – think of the little munchkin is unknown.

The new Boston Dynamics

Could Schaft be why Alphabet is trying to offload Boston Dynamics? The robotics company, spun out of the University of Tokyo and acquired by Google in 2013, showed off its latest design at the New Economic Summit (NEST) 2016 last week. The bipedal machine doesn’t have the same eerie natural walk of BD’s machines, but rather a rigid, mechanical movement that seems to work just as effectively. Perhaps the higher-ups at Alphabet think there’s more legs in Schaft’s work than BD’s.

Elsewhere, Sergey Brin provided a small insight into the profitability of some of Alphabet’s non-Google units. “It’s true that as whole our “Other Bets” are not yet profitable,” he said this week. “But some of them are, including Verily on a cash basis and increasingly so.” Alphabet’s earnings for 2015 showed its “Other Bets” brought in $448 million in revenue but suffered a $3.6 billion loss for the year, but didn’t go into details.

MacOS?

Is OS X about to get a rebrand? Apple reportedly listed its desktop operating system as “MacOS” on a new landing page for its environmental initiatives. The page has since been changed back to OSX, but that hasn’t stopped the rumour mill. The change would make sense, given the Cupertino Company’s naming habits for all of its other operating systems – iOS, tvOS, watchOS etc.

M&A

A CEO of a startup Unicorn says the billion-dollar goal has led to irresponsible behaviour. “A ridiculous amount of unicorns have a $1 billion valuation. Why is that? Because it is a purpose in itself,” Adyen CEO Pieter van der Does said this week. “The unicorn list has led to that — it's a leaderboard and you want to be on it, so that has led to stupid behaviour. That is now hitting us.”

Alibaba has acquired Rocket Internet’s Asia eCommerce company Lazada, Giphy has snapped up GifGrabber, Twitter has bought feedback tool Peer, Logitech has purchased Jaybird, AirBNB has acqui-hired blockchain startup ChangeCoin, OpenGov now owns Ontodia, Mitel has snaffled Polycom, and Shopify has got its hands on Kit CRM.

Shuddle, an Uber-esque taxi service that give background checks to its drivers, is shutting up shop. The merger of Asian PC manufacturers Fujitsu, Toshiba, and Vaio Corp is apparently on the skids, according to the WSJ.

NSA

-   The European Parliament has finally voted through the new GDPR regulations, which will come into force in April 2018. And no, a Brexit wouldn’t mean we get out of them.

-          The FBI didn’t use Cellebrite to get into the San Bernadino phone, but actually bought a previously-unknown vulnerability. Apparently they haven’t found anything useful so far.

-          The Canadian police have BlackBerry’s global decryption keys, and have done since 2010.

Uber released its first transparency report this week. The on-demand taxi service saw over 400 data requests from the US government in the last six months, and the company provides some data is 85% of cases. Those requests affected almost 12 million riders and 600,000 drivers.

Cars

Some predict that one day driverless cars will rule the road and human-piloted automobiles won’t be allowed on our highways. One group are arguing some roads should already make the switch.  Marlo Anderson, host of a talk show called ‘The Tech Ranch” and the Central North Trade Corridor Association (CNATCA) are calling for US Highway 83 to be made into a dedicated road for driverless vehicles. The proposal says the 1,885-mile-long road, which runs from North Dakota through to Texas, is underused and “would be the first in the United States to allow driverless vehicles to transport cargo and humans.”

Is it actually possible to test the safety of autonomous vehicles? Proponents of the technology say the safety benefits should be one of the drivers for adoption, but a new study from the RAND Corporation suggests this theory is almost impossible to verify. “Under even aggressive testing assumptions, existing fleets would take tens and sometimes hundreds of years to drive these miles,” said the report. “An impossible proposition if the aim is to demonstrate their performance prior to releasing them on the roads for consumer use.”

“These results demonstrate that developers of this technology and third-party testers cannot simply drive their way to safety. Instead, they will need to develop innovative methods of demonstrating safety and reliability.”

What cash overseas?

You’ve probably read about the Panama Papers leak by now. Oxfam has released its own report on a similar subject, looking at how much money some of the world’s largest companies have stashed overseas. The charity’s analysis of the 50 biggest US corporations show they have a collective $1.4 trillion hidden overseas. Apple ($181 billion), Microsoft ($108 billion), IBM ($61 billion), Cisco ($53 billion), and Alphabet ($47 billion) were all in the top 10, while HP, Oracle, Qualcomm, and Intel all made the top 50.

BlackBerry’s last, last mobile gasp

Last year saw BlackBerry give up plugging its operating system. 2016 sees the once-massive phone manufacturer abandon the high-end market yet still aim for the enterprise user. BB CEO John Chen spoke to the National this week, admitting that no one was willing to pay for its Android-based Priv device, and so it would be releasing two mid-range Android devices (but no BB10 ones) in 2016.

BlackBerry shifted 600,000 devices last quarter, 200,000 less than analysts predicted. Previously he claimed the company would need to sell five million smartphones a year to make that part of the business profitable. “I love our handset business, but we need to make money,” Chen said.

“If I can’t make it profitable because the market won’t let me, then I’ll get out of the handset business.”

Drone delivery

Many within the drone industry – and especially the lawmakers – feel that skies filled with Unmanned Aerial vehicles flying hither and thither are still many years off yet.  That hasn’t stopped many trying, however. Australia Post has become the latest courier service – following the likes of DHL and the national postal services of the UK, Singapore, and Finland – to test parcel delivery via drone.

Predicting gentrification

Ever seen a neighbourhood you like suddenly change, become more expensive and filled with trendy types? Well it’s possible to predict where it will happen next using social media, according to a new study. The University of Cambridge says data from location-based social networks can be used to predict when areas will undergo gentrification. It found that “neighbourhoods with both high social diversity and high deprivation are the ones which are currently undergoing processes of gentrification,” while more affluent or close-knit areas are resistant to such changes.

Where’s my AI waiter?

People worried about robots taking their jobs, fear not. Your jobs are safe, at least for now. Two restaurants that “employed” robotic waiters in Guangzhou, China closed down, and another retired its mechanical staff after they failed to perform basic tasks. “The robots weren't able to carry soup or other food steady and they would frequently break down. The boss has decided never to use them again,” one employee told Shanghaiist.

In the meantime, one expert feels we should welcome our new robot overlords, otherwise we might never benefit from the capabilities of artificial intelligence. “Any scenario in which Artificial Intelligence is an existential threat to humanity is not just around the corner,” Chris Bishop, director of Microsoft Research, said this week. “The danger I see is if we spend too much of our attention focusing on Terminators and Skynet and the end of humanity – or generally just painting a too negative, emotive and one-sided view of AI – we may end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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