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The combined power of AI and robotics is revolutionizing mobility and manufacturing. Automated vehicles, airplanes, people movers, and warehouse robots are improving in their range, flexibility, situational awareness, and intelligence, while better technology, a hunger for increased productivity and efficiency, and the pressures of covid-19 lockdowns have fueled investment in autonomous systems. In 2020 and 2021, market debuts for self-driving vehicles alone boasted a collective initial valuation of over $50 billion.

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But the sector also faces significant growing pains. Many companies are not yet profitable, and their timelines for being in the black shift ever further into the future. A 2022 J.D. Power study found low consumer confidence in fully automated vehicles, with public readiness for the technology actually decreasing from 2021. Regulators are rightly sharpening their focus on safety and security of autonomous technologies. Those combined challenges could make investors more cautious about backing the sector, especially in a downturn, where capital is more expensive.

Trust and assurance—from consumers, the public, and governments—will be critical issues for the AI and autonomous technology space in the year ahead. Yet, earning that trust will require fundamental innovations in the way autonomous systems are tested and evaluated, according to Shawn Kimmel, EY-Parthenon Quantitative Strategies and Solutions executive director at Ernst & Young LLP. Thankfully, the industry now has access to innovative techniques and emerging methods that promise to transform the field.

The new autonomy environment

Automation has historically been pitched as a replacement for “dull, dirty, and dangerous” jobs, and that continues to be the case, whether it be work in underground mines, offshore infrastructure maintenance or, prompted by the pandemic, in medical facilities. Removing humans from harm’s way in sectors as essential and varied as energy, commodities, and healthcare remains a worthy goal.

But self-directed technologies are now going beyond those applications, finding ways to improve efficiency and convenience in everyday spaces and environments, says Kimmel, thanks to innovations in computer vision, artificial intelligence, robotics, materials, and data. Warehouse robotics have evolved from glorified trams shuttling materials from A to B into intelligent systems that can range freely across space, identify obstacles, alter routes based on stock levels, and handle delicate items. In surgical clinics, robots excel at microsurgical procedures in which the slightest human tremor has negative impacts. Startups in the autonomous vehicle sector are developing applications and services in niches like mapping, data management, and sensors. Robo-taxis are already commercially operating in San Francisco and expanding from Los Angeles to Chongqing.

As autonomous technology steps into more contexts, from public roads to medical clinics, safety and reliability become simultaneously more important to prove and more difficult to assure. Self-driving vehicles and unmanned air systems have already been implicated in crashes and casualties. “Mixed” environments, featuring both human and autonomous agents, have been identified as posing novel safety challenges.

The expansion of autonomous technology into new domains brings with it an expanding cast of stakeholders, from equipment manufacturers to software startups. This “system of systems” environment complicates testing, safety, and validation norms. Longer supply chains, along with more data and connectivity, introduce or accentuate safety and cyber risk.

As the behavior of autonomous systems becomes more complex, and the number of stakeholders grows, safety models with a common framework and terminology and interoperable testing become necessities. “Traditional systems engineering techniques have been stretched to their limits when it comes to autonomous systems,” says Kimmel. “There is a need to test a far larger set of requirements as autonomous systems are performing more complex tasks and safety-critical functions.” This need is, in turn, driving interest in finding efficiencies, to avoid test costs ballooning.

That requires innovations like predictive safety performance measures and preparation for unexpected “black swan” events, Kimmel argues, rather than relying

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By: MIT Technology Review Insights
Title: Improving trust in autonomous technology
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Published Date: Wed, 22 Feb 2023 15:00:00 +0000

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The Download: tiny TikTok-style soap operas, and how algorithms change us


This is today’s edition of The Download our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

China’s next cultural export could be TikTok-style short soap operas

Until last year, Ty Coker, a 28-year-old voice actor who lives in Missouri, mostly voiced video games and animations. But in December, they got a casting call for their first shot at live-action content: a Chinese series called Adored by the CEO, which was being remade for an American audience. Coker was hired to dub one of the main characters.

But you won’t find Adored by the CEO on TV or Netflix. Instead, it’s on FlexTV, a Chinese app filled with short dramas like this one. The shows on FlexTV are shot for phone screens, cut into about 90 two-minute episodes, and optimized for today’s extremely short attention span. Coker calls it “soap operas for the TikTok age.”

In the past few years, these short dramas have become hugely popular in China, and the most successful domestic productions make tens of millions of dollars in a few days. This success has motivated a few companies to replicate the business model outside China. If they succeed, they could be China’s next big cultural export. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

How Wi-Fi sensing became usable tech 

Wi-Fi sensing is a tantalizing concept: that the same routers bringing you the internet could also detect your movements. But, as a way to monitor health, it’s mostly been eclipsed by other technologies, like ultra-wideband radar.

Despite that, Wi-Fi sensing hasn’t gone away. Instead, it has quietly become available in millions of homes, supported by leading internet service providers, smart-home companies, and chip manufacturers.

Wi-Fi’s ubiquity continues to make it an attractive platform to build upon, especially as networks continually become more robust. Soon, thanks to better algorithms and more standardized chip designs, it could be invisibly monitoring our day-to-day movements for all sorts of surprising—and sometimes alarming—purposes. Read the full story.

—Meg Duff

Ubiquitous algorithms are shaping culture

Music, film, the visual arts, literature, fashion, journalism, food—algorithmic recommendations have fundamentally altered all these cultural products, not just influencing what gets seen or ignored but creating a kind of self-reinforcing blandness we are all contending with now.

This is actually the opposite of the personalization Netflix and other tech platforms promise. But why does it matter? And how did we get here? Three recently-released books try to get at some answers. Read our review of them.

—Bryan Gardiner

The two stories above are from the next issue of MIT Technology Review, set to land tomorrow. The theme of the magazine is hidden worlds. Subscribe to get your copy!

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The US spacecraft that landed on the moon is about to stop functioning
But another lunar lander, from Japan, has unexpectedly popped back to life. (NYT $)

2 Meet the nine-month-old $2 billion French AI startup
Mistral claims it’ll rival US giants—but it’s also just taken money from Microsoft. (WSJ $)
Microsoft is investing an undisclosed amount into Mistral. (FT $)

3 How a local news website became an AI-generated clickbait farm
This case provides a fascinating insight into how generative AI is starting to fill the internet up with trash. (Wired $)
We are hurtling toward a glitchy, spammy, scammy, AI-powered internet. (MIT Technology Review)

4 A Democrat consultant admitted to being behind the Biden robocall
Well, that was pretty dumb, as campaigning strategies go. (WP $)
The US is not ready for what AI is going to do to its elections. (The Guardian)
Meta is promising it’ll form a team to tackle deceptive uses of AI in the upcoming EU elections. (BBC)

5 The US is reportedly using AI to choose where to bomb
It used machine learning algorithms to identify targets in the Middle East this month, a defense official said. (Bloomberg $)
Inside the messy ethics of making war with machines. (MIT Technology Review)

6 What a huge solar storm could do to us
We’re poorly prepared for the havoc it could wreak on our energy grids and communication systems. (New Yorker $)

7 Bans on deepfakes take us only so far—here’s what we really need
Recent moves are promising, but the open source boom makes things tricky.

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By: Charlotte Jee
Title: The Download: tiny TikTok-style soap operas, and how algorithms change us
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Published Date: Tue, 27 Feb 2024 13:01:00 +0000

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How Antarctica’s history of isolation is ending—thanks to Starlink

Mawson and sledge Adelie Land Antarctica 1912 scaled

“This is one of the least visited places on planet Earth and I got to open the door,” Matty Jordan, a construction specialist at New Zealand’s Scott Base in Antarctica, wrote in the caption to the video he posted to Instagram and TikTok in October 2023.

In the video, he guides viewers through an empty, echoing hut, pointing out where the men of Ernest Shackleton’s 1907 expedition lived and worked—the socks still hung up to dry and the provisions still stacked neatly in place, preserved by the cold.

Jordan, who started making TikToks to keep family and friends up to date with his life in Antarctica, has now found himself at the center of a phenomenon. His channels have over a million followers. The video of Shackleton’s hut alone has racked up millions of views from all over the world. It’s also kind of a miracle: until very recently, those who lived and worked on Antarctic bases had no hope of communicating so readily with the outside world.

Antarctica has long been a world apart. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when dedicated expeditions began, explorers were cut off from home for years at a time, reliant on ships sailing back and forth from civilization to carry physical mail. They were utterly alone, the only humans for thousands of miles.

This made things difficult, emotionally and physically. With only the supplies they had on hand, explorers were limited in the scientific experiments they could conduct. They couldn’t send an SOS if they needed help (which was fairly often). And also—importantly, because many relied on publicity for funding—they couldn’t let the world know what was going on.

In 1911, an Australian expedition led by Douglas Mawson was the first to take an antenna to the continent and attempt to transmit and receive wireless signals. But while Mawson was able to send a few messages during the team’s first season, he never received any back, so he didn’t know if his had been successful.

The winds at their base at Cape Denison, on the Antarctic coast directly south of Australia, raged at 70 kilometers an hour—every day, every night, for months on end. They finally succeeded in raising the mast during their second winter, only to be faced with a different problem: their radio operator was unable to work, having suffered psychosis during the six months of darkness. So the expedition was left isolated again.

While Antarctic telecommunications have been steadily improving ever since the first permanent bases were established, many decades after Mawson’s ill-fated trip, life on the ice has always been characterized by some level of disconnection. And as life at home has become ever more dependent on constant connection, instant updates, streaming, and algorithms, living in Antarctica has been seen as a break—for better and for worse—from all the digital hustle-bustle.

But the end of that long-standing disparity is now in sight. Starlink, the satellite constellation developed by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX to service the world with high-speed broadband internet, has come to Antarctica, finally bringing with it the sort of connectivity enjoyed by the world beyond the ice.

Mawson and sledge Adelie
Douglas Mawson and his team had difficulty
raising a radio antenna during the expedition
they embarked on in 1911.
 a ticker tape parade for Admiral Byrd returning from Antartica in New York CityRead More


By: Allegra Rosenberg
Title: How Antarctica’s history of isolation is ending—thanks to Starlink
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Published Date: Mon, 26 Feb 2024 10:00:00 +0000

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Trump wants to unravel Biden’s landmark climate law. Here is what’s most at risk.

GettyImages 1853587512 crop scaled

President Joe Biden’s crowning legislative achievement was enacting the Inflation Reduction Act, easily the nation’s largest investment into addressing the rising dangers of climate change.

Yet Donald Trump’s advisors and associates have clearly indicated that dismantling the landmark law would sit at the top of the Republican front-runner’s to-do list should he win the presidential election. If he succeeds, it could stall the nation’s shift to cleaner industries and stunt efforts to cut the greenhouse-gas pollution warming the planet.

The IRA unleashes at least hundreds of billions of dollars in federal subsidies for renewable energy sources, electric vehicles, batteries, heat pumps, and more. It is the “backbone” of the Biden administration’s plan to meet the nation’s commitments under the Paris climate agreement, putting the US on track to cut emissions by as much as 42% from 2005 levels by the end of this decade, according to the Rhodium Group, a research firm. 

But the sprawling federal policy package marks the “biggest defeat” conservatives have suffered during Biden’s tenure, according to Myron Ebell, who led the Environmental Protection Agency transition team during Trump’s administration. And repealing the law has become an obsession among many conservatives, including the authors of the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025, widely seen as a far-right road map for the early days of a second Trump administration.

The IRA’s tax credits for EVs and clean power projects appear especially vulnerable, climate policy experts say. Losing those provisions alone could reshape the nation’s emissions trajectory, potentially adding back hundreds of millions of metric tons of climate pollution this decade.

Moreover, Trump’s wide-ranging pledges to weaken international institutions, inflame global trade wars, and throw open the nation’s resources to fossil-fuel extraction could have compounding effects on any changes to the IRA, potentially undermining economic growth, the broader investment climate, and prospects for emerging green industries.

Farewell to EV tax credits

The IRA leverages government funds to accelerate the energy transition through a combination of direct grants and tax credits, which allow companies or individuals to cut their federal obligations in exchange for buying, installing, investing in, or producing cleaner power and products. It is enacted law, not a federal agency regulation or executive order, which means that any substantial changes would need to be achieved through Congress.

But the tax cuts for individuals pushed through during Trump’s time in office are set to expire next year. If he wins a second term, legislators seeking to extend those cuts could crack up the tax code and excise key components of the IRA, particularly if Republicans retain control of the House and pick up seats in the Senate. Eliminating any of those tax credits could help offset the added cost of restoring those Trump-era benefits.

Numerous policy observers believe that the pair of EV tax credits in the IRA, which together lop $7,500 off the cost of electric cars and trucks, would be one of the top targets. Subsidizing the cost of EVs polls terribly among Republicans, and throughout the primaries, most of the party’s candidates for president have fiercely attacked government support for the vehicles—none more than Trump himself. 

Close up of former President Trump pointing directly at camera while speaking at a campaign event in Iowa
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Iowa.SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES

On the campaign trail, he has repeatedly, erroneously referred to the policy as a mandate rather than a subsidy, while geographically tailoring the critique to his audience.

At a December rally in Iowa, the nation’s biggest corn producer, he pledged to cancel “Crooked Joe Biden’s insane, ethanol-killing electric-vehicle mandate on day one.”

And in the battleground state of Michigan in September, he pandered to the fears of autoworkers.

“Crooked Joe is siding

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By: James Temple
Title: Trump wants to unravel Biden’s landmark climate law. Here is what’s most at risk.
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Published Date: Mon, 26 Feb 2024 10:00:00 +0000

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