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Self-driving cars are being trained in virtual worlds while the real one is in chaos

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Brandon Moak felt as if a freight train had hit him. 

It was mid-March, and the cofounder and CTO of the autonomous- trucking startup Embark Trucks had been keeping tabs on the emergence of covid-19. As a shelter-in-place order went into effect throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, where Embark is based, Moak and his team were forced to ground almost all their 13 self-driving semi-trucks (a few stayed on the road moving essential freight but weren’t in autonomous mode) and send home the majority of their workforce, with no idea how long it’d be before they could return. 

Moak and Embark weren’t alone. For safety reasons, autonomous vehicles typically have two operators apiece. That’s a no-go in the age of social distancing, and leaders of autonomous-vehicle companies knew they’d have to mothball their fleets. Suddenly the whole nascent industry was in trouble. Autonomous vehicles are still experimental, and real-world testing is the gold standard for collecting data and improving the cars’ ability to operate safely. Unable to get on the road, self-driving operations risked becoming cash-intensive gambits with no path toward fielding a product anytime soon. 

As they struggled with this new reality, layoffs rippled through autonomous-driving outfits like Zoox, Ike, and Kodiak Robotics, as well as the autonomous division at Lyft. 

But as it turns out, all may not be lost. Several companies have traded road tests for delving deep into their algorithms and simulators, finding new uses for the countless hours of data they’ve collected. They’re doubling down on efforts like detailed data labeling, 3D mapping, and identifying overlooked scenarios from previous road sessions that can be used to train their systems. Some have even helped vehicle operators transition into data labeling, equipping them with new skills that will likely come in handy when they resume their former roles. 

To make the best of a bad situation, Moak decided to build a new tool to allow Embark’s operations team to annotate the company’s four years of driving data. For instance, the software serves Embark’s truck drivers with images of different on-road scenarios and then asks them to determine if they’re noteworthy—and how they’d handle each based on their own experience.

Aurora Innovation, a Palo Alto–based company that develops self-driving technology, took a similar approach to finding tasks for underutilized workers. Vehicle operators have joined forces with the triage and labeling teams to mine both manual and autonomous driving data for noteworthy on-road events to turn into tests in a simulated environment. 

“This has the additional benefit of increasing the exposure of our operators to how the data they gather is used offline, [which] gives them better context into our overall development process and will help them be even better at their job as we get back on the road,” cofounder and CEO Chris Urmson wrote in an email to MIT Technology Review. 

Companies have also found creative ways to overcome the obstacle of being physically separated from their products. 

Urmson, who previously led Google’s self-driving-car project, added that his team is using its “hardware-in-the-loop” pipeline to “catch software issues that would manifest on Aurora hardware and not on developer laptops or cloud instances.” 

Embark, for its part, invested in software that could test hardware components offline. One test involves the vehicle’s control system—the algorithms responsible for sending physical commands, like how fast to turn the steering wheel. “In the long run, this will be a good investment for us, but in the short term, we had to make a big leap to build all this new infrastructure,” said Moak.

General Motors–owned Cruise has relegated 200 vehicles in San Francisco and Phoenix to the garage. The company is relying on its advanced simulators to keep putting cars’ software through its paces—a regular practice even before the pandemic, but SVP of engineering Mo Elshenawy says they’re improving the detail on how cars are scored during their encounters in the sims as a way to better assess competency in unusual situations, like when dealing with ambulances or delivery trucks. 

Alexandr Wang, founder and CEO of data annotation firm Scale AI, works with companies like Lyft, Toyota, and Nuro, as well as Embark and Aurora. During the pandemic, Scale has been working on detailed labeling for companies’ old data via point cloud simulation—using 3D maps of the environment around a vehicle to encode what every point corresponds to (pedestrian, stop sign, window, shrub, stroller). The team is also encoding the behavior of drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists with technology including “gaze detection,” which aims to indicate whether a driver might yield or a pedestrian plans to cross the street.

No matter how much companies invest in their simulators, though, there’s no getting around the need to eventually get back on the road. And as the US reopens, that’s beginning to happen. A Waymo spokesperson wrote in an email that a day of simulated driving is akin to “driving more than 100 years in the real world,” in part thanks to parent company Alphabet’s computing power. Nevertheless, the company got its driving operations in Phoenix up and going again as of May 11.

Still, Wang says he sees a change in how autonomous-vehicle companies are working, shifting toward more innovative approaches and long-term experimentation. 

“The ones who are taking this view,” he says, “are the ones who will, at the end of this, come out ahead and be in a better spot.”



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Arctic river runs red following devastating Russian fuel spill

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Furious Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a state of emergency after a devastating fuel spill occurred in the Arctic.

Environmentalists say it is the worst such accident to happen in the Arctic as over 20,000 tonnes of diesel burst from a fuel tank at an industrial site.

The diesel reservoir collapsed at a power station outside the northern Siberian city of Norilsk last Friday, releasing 15,000 tonnes of fuel into a river and 6,000 tonnes into the soil, according to Russia’s state environmental watchdog.

The fuel was being stored there to ensure a continuous supply to a nearby power plant in case of an interruption to gas supplies.

Putin angrily criticised the delay in a cleanup operation because the authorities weren’t notified. However, Norilsk Nickel, the company that owns the collapsed fuel reservoir (through a subsidiary) insists it notified the proper agencies immediately.

An aerial view of the site of oil products spill into a river outside of Norilsk, Russia. (Credits: EPA)

Greenpeace Russia said the accident was the ‘first accident of such a scale in the Arctic’ and comparable to the Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska in 1989.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said a power station supervisor has been detained and will be charged shortly as it conducts three probes into environmental pollution and safety violations.

The Ambarnaya River, which is affected by the spill, feeds into Lake Pyasino, a major body of water and the source of the Pyasina River that is vitally important to the entire Taimyr peninsula.

Russian fisheries agency spokesman Dmitry Klokov said restoring the polluted water system would take ‘decades’.

Rescuers working at the site of oil products spill into the Ambarnaya river outside of Norilsk, Russia. (Credits: EPA)

Rescuers working at the site of oil products spill into the Ambarnaya river outside of Norilsk, Russia. (Credits: EPA)

A rescuer pumping out pollutions from a large diesel spill in the Ambarnaya River outside Norilsk (Photo by YURI KADOBNOV/Marine Rescue Service/AFP via Getty Images)

A rescuer pumping out pollutions from a large diesel spill in the Ambarnaya River outside Norilsk (Photo by YURI KADOBNOV/Marine Rescue Service/AFP via Getty Images)

‘The scope of this catastrophe is being underestimated,’ he told the TASS news agency, adding that most of the fuel had sunk to the bottom of the river and already reached the lake.

Marine rescue service has put up six oil containment booms in the Ambarnaya River to stop the diesel fuel going into the lake and was using special devices to skim off the fuel.

But the clean-up mission is being hampered by the lack of roads in the area and windy weather that has already caused blocks of ice to breach the barriers, releasing more fuel towards the lake, and forcing responders to reposition them, Malov said.

‘It’s swampy territory, and everything can only be delivered there on all-terrain vehicles,’ Malov said, predicting that the collected fuel will have to stay on site until the winter in special tanks.

Putin is furious at the delay in cleanup operations (Reuters)

Putin is furious at the delay in cleanup operations (Reuters)

Norilsk Nickel said the accident possibly occurred because the ground under the fuel reservoir subsided as the permafrost melted due to climate change.

WWF expert Alexei Knizhnikov said that while climate change does affect permafrost, the accident wouldn’t have happened if the company followed the rules.

This photograph released by the Marine Rescue Service of Russia shows a rescuer as he pumps out pollutions of a large diesel spill in the Ambarnaya River outside Norilsk. (Photo by YURI KADOBNOV/Marine Rescue Service/AFP via Getty Images)

This photograph released by the Marine Rescue Service of Russia shows a rescuer as he pumps out pollutions of a large diesel spill in the Ambarnaya River outside Norilsk. (Photo by YURI KADOBNOV/Marine Rescue Service/AFP via Getty Images)

By Russian law, there should be a containment structure around any fuel reservoir that would have kept most of the spillage on site, he said.

‘A lot of the blame lies with the company,’ he added.

The difficult terrain prompted some officials to suggest the collected fuel should be burned off at the scene, but Russia’s environmental watchdog chief Svetlana Radionova on Thursday ruled this out.



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How to Wi-Fi Unlock Your Android Phone With Smart Lock

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Because our phones have so much personal information, most people are horrified at the thought of someone fiddling with their phone. Even worse is what could happen if you lose your smartphone completely.

Thankfully, modern devices come with multiple security options. Protecting your device while out and about is easy. But what about when you’re safely at home? Manually unlocking your phone each time you want to use it is a pain.

Android Smart Lock lets you keep your phone unlocked at all times, under certain circumstances. But can you keep your phone unlocked when connected to your home Wi-Fi network? Let’s take a look.

What Is Android Smart Lock?

Android Smart Lock first hit devices with Android 5.0 Lollipop. The Smart Lock feature allows you to specify certain circumstances where the device’s lock screen security will remain off.

You can enable and configure these options by heading to Settings > Security > Smart Lock (this may differ slightly depending on your device). Enter your PIN, then you can select the Smart Lock option you want.

It’s possible to use multiple Smart Lock methods in conjunction, too. Here’s how they work.

On-Body Detection

With this option, after unlocking it once, your Android device will remain unlocked as long as it detects motion, such as you holding or carrying the device. Your phone will lock automatically again when put down.

On-body detection poses some security issues. The lock mechanism doesn’t always activate immediately after you put the device down. Furthermore, it can sometimes take longer if you are in a car, train, bus, or other forms of transportation.

Trusted Places

Use this option and your Android device will remain unlocked while in the vicinity of a specific location. Once you enable Trusted Places, your device will detect its location using GPS. If the signal shows you are within the range of a specified location, it will unlock.

There are three Trusted Places modes:

  • High Accuracy: Uses your phone’s GPS, Wi-Fi connection, provider network, and more to maintain an accurate location.
  • Battery Saving: Trusted Places will use less power-intensive location tracking tools, such as your Wi-Fi connection or mobile network.
  • Device Only: Uses only GPS to update the location of your device.

Trusted Places is a handy unlocking tool. Like the other options, though, it has limitations. For example, if you live in an apartment building, Trusted Places finds it extremely difficult to differentiate between your apartment and your neighbors’ residences. Since the GPS location is almost the same and the range for the unlocking can cover multiple apartments, your device might stay unlocked outside your home.

Although Trusted Places can take your Wi-Fi connection into account, you cannot tell your phone to stay unlocked when it connects to a certain network. However, there are workarounds for this that allow you to unlock your phone when connected to a Wi-Fi network. We’ll cover more on these in a moment.

Trusted Devices

You can keep your Android device unlocked if it has a connection to a separate trusted device. For example, you could set your smartwatch, in-car Bluetooth speakers, or fitness tracker as a trusted device. Then, while the two devices share a connection, the Android phone will remain unlocked.

Trusted Devices uses a Bluetooth connection to check Smart Lock status. If the Bluetooth connection between your devices drops for any reason, Smart Lock will disable, and your device will lock.

Voice Match

On certain Android devices, if you use Google Assistant, you can use the Voice Match option to keep your Android phone unlocked. Smart Lock recognizes the tone and inflections of your voice to create a unique unlocking tool.

If you switch on Voice Match, “OK Google” becomes the unlock tool. Check out our guide on how to use Google Assistant to lock and unlock your phone, plus the handy video walkthrough. Unfortunately, Google removed this option in Android 8 Oreo and above, but it still works on older devices.

How to Unlock Your Phone When Connected to Wi-Fi

One glaring Android Smart Lock omission is the option to keep your device unlocked when you connect to a specific Wi-Fi network. You can work around this issue with the Automate app; here’s how to keep your Android device unlocked when connected to Wi-Fi.

Automate is a user-friendly Android automation app. You can it for our intended purpose of staying unlocked on Wi-Fi. First, download the Automate app.

Now, open Automate. Given the nature of the service (it automates everything on your device), you must accept the permissions.

Select More Flows from the options, then search for disable screen lock on home wifi. The version you want is the creation of user p s, as you can see in the below image. Select Download, then head back to the Automate homepage.

Next, select the Disable screen lock on home wifi flow from the list, tap the blue pen icon in the bottom-right, then hit the circuits icon just above. This opens the Automate flow edit screen.

Tap the third box on the left, When Wi-Fi connected. Input the Wi-Fi network’s SSID in the box. Alternatively, select Pick Network, then select the Wi-Fi network from the list.

Now, you can Start the Automate flow, and your device will remain unlocked while connected to the Wi-Fi network you specified.

If there’s another Wi-Fi network you want to stay unlocked on, you can duplicate the Automate flow by tapping the three-dot menu and selecting Duplicate. Then in the duplicated flow, switch out the Wi-Fi network SSID for another one.

Is Smart Lock Secure?

Android’s Smart Lock is a handy tool in the eternal battle between security and convenience. Using Smart Lock is a security compromise, but is it one worth making? That depends on the situation.

When you’re at home, why not keep your device unlocked? Finding your phone suddenly locked is infuriating at times. Think about if you’re cooking from a recipe or following a DIY tutorial. You glance away for a moment, only to find you need to unlock your device at a critical moment.

The key is finding the correct Smart Lock use that suits you. Unlocking your device when you connect to your home Wi-Fi is a great option for most people.

Whatever you do choose, make sure you use some form of security on your Android device. Here are some of the best Android anti-theft apps to get you started.

You Can Unlock Your Device Automatically

Now that you know how to unlock your device automatically when you join a Wi-Fi connection, you can consider automating other tasks on Android. Automate is a great free app with countless community-made automation flows.

That said, Automate isn’t the only Android task automation tool. Tasker is a paid automation app that is much more powerful than Automate. Check out these Tasker tricks you can use to automate more on your Android phone.

Read the full article: How to Wi-Fi Unlock Your Android Phone With Smart Lock



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This startup is using AI to give workers a “productivity score”

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In the last few months, millions of people around the world stopped going into offices and started doing their jobs from home. These workers may be out of sight of managers, but they are not out of mind. The upheaval has been accompanied by a reported spike in the use of surveillance software that lets employers track what their employees are doing and how long they spend doing it.

Companies have asked remote workers to install a whole range of such tools. Hubstaff is software that records users’ keyboard strokes, mouse movements, and the websites that they visit. Time Doctor goes further, taking videos of users’ screens. It can also take a picture via webcam every 10 minutes to check that employees are at their computer. And Isaak, a tool made by UK firm Status Today, monitors interactions between employees to identify who collaborates more, combining this data with information from personnel files to identify individuals who are “change-makers.” 

Now, one firm wants to take things even further. It is developing machine-learning software to measure how quickly employees complete different tasks and suggest ways to speed them up. The tool also gives each person a productivity score, which managers can use to identify those employees who are most worth retaining—and those who are not. 

How you feel about this will depend on how you view the covenant between employer and employee. Is it okay to be spied on by people because they pay you? Do you owe it to your employer to be as productive as possible, above all else?

Critics argue that workplace surveillance undermines trust and damages morale. Workers’ rights groups say that such systems should only be installed after consulting employees. “It can create a massive power imbalance between workers and the management,” says Cori Crider, a UK-based lawyer and cofounder of Foxglove, a nonprofit legal firm that works to stop governments and big companies from misusing technology. “And the workers have less ability to hold management to account.”

Whatever your views, this kind of software is here to stay—in part because remote work is normalizing it. “I think workplace monitoring is going to become mainstream,” says Tommy Weir, CEO of Enaible, the startup based in Boston that is developing the new monitoring software. “In the next six to 12 months it will become so pervasive it disappears.” 

Weir thinks most tools on the market don’t go far enough. “Imagine you’re managing somebody and you could stand and watch them all day long, and give them recommendations on how to do their job better,” says Weir. “That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what we’ve built.”

Weir founded Enaible in 2018 after coaching CEOs for 20 years. The firm already provides its software to several large organizations around the world, including the Dubai customs agency and Omnicom Media Group, a multinational marketing and corporate communications company. But Weir claims to also be in in late-stage talks with Delta Airlines and CVS Health, a US health-care and pharmacy chain ranked #5 on the Fortune 500 list. Neither company would comment on if or when they were preparing to deploy the system.

Weir says he has been getting four times as many inquiries since the pandemic closed down offices. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.

Why the sudden uptick in interest? “Bosses have been seeking to wring every last drop of productivity and labor out of their workers since before computers,” says Crider. “But the granularity of the surveillance now available is like nothing we’ve ever seen.”

It’s no surprise that this level of detail is attractive to employers, especially those looking to keep tabs on a newly remote workforce. But Enaible’s software, which it calls the AI Productivity Platform, goes beyond tracking things like email, Slack, Zoom, or web searches. None of that shows a full picture of what a worker is doing, says Weir⁠—it’s just checking if you are working or not.

Once set up, the software runs in the background all the time, monitoring whatever data trail a company can provide for each of its employees. Using an algorithm called Trigger-Task-Time, the system learns the typical workflow for different workers: what triggers, such as an email or a phone call, lead to what tasks and how long those tasks take to complete.

Once it has learned a typical pattern of behavior for an employee, the software gives that person a “productivity score” between 0 and 100. The AI is agnostic to tasks, says Weir. In theory, workers across a company can still be compared by their scores even if they do different jobs. A productivity score also reflects how your work increases or decreases the productivity of other people on your team. There are obvious limitations to this approach. The system works best with employees who do a lot of repetitive tasks in places like call centers or customer service departments rather than those in more complex or creative roles.

But the idea is that managers can use these scores to see how their employees are getting on, rewarding them if they get quicker at doing their job or checking in with them if performance slips. To help them, Enaible’s software also includes an algorithm called Leadership Recommender, which identifies specific points in an employee’s workflow that could be made more efficient.

For some tasks, that might mean cutting the human out of the loop and automating it. In one example, the tool suggested that automating a 40-second quality-checking task that was performed by customer service workers 186,000 times a year would save them 5,200 hours. This meant that the human employees could devote more attention to more valuable work, improving customer-service response times, suggests Weir.

Business as usual

But talk of cost cutting and time saving has long been double-speak for laying off staff. As the economy slumps, Enaible is promoting its software as a way for companies to identify the employees who must be retained—“those that are making a big difference in fulfilling company objectives and driving profits”—and keep them motivated and focused as they work from home.

The flipside, of course, is that the software can also be used by managers to choose whom to fire. “Companies will lay people off—they always have,” says Weir. “But you can be objective in how you do that, or subjective.” 

Crider sees it differently. “The thing that’s so insidious about these systems is that there’s a veneer of objectivity about them,” she says. “It’s a number, it’s on a computer—how could there be anything suspect? But you don’t have to scratch the surface very hard to see that behind the vast majority of these systems are values about what is to be prioritized.”

Machine-learning algorithms also encode hidden bias in the data they are trained on. Such bias is even harder to expose when it’s buried inside an automated system. If these algorithms are used to assess an employee’s performance, it can be hard to appeal an unfair review or dismissal. 

In a pitch deck, Enaible claims that the Dubai customs agency is now rolling out its software across the whole organization, with the goal of $75 million in “payroll savings” over the coming two years. “We’ve essentially decoupled our growth rate from our payroll,” the agency’s director general is quoted as saying. Omnicom Media Group is also happy with how Enaible helps it get more out its employees. “Our global team needs tools that can move the needle when it comes to building our internal capacity without adding to our head count,” says CEO Nadim Samara. In other words, squeezing more out of existing employees.

Crider insists there are better ways to encourage people to work. “What you’re seeing is an effort to turn a human into a machine before the machine replaces them,” she says. “You’ve got to create an environment in which people feel trusted to do their job. You don’t get that by surveilling them.”



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