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Pandemic pushes Chinese tech giants to roll out more courier robots

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(Last Updated On: September 28, 2021)

More than a thousand robots are set to join the delivery personnel ranks of Chinese behemoths Alibaba, Meituan and JD.com over the next year as the pandemic fuels demand for contactless services, Reuters reported.

The firms expect to operate over 2,000 robots between them by 2022, up about four-fold from now, their executives said, encouraged also by falling costs of making robots.

Millions of couriers still deliver packages for as less as 3 yuan ($0.47) in China, but companies have been exploring the use of drones or box-like robots on wheels from as early as 2013 amid a labour crunch that has worsened due to the pandemic.

According to the report Beijing has also ordered firms to ensure rest periods for couriers as they scramble to meet rising demand and deadlines.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a big boost” for robot rollout plans, said Xia Huaxia, chief scientist at Meituan.

The food-delivery giant launched its robot service in February 2020 when infections were high in Beijing, earlier than a planned end-year launch, read the report.

JD.com too brought forward its plans to launch its robot service, said Kong Qi, chief scientist of the e-commerce giant’s autonomous driving unit. It had targeted a June 2020 launch in Beijing, but started using the service in Wuhan in February as the central Chinese city was locked down.

“We want people and vehicles to work better together and not for vehicles to replace people. It is just in the most boring section of the delivery guy’s work that we will try to replace,” he said.

LIMITS VS BENEFITS

Still, human delivery personnel outnumber robots, which have limitations such as inability to climb stairs. Also, robots are only allowed on certain routes like in housing estates and school campuses because of speed limits and road conditions.

Robots also tend to be used to deliver less time-sensitive products like packages, rather than food.

“The efficiency is low for office areas where people are ordering a lot of food and parcels but the vehicle’s capacity is limited,” said 25-year-old Zhang Ji as she picked up a package delivered by an autonomous vehicle near her office in Beijing.

But proponents espouse long-term benefits of robots such as lower last-mile delivery costs. Researchers at the University of Michigan said fully and partially automated vehicles could cut delivery costs by 10−40% in cities.

Alibaba’s last-mile logistics vehicle has delivered over a million orders as of September to more than 200,000 consumers, the company said. It operates over 200 robots and plans to have 1,000 by March and 10,000 over the next three years, Reuters reported.

COSTS ARE DOWN

Costs of making robots are down, said Wang Gang, vice president at Alibaba who is in charge of autonomous driving, mainly due to lower prices of lidar sensors that help measure distances and render images around vehicles.

Alibaba and JD.com said the cost of making their robots was below 250,000 yuan ($38,662) apiece and falling.

JD.com, which operates about 200 robots, plans to expand to some 1,000 units by the end of 2021.

Meituan sees the cost of making its robots at around 400,000 yuan this year, versus 600,000 yuan in 2020, Xia said.

Meituan’s robot will cost less than 200,000 yuan in 2025, which is when the industry will see mass-application of over 10,000 units of such robots, Xia said.

Meituan currently has around 100 delivery robots, read the report.

Delivery firms in other countries have also been testing robots. Russian’s Yandex and online food-ordering company GrubHub plan to start using driverless robots to deliver food on U.S. college campuses.

“I hope robots can be used widely soon because it will make our life more convenient … it will also reduce face-to-face contact during the pandemic so we can be safer,” said 28-year-old Pan Hongju, a programmer in Beijing.

($1 = 6.4662 Chinese yuan)

Science & Technology

TikTok tells U.S. lawmakers it does not give information to China’s government

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(Last Updated On: October 27, 2021)

An executive at TikTok faced tough questions on Tuesday during the video-sharing app’s first appearance at a U.S. congressional hearing, saying it does not give information to the Chinese government and has sought to safeguard U.S. data, Reuters reported.

Senators at the hearing also voiced concerns that TikTok, owned by Beijing-based internet technology company ByteDance, and rivals YouTube, owned by Alphabet Inc , and Snapchat have algorithms that can be harmful to young people.

Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, became the company’s first executive to appear before Congress, testifying to a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee. Republicans in particular pressed Beckerman on worries regarding TikTok’s stewardship of data on the app’s users.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, the panel’s top Republican, said she is concerned about TikTok’s data collection, including audio and a user’s location, and the potential for the Chinese government to gain access to the information. Blackburn questioned Beckerman on whether TikTok could resist giving data to China’s government if material were to be demanded, read the report.

“We do not share information with the Chinese government,” Beckerman responded.

Under questioning by Republican Senator Ted Cruz, Beckerman said that TikTok has “no affiliation” with Beijing ByteDance Technology, a ByteDance entity at which the Chinese government took a stake and a board seat this year.

According to the report Beckerman also testified that TikTok’s U.S. user data is stored in the United States, with backups in Singapore.

“We have a world-renowned U.S. based security team that handles access,” Beckerman said.

Republican Senator John Thune said TikTok is perhaps more driven by content algorithms than even Facebook, as the app is famous for quickly learning what users find interesting and offering them those types of videos.

Beckerman said TikTok would be willing to provide the app’s algorithm moderation policies in order for the Senate panel to have it reviewed by independent experts, Reuters reported.

Executives from YouTube and Snapchat also testified. In a show of bipartisanship, senators of both parties, including Democratic panel chairman Richard Blumenthal, accused the three companies of exposing young people to bullying and sometimes steering them to information that encouraged harmful behaviors such sexualized games or anorexia.

According to the report the executives responded that their companies have sought to create a fun experience and to exclude dangerous or unsavory content.

Republican former President Donald Trump had sought to bar TikTok – a popular platform used by millions of Americans to post short videos – from U.S. app stores, saying it collected data from American users that could be obtained by China’s government and posed a threat to U.S. national security.

Democratic President Joe Biden later revoked Trump’s plan, but sought a broader review of various foreign-controlled apps, Reuters reported.

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NASA launches first space probe to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids

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(Last Updated On: October 24, 2021)

NASA launched a first-of-its kind mission on Saturday to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, two large clusters of space rocks that scientists believe are remnants of primordial material that formed the solar system’s outer planets, Reuters reported.

The space probe, dubbed Lucy and packed inside a special cargo capsule, lifted off on schedule from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 5:34 a.m. EDT (0934 GMT), NASA said. It was carried aloft by an Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance (UAL), a joint venture of Boeing Co (BA.N) and Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N).

Lucy’s mission is a 12-year expedition to study a record number of asteroids. It will be the first to explore the Trojans, thousands of rocky objects orbiting the sun in two swarms – one ahead of the path of giant gas planet Jupiter and one behind it.

According to the report the largest known Trojan asteroids, named for the warriors of Greek mythology, are believed to measure as much as 225 kilometers (140 miles) in diameter.

Scientists hope Lucy’s close-up fly-by of seven Trojans will yield new clues to how the solar system’s planets came to be formed some 4.5 billion years ago and what shaped their present configuration.

Believed to be rich in carbon compounds, the asteroids may even provide new insights into the origin of organic materials and life on Earth, NASA said.

“The Trojan asteroids are leftovers from the early days of our solar system, effectively the fossils of planet formation,” principal mission investigator Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, was quoted by NASA as saying.

No other single science mission has been designed to visit as many different objects independently orbiting the sun in the history of space exploration, NASA said.

As well as the Trojans, Lucy will do a fly-by of an asteroid in the solar system’s main asteroid belt, called DonaldJohanson in honor of the lead discoverer of the fossilized human ancestor known as Lucy, from which the NASA mission takes its name. The Lucy fossil, unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974, was in turn named for the Beatles hit “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Lucy the asteroid probe will make spaceflight history in another way. Following a route that circles back to Earth three times for gravitational assists, it will be the first spacecraft ever to return to Earth’s vicinity from the outer solar system, according to NASA.

The probe will use rocket thrusters to maneuver in space and two rounded solar arrays, each the width of a school bus, to recharge batteries that will power the instruments contained in the much smaller central body of the spacecraft, Reuters reported.

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Changing Facebook’s name will not deter scrutiny: Experts

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(Last Updated On: October 21, 2021)

Renaming Facebook Inc (FB.O) is unlikely to enable the tech giant to distance itself from regulatory and public scrutiny around the potential harms caused by its social media apps, marketing and branding experts told Reuters.

Tech publication The Verge reported on Tuesday that the firm is planning to change its corporate branding to reflect that as well as owning the social media platform that made it a global household name, it also now includes other thriving businesses like Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus.

The company declined to comment regarding the report on the possible rebranding. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

Facebook is battling intense scrutiny after a whistleblower leaked thousands of internal documents that showed it contributed to increased polarization online when it made changes to its content algorithm, failed to take steps to reduce vaccine hesitancy, and was aware that popular social media app Instagram harmed the mental health of teenage girls.

The U.S. Senate held a hearing earlier this month into the effect of Instagram on young users.

“Legislators and politicians are sufficiently smart to not be fooled by a rebranding,” said James Cordwell, an internet analyst at Atlantic Equities, Reuters reported.

Renaming can be an effective strategy to allow subsidiary brands to maintain their own reputations, said Marisa Mulvihill, head of brand and activation at Prophet, a branding and marketing consultancy. But the media and regulators “are not going to stop investigating or creating reforms just because you rebranded,” she added.

The new parent company name could reflect Facebook’s focus on building the ‘metaverse,’ The Verge reported, referring to a proposed digital world where people can use different devices to move and communicate in a virtual environment.

It could also prevent a possible negative perception around the Facebook name from affecting WhatsApp, the messaging app used by nearly 2 billion people globally, and Oculus, its virtual reality brand, experts said.

Facebook will continue to confront the same pressures even after a rebrand, the experts said.

“I don’t think it’s going to help Facebook mitigate regulators’ scrutiny or the general public’s skepticism, if not distrust,” said Natasha Jen, a partner at Pentagram, a design studio that does advertising and communication work. “Trust is something you need to earn.”

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