Robotic Hand Can Juggle Cube — With Lots of Training

How long does it take a robotic hand to learn to juggle a cube?

About 100 years, give or take.

That’s how much virtual computing time it took researchers at OpenAI, the nonprofit artificial intelligence lab funded by Elon Musk and others, to train its disembodied hand. The team paid Google $3,500 to run its software on thousands of computers simultaneously, crunching the actual time to 48 hours. After training the robot in a virtual environment, the team put it to a test in the real world.

The hand, called Dactyl, learned to move itself, the team of two dozen researchers disclosed this week. Its job is simply to adjust the cube so that one of its letters — “O,” “P,” “E,” “N,” “A” or “I” — faces upward to match a random selection.

Ken Goldberg, a University of California, Berkeley robotics professor who isn’t affiliated with the project, said OpenAI’s achievement is a big deal because it demonstrates how robots trained in a virtual environment can operate in the real world. His lab is trying something similar with a robot called Dex-Net, though its hand is simpler and the objects it manipulates are more complex.

“The key is the idea that you can make so much progress in simulation,” he said. “This is a plausible path forward, when doing physical experiments is very hard.”

Dactyl’s real-world fingers are tracked by infrared dots and cameras. In training, every simulated movement that brought the cube closer to the goal gave Dactyl a small reward. Dropping the cube caused it to feel a penalty 20 times as big.

The process is called reinforcement learning. The robot software repeats the attempts millions of times in a simulated environment, trying over and over to get the highest reward. OpenAI used roughly the same algorithm it used to beat human players in a video game, Dota 2.

In real life, a team of researchers worked about a year to get the mechanical hand to this point.

Why?

For one, the hand in a simulated environment doesn’t understand friction. So even though its real fingers are rubbery, Dactyl lacks human understanding about the best grips.

Researchers injected their simulated environment with changes to gravity, hand angle and other variables so the software learns to operate in a way that is adaptable. That helped narrow the gap between real-world results and simulated ones, which were much better.

The variations helped the hand succeed putting the right letter face up more than a dozen times in a row before dropping the cube. In simulation, the hand typically succeeded 50 times in a row before the test was stopped.

OpenAI’s goal is to develop artificial general intelligence, or machines that think and learn like humans, in a way that is safe for people and widely distributed.

Musk has warned that if AI systems are developed only by for-profit companies or powerful governments, they could one day exceed human smarts and be more dangerous than nuclear war with North Korea.

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Facebook Removes Accounts ‘Involved in Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior’

Efforts to influence U.S. voters ahead of the 2018 midterm elections in November appear to be well underway, though private companies and government officials are hesitant to say who, exactly, is behind the recently discovered campaigns.

Facebook announced Tuesday it had shut down 32 Facebook and Instagram accounts because they were “involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

Specifically, the social media company said it took down eight Facebook pages, 17 Facebook profiles, and seven Instagram accounts, the oldest of which were created in March 2017.

Facebook said the entities behind the accounts ran some 150 ads for about $11,000 on Facebook and Instagram, paid for with U.S. and Canadian currency.

“We’re still in the very early stages of our investigation and don’t have all the facts — including who may be behind this,” Facebook said in a blog post. “It’s clear that whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has in the past.”

Effort to spark confrontations

At least 290,000 accounts followed the fake pages, most of which appeared to target left-wing American communities in an effort to spark confrontations with the far right, according to an analysis done by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

 

“They appear to have constituted an attempt by an external actor — possibly, though not certainly, in the Russian-speaking world,” the Digital Forensic Research Lab said in its own post.

It said similarities to activity by Russia’s IRA included “language patterns that indicate non-native English and consistent mistranslation, as well as an overwhelming focus on polarizing issues at the top of any given news cycle with content that remained emotive rather than fact-based.”

Facebook’s announcement came the same day top U.S. officials warned the country is now in “a crisis mode.”

“Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said at a National Cybersecurity Summit, citing Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.

“It is unacceptable, and it will not be tolerated,” Nielsen said. “The United States possesses a wide range of response options — some of them seen, others unseen — and we will no longer hesitate to use them to hold foreign adversaries accountable.”

Homeland Security officials said they had been in touch with Facebook about the fake accounts and applauded the move to take them down. The White House also praised Facebook’s actions.

“We applaud efforts by our private sector partners to combat an array of threats that occur in cyberspace, including malign influence,” NSC spokesman Garrett Marquis told VOA.

Nielsen, who did not comment on the Facebook announcement directly, also said officials were “dramatically ramping up” efforts to protect U.S. election systems with the help of a new Election Task Force.

She also announced the launch of a National Risk Management Center to make it easier for the government to work with private sector companies to counter threats in cyberspace.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has at times cast doubt on findings by the U.S. intelligence community regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election, chaired a meeting of his National Security Council on election security on Friday, with the White House promising continued support to safeguard the country’s election systems.

Vice President Mike Pence, speaking Tuesday at a Homeland Security-sponsored summit, echoed that, saying, “Any attempt to interfere in our elections is an affront to our democracy, and it will not be allowed.”

Pence assured the audience that the White House did not doubt Russia’s attempts to influence U.S. elections, saying, “Gone are the days when America allows our adversaries to cyberattack us with impunity.”

“We’ve already done more than any administration in American history to preserve the integrity of the ballot box,” he added. “The American people demand and deserve the strongest possible defense, and we will give it to them.”

Hackers targeted congressional campaigns

Less than two weeks ago, Microsoft said hackers had targeted the campaigns of at least three congressional candidates in the upcoming election.

Tom Burt, Microsoft’s vice president for customer security and trust, refused to attribute the attacks, but said the hackers used tactics similar to those used by Russian operatives to target the Republican and Democratic parties during their presidential nominating conventions in 2016.

Late last week, The Daily Beast reported one of the targets of the attack was Missouri Democratic senator Claire McCaskill, who has been highly critical of Russia and is facing a tough re-election campaign.

Until recently, both U.S. government and private sector officials had said they had not been seeing the same pace of attacks or influence campaigns that they saw in the run-up to the 2016 election.

“I think we’re not seeing that same conduct,” Monika Bickert, head of Facebook’s product policy and counterterrorism, said during an appearance earlier this month at the Aspen Security Forum. “But we are watching for that activity.”

Still, many officials and analysts said it was likely just a matter of time before Russia would seek to strike again.

“I think we have been clear across the entire administration that even though we aren’t seeing this level of activity directed at elections, we continue to see Russian information operations directed at undermining our democracy,” Homeland Security undersecretary Chris Krebs said.

Facebook said it was sharing what it knows because of a connection between the “bad actors” behind the Facebook and Instagram pages and some protests that are planned next week in Washington, D.C.

Facebook also canceled an event posted by one of the accounts — a page called “Resisters” — calling for a counterprotest to a “Unite the Right” event scheduled for August in Washington, D.C.

U.S. lawmakers’ reactions

Key U.S. lawmakers applauded Facebook’s actions Tuesday, though they warned more still needs to be done.

“The goal of these operations is to sow discord, distrust and division in an attempt to undermine public faith in our institutions and our political system,” Sen. Richard Burr, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “The Russians want a weak America.”

“Today’s announcement from Facebook demonstrates what we’ve long feared — that malicious foreign actors bearing the hallmarks of previously identified Russian influence campaigns continue to abuse and weaponize social media platforms to influence the U.S. electorate,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

“It is clear that much more work needs to be done before the midterm elections to harden our defenses, because foreign bad actors are using the exact same playbook they used in 2016,” Schiff added.

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НБУ пояснив, чому падає гривня

Національний банк України пояснив 31 липня причини курсових коливань, які спостерігаються на валютному ринку другий тиждень поспіль.

Серед причин, які спричинили падіння гривні щодо долара США, регулятор назвав «активне проведення компаніями операцій з перерахування дивідендів за кордон (з початку липня з цією метою було куплено майже 300 мільйонів доларів США) та вихід нерезидентами з облігацій внутрішньої державної позики (з початку липня обсяг ОВДП в портфелях нерезидентів скоротився майже на 1,3 мільярда гривень)».

«На курсову динаміку минулого тижня також впливали значні обсяги повернення ПДВ наприкінці місяця, що значно зменшує обсяг вільного продажу валюти, а також збільшення попиту на готівкову валюту, зокрема зі сторони тіньового аграрного сектору у зв’язку з початком сезону», – ідеться в повідомленні.

Нацбанк вказує, що з початку минулого тижня продав 148 мільйонів доларів.

«Зокрема, сьогодні НБУ оголосив аукціон з продажу 50 мільйонів доларів США… За результатами аукціону НБУ продав 28,1 мільйонів доларів США за ціною відсікання 26,86 гривні за долар», – інформує НБУ.

24 липня вперше за чотири місяці Національний банк України встановив офіційний курс на рівні понад 26 з половиною гривень за долар – 26,58.

Відтоді курс продовжив зростання, 31 липня станом на 13:00 на міжбанківському валютному ринку зареєстровано 340 угод на суму понад 190 мільйонів доларів за середньозваженим курсом 26 гривень 86 копійок за долар, повідомляє профільний сайт «Мінфін».

 

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Tehran: Trump Wrong to Expect Saudis to Cover Loss of Iran Oil Supply

Iran said on Tuesday U.S. President Donald Trump was mistaken to expect Saudi Arabia and other oil producers to compensate for supply losses caused by U.S. sanctions on Iran, after OPEC production rose only modestly in July.

The comments, from Iran’s OPEC governor, came a day after a Reuters survey showed OPEC production rose by 70,000 barrels per day in July. Saudi production increased but was offset by a decline in Iranian supply due to the restart of U.S. sanctions, the survey found.

“It seems President Trump has been taken hostage by Saudi Arabia and a few producers when they claimed they can replace 2.5 million barrels per day of Iranian exports, encouraging him to take action against Iran,” Hossein Kazempour Ardebili told Reuters. “Now they and Russia sell more oil and more expensively. Not even from their incremental production but their stocks.”

He said oil prices, which Trump has been pressuring the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to bring down by raising output, will rise unless the United States grants waivers to buyers of Iranian crude.

“They are also calling for the use of the U.S. SPR [Strategic Petroleum Reserve]. This will also mean higher prices. U.S. waivers to our clients if they come is due to the failure of bluffers [Saudi and the other producers] and, if not given, will again push the prices higher,” he said.

“So they hanged him [Trump] on the wall. Now they want to have a mega OPEC, congratulations to President Trump, Russia and Saudi Arabia.”

OPEC governors represent their respective country on the organization’s board of governors and are typically the second most senior person in a country’s OPEC delegation after the oil minister.

“The longer-term solution, Mr President, is to support and facilitate capacity building in all countries, proportionate to their reserves of oil and gas. And we will remain the biggest opportunity,” Kazempour said.

 

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With Drones and Satellites, India Gets to Know its Slums

Satellites and drones are driving efforts by Indian states to map informal settlements in order to speed up the process of delivering services and land titles, officials said.

The eastern state of Odisha aims to give titles to 200,000 households in urban slums and those on the outskirts of cities by the end of the year.

Officials used drones to map the settlements.

“What may have takes us years to do, we have done in a few months,” G. Mathi Vathanan, the state housing department commissioner, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last week.

Land records across the country date back to the British colonial era, and most holdings have uncertain ownership, leading to fraud and lengthy disputes that often end in court.

Officials in Mumbai, where about 60 percent of the population lives in informal settlements, are also mapping slums with drones. Maharashtra state, where the city is located, is launching a similar exercise for rural land holdings.

In the southern city of Bengaluru, a seven-year study that recently concluded used satellite imaging and machine learning.

The study recorded about 2,000 informal settlements, compared with fewer than 600 in government records.

“Understanding human settlement patterns in rapidly urbanizing cities is important because of the stress on civic resources and public utilities,” said Nikhil Kaza, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina.

“Geospatial analysis can help identify stress zones, and allow civic authorities to focus their efforts in localized areas,” said Kaza, who analyzed the Bengaluru data.

About a third of the world’s urban population lives in informal settlements, according to United Nations data.

These settlements may account for 30 percent to 60 percent of housing in cities, yet they are generally undercounted, resulting in a lack of essential services, which can exacerbate poverty.

Identifying and monitoring settlements with traditional approaches such as door-to-door surveys is costly and time consuming. As technology gets cheaper, officials from Nairobi to Mumbai are using satellite images and drones instead.

About 65 million people live in India’s slums, according to census data, which activists say is a low estimate.

Lack of data can result in tenure insecurity, as only residents of “notified” slums – or those that are formally recognized – can receive property titles.

Lack of data also leads to poor policy because slums are “not homogenous,” said Anirudh Krishna, a professor at Duke University who led the Bengaluru study.

Some slums “are more likely to need water and sanitation facilities, while better off slums may require skills and entrepreneurship interventions,” he said.

“Lack of information on the nature and diversity of informal settlements is an important limitation in developing appropriate policies aimed at improving the lives of the urban poor.”

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50 Years on, McDonald’s and Fast-Food Evolve Around Big Mac

McDonald’s is fighting to hold onto customers as the Big Mac turns 50, but it isn’t changing the makings of its most famous burger.

The company is celebrating the 1968 national launch of the double-decker sandwich whose ingredients of “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions and a sesame seed bun” were seared into American memories by a TV jingle. But the milestone comes as the company reduces its number of U.S. stores. McDonald’s said Thursday that customers are visiting less often. Other trendy burger options are reaching into the heartland.

The “Golden Arches” still have a massive global reach, and the McDonald’s brand of cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets and french fries remains recognizable around the world. But on its critical home turf, the company is toiling to stay relevant. Kale now appears in salads, fresh has replaced frozen beef patties in Quarter Pounders, and some stores now offer ordering kiosks, food delivery and barista-style cafes.

The milestone for the Big Mac shows how much McDonald’s and the rest of fast-food have evolved around it.

“Clearly, we’ve gotten a little more sophisticated in our menu development,” McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook said in a phone interview.

As with many of its popular and long-lasting menu items, the idea for the Big Mac came from a franchisee.

In 1967, Michael James “Jim” Delligatti lobbied the company to let him test the burger at his Pittsburgh restaurants. Later, he acknowledged the Big Mac’s similarity to a popular sandwich sold by the Big Boy chain.

“This wasn’t like discovering the light bulb. The bulb was already there. All I did was screw it in the socket,” Delligatti said, according to “Behind the Arches.”

McDonald’s agreed to let Delligatti sell the sandwich at a single location, on the condition that he use the company’s standard bun. It didn’t work. Delligatti tried a bigger sesame seed bun, and the burger soon lifted sales by more than 12 percent.

After similar results at more stores, the Big Mac was added to the national menu in 1968. Other ideas from franchisees that hit the big time include the Filet-O-Fish, Egg McMuffin, Apple Pie (once deep-fried but now baked), and the Shamrock Shake.

“The company has benefited from the ingenuity of its small business men,” wrote Ray Kroc, who transformed the McDonald’s into a global franchise, in his book, “Grinding It Out.”

Franchisees still play an important role, driving the recent switch to fresh from frozen for the beef in Quarter Pounders, Easterbrook says. They also participate in menu development, which in the U.S. has included a series of cooking tweaks intended to improve taste.

Messing with a signature menu item can be taboo, but keeping the Big Mac unchanged comes with its own risks. Newer chains such as Shake Shack and Five Guys offer burgers that can make the Big Mac seem outdated. Even White Castle is modernizing, recently adding plant-based “Impossible Burger” sliders at some locations.

A McDonald’s franchisee fretted in 2016 that only one out of five millennials has tried the Big Mac. The Big Mac had “gotten less relevant,” the franchisee wrote in a memo, according to the Wall Street Journal.

McDonald’s then ran promotions designed to introduce the Big Mac to more people. Those kind of periodic campaigns should help keep the Big Mac relevant for years to come, says Mike Delligatti, the son of the Big Mac inventor, who died in 2016.

“What iconic sandwich do you know that can beat the Big Mac as far as longevity?” said Delligatti, himself a McDonald’s franchisee.

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