Hold this beam for me, friend robot, and let us construct a house together

Being a neophyte in the world of woodworking — I’ve made a shabby but sturdy shed — I can appreciate the value of a good partner who can help measure, cut, hold stuff and generally be a second pair of hands. The usual drawback with humans is you have to pay them or feed them in return for this duty. So imagine my delight in finding that ETH Zürich is pioneering the art of robot-assisted woodworking!

The multi-institutional Spatial Timber Assemblies DFAB House project is an effort to increase the efficiency not just of the process of framing a home, but also of the design itself.

The robot part is as you might expect, though more easily said than created. A pair of ceiling-mounted robot arms in the work area pluck and cut beams to length, put them in position and drill holes where they will later be attached.

Most of this can be accomplished without any human intervention, and what’s more, without reinforcement plates or scaffolding. The designs of these modules (room-size variations that can be mixed and matched) are generated specifically to be essentially freestanding; load and rigidity are handled by the arrangement of beams.

The CAD work is done ahead of time and the robots follow the blueprint, carefully avoiding one another and working slowly but efficiently.

“If any change is made to the project overall, the computer model can be constantly adjusted to meet the new requirements,” explained Matthias Kohler, who heads the project, in an ETHZ news release. “This kind of integrated digital architecture is closing the gap between design, planning and execution.”

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Human workers have to do the bolting step, but that step too seems like it could be automated; the robots may not have the sensors or tools available to undertake it at present.

Eventually the beams will also be reinforced by similarly prefabbed concrete posts and slot into a “smart slab,” optimized for exactly these layouts and created by sand-based 3D printing. The full three-story structure should be complete and open to explore this fall. You can learn more at the project’s website.

Water Abundance XPRIZE finalists compete in gathering water from thin air

Despite being a necessity for life, clean, drinkable water can be extremely hard to come by in some places where war has destroyed infrastructure or climate change has dried up rivers and aquifers. The Water Abundance XPRIZE is up for grabs to teams that can suck fresh water straight out of the air, and it just announced its five finalists.

The requirements for the program are steep enough to sound almost like science fiction: the device must extract “a minimum of 2,000 liters of water per day from the atmosphere using 100 percent renewable energy, at a cost of no more than 2 cents per liter.” Is that even possible?!

For a million bucks, people will try anything. But only five teams have made it to the finals, taking equal shares of a $250,000 “milestone prize” to further their work. There isn’t a lot of technical info on them yet, but here they are, in alphabetical order:

Hydro Harvest: This Australian team based out of the University of Newcastle is “going back to basics,” probably smart if you want to keep costs down. The team has worked together before on an emission-free engine that turns waste heat into electricity.

JMCC Wing: This Hawaiian team’s leader has been working on solar and wind power for many years, so it’s no surprise their solution involves the “marriage” of a super-high-efficiency, scalable wind energy harvester with a commercial water condenser. The bigger the generator, the cheaper the energy.

Skydra: Very little information is available for this Chicago team, except that they have created “a hybrid solution that utilizes both natural and engineered systems.”

The Veragon & Thinair: Alphabetically this collaboration comes on both sides of U, but I’m putting it here. U.K. collaboration has developed a material that “rapidly enhances the process of water condensation,” and are planning not only to produce fresh water but also to pack it with minerals.

Uravu: Out of Hyderabad in India, this team is also going back to basics with a solar-powered solution that doesn’t appear to actually use solar cells — the rays of the sun and design of the device do it all. The water probably comes out pretty warm, though.

The first round of testing took place in January, and round 2 comes in July, at which point the teams’ business plans are also due. In August there should be an announcement of the $1 million grand prize winner. Good luck to all involved and regardless of who takes home the prize, here’s hoping this tech gets deployed to good purpose where it’s needed.

Video of deadly Uber autonomous car crash raises more questions than it answers

Uber has put the brakes on its experimental autonomous vehicles in Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto for an unspecified duration of time following a deadly collision Sunday evening between an Uber vehicle and a woman in Tempe, Arizona, according to TV station ABC15. Video footage taken by the car’s onboard camera and released by the Tempe police department raises more questions than it answers.

The incident likely marks the first pedestrian fatality involving an autonomous vehicle. The city’s police chief told the San Francisco Chronicle the preliminary investigation suggests Uber isn’t to blame in the crash.

49-year old Elaine Herzberg, who was struck while pushing her bike and later died from her injuries, was walking outside of the crosswalk, according to a Tempe police department statement. The car was operating in self-driving mode, the police said, but a vehicle operator was behind the wheel at the time. It was traveling at 38 mph in a 35 mph zone when it hit Herzberg and it made no attempt to brake or swerve. The National Transportation Safety Board said on Twitter that it planned to open an investigation of the incident, noting “more to come.”

The footage highlights several important details. First, it shows Herzberg was already well into the roadway when the prototype hit her. This contradicts earlier reports claiming she darted across the road at the last minute. It consequently also raises the question of why the armada of sensors — including some that see at night — didn’t recognize a pedestrian and a bicycle on a dark but otherwise clear street.

Second, the video confirms the prototype’s operator took her eyes off the road for several seconds at a time in the moments leading up to the crash. We don’t know if that’s a violation of Uber’s operator guidelines. We’ve reached out to the company for clarification and we’ll update this story as soon as we hear back.

The video represents the most important piece of information in the investigation. “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” Sylvia Moir, Tempe’s police chief, concluded. But while Uber’s prototype might not be to blame, the operator behind the wheel could ultimately face charges.

“I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident,” Moir said. “I won’t rule out the potential to file charges against the (backup driver) in the Uber vehicle,” she added.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi also tweeted his condolences about the sad news, noting that “we’re thinking of the victim’s family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened.”

“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident,” an Uber spokesperson told Digital Trends. The company described the pause in its autonomous vehicle program as “a standard move.”

Arizona has seen an alarming number of pedestrian deaths this year. A report from the Governors Highway Safety Association released March 1 said Arizona had the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities in the nation, based on available data from 2017.

Autonomous vehicles from Uber have been operating in Arizona since February 2017 as part of a national series of tests of self-driving vehicles.

USA Today reports that the vehicle operator, 44-year old Rafaela Vasquez, served almost four years in an Arizona prison in the early 2000s for an attempted armed robbery conviction. An Uber spokesperson declined to comment to the paper on the conviction or the company’s hiring policies, citing an active investigation.

The complete Tempe Police Department statement:

“We wanted to provide an update to the Uber accident that occurred overnight on Mill Ave. just south of Curry Rd. The vehicle involved is one of Uber’s self-driving vehicles. It was in autonomous mode at the time of the collision, with a vehicle operator behind the wheel. The vehicle was traveling northbound just south of Curry Rd. when a female walking outside of the crosswalk crossed the road from west to east when she was struck by the Uber vehicle. She was transported to a local area hospital where she passed away from her injuries. Her next of kin has not been notified yet so her name is not being released at this time. Uber is assisting and this is still an active investigation.”

Anthony Foxx, who served as U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President Barack Obama, urged a greater emphasis on self-driving car safety in his own statement:

“There is still so much to know about the Tempe driverless car accident resulting in a loss of life. That said, this is a wake up call to the entire AV industry and government to put a high priority on safety.”

Updated on March 22nd: added video of the crash.

Editors’ Recommendations

Google may be looking to snap up VR camera company Lytro

Lytro, the company that first attempted to disrupt the consumer camera market with a light field camera but now uses that technology for virtual reality capture, could be looking for a buyer. Multiple anonymous sources recently told TechCrunch that Google is looking to acquire Lytro.

Neither of the two companies responded to Digital Trends’ requests for comments. Refusing to release an official comment prior to a sale isn’t uncommon, however.

Several of those unnamed sources suggested Google was looking to pay around $40 million for the light field company. Other sources, however, reported a lower price and some suggested Facebook and Apple as possible buyers.

The reported talks also suggested that the deal could involve staff cuts — the Lytro website, however, lists several open full-time positions.

Without an official confirmation from either company, the potential buy remains just that: potential. Technology for building a light field, virtual reality camera could potentially be integrated inside the tech giant in a number of different ways. Google’s current work in virtual reality ranges from Google Earth VR and Google DayDream to YouTube. Unlike a 360 camera that captures one perspective in every direction, Lytro’s VR cameras have six degrees of freedom, allowing actual movement to be built into the footage.

Lytro launched with an idea for a radically different camera that could capture light fields, and pushed out its original camera in 2011. Despite the ability to shoot first and refocus later, the Lytro cameras remained niche products and in 2015, the company decided to switch gears and repurpose the light field technology for virtual reality.

At the time of that change, the CEO said that light field could be both an affordable and easy solution for capturing virtual reality. The company’s giant 98-lens camera, however, is so large and expensive that the camera is generally rented out for different projects. Earlier this year, Lytro partnered with Limitless, a company that creates animated VR characters.

Despite the company’s challenges, the Lytro Immerge 2.0 appears to encompass technology that, like Lytro’s consumer cameras, are ahead of their time. The company said that they Immerge 2.0 is ready to go into 10K — once there are actually headsets that are capable of displaying that same resolution.

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Facebook Swelters in Cambridge Analytica Heat

CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday broke Facebook’s mysterious silence following news of several investigations into Cambridge Analytica’s access to personal data belonging to 50 million Facebook users.

Facing the wrath of everyone from U.S. and European regulators to shareholders, customers and employees, Zuckerberg conceded that Facebook must make several changes in how it protects data if it expects to be taken seriously in the future, and it pledged to take those necessary steps.

“We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t we don’t deserve to serve you,” he wrote in a post on his own Facebook page. “I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Facebook earlier this week announced the suspension of Strategic Communication Laboratories and its Cambridge Analytica political data firm for harvesting the personal information of those 50 million Facebook users without their permission. The data gathering was accomplished by leveraging research that a former Cambridge professor, Aleksandr Kogan, had performed with Facebook’s approval.

Using his “thisisyourdigitallife” app, Kogan sent quizzes to more than 270,000 Facebook members. He then harvested personal data from millions of their friends as well. Kogan passed that information to Cambridge Analytica, which then used it to target voters during the U.S. 2016 presidential election campaign, on behalf of Donald Trump.

Zuckerberg acknowledged that Kogan was given permission to conduct the quiz, but added that he had violated Facebook policy by passing on the data to a third party. Zuckerberg also said that after Facebook deleted the app, Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and Christopher Wylie — the former Cambridge Analytica employee who blew the whistle on the incident — had reneged on a certification they gave to Facebook that they would delete the millions of data records.

New Protocols

In a related post on Wednesday, Facebook promised to take steps to prevent any recurrence of this type of activity. The company said it would investigate all apps that have had large amounts of access to customer data, conduct full audits, and ban them if it should find violations.

It also plans to implement the following changes:

  • Facebook will disclose to members if their data has been misused by an app.
  • Facebook will turn off an app’s access to users who haven’t used it in more than three months.
  • Facebook will restrict Facebook login data to the user’s name, profile photo and email address.
  • Facebook will encourage members to manage the apps they use.

In addition, Facebook will expand its bug bounty program, which rewards people who report security vulnerabilities or misuse of data.

Several leading House and Senate committee leaders have fired off letters to Facebook seeking answers on its data policies. Zuckerberg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and other executives have been urged to appear on Capitol Hill.

Arrangements for a staff briefing are under way, according to Frederick Hill, spokesperson for Sen. John Thune, who chairs the Commerce Committee.

Heavy Fallout

Several customer and investor lawsuits related to the data controversy already have been filed against Facebook.

Maryland customer Lauren Price filed a potential class action suit against Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in U.S. District Court in Northern California, which alleges that the failure to safeguard her private data and failure to disclose constitute negligence and violation of California’s unfair competition law.

Facebook, Zuckerberg and CFO David Wehner are named in Yuan v. Facebook, an investors lawsuit alleging failure to disclose.

“We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information,” said Paul Grewal, Facebook’s deputy general counsel. “We will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens.”

The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office has been seeking a warrant to enter the offices of Cambridge Analytica, which failed to respond to an earlier request to hand over documents to that office, confirmed spokesperson Helen Booth.

Cambridge Analytica on Tuesday announced that it suspended CEO Alexander Nix, naming Alexander Tayler as interim CEO. Nix was suspended after the airing of an undercover report by Channel 4 in the UK, which included hidden camera footage of Nix making statements regarding the firm’s use of sex workers to ensnare politicians.

The company’s board ordered an independent investigation into the comments.

Mozilla has launched a petition to get Facebook to change its app permissions.

“Individuals’ security and privacy on the Internet are fundamental and must not be treated as optional,” Mozilla said in a statement provided to the E-Commerce Times by spokesperson Jenifer Boscacci. “With our petition to Facebook we’re sending a clear message to the company, take users’ privacy more seriously.”

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a Freedom of Information Request with the Federal Trade Commission, which has launched an investigation into the data disclosures to Cambridge Analytica, to find out if Facebook complied with a 2012 consent order that required it to report to the commission on whether it was maintaining proper privacy controls over data.

EPIC and other privacy groups had filed a complaint with the FTC over a previous data leak, which led to an agreement that compelled Facebook to maintain tight controls over third-party data disclosures.

Following Zuckerberg’s public comments, EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg told the E-Commerce Times that “it’s no longer for Facebook to decide what happens next.”

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain’s New York Business and The New York Times.