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Walmart abandons shelf-scanning robots, lets humans do work

Inside Telecom Staff

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Walmart

NEW YORK (AP) — Walmart is laying off the robots it had deployed in about 500 stores to keep tabs on what’s on and not on the shelves.

The retailer said Monday it has ended its relationship with startup Bossa Nova Robotics, which builds roving robots equipped with cameras for identifying out-of-stock and misplaced products.

Walmart said in a statement it has “worked with Bossa Nova for five years and together we learned a lot about how technology can assist associates, make jobs easier and provide a better customer experience.” It said it is still testing other new technologies for tracking inventory and moving goods.

The Wall Street Journal was first to report the ending partnership Monday, citing unnamed people familiar with the situation who said the retailer found human workers could get similar results. There was also some concern about how shoppers reacted to robots doing the work, according to the report.

Bossa Nova, which was founded in 2005 in Pittsburgh didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment Monday.

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EU court: Amazon tax deal with Luxembourg was legal

Associated Press

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Amazon

In the latest setback to European Union efforts to tackle corporate tax avoidance, a court on Wednesday annulled a ruling by the European Commission that a tax deal between the Luxembourg government and Amazon amounted to illegal state support.

The EU’s executive branch ordered the U.S. online retailer in 2017 to pay around 250 million euros ($300 million) in back taxes to Luxembourg. But judges at the EU’s General Court said the European Commission didn’t prove “to the requisite legal standard that there was an undue reduction of the tax burden of a European subsidiary of the Amazon group.”

Amazon said it welcomed the court’s decision, which is “in line with our long-standing position that we followed all applicable laws and that Amazon received no special treatment,” the company said in a statement. “We’re pleased that the Court has made this clear, and we can continue to focus on delivering for our customers across Europe.”

The European Commission’s decision related to Luxembourg’s tax treatment of two companies in the Amazon group: Amazon EU and Amazon Europe Holding Technologies.

Margrethe Vestager, the EU official in charge of antitrust issues, argued at the time that Amazon had unfairly profited from special low tax conditions since 2003 in tiny Luxembourg, where its European headquarters are based. As a result, almost three quarters of Amazon’s profits in the EU were not taxed, she said. Vestager didn’t reply immediately to a request for comment.

Both Luxembourg and Amazon challenged the decision with the EU’s General Court.

The EU has taken aim at deals concluded between individual countries and companies used to lure foreign multinationals in search of a place to establish their EU headquarters. The practice led to EU states competing with each other and multinationals playing them off one another.

Judges at the General Court have backed the European Commission in several cases, but the EU’s efforts to crack down on favorable tax deals suffered recent setbacks in cases involving Starbucks and Apple.

Wednesday’s ruling can be appealed to the 27-nation bloc’s highest court, the European Court of Justice.

The EU remains at odds with Amazon on other issues relating to competition. Last year, EU regulators filed antitrust charges against the e-commerce company, accusing Amazon of using its access to data from companies that sell products on its platform to gain an unfair advantage over them.

In another judgment Wednesday, the General Court found the existence of a tax advantage in rulings granted by Luxembourg to companies in the Engie group, a French multinational electric utility company. Three years ago, the European Commission had found that Luxembourg allowed two Engie group companies to avoid paying taxes on almost all their profits for about a decade and said the country should recover about 120 million euros in unpaid tax.

The Luxembourg government welcomed the Amazon decision and said in a statement that neither ruling calls into question the country’s “commitment to transparency in tax matters and the fight against tax avoidance practices.”


BRUSSELS (AP) — By SAMUEL PETREQUIN Associated Press.

Kelvin Chan contributed to this story from London.

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NTSB: Tesla owner got into driver’s seat before deadly crash

Associated Press

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Home security camera footage shows that the owner of a Tesla got into the driver’s seat of the car shortly before a deadly crash in suburban Houston, according to a government report Monday.

But the preliminary report on the crash that killed two men doesn’t explain the mystery of why authorities found no one behind the wheel of the car, which burst into flames after crashing about 550 feet (170 meters) from the owner’s home. Nor does it conclusively say whether Tesla’s “Autopilot” partially automated driver-assist system was operating at the time of the crash, although it appears unlikely.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it’s still investigating all aspects of the crash. An onboard data storage device in the console, however, was destroyed by fire. A computer that records air bag and seat belt status as well as speed and acceleration was damaged and is being examined at an NTSB lab.

The NTSB said it tested a different Tesla vehicle on the same road, and the Autopilot driver-assist system could not be fully used. Investigators could not get the system’s automated steering system to work, but were able to use Traffic Aware Cruise Control.

Autopilot needs both the cruise control and the automatic steering to function. Traffic Aware Cruise Control can keep the car a safe distance from vehicles in front of it, while autosteer keeps it in its own lane. The report said the road also did not have lane lines. That could have have been why the automatic steering wouldn’t work.

“The NTSB continues to collect data to analyze the crash dynamics, postmortem toxicology test results, seat belt use, occupant egress and electric vehicle fires,” the agency said in its report. “All aspects of the crash remain under investigation as the NTSB determines the probable cause.”

The agency says it intends to issue safety recommendations to prevent similar crashes.

The April 17 crash happened at 9:07 p.m. on Hammock Dunes Place, a two-lane residential road in Spring, Texas. Both the 59-year-old owner and the 69-year-old passenger were killed.

The NTSB report said the 2019 Model S went off the road on a curve, drove over a curb, hit a drainage culvert, a raised manhole and a tree.

The crash damaged the high-voltage lithium-ion battery, where the fire began.

Local authorities said one man was found in the front passenger seat, while another was in the back.

The report didn’t say how fast the car was going, but Harris County Precinct Four Constable Mark Herman said it was a high speed. He would not say if there was evidence anyone tampered with Tesla’s system to monitor the driver, which detects force from hands on the steering wheel. The system will issue warnings and eventually shut the car down if it doesn’t detect hands. But critics say Tesla’s system is easy to fool and can take as long as a minute to shut down.

Consumer Reports said in April that it was able to easily trick a Tesla into driving in Autopilot mode with no one at the wheel.

The NTSB, which has no regulatory authority and can only make recommendations, said it’s working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the probe. NHTSA has the power to make vehicle safety regulations. The federal probe is running at the same time as a parallel investigation by local authorities, the NTSB said.

The Texas crash raised questions of whether Autopilot was working at the time, and whether Tesla does enough to make sure drivers are engaged. The company says in owner’s manuals and on its website that Autopilot is a driver-assist system and drivers must be ready to take action at any time.

Lars Moravy, Tesla’s vice president of vehicle engineering, said on the company’s April 26 earnings conference call that an inspection of the badly burned car found that the steering wheel was deformed, “so it was leading to a likelihood that someone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash.” He said all seat belts were found unbuckled.

Last month on Twitter, Tesla CEO Elon Musk wrote that data logs “recovered so far” in the crashed show Autopilot wasn’t turned on, and “Full Self-Driving” was not purchased for the vehicle in the Texas crash. He didn’t answer reporters’ questions posed on Twitter.

In the past, NHTSA, has taken a hands-off approach to regulating partial and fully automated systems for fear of hindering development of promising new features.

But since March, the agency has stepped up inquiries into Teslas, dispatching teams to three crashes. It has investigated 28 Tesla crashes in the past few years, but thus far has relied on voluntary safety compliance from auto and tech companies. At least three people have been killed in U.S. crashes in which Autopilot was operating but neither the system nor the driver took action to avoid obstacles.


DETROIT (AP) — By TOM KRISHER AP Auto Writer.

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2 on trial as China enforces online control amid pandemic

Associated Press

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Virus Outbreak China

Two amateur computer coders taken by police from their Beijing homes last year were standing trial Tuesday in a case that illustrates the Chinese government’s growing online censorship and heightened sensitivity to any deviation from the official narrative on its COVID-19 response.

Authorities have not said specifically why Chen Mei, 28, and Cai Wei, 27, were arrested, so friends and relatives can only guess. They believe it was because the two men had set up an online archive to store articles deleted by censors and a related forum where users could skirt real-name registration requirements to chat anonymously.

The case is being tried at Wenyuhe People’s Court in the northeastern outskirts of Beijing. Chen’s mother and Cai’s father were allowed in shortly before the trial was due to begin at 9 a.m. The families were previously told that only one family member could attend.

Started in 2018, the archive kept hundreds of censored articles and the forum saw discussions on sensitive issues including the anti-government protests in Hong Kong and complaints about the ruling Communist Party. But what got them in trouble with authorities appears to be archiving articles showing an alternative to China’s official narrative about its pandemic response just as the country started facing questions over its handling of the initial outbreak.

In keeping the censored articles and providing a place for them to be discussed, the two run afoul of increasingly strict regulations in an already stifling online environment under President Xi Jinping. Just last year hundreds were prosecuted for online speech.

Chen and Cai are being prosecuted under a catch-all charge of “stirring up trouble and picking quarrels.”

In January 2020, the two began archiving articles about a mysterious new illness circulating in Wuhan. For Cai, who is from the area and could not go home to see his family for the Lunar New Year holiday, the news was particularly upsetting.

“A lot of things happened in China then that made us very upset, and he may have been affected by that,” said his girlfriend, Tang Hongbo. She was also detained but released after 23 days when it became clear she didn’t know much about the project. “Every day we were looking at the internet, and we were all in this tragic mindset.”

Xi has made cyberspace governance a priority, and under his direction, the government created its own model to manage the challenges and opportunities of the internet. China eliminated online anonymity by requiring people to register under what is known as the real name system starting in 2016. Social media accounts are linked to a mobile phone number, which is tied to an individual’s national ID number.

A Chinese activist, using court and government records and media reports, tallied more than 750 prosecutions for web speech in 2020 in an online database and posted on a Twitter account named SpeechFreedomCN. He said he runs the database anonymously out of fear of retribution.

A friend of Cai, who declined to be named out of fear of retribution, said Cai had grown frustrated with the censorship regime. In response, he and Chen launched the Terminus2049 archive and 2049bbs forum in 2018 as a “public platform of free exchange,” Cai wrote in a welcome post.

“It’s not just the ‘real name’ system — the deletions of posts, the bans, have reached a point that’s really shocking domestically,” Cai wrote in another 2018 post. “When you have to worry about whether you have touched a sensitive keyword in any post you write, how can you really have the brave desire to express yourself?”

On the forum, Cai wrote about movies, music and books he liked. Others discussed mores sensitive topics. It was a place to speak without worrying about having posts deleted or getting one’s account banned. It didn’t require a phone number to register, or even an email address.

Chen was more low-key but similarly chafed against the censorship system.

“He wants information to flow. He wants quality information to flow freely,” said Chen Kun, his older brother. “We have this type of value deep in our bones, the independence of discourse on the internet and the free transmission of information.”

Cai and Chen met in 2011 at a summer camp hosted by Liren College, a socially conscious educational program. Both self-taught coders, they first started cooperating on a project to archive all the lectures and information from the summer camps, said a friend of both, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution. Authorities shut down Liren in 2014.

Terminus2049 primarily housed articles that had been deleted from WeChat and Weibo, popular social media platforms that are subject to regular algorithmic and human censorship. While similar databases existed, most were blocked in China. Terminus2049 was available on Github, a code sharing platform that is not blocked.

The topics the archived articles touched on were broad, but they shared a focus on social issues. One was concerned about the expulsion of migrant workers from Beijing after a fire, while another shared questions about a company that falsified data on rabies vaccines.

It was only after Cai and Chen got arrested in April last year that their families found out from friends and peers what the two had been working on. They suspect that pandemic-related content triggered the arrests, in part because in the weeks before and after their detention, police questioned acquaintances about what the two had done during the outbreak.

“They were told that Chen Mei has family members abroad, has provided foreign organizations with information about the pandemic and is basically handing a knife over to the enemy,” said Chen Kun, who now lives in France.

Police in Beijing did not respond to a faxed request for comment and court-appointed lawyers did not respond to phone calls.

Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan also fell afoul of the law after reporting from Wuhan in the early days of the outbreak. She received a four-year sentence in December.

The 2049bbs forum, which never had major reach, is now blocked in China. Yet the discussions continue and the records of the forum live on in a site called 2047, set up by a self-described “person who walks the same path” and some members of the old forum.

Cai’s father, who hasn’t seen his son in more than a year, still can’t understand how his son ran afoul of the authorities.

“He didn’t say anything bad. He didn’t try to organize some protests,” Cai Jianli said. “How did this become picking quarrels and stirring up trouble?”


TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — By HUIZHONG WU Associated Press

Associated Press video journalist Sam McNeil and news assistant Caroline Chen in Beijing contributed to this story.

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