Amazon says it will add 1,000 more employees in the UK, bringing the total to 28,500, bucking the Brexit chill

A lot of uncertainty hangs over the U.K. as it continues its slow march out of the European Union, but today one of the world’s biggest companies announced plans to expand its presence in the country. Amazon today said it would add another 1,000 workers in the U.K., including establishing its first corporate and R&D office in Manchester.

Amazon said it also plans to add more people to its R&D bases in Edinburgh and Cambridge — respectively known for developing search technology as well as the AI technology that powers Alexa, among other things. The company says it currently has 27,500 “roles” in the U.K.

The government is positioning Amazon’s news as a win at a time when many have been criticising how it has been handling Brexit negotiations. “Ensuring that the world’s best and brightest companies continue to invest and innovate in the UK is at the heart of our Global Britain agenda,” said Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, in a statement. “Amazon’s decision to create hundreds of highly-skilled jobs in Manchester, Edinburgh and Cambridge is an enormous vote of confidence in the UK and a signal to the world that the UK is very much open for business.”

The news was announced today as the company presented an “Innovation Day” to journalists, showcasing some of the different areas that are the focus of its R&D hubs in Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain and the U.K. I was at the event, and while I wouldn’t say the day was strong on news announcements around that work, it’s instructive to consider what Amazon chose to show (and perhaps not show, too).

For example, in one demo the company showed off today, a new computer vision-based system Amazon is building in Berlin will allow robots to identify what produce is ripe or rotten so that automatic pickers can select more robust fruit and vegetables to pack off to consumers, and identify what needs to be discarded. This underscores the company’s ambitions in the business of fresh food sales and delivery. Earlier this summer there were reports that Amazon was interested in bidding for a number of large retail locations that were due to be shut down by Homebase, a DIY chain, so that it could set up more delivery (or perhaps even retail) spots across key U.K. cities. However, so far nothing has materialised.

A walk through some of the company’s transportation work, meanwhile, focused more incremental developments rather than fundamental shifts for the company. The focus in the presentation was not on drones (which Amazon has also been building in Europe), nor on autonomous cars (which Amazon is also working on) but on its real-time street navigation services, and other tools to help delivery people make more accurate parcel drops.

While Amazon is continuing to add employees in the U.K., it has also had its share of employment controversies. Warehouse workers regularly strike during the company’s busiest sales periods to protest working conditions. And earlier this month, Reuters reported that the company had built an AI prototype to assist with finding and screening suitable candidates to help make its hiring spree more efficient. But the project had to be scrapped after it was found to be biased against women (highlighting some of the problems with “training” in machine learning). 

The company is also among the tech giants that might finally be held to task over taxes, although the issue has become very long in the tooth over the years, such that it has not been resolved. In the latest development, the EU commissioner who oversees taxes said that he was working on a deal that could be finalised before the end of this year, which could bring in about €5 billion in tax revenues from companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook, based on their “digital” presence rather than physical presence — the loophole that has kept American internet companies from paying large taxes on their profits up to now. However, if a deal isn’t reached soon, it could be pushed back by a year, since Brexit is expected to sidetrack everything in 2019.

 

Disruptive technology and organized religion

Avi Reichental
Contributor

Avi Reichental is founder and CEO of XponentialWorks. He is a leading authority on 3D printing and exponential tech convergence.

More or less since Nietzsche declared God “dead” nearly 140 years ago, popular wisdom has held that science and religion are irreparably misaligned. However, at a recent conference hosted by the Vatican, I learned that even in the era of artificial intelligence and gene splicing, religious institutions and leaders still have much to contribute to society as both moral compass and source of meaning.

In April this year, the Vatican launched Unite to Cure: A Global Health Care Initiative at the Fourth International Vatican Conference. This international event gathered some of the world’s leading scientists, physicians and ethicists — along with leaders of faith, government officials, businesspeople and philanthropists. The goal was to engage about the cultural, religious and societal implications of breakthrough technologies that improve human health, prevent disease and protect the environment. I had the privilege of participating as a board member of the XPRIZE Foundation.

We are living at a phenomenal point in human history. It’s a moment when our machines are flirting with godlike powers. AI and ever-accelerating innovations in medical technology are enabling humans to live longer than ever. Yet with increased machine capabilities and human longevity come heavy questions of morality and spirituality.

When bodies live longer, so do the souls inside of them. What are the spiritual implications for people who are given an additional 30 or even 50 years of life? Is enhanced longevity meddling with creation, or a complement to it?

As technology disrupts the way we relate to the few remaining physical and spiritual mysteries of humanity, it also disrupts the way we embrace religion.

It is here, at this nexus of technology and spirituality, that the Vatican wisely decided to bring together thinkers from both science and faith.

It was humbling to sit inside the tiny and unconventional country that we call Vatican City, surrounded by the world’s leading scientists, ethicists, venture capitalists and faith leaders. We talked about regenerative medicine, aging reversal, gene editing and cell therapy. We discussed how humanity is shifting from medicine that repairs and remediates toward a system that overtly changes our physical composition. We discussed the incredible augmentations available to the disabled — for example 3D-printed prosthetic limbs. How long before the able-bodied begin to exploit these enhancements to augment their own competitive advantage in an increasingly crowded world? To what extent, if any, should society attempt to control this paradigm shift?

One of the more interesting discussions surrounded how to ensure that humans don’t just live longer, but also better.

What exactly does “living better” entail? Does it imply physical comfort, spiritual well-being, financial security? At this moment in history, we have more instant and unlimited information than the kings and queens of ancient Greece or the Middle Ages could have ever imagined. That technological power is allowing more and more people to become enormously wealthy, at a speed and magnitude that would have been unthinkable for anyone other than a monarch just a century ago.

But are these people living “better”?

In as much as longer-living humans use their accrued wealth to support and encourage the creation of projects as audacious and ambitious as — for example — the Coliseum, I believe the answer is yes. If longevity and riches encourage the average human being to create change on a scale that matches the enormous potential of our exponential times — all the more so.

Yet, others in the room had a different take. For many religious leaders, “better” meant a more sharply defined relationship with God. For some scientists, “better” meant a life that creates fewer emissions and embraces better and smarter technology.

It was astounding, really. In one of the most hallowed spots on earth for the Catholic Church, sharing oxygen and ideas with cardinals and future saints, stood the world’s leading researchers, scientists and corporate leaders, who hold in their hands the technology to extend human life. Together with the clergy of the world’s great monotheistic religions, we held an open dialogue about how to improve the heart and soul of human life while the technology we create continues to advance beyond our ancestors’ wildest imaginations.

As technology disrupts the way we relate to the few remaining physical and spiritual mysteries of humanity, it also disrupts the way we embrace religion. In this conference, the Vatican very correctly leveraged the opportunity for organized religions to disrupt themselves by thinking about how they can be meaningful contributors to the conversation on spiritual, physical and mental well-being in the future.

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6D.ai opens up its beta

After wrestling for more than a decade with the development of a technology that would create a three-dimensional map of the physical world, the team at 6D.ai is finally ready to open up to developers its toolkit that the company says has done exactly that.

When company chief executive Matt Miesnieks announced the launch of 6D in March, he laid out a vision for its growth that had three goals: The company would build APIs to capture the three-dimensional geometry of the world; it would apply that three-dimensional data to build semantic APIs so applications can understand the world; and it would partner and extend those APIs to create an operating system for reality.

Having achieved the first goal, the company is now working on the second.

“The whole purpose of this company wasn’t ‘Hey there’s this new technology!’ It’s what can AR do in its fully realized form and what is a native experience for AR that hadn’t worked in prior mediums and what’s stopping that stuff from being effective and how do you solve those problems,” says Miesnieks.

For Miesnieks the problems confronting augmented reality come down to creating believable visual objects that integrate seamlessly into the world. That act of creation depends on persistence, occlusion and interaction, according to Miesnieks.

Interactivity, to Miesnieks should happen seamlessly rather than requiring a multi-step process that the 6D chief executive calls “just a bridge too far.”

“What needs to happen is you say, ‘Hey join my game.’ And it just works.”

Miesnieks argues that the kind of precision that synchronization requires demands a kind of on-device localization, which is exactly what 6D has claimed it enables.

“Once you have that 3D model then the virtual content can bounce off the 3D model. You can do shadows correctly. Extend that over large areas so that it doesn’t just work in a corner of my living room, but that it can work everywhere,” Miesnieks said. “We need these models and the only way to get there is to use a depth camera or offline photogrammetry.”

6D has already done some work with bands like Massive Attack and Aphex Twin that put its technology through some early paces. And the Victoria and Albert Museum have also used the technology. Soon it will launch a game with an undisclosed Japanese game developer (which has intellectual property similar to Pokémon) and a virtual YouTube-like application with the Japanese social network, Gree.

For Miesnieks perhaps the most interesting application is with a big, undisclosed transportation company that is interested in navigation for terrestrial and other mobility.

“When we set the company up, we are pretty convicted that we want to say to the developers that this is reality. We will give you shared coordinates for multi-player,” said Miesnieks.

Underlying all of this are concerns about security related to who can see what in the space that users map. But Miesnieks said that the company had solved that problem as well.

“You can only get the data for a space if you’re physically in that space,” said Miesnieks. “I hold my phone up, it looks at your living room, based on what it sees it queries the server and if there’s a match it will serve that data up to that location.”

Based on research, the point cloud that 6D generates isn’t directly connected to the geographic structure. It’s slightly randomized so a user can’t look at the point cloud and see what is what.

“It’s unable to be reverse engineered by any known science into a human readable image,” said Miesnieks. “All the image would look like is a whole bunch of dots and blobs. That’s kind of what we’re doing so far.”

As the company builds out its three-dimensional map of the world, it’s encouraging developers to think of it as a new kind of augmented reality platform.

“Our business is web services meet Waze,” said Miesnieks.

MoviePass is under investigation for securities fraud in New York state

More bad news for MoviePass .

At the direction of New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood, MoviePass parent company Helios and Matheson is now the subject of a fraud probe in New York state.

“We’ve launched a securities fraud investigation into [email protected]?’ parent company,” Underwood confirmed in a tweet. “My office is committed to protecting New York investors and the integrity of our financial markets.”

The probe will examine whether the company misrepresented its financial situation to investors. The probe will leverage the Martin Act, a powerful New York statute that allows the attorney general to aggressively pursue suspected instances of fraud in the state.

“We are aware of the New York Attorney General’s inquiry and are fully cooperating,” Helios and Matheson said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “We believe our public disclosures have been complete, timely and truthful and we have not misled investors. We look forward to the opportunity to demonstrate that to the New York Attorney General.”

Underwood’s office declined to provide further details to TechCrunch, pointing us toward the CNBC report that originally reported the probe.

MoviePass and parent company Helios and Matheson (HMNY) has flailed wildly throughout 2018, abruptly making major changes to the movie subscription service, watching its stock prices walk off a cliff and seeking emergency infusions of cash in the process.

In Q2, Helios and Matheson posted losses of $126.6 million compared to a net loss of roughly $150 million in all of 2017. Its 2017 losses were attributed to its acquisition of a majority stake in MoviePass, but the 2018 losses are obviously a different story. Shares of Helios and Matheson were down 8.5 percent at the time of writing.