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GeekWire

Report says AI’s promises and perils are getting real

A newly published report on the state of artificial intelligence says the field has reached a turning point where attention must be paid to the everyday applications of AI technology — and to the ways in which that technology are being abused.

The report, titled “Gathering Strength, Gathering Storms,” was issued today as part of the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, or AI100, which is envisioned as a century-long effort to track progress in AI and guide its future development .

AI100 was initiated by Eric Horvitz, Microsoft’s chief scientific officer, and hosted by the Stanford University Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. The project is funded by a gift from Horvitz, a Stanford alumnus, and his wife, Mary.

The project’s first report, published in 2016, downplayed concerns that AI would lead to a Terminator-style rise of the machines and warned that fear and suspicion about AI would impede efforts to ensure the safety and reliability of AI technologies. At the same time, it acknowledged that the effects of AI and automation could lead to social disruption.

This year’s update, prepared by a standing committee in collaboration with a panel of 17 researchers and experts, says AI’s effects are increasingly touching people’s lives in settings that range from movie recommendations and voice assistants to autonomous driving and automated medical diagnoses.

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GeekWire

WellSaid gets a $10M boost for its synthetic voices

WellSaid Labs will have a lot more to say in the years ahead, thanks to $10 million in new investment that’ll be used to beef up the Seattle startup’s efforts to put a widening chorus of AI-generated synthetic voices to work.

The Series A funding round — led by Fuse, an early-stage venture capital firm that counts Seattle Seahawks star linebacker Bobby Wagner among its partners — follows up on $2 million in seed funding that WellSaid raised in 2019 when it was spun out from Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

One of the investors in that earlier seed round, Voyager Capital, contributed to the newly announced Series A funding. So did Qualcomm Ventures and Good Friends.

WellSaid CEO Matt Hocking said the new funding will go toward growing the text-to-speech startup, which currently has a dozen employees and plenty of customers.

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GeekWire

Curious crowds sample Amazon’s high-tech supermarket

BELLEVUE, Wash. — The first full-service Amazon Fresh grocery store to take advantage of the retailer’s “Just Walk Out” cashierless shopping technology could well become a tourist attraction.

That’s what was on the mind of Romy Wada, who made the half-hour drive from Auburn to the store at Bellevue’s Factoria shopping center at 4:30 a.m. today to be the first in line to enter.

“I work for a tour company,” Wada explained as he waited in the morning sunshine. “We are handling Asian people, and sometimes they’re interested in the supermarkets at Amazon. So I just had to come here to check out everything.”

The crowd grew to more than 200 people, queued in the mall’s parking lot and down the sidewalk, by the time the doors opened at 7 a.m.

There wasn’t exactly a mad rush: Amazon staff members checked with customers as they moved up the line, to make sure they were ready for cashierless shopping.

Amazon operates more than a dozen Amazon Fresh grocery stores across the country, but the Bellevue store is the first one to use the shopping surveillance system that was pioneered at the company’s Amazon Go convenience stores.

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GeekWire

U.S. and Europe call a truce in Boeing-Airbus battle

The United States and the European Union have agreed on a five-year suspension in tit-for-tat tariffs over a 17-year-long trade dispute that involved subsidies given to Boeing and Airbus for airplane development. The deal, announced today during President Joe Biden’s meetings with EU leaders in Brussels, heads off billions of dollars in duties that could have affected a wide range of products — although U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the tariffs could be reactivated if “U.S. producers are not able to compete fairly.”

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GeekWire

Can Amazon’s robots make work safer for humans?

Bert and Ernie, Scooter and Kermit may have started out as warm and fuzzy Muppet characters, but now they’re part of Amazon’s team of warehouse robots as well.

Amazon showed off the latest members of its mechanical menagerie today in a blog post that focuses on how it’s using robotic research to improve workplace safety for its human employees.

For example, a type of robot nicknamed Ernie is designed to take boxy product containers known as totes off shelves at different heights, and then use its robotic arm to deliver the totes to warehouse employees at a standard height. The goal is to reduce the amount of reaching up or bending down that workers have to do.

“We’re known for being passionate about innovating for customers, but being able to innovate with robotics for our employees is something that gives me an extra kick of motivation each day,” Kevin Keck, worldwide director of advanced technology at Amazon, said in the blog posting. “The innovation with a robot like Ernie is interesting because while it doesn’t make the process go any faster, we’re optimistic, based on our testing, it can make our facilities safer for employees.”

Today’s inside look at the research being done at labs in the Seattle area, the Boston area and northern Italy comes in the wake of a couple of reports criticizing Amazon’s workplace safety record.

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Cosmic Science

Supersonic flight and suborbital science feel the boom

Boom Supersonic attracts a big-name customer, Virgin Galactic signs up another researcher for a suborbital spaceflight, and new questions are raised about NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Get the details on the Web:

United boosts Boom Supersonic

United Airlines says it’s agreed to buy 15 of Boom Supersonic’s faster-than-sound jets once they come onto the market. Colorado-based Boom is gearing up to start flight testing for a subscale prototype of its Overture jet, known as the XB-1. Those tests are slated to open the way for the Overture’s rollout in 2025, first flight in 2026 and the start of commercial air service at speeds of up to Mach 1.7 by 2029. That could cut Seattle-to-Tokyo travel time from 8.5 hours to 4.5 hours.

The deal makes United the first U.S. airline to sign a purchase agreement with Boom, providing a significant boost to the startup. Boom says it now has purchase agreements and options for 70 Overture jets in its order book. But wait, there’s more: The jets will be designed to use a type of sustainable aviation fuel that’s meant to allow for flight operations with net-zero carbon emissions.

Virgin Galactic signs up science star

Virgin Galactic is reserving a suborbital spaceflight on VSS Unity, its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, for bioastronautics researcher Kellie Gerardi. During her flight, the timing of which hasn’t yet been set, Gerardi will support a bio-monitoring experiment drawn up by Carré Technologies Inc. (Hexoskin) with the support of the Canadian Space Agency, as well as a free-floating fluid configuration experiment.

Gerardi, who’s affiliated with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences, is also known for TikTok videos and Instagram postings that explore the intersection of her career and her personal life. She joins planetary scientist Alan Stern in holding a reservation for a dedicated research flight on Virgin Galactic. Last month, the company conducted its first 50-mile-high, rocket-powered flight test from its home base at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Commercial service could begin within the coming year.

The latest buzz on the Webb Telescope

NASA is fine-tuning the schedule for this year’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, widely seen as the successor to the 21-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. The space agency had been targeting Oct. 31 for launch of the $10 billion observatory from French Guiana, using a European Ariane 5 rocket. But logistical complications are leading NASA to look at launch dates in November or early December.

Another complication has to do with the telescope’s name: NASA’s Paul Hertz is reported as saying at this week’s meeting of a space science advisory committee that the space agency is reviewing the historical record surrounding James Webb, the late NASA administrator after whom the telescope is named. A petition circulating among astronomers has called for a new name because of claims that Webb acquiesced to homophobic policies during the 1950s and 1960s.

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GeekWire

Cloud titans reportedly battle for Boeing’s business

Amazon, Microsoft and Google are involved in a bidding process to provide Boeing with cloud computing services, a contract that’s expected to be worth at least $1 billion over several years, The Information reports.

Today’s report is attributed to four people with knowledge of the matter. We’ve reached out to Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud as well as Boeing, but this is typically something such companies doesn’t talk about publicly during negotiations — as The Information found out. (For what it’s worth, Google Cloud sent us a “no comment” email.)

The Information says AWS considers the Boeing contract “a must-win deal.” Andy Jassy, who’s currently in charge of AWS’ cloud business and is due to take over as Amazon’s CEO on July 5, is reportedly directly involved in the process.

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GeekWire

Electric truck startup gets ready for business

Rivian, the California-based electric vehicle startup that some call the “Tesla of Trucks,” is setting up a showroom in Seattle and a service center in nearby Bellevue for this year’s scheduled rollout of its R1T all-electric pickup truck and R1S sport utility vehicle.

The company’s Puget Sound presence is apt, considering that Seattle-based Amazon is one of Rivian’s marquee investors and has pledged to buy 100,000 electric vans from Rivian for its nationwide delivery fleet. Last month, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos showed off the R1T in a video made for his Blue Origin space venture.

The R1T truck, which carries a base list price starting at $67,500, is due to be delivered beginning in June. The all-electric R1S, priced at $70,000 and up, is scheduled to roll out in August. InsideEVs reports that Rivian has a full-up waiting list of about 30,000 customers for the first wave of deliveries. Deposits of $1,000 continue to be taken for later rounds.

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GeekWire

Why software entrepreneurs are digging into ag tech

Farmers typically consult the calendar and the weather forecast to figure out when to plant their crops, but figuring out how to grow a tech startup focused on the farm can be a far more complex task.

The challenge can call to mind the old joke about the farmer who won the lottery. When asked how the winnings would be used, the farmer answered, “Well, I guess I’ll just keep farming until the money runs out.”

When it comes to ag tech ventures, the money isn’t running out: Last year, a Crunchbase survey found that venture capitalists were investing roughly $4 billion a year in farm-centric startups — and the flow is continuing despite the COVID-19 pandemic. So far this year, investors have put about $700 million into more than 90 ag tech ventures, according to Crunchbase’s tally.

Some of the stars of the show are Pacific Northwest entrepreneurs who found success in the software industry and are now bringing their startup savvy to the food and agriculture industry. We checked in with four founders to get a sense of how they’re cross-breeding technology with agriculture.

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GeekWire

Swiss battery venture joins electric airplane team

One of the pioneers of battery-powered aviation is joining a Pacific Northwest team that’s aiming to get an all-electric seaplane certified for service in Canada.

H55, the Swiss battery venture co-founded by Solar Impulse pilot André Borschberg, is partnering with Vancouver, B.C.-based Harbour Air Seaplanes and Everett, Wash.-based MagniX on their project to convert De Havilland Beaver commuter airplanes to all-electric power.

Harbour Air is providing the Beaver, MagniX is providing the electric propulsion system, and now H55 will provide its advanced battery modules to power the plane.

MagniX and Harbour Air have been putting a prototype eBeaver through flight tests since December 2019 to gather data on such parameters as cruise performance, takeoff thrust efficiency, electromagnetic interference and noise levels. The team is working with Transport Canada on a supplemental type certificate program to clear converted all-electric planes for commercial operations by as early as next year.

Eventually, Harbour Air plans to transform all of its seaplanes into an all-electric fleet. The company provides commuter air service to a locations along British Columbia’s coast, plus “nerd bird” flights between Vancouver and Seattle.

H55 was founded to continue the vision of Solar Impulse 2, which Borschberg and fellow adventurer Bertrand Piccard piloted around the world on a historic solar-powered trip in 2015-2016.