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Science has confirmed our greatest hope about autonomous vehicles

(TECH NEWS) New research confirms people’s greatest hope and desire for the use of autonomous automobiles.

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traffic autonomous

The bane of existence

There is a word that strikes fear into the hearts of commuters worldwide- a word so terrible, so vile, so incomprehensibly irritating that merely typing it makes my brow furrow and lips curl back into a vicious snarl. That word, my friends, is… traffic.

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A chill ran down my spine at the mere mention of it.

Let’s go!

But fear not, brothers and sisters! According to a research study led by Daniel B. Work, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, that foul beast that has terrorized commuters for, well, essentially as long as people have had to commute, may soon be stripped of much of its power. How, you ask? Have poorly designed roads begun to make sense? Have other drivers, aside from yourself, learned how to drive?

Alas, no. Instead, it will be fought tooth and nail by the (occasional) champion of justice known as Technology!

Remember those autonomous vehicles that seemingly every technology and automotive company seems to be working on? Well, according to Work, their “experiments show that with as few as 5 percent of vehicles being automated and carefully controlled, we can eliminate stop-and-go waves caused by human driving behavior.” The experiments, performed in Tucson, AZ, featured a single autonomous vehicle continuously circling a track while sharing the road with at least 20 other human-driven vehicles.

Interesting takeaways from the experiment?

According to Work and his research team, “human drivers naturally create stop-and-go traffic, even in the absence of bottlenecks, lane changes, merges or other disruptions”. Which I guess gives credence to the outraged epithets you may yell with your windows rolled up. This phenomenon even has a name, being called the “phantom traffic jam”. Work’s experiment was the first to be able to demonstrate, however, that a small percentage of autonomous vehicles (which in this case was one), can help to bust the nefarious “phantom.”

Not only would they help to eliminate waves of traffic, but they also could help to reduce fuel consumption by 40 percent.

The results of this experiment also seem to suggest that current automotive technology, such as adaptive cruise control, can also positively affect traffic conditions. This in turn suggests that the cruise control function is useful outside of road trips and extremely long drives. You learn something new every day!

Hypothetical until put into play

Though these results are very exciting, and bring with them hope for the relatively near future, it is important to note that the experiment was performed in a very controlled environment with only a small number of drivers. We will have to wait and see whether autonomous vehicles will have the same amount of success in terms of the chaos that is real-world driving. In the meantime, Work and his team suggest the next step in their research would be to study how the effects of autonomous vehicles in denser traffic, as well as with more freedoms granted to human drivers.

After all, this study did not even allow the human drivers to change lanes!

(Making the concept of a “phantom traffic jam” even more jarring. What could possibly cause a traffic jam if you can’t even change lanes?)

Let’s get autonomous cars goin

Still, as one from the San Francisco Bay Area, whose roads have been in traffic’s deadly stranglehold for quite some time, it is hard not to get overly excited about these results.

Plus, you know, they beat the alternatives. Robot apocalypse and all that.

#AutonomousAutomobiles

Andrew Clausen is a Staff Writer at The American Genius and when he's not deep diving into technology and business news for you, he is a poet, enjoys rock climbing, monster movies, and spending time with his notoriously naughty cat.

Tech News

Tired of transcribing screenshots? Put this Chrome extension to work

(TECH NEWS) This new Chrome extension takes out the tedium of transcribing all your necessary screenshots into your writing and does it for you.

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Logo for Docsumo, a transcribing Google Chrome extension

My favorite part of being a writer is getting to interview people from various walks of life. My least favorite part of being a writer is transcribing those interviews.

Slightly easier, but still annoying, is transcribing information from a screenshot, photo file or PDF. Sometimes you have to get this information in a rush and retyping all of it slows you down.

Docsumo is making that process into a breeze. The tool allows for users to grab text from a screenshot for easy copy and paste.

So how does it work? First, it has to be downloaded as a Google Chrome extension. Once it’s part of the browser’s extension, it can be put to work.

A video on Docsumo’s website demonstrates the easy transcribing process. The developer does a Google image search for a shipping label as they need to quickly copy and paste an address. When the necessary label pops up, they click the Docsumo tool that allows them to drag and select the part of the label they want to transcribe (the movement of the mouse is similar to taking a screenshot on a Mac computer).

Then, the text that they’ve highlighted is transcribed into a box where it can be copied and pasted. Simple!

In addition to copy and paste, users can extract, edit, and share data. After that, all of the related information is removed from Docsumo’s server. Examples of when this tool is useful include: Invoices, bank statements, insurance documents, bills, and tax forms.

The tool is made possible through Optimal Character Recognition (OCR) which, according to Ducsumo’s developers, is something that comes in handy in many situations.

“Organizations often receive crucial information and data in image form of documents. These images can be a photo of a document, scanned document, a scene-photo, or subtitle text superimposed on an image. The real challenge for the operation team is to be able to extract information and data from these photos. It can take hours to manually pull out this data and assemble it in a structured way for record-keeping and processing. This process is hugely error-prone too.

OCR technology comes to rescue in this situation.

Optical character recognition or optical character reader (OCR) is the electronic or mechanical conversion of images of typed, handwritten or printed text into machine-encoded text. This technology is suitable for photos of text-heavy documents and printed paper data records such as passports, invoices, bank statements, receipts, business cards, and identity verification documents. OCR technology is the way of digitizing printed texts so that they can be electronically edited, searched, and stored more compactly.”

In a world where pen-to-paper has slowly been fading away, Docsumo is here to give it another push further away.

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Scoring productivity: Is this Microsoft tool creepy or helpful?

(TECH NEWS) Microsoft launched a new tool that helps monitor user data, but it’s not a work monitoring tool – it’s trying to judge productivity.

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Black and white data screens monitoring productivity.

Just recently into the work from home movement, Microsoft launched their new tool, “Productivity Score”. According to Microsoft, this tool helps organizations understand how well they are functioning, how technology affects their productivity, and how they can get the most out of their Microsoft 365 purchase.

But to do all of this, the tool will keep track of how each employee is using Microsoft products. For instance, the tool will monitor how often video or screen sharing is enabled during meetings by employees.

It will keep a metric of how employees are communicating. It will show if employees are sending out emails through Outlook, sending out messages through Teams, or posting on Yammer. It will also keep track of which Microsoft tools are being used more and on which platforms.

So, Microsoft’s new tool is a scary work surveillance tool, right? According to Microsoft, it isn’t. In a blog post, Microsoft 365’s corporate Vice President Jared Spataro said, “Productivity Score is not a work monitoring tool. Productivity Score is about discovering new ways of working, providing your people with great collaboration, and technology experiences.”

Spataro says the tool “focuses on actionable insights” so people and teams can use Office 365 tools to be more productive, collaborative, and help make work improvements. And, while this all sounds good, privacy advocates aren’t too thrilled about this.

Microsoft says it is “committed to privacy as a fundamental element of Productivity Score.” To maintain privacy and trust, the tool does aggregate user data over a 28-day period. And, there are controls to anonymize user information, or completely remove it. However, by default individual-level monitoring is always on, and only admins can make any of these changes. Employees can’t do anything about securing their privacy.

So, user data privacy is still a large issue on the table, but privacy advocates can breathe a sigh of relief. Yesterday, they got a response from Microsoft they can smile about. In another blog post, Spataro responded to the controversy. “No one in the organization will be able to use Productivity Score to access data about how an individual user is using apps and services in Microsoft 365,” he said.

Although Productivity Score will still aggregate data over a 28-day period, it will not do so from an individual employee level. It will do it from an organizational one as a whole. Also, the company is making it clearer that the tool is a “measure of organizational adoption of technology—and not individual user behavior.”

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Don’t want FB getting access to your texts? Try out Signal instead

(TECH NEWS) Elon Musk tells Twitter followers to “Use Signal” after WhatsApp announces new Facebook data-sharing policy.

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Signal app product display on two mockup phones, set on a blue background.

With just a two-word tweet, Elon Musk popularized messaging app, Signal at the beginning of this year. “Use Signal,” the tech mogul tweeted on January 7. Musk urged his followers to start using Signal because of WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy announcement, which raised concerns among people.

On January 6, WhatsApp users received an in-app alert informing them about the company’s updated data-sharing policy. The message asked users to accept the new terms and conditions where they gave WhatsApp consent to share their information with Facebook. The updated policy would be effective starting on February 8, and users who didn’t agree to the changes would no longer be able to use the app.

WhatsApp’s new privacy policy reads, “As part of the Facebook family of companies, WhatsApp receives information from, and shares information with, this family of companies. We may use the information we receive from them, and they may use the information we share with them, to help operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services and their offerings.”

The policy verbiage is concerning, but this isn’t the first time WhatsApp has shared some sort of data with Facebook. The company has been sharing data with Facebook since 2016. Back then, the companies announced sharing data would help “improve your Facebook ads and products experiences.”

But, Facebook’s data privacy practices are ones that have been controversial over the years and don’t garner much trust. Musk is recommending people to start using Signal because it offers two key things.

The app offers end-to-end encryption on ALL messages. It protects all text, video, audio, and photo messages, which can only be read by the sender and recipient. If a message is intercepted by anyone else, all they will get is gibberish.

Also, other than your phone number, the free app does not store or collect any other user data. The company is a nonprofit and relies on grants and donations to support development. It isn’t owned by any tech companies and doesn’t have any ads.

“The smallest of events helped trigger the largest of outcomes,” the app’s Executive chairman Brian Acton said in an interview with TechCrunch. “We’re also excited that we are having conversations about online privacy and digital safety and people are turning to Signal as the answer to those questions.”

In a Tweet, the company posted screenshots of app installs jumping from 10 million to 50 million. With Musk’s tweet skyrocketing Signal’s downloads, Acton does have a very good reason to be “excited”.

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