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The Download, Jan 31, 2017: The Download: Customer Service AI, Quantum Security, and Grocery Robots

The most fascinating and important news in technology and innovation delivered straight to your inbox, every day.

Three Things You Need to Know Today

Injecting AI into Customer Call Centers
Customer service staff are increasingly getting a helping hand from AI when you call them. One startup, called Afiniti, gets involved before a customer even speaks to anyone. By identifying your phone number, it pulls together information—from previous interactions with the company, to credit scores and social media activity—to choose the most appropriate person for you to speak to. Once you’re talking to someone, a new piece of software made by Cogito can help the rep to deal with you. As our own Will Knight reports, the system monitors customer voices for signs of agitation or frustration, to provide staff with real-time coaching to help provide the best possible experience. And another company called DeviceBits uses machine learning to work out how effective the technical advice given by call center workers is, so that it can be improved in the future. But workers may not all be happy about the arrival of AI: New Scientist reports that a startup is able to use machine learning to analyze employee metadata—from key card swipes to software use—to establish when someone is about to slack.

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Selling Security That Stands Up to Quantum Computers
True quantum computing may still seem a way off, but some companies are already investing in security systems that stand up to its impending power. Last year, the NSA warned that the encryption that protects online transactions such as banking must be replaced with something quantum-computer-proof as soon as possible. Cue widespread interest in a small number of companies that have already been developing unusual encryption technologies to outsmart the lightning-fast number crunching of quantum devices. Our own Tom Simonite investigates how techno-paranoia has given rise to a whole new sector within the digital security industry.
 
Robots Learn How to Handle Your Vegetables
A robot that can pick up bags of fruit and vegetables may get us a step closer to fully-automated grocery stores and warehouses. Robots can put together cars just fine, but ask one to pass you a bag of bananas and things are rather more difficult: the fruit varies in shape, it moves within the bag, and it’s delicate, too. Working with a number of universities, the robotics team at online grocery retailer Ocado—which runs large, automated warehouses—has taught a soft gripper hand, attached to the end of a Kuka robot arm, to carefully pick up foodstuffs such as apples and bags of limes. Alex Voica, from Ocado, tells the Download that the device responds to changes in the shape of an item throughout the act of grasping, leading to a “carefully choreographed movement of the hand in relation to the object.” The system is also designed to identify specific contact points on the objects and close around them like a human hand, in order to minimize the amount of bruising inflicted upon fruits or vegetables. The company hopes to use the system commercially “in the near future.”

Ten Fascinating Things

01. The Obama administration’s flagship project for “clean coal” technology is over budget and behind schedule. But will Trump simply make it totally irrelevant?

02. To save lives in the face of a tsunami, warning is vital. A new ocean-going robot sails for months to spot the seismic sea waves ahead of time.

03. For the past three weeks, a poker AI has been taking on the pros at a Pittsburgh casino, in a test of its abilities to deal with imperfect information. It won.

04. As their employees find themselves locked in and out of the U.S., American tech giants join forces to create a legal challenge to Trump’s immigration order.
 
05. Tesla has added a huge stack of batteries to the California power grid—but they probably aren’t the key to our sustainable energy future.
 
06. What do penguins have to do with your next car? The way the birds coöperatively hunt has inspired new ways to keep vehicle code safe from hackers.

07. Dropbox has branched out from cloud storage: now it offers everyone Google Docs-style software for collaborative working. Here’s the inside story of the shift.

08. A leaked memo from the Environmental Protection Agency suggests that not even the senior members in charge of its transition know what’s happening to it.
 
09. Metallic medical implants can cause clots because they attract blood. A new nanotube coating for titanium could solve the problem.

10. Cappuccino? Latte? Espresso? This robotic barista will make them all.

Quote of the Day

"We have no idea what we’re doing—I want to be clear about that.”

—Elon Musk admits that his new transit plan—to dig a tunnel beneath Los Angeles to ease traffic congestion on roads—rests on shaky foundations.

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