Nepal’s first robot waiter is ready for orders

KATHMANDU: “Please enjoy your meal,” says Nepal’s first robot waiter, Ginger, as she delivers a plate of steaming dumplings to a table of hungry customers.

The poor Himalayan nation is better known for its soaring mountain peaks than technological prowess, but a group of self-taught young innovators are seeking to change that.

Local start-up Paaila Technology built Ginger, a 1.5 metre tall robot, from scratch and programmed her to understand both English and Nepali.

The bilingual humanoid robot — named Ginger after a common ingredient in Nepali cuisine — can even crack jokes like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.

Three ‘Gingers’ work at Naulo restaurant in the dusty capital Kathmandu, where pot-holed roads and crumbling buildings still bear the scars of a powerful earthquake that hit more than three years ago.

“This is our testing ground. We are fine-tuning it with responses from our customers,” Binay Raut, CEO of the company, told AFP.

The team of 25 young engineers — Raut is the oldest at 27 — worked for months to build the robot, welding and moulding the prototype by hand in their tiny three-roomed office.

What Nepal lacks in tech infrastructure the engineers made up for in ingenuity — Ginger’s sleek-looking plastic body was painted in a neighbourhood car workshop.

Naulo opened its doors four months ago and their robot waiters have been a big draw, attracting curious customers of all ages.

Ginger, who is able to sense movement and obstacles, deftly navigates the crowded restaurant carrying trays laden with food.

Customers order via a touchscreen menu fitted into the tables, and Ginger is called to the kitchen when dishes are ready.

“It was a completely new experience,” said 73-year-old Shalikram Sharma, who was born before televisions were available in Nepal.

Ginger has become quite a selfie-star and is often distracted from her work by children keen to get a photo with the sleek robot.

“They look so good. I could not believe they were made in Nepal,” said Neelam Kumar Bimali, a diner enjoying an evening meal with his family.

With its eyes on the global market, Paila Technology is in the process of patenting its design to sell at home and abroad.

The World Economic Forum recently predicted that by 2025 more than half of all jobs will be performed by robots — almost twice as many as today.

That is a trend Ginger’s creators are banking on.

At present, a few human waiters help Ginger but an upgrade is in the works that should make Naulo entirely robot-run. — AFP

Cheers, fears as Amazon unveils HQ plan

ARLINGTON, United States: It’s exciting for some, worrisome for others: The arrival of a massive headquarters of technology giant Amazon in two East Coast communities is certain to bring huge changes.

Amazon announced Tuesday after a yearlong search that it would split its “HQ2” between Arlington, Virginia, outside the US capital, and the Long Island City neighbourhood in the New York borough of Queens.

The US$5 billion, (RM20 billion) investment will mean thousands of high-paying jobs in the two locations, but could also strain services and housing in areas with already high living costs.

Some residents were ready to protest the development, but others welcomed Amazon with open arms.

“I’m really glad it’s coming,” said Karla Massey, who works in the Pentagon City neighbourhood of Arlington that is part of the new Amazon headquarters area.

“It’s not just the Amazon jobs. It’s jobs for bartenders, for dry cleaners, all kinds of people, that’s the awesome part,” Massey told AFP outside the Pentagon City shopping mall.

Massey said Amazon’s will bring “alive” the area, a collection of office and apartment buildings with scattered shopping and cultural activities.

Jennah Goldman, an Arlington resident who designs custom clothing, was especially pleased to hear the news of her new neighbour.

“It’s exciting because it will bring more people to fill all those highrises they are building,” she said while walking her dog.

Goldman said she has a lot of admiration for the company and its new services.

But Barbara Vetter, a longtime Virginia resident and government employee, was sceptical.

“I know it’s got a lot of positives, but with the increased traffic and already high cost of living, it’s hard to be optimistic,” she said outside a local Starbucks.

“The cost of living jump is going to be a huge detriment for those not working for Amazon”.

Ready for New York?

In New York, a similar storyline was playing out in a section of the city in the midst of the transformation from its industrial past.

“The place changed so much in the last 10 years, it’s just going to be some part of the neighbourhood,” said Mike Barratt, a store manager at Spokesman Cycles in Long Island City who fretted over families’ ability to deal with higher housing costs.

“A lot of people don’t own but they’ve been living here renting for 15, 20 years, and they’re getting priced out,” said Barratt. “They’re upset”.

Dozens of luxury high-rise buildings, suitable for senior Amazon executives, had been in the planning well before the company came on the scene, said Jonathan Miller, CEO of the real-estate firm Miller Samuel.

Amazon’s arrival could end up “essentially bailing out developers that went ahead despite the excess supply,” he said.

Rallying the opposition

New York City Council member Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents parts of Queens, was rallying opponents to the Amazon deal, claiming city and state officials offered too much in tax incentives.

“Our subways are crumbling, out children lack school seats, and too many of our neighbours lack adequate health care,” Van Bramer and state Senator Michael Gianaris said in a statement.

“We are witness to a cynical game in which Amazon duped New York into offering unprecedented amounts of tax dollars to one of the wealthiest companies on Earth.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, elected to Congress from a district that includes part of Queens, also voiced concern about offering big tax breaks to Amazon.

“We need to focus on good healthcare, living wages, affordable rent. Corporations that offer none of those things should be met w/ scepticism,” she said on Twitter.

Officials in both Virginia and New York sought to point out that the tax benefits for Amazon were tied to job creation, and that they expected government coffers to see a positive return from Amazon’s investments.

Amazon will get “performance-based direct incentives of US$1.525 billion” over the next decade based on creating 25,000 jobs in Long Island City, according to the company.

Virginia is offering more than US$500 million with similar restrictions, and will also spend some US$200 million in infrastructure improvements including in mass transit, as well as create a new campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute on the site.

“Our investments are in our people and our infrastructure,” Governor Ralph Northam said. — AFP

Better sound

SAMSUNG’S HW-N950 and the HW-N850 premium soundbars have been in Malaysia since Sept 1.

These speakers are the result of the collaboration between Samsung and Harman Kardon, following Samsung’s acquisition of Harman International in March 2017.

To showcase the capabilities of these new premium soundbars, the electronics giant held a media briefing which paired these Dolby Atmos and DTS:X technology-enhanced speakers with Samsung’s latest QLED TVs.

With Dolby Atmos, the HW-N950 and the HW-N850 could simulate a cinema-class realistic soundscape by bouncing sounds off the walls and ceiling of a room.

The HW-N950 achieves this using the main unit, a subwoofer, and two wireless surround sound speakers.

When combined, they create a sound system with 7.1.4 channels, the largest number of channels currently available in a soundbar.

The HW-N850 is a simplified version of the HWN950. It has 5.1.2 channels, and it achieves this using a single main unit paired with a subwoofer.

What makes this speaker especially attractive in a central living room setting is its ability to connect to other devices via Bluetooth.

In practice, you could connect the soundbar to your smartphone and enjoy music, podcasts, or even games, wirelessly.

However, the HW-N950 and the HW-N850 truly shines when paired with Samsung’s QLED TVs.

First debut in early March in New York, these extra-large and ultra-high-definition television sets are not just about pure entertainment; they are designed to be the centre of your smart home.

Designed to be almost invisible once installed, the Samsung 2018 QLED TVs can visually match its display to your wall and virtually disappear. Samsung calls this energy-efficient feature, Magic Screen.

In standby, it could display photos from your collection, art from a library, and even real-time information such as the weather and news.

Because the TVs are also SmartThings compatible, users can access a variety of apps and have greater control of their smart home devices right from the TV.

The Samsung 2018 QLED TVs also features the One Invisible Connection to give the TVs a distraction-free look.

This simple solution combines the power cable and data line into a single cable that connects to a separate connection box that has all the connectivity ports.

This leaves the TVs free from unsightly connectors and unwanted distraction, as well as makes the screen as thin as possible.

For picture quality, these TVs touts the Direct Full Array technology that can reproduce deep blacks and pure whites, all in the same image. They also feature advanced Anti-Reflection technology for a wider viewing angle, and Q Engine, Samsung’s video upscaler.

The HW-N950 and the HW-N850 premium soundbars are available now for RM6,499 and RM4,999 respectively.

The Samsung 2018 QLED TV features four models. The Q6F 4K QLED TV is available in 55in (RM7,299) and 65in (RM13,206), while the Q7F 4K Smart QLED TV is available in 55in (RM8,799), 65in (RM15,093), and 75in (RM31,131).

Then there are the Q8C 4K Curved Smart QLED TV in 55in (RM9,799) and 65in (RM17,499) as well as the Q9F 4K Smart QLED TV in 65in (RM19,499) and 75in (RM34,999).

For more, visit the Samsung Malaysia website.

Apple delivers strong profits, but investors punish shares

SAN FRANCISCO: Apple on Thursday delivered blockbuster earnings, but saw shares punished after a disappointing holiday season forecast and word it will stop reporting how many iPhones it sells.

The California-based technology giant makes most of its money from iPhones, and sales numbers have been seen as a bellwether of the company’s fortunes.

Apple shares dove 6.4% to US$207.87, (RM863) in after-market trades that followed the release of earnings figures for a record-setting Sept quarter.

The firm said net profit climbed 32% to US$14.13 billion on revenue that was up 20% to US$62.9 billion with help from growing sales of digital content and services to of users and other Apple gadgetry.

“We’re thrilled to report another record-breaking quarter that caps a tremendous fiscal 2018, the year in which we shipped our two billionth iOS device, celebrated the 10th anniversary of the App Store and achieved the strongest revenue and earnings in Apple’s history,” said Apple chief executive Tim Cook.

However, the market was disappointed that Apple fell short of expectations with iPhone sales of 46.9 million iPhones and its forecast for the key holiday season was not as robust as anticipated.

The average selling price for iPhones in the freshly updated product line was us$793, indicating that Apple was able to deliver more of its priciest handsets.

Apple offered no detailed breakdown of iPhone sales, but Cook said “the response has been powerful” to the new iPhone 10S models that sell for US$1,000 and up.

During an earnings call, Apple executives said that starting with this quarter its earnings reports would no longer specify numbers of iPhones or other products sold. Instead, it would focus on revenue, margins, and cost of sales.

Apple chief financial officer Luca Maestri said the change stemmed from growing diversity of the company’s product line.

Cook compared focusing on numbers of iPhones sold to a cashier in a market asking someone checking out how many units are in their shopping cart.

“It doesn’t matter how many units there are in there when it comes to the full value of the shopping cart,” Cook said.

“Our install base is growing at double digits; that is probably a much more significant metric for us from an ecosystem point of view – and customer loyalty”.

Maestri assured analysts on the call that Apple remained devoted to selling as many iPhones as possible.

The results closed out Apple’s fiscal fourth quarter ending Sept 29 and set the stage for the crucial holiday period.

Maestri said it was the company’s best Sept quarter on record, with revenue growing double digits everywhere it does business around the world.

“We set Sept quarter revenue records for iPhone and wearables and all-time quarterly records for Services and Mac,” Maestri said.

The world’s most valuable company saw its stock market value briefly dip below a dizzying US$1 trillion based on share price.

Challenges ahead

Apple forecast that it would bring in between US$89 billion and US$93 billion in the current quarter. Some analysts thought the estimate may have been conservative, with Apple being cautious about expectations as it works to balance supply and demand for a slew of freshly introduced products.

“This is a great set of results from Apple which underlines all of the innovation the company has put into its suite of products over the past year,” said GlobalData Retail managing director Neil Saunders.

The latest report offers some positive news for Apple in growing its services such as streaming music and Apple Pay, allowing the company to diversify its revenue stream in a saturated smartphone market.

However, the iPhone has been the key driver of revenue and profit for Apple and also helps bring more consumers into the company’s ecosystem for apps and services.

Apple holds around 12% of the global smartphone market, with most of the rest sold by makers of the Android-powered software.

Analyst Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies said it is possible Apple failed to anticipate consumer demand and did not have the right mix of devices in the past quarter.

Another possibility, Bajarin said on Twitter, is that “Apple may be intentionally setting lower expectations for holiday.”

Apple this week unveiled a new version of its MacBook Air laptop, this time made of recycled aluminium, as well as a new Mac Mini and an iPad Pro, all pricier than their predecessors.

Apple also unveiled a new version of its iPad Pro tablet with a screen that looks nearly edge-to-edge and boasts a faster processor. It includes features from the latest iPhones.

The changes are part of an effort to overhaul a product that has seen sliding sales in recent years. — AFP

Facebook shares roller coaster as it rides change

SAN FRANCISCO: Facebook on Tuesday said it is striving to adapt to users sharing more privately at the leading social network as it continues to pour money into an ongoing battle with “bad actors” out to misuse its service.

Silicon Valley-based Facebook reported that its quarterly profit climbed in the recently ended quarter, but the world’s leading social network — mired in a spate of controversies — gained fewer users than analysts had expected.

Profit jumped nine percent to US$5.14 billion, (RM21 billion) on revenue that leapt 33% to US$13.7 billion in the quarter that ended Sept 30.

Facebook shares went for a rollercoaster ride in after-market trades as executives revealed quarterly earnings figures along with challenges and opportunities seen in shifting trends in user behaviour.

Shares jumped, dove and then rose anew before staying on the higher ground, up 3.2% to US$150.90, on the Nasdaq early in the evening in New York.

The number of people who used Facebook monthly rose 10% to 2.27 billion, but analysts had expected that figure to be slightly higher.

Facebook announced the results as it strives to fend off concerns about how well it protects the data of users and defends against use of the site to spread misinformation aimed at swaying elections.

Controversies that have battered Facebook since the 2016 presidential election in the US have raised questions over whether co-founder Mark Zuckerberg should keep his post as chief executive.

“Our community and business continue to grow quickly, and now more than two billion people use at least one of our services every day,” Zuckerberg said in an earnings call, including WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger in the count.

“We’re building the best services for private messaging and stories, and there are huge opportunities ahead in video and commerce as well”.

Facebook users are shifting fast to sharing more privately with messages or a “Stories” feature for creating short photo or video collections, instead of posting in their main feeds at the social network, according to Zuckerberg.

While Facebook has made an art of monetizing ads in news feeds, it has yet to optimize making money from messages and stories.

“This is one of those situations where the community grows we are seeing is outpacing the progress we made on developing ads in that space,” Zuckerberg said of Stories.

“I think we will get there in time, and the opportunity will be bigger, but I can’t tell you what that time frame will look like”.

Facebook is also seeing a rapid rise in viewing videos, which also generate less ad money per minute than news feeds.

Big spender

Zuckerberg said he expected 2019 to be “another year of significant investment” for Facebook, and executives projected revenue growth would slow.

Facebook finished the quarter with 33,606 employees in a 45 increase percent over the number of workers it had the same time last year.

Just weeks ago, Facebook activated a “war room” as a nerve centre to halt misinformation and manipulation of the largest social network by foreign actors trying to influence elections in the United States and elsewhere.

The war room at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters in California is part of stepped-up security that will include doubling the security team to 20,000 employees.

“The upcoming election will be a real test o the protections we put in place,” Zuckerberg said on an earnings call.

“We will see all the good and bad humanity can do”.

Last week, Facebook said it had taken down accounts linked to an Iranian effort to influence US and British politics with messages about charged topics such as immigration and race relations.

The social network identified 82 pages, groups and accounts that originated in Iran and violated policy on coordinated “inauthentic” behavior, Facebook head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher said.

Gleicher said there was overlap with accounts taken down earlier this year and linked to Iran state media, but the identity of the culprits had yet to be determined.

Spending on security and election-related defences were part of the reason overall costs and expenses reported in the quarter rose 53% to US$7.95 billion from US$5.2 billion a year earlier.

Zuckerberg said Facebook is up against sophisticated adversaries who continue to evolve.

“These aren’t problems you fix, they are problems you manage,” Zuckerberg said of the challenge.

“There is no silver bullet”.

In what could wind up costing Facebook more money, British finance minister Philip Hammond said he planned to introduce a digital services tax aimed at tech giants from 2020, responding to public outrage over low tax payments by US tech giants. — AFP

Apple Watch supplier under fire over China student labour

WASHINGTON: Apple is investigating a factory in southwest China after a labour rights group said the tech giant’s supplier forced student workers to work “like robots” to assemble its popular Apple Watch.

Many were compelled to work in order to get their vocational degrees and had to do night shifts, according to an investigation by Hong Kong-based NGO Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (Sacom).

Sacom interviewed 28 students at the plant in Chongqing municipality over the summer, and all of them said they had not voluntarily applied to work there, according to the report published last week.

They worked under the guise of “internships”, Sacom said, a practice rights groups say is widespread in China as manufacturers pair up with vocational schools to supply workers and fill labour shortages when they ramp up production for new models or the Christmas rush.

“Our graduation certificate will be withheld by the school if we refuse to come,” said one student majoring in e-commerce, according to Sacom.

The US titan has sold tens of millions of Apple Watches — which can cost up to US$1,499, (RM6,265) — since it was launched three years ago and chief executive Tim Cook said it was the most popular watch in the world.

Manufacturing internships are permitted under Chinese labour law in some cases, but Sacom found the work has “literally nothing to do with learning” and violated some of the country’s labour law provisions permitting intern work in factories.

“We are like robots on the production lines,” one 18-year-old student told Sacom. “We repeat the same procedure for hundreds and thousands of times every day, like a robot”.

Others said they were put on the night shift working from 8 pm to 8 am with minimal breaks, according to Sacom.

The Chongqing factory is operated by Quanta Computer, a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer, and also produces for other brands. Quanta did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment.

But Apple spokeswoman Wei Gu said: “We are urgently investigating the report that student interns added in September are working overtime and night shifts.”

Wei noted Quanta Chongqing was a new Apple supplier and had been audited three times between March and June without finding student interns.

Student workers told Sacom student labour was widespread at the factory.

Assembly lines that repieced together Apple Watches that had failed a quality check were almost entirely made up of student workers, one intern told Sacom.

“The factory would not be able to operate without student workers,” a student told Sacom.

The NGO demanded Apple investigate and bring the labour practices in line with the firm’s own policies and those of the local and central Chinese government. — AFP