China says its fighter pilots are battling AI aircraft in simulated dogfights, and humans aren’t the only ones learning

J-16 fighter jet
China is using artificial intelligence to hone the skills of Chinese fighter pilots.

  • China has been pitting pilots against AI-driven aircraft in training simulations.
  • A commander told the PLA Daily that the AI aircraft were “sharpening the sword” for Chinese pilots.
  • The AI was also learning, highlighting the potential for AI systems in its armed forces.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Chinese fighter pilots have been battling aircraft piloted by artificial intelligence in simulated dogfights to boost pilot combat skills, Chinese media reported.

Fang Guoyu, a People’s Liberation Army Air Force brigade flight team leader and recognized fighter ace, was recently “shot down” by an AI adversary in an air-to-air combat simulation, according to China’s PLA Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese military.

He said that early in the training, it was easy to defeat the AI adversary. But with each round of combat, the AI reportedly learned from its human opponent. After one fight that Fang won with a bit of skillful flying, the AI came back and used the same tactics against him, defeating the human pilot.

“It’s like a digital ‘Golden Helmet’ pilot that excels at learning, assimilating, reviewing, and researching,” Fang said, referring to the elite pilots who emerge victorious in the “Golden Helmet” air combat contests. “The move with which you defeated it today will be at its fingertips tomorrow.”

Du Jianfeng, the brigade commander, told the PLA newspaper that AI is increasingly being incorporated into training.

It “is skilled at handling the aircraft and makes flawless tactical decisions,” he said, characterizing the AI adversary as a useful tool for “sharpening the sword” because it forces the Chinese pilots to get more creative.

‘Sharpening the sword’

Chinese J-15 fighter jets
Chinese J-15 fighter jets at a military parade.

China is striving to build a modern military with the ability to fight and win wars by the middle of this century, and it has made progress in recent years in advancing its air combat element, even developing a fifth-generation stealth fighter.

But far more challenging and time consuming than closing the technology gap is cultivating the critical knowledge and experience required to effectively operate a modern fighting force.

Chinese media did not offer specifics on the simulator, so there are questions about whether or not the AI adversary provides sufficiently realistic training necessary to prepare pilots to dogfight manned aircraft.

“If it does, that’s pretty good,” retired US Navy Cmdr. Guy Snodgrass, a former TOPGUN instructor and an artificial intelligence expert, told Insider.

“If it doesn’t,” he continued, “you’re really just training human operators to fight AI, and that is probably not what they are going to be going up against” since there are currently no autonomous AI-driven fighter aircraft they would need to be prepared to fight.

“There could be a divergence between real capability in a dogfight or aerial battle versus what the AI is presenting,” he said. If that’s the case, this could be wasted effort.

If it is a high-fidelity training simulator, though, it potentially lowers the cost of the air combat training because “you’re able to get that training at a price point that’s much lower than actually putting real planes in the air,” Snodgrass said.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed the need for realistic combat training, including simulations, to help the Chinese military overcome their lack of combat experience, but it is not clear to what extent his agenda has been implemented with training simulators like what PLAAF pilots have been using.

‘The AI is learning and it’s getting better’

J-20 stealth fighters of PLA Air Force perform with open weapon bays during the Zhuhai Airshow
J-20 stealth fighters of PLA Air Force perform with open weapon bays during the Zhuhai Airshow.

Regardless of whether the pilots are learning anything valuable, Fang Guoyu’s recollection of his engagements with his AI adversary demonstrates that the AI is.

“AI requires feedback,” Snodgrass said. “And that’s exactly the kind of pathway you’d want to take, to use this to help train your pilots, but because your pilots are fighting against it, the AI is learning and it’s getting better.”

A next step, he explained, could then be to say, “This has performed very well in a virtual environment. Let’s put this into a manned fighter.”

China has invested heavily in AI research, and, like the US, it has been considering ways to incorporate AI – which can process information quickly and gain years of experience in a very short time – into the cockpits of its planes.

Yang Wei, chief designer for the J-20, China’s first fifth-generation stealth fighter, said last year that the next generation of fighter could feature AI systems able to assist pilots with decisions to increase their overall effectiveness in combat, the state-affiliated Global Times reported.

The US Air Force has expressed similar ideas. Steven Rogers, a senior scientist at the US Air Force Research Laboratory, told Inside Defense in 2018 that ace pilots have thousands of hours of experience. Then he asked, “What happens if I can augment their ability with a system that can have literally millions of hours of training time?”

Snodgrass explained that there are a number of different ways AI could be used to augment the capabilities of a pilot.

For instance, artificial intelligence could be used to monitor aircraft systems to reduce task saturation, especially for single-pilot aircraft, collect battlefield information, and handle target discrimination and prioritization. AI could even potentially chart out flight paths to minimize detection through electromagnetic spectrum analysis.

The US is currently pursuing several lines of effort exploring the possibilities of AI technology.

In a big event last summer, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) put an AI algorithm up against an experienced human pilot in a “simulated within-visual-range air combat” situation.

The artificial intelligence, which had already defeated other AI “pilots” in simulated dogfights and collected years of experience in a matter of months, achieved a flawless victory, winning five straight matches without the human, a US Air Force F-16 pilot, ever scoring a hit.

The point of the simulated air-to-air combat scenario was to move DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution program forward.

The agency said previously that it envisions “a future in which AI handles the split-second maneuvering during within-visual-range dogfights, keeping pilots safer and more effective as they orchestrate large numbers of unmanned systems into a web of overwhelming combat effects.”

It is not clear how long it would take to realize the agency’s vision for the future, but Snodgrass previously told Insider that he “would never bet against technological progress,” especially considering “all the advancements that have occurred in the last decade, in the last hundred years.”

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Google has offered the UK government full oversight of its plan to abandon third-party cookies in Chrome, which sent the ad industry into a tailspin

Sundar Pichai
Sundar Pichai’s Google has offered the CMA oversight of its plans to drop the use of third-party cookies.

  • Google has offered UK officials full oversight of its plans to ditch third-party cookies in Chrome.
  • The tech giant’s move to drop third-party cookies sent the ad industry into a tailspin last year.
  • The UK’s CMA could soon have the power to block Chrome changes for up to 60 days.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Google has offered UK officials full oversight of its plans to abandon the use of third-party cookies within its Chrome browser, as competition authorities around the world consider antitrust action against the move.

The tech giant’s plans to do away with third-party cookies, which help businesses target individual users, sent the advertising industry into a tailspin when it was first announced in January 2020 – no surprise, given Chrome is thought to make up almost two-thirds of web-browsing activity.

Third-party cookies allow advertisers to follow users around the internet, and target them with personalized ads. Without that option in Chrome, Google may be in a position to exercise greater control over the advertising market, offering ad products based around its first-party data collected from search, Gmail, YouTube, and app downloads, expected to come in the form of its still-in-development “Privacy Sandbox”. Few of Google’s peers and rivals in advertising can hope to match its data trove.

The plan has run into resistance from the ad industry, with Marketers for an Open Web, a consortium representing around 20 marketing firms, filing a complaint with the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), demanding “long-term competitive remedies to mitigate” its dominance. The watchdog announced an investigation into the move shortly thereafter.

On Friday morning, the CMA announced it had “secured commitments from Google to address concerns” around its plans to do away with third-party cookies in Chrome, including: Increased transparency, substantial limits on how Google will use Chrome data for advertising, and agreeing not to discriminate against rivals in favor of its own advertising products.

Most significantly, Google offered the CMA a 60-day “standstill period” before it introduces any changes, during which the watchdog retains the option of reopening its investigation, should any issues arise.

“The emergence of tech giants such as Google has presented competition authorities around the world with new challenges that require a new approach,” Andrea Coscelli, the CMA’s chief executive said.

“That’s why the CMA is taking a leading role in setting out how we can work with the most powerful tech firms to shape their behaviour and protect competition to the benefit of consumers.”

James Rosewell, the Marketers for an Open Web founder , said the CMA’s intervention represented an opportunity for a “genuine privacy change”, rather than the changes that Google had “tried to shoehorn in through the backdoor.”

“I hope Google recognizes that it failed to engage with the industry: it lectured, rather than debated,” he told Insider. “Luckily, this provides them with an opportunity to come back to the table and think more carefully about changes moving forward.”

In a statement, Google legal director Oliver Bethell said the company had welcomed the CMA’s investigation into the company’s sandbox. Bethell said the tech giant had offered a set of commitments that were the result of “many hours of discussions with the CMA and more generally with the broader web community” around how the sandbox will be designed.

“The CMA is now asking others in the industry for feedback on these commitments as part of a public consultation, with a view to making them legally binding,” he said.

“If the CMA accepts these commitments, we will apply them globally.”

Are you a current or former Googler with more to share? You can contact this reporter securely using the encrypted messaging app Signal (+447801985586) or email (mcoulter@businessinsider.com). Reach out using a nonwork device.

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A rare NASA camera lens created by Zeiss is going up for auction in Austria, while a Leica prototype by Apple’s Jony Ive has been pulled from the sale

Close up Carl Zeiss Planer 50mm 07 aperature lens
Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm lens with an aperture of f/0.7.

  • A rare Ziess lens designed for NASA’s Apollo moon missions will go up for auction in Vienna.
  • Germany lens maker Ziess produced 10 of the Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 lenses, selling most to NASA.
  • The lens is expected to sell for between €100,000 and €120,000 in next weekend’s auction.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When one of the rarest photo lenses in the world goes up for auction next weekend in Vienna, Austria, it’s expected to fetch between €100,000 and €120,000.

The lens, a Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7, was designed by the German lens-maker in 1966 for NASA. The agency needed a lens capable of capturing light in the darkest circumstances, perfect for pictures of the moon during its Apollo Missions. Only 10 of the lenses were manufactured. NASA bought six of them.

“This is one of these ten lenses that Zeiss made at that time,” said Andreas Schweiger, of Leitz Photographica Auction, which is running the auction. “Most probably, this is one of the lenses delivered to NASA.”

Schweiger spoke to Insider last week via Zoom from his office in Vienna, where his team’s readying for a live auction at the city’s Hotel Bristol, scheduled for June 12.

For the last few weeks, boxes containing historic and rare camera equipment have been arriving at the auction company’s doorstep. Most came from private collectors.

“They get their camera as a gift from their grandparents, for example, or they find maybe a camera in the attic,” Schweiger said. “When they don’t know what to do, they look up on the internet and hopefully they find us.”

Rolleiflex Cameras owned by US Photographer Walker Evans
Rolleiflex cameras owned by Walker Evans.

Among the rarities that will go on the auction block are a “Luxus” model gold-plated Leica that’s wrapped in lizard skin (starting bid €100,000), a Leica MP2 with Electric Motor (starting bid €150,000), and a 1924 Leica owned by Ernst Leitz II, who manufactured the first Leica cameras (starting bid €40,000).

There will be a trio of Rolleiflex cameras owned by American photographer Walker Evans (starting bid €20,000), and a pair of Leicas (starting bid €6,000) owned by Felice Quinto, an early Italian paporazzo.

A Jony Ive Leica Prototype

There will, however, be one missing item.

A prototype of a Leica camera designed by Apple’s Jony Ive and British designer Marc Newson was expected to be among the most-watched items on sale. The camera was on the auction catalog’s cover. It was one of a kind.

Leica Jony Ive Prototype Austria Auction
A Leica prototype designed by Jony Ive and Marc Newson.

Schweiger said the seller decided at the last minute to pull the camera. It would have had a starting bid of €150,000, with a final sale expected from €200,000 to €250,000.

It was a test model for the only completed Leica camera by the designers, which went up for sale in a 2013 charity auction. It sold for $1.8 million.

Schweiger wouldn’t say more about the prototype’s owner, or why the item had been pulled from the sale. Michal Kosakowski, Leitz Photographica Auction’s product specialist, who was also on the Zoom call, said that the owner was in the US.

Ahead of the auction

Most of the difficult work of putting together the catalog and auction was done by the time Schweiger and Kosakowski spoke with Insider.

They’d unpacked all the boxes. Kosakowski’s team had checked that the cameras and lenses were mostly in working order. Sometimes they’d run a roll of film through the camera, but most of their work was done using machines. Then they’d photographed each item for their website.

The rare Zeiss lens was designed by a team led by Dr. Erhard Glatzel, who would later be given the Apollo Achievement Award, said Silke Schmid, head of the Zeiss Museum of Optics in Germany.

Zeiss Planar 0.7/50 on a Nikon Camera Body.
The Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 on a modified Nikon F body.

“In the 1960s, he was one of the leading scientists and managers in the lens design department at Zeiss in Oberkochen, Germany,” Schmid told Insider last week. “His creations were world-renowned, including the Zeiss Hologon and the Zeiss Planar 0.7/50.”

The lenses were so effective at gathering light that NASA had planned to use them to photograph the far side of the moon. (Insider reached out to NASA for confirmation.) Of the 10 produced, three went to director Stanley Kubrick, who needed them to shoot candlelit scenes for “Barry Lyndon,” Schmid said.

“Kubrick located three 50mm f/0.7 Ziess still-camera lenses, which were left over from a batch made for NASA,” said cinematographer John Alcott, who worked with Kubrick, according to “The Stanley Kubrick Archives.”

That marked “the first time in film history that it was possible to shoot without using artificial light,” Schmid said.

Schweiger said he was eager to watch the bidding begin. As the auctioneers spoke to Insider, some of the early online bidding ahead of the live auction had already begun. The Zeiss Planar had two bids, raising the price to €55,000, but that was still only half its expected selling price.

“So we see bids coming in and so on, and we get a little bit of the feeling how the lots are treated, how interesting are the lots for our customers,” Schweiger said. “So, it’s both stressful and exciting.”

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The dream of the truly driverless car is officially dead

Google driverless car
This May 13, 2014 file photo shows a row of Google self-driving Lexus cars at a Google event outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

  • Driverless technology has been heralded as a way to save costs and save lives.
  • But driverless does not mean humanless. Technology still requires human oversight.
  • This often means increased, not reduced, costs for business and consumers alike.
  • Ashley Nunes is Director for Competition Policy at the R Street Institute.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Lyft’s quest for driverless cars is over. The company recently announced the sale of its self-driving unit to auto giant Toyota. The move isn’t surprising. Despite hefty investment, Lyft’s driverless utopia, like many others, remains more fiction than fact.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In 2016, Lyft President John Zimmer predicted that driverless cars would, “account for the majority of Lyft rides within five years.” By 2025, Zimmer reasoned, private car ownership will all but end in major US cities.”

Such reasoning was largely rooted in “techno optimism:” a deeply held belief that machines are superior to humans in terms of servitude. Sensors and software, after all, don’t complain, don’t tire, and don’t demand pay hikes – or salaries at all for that matter. This trifecta is purportedly a surefire way to lift profits. Hence, the tech-centric spending spree on all things autonomous. Ride-hailing companies have burnt millions over the years on perfecting the technology.

Yet, autonomous does not mean humanless. In Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy,” Historian David Mindell explains why. “There are no fully autonomous systems,” Mindell reasons. “The machine that operates entirely independently of human direction is a useless machine. Only a rock is truly autonomous.” Put another way, the type of automation ride-hailing companies are betting on to boost earnings doesn’t exist. It never has.

And if it did, humans would still play a role. The reason? Machines – much like humans – can’t be trusted to get it right all the time, every time. Take what is arguably the longest serving piece of automation today: the airplane autopilot. First introduced in 1912, the system is designed to balance an airplane so human pilots don’t have to. The result is a smoother, safer ride for passengers. But as we know, there have been hiccups. In 1985, a jetliner nearly crashed after the autopilot failed to inform the crew about an imminent ‘loss of control’ – a dangerous condition that can cause a crash. Because of such oversights, autopilot use today is contingent on human supervision.

This also explains why driverless cars remain, after years of development, not so driverless after all. Look beyond the headlines and you’ll find human overlords watch from afar over purportedly automated systems. Customer support staff are also on hand to answer rider queries – such as “What if I want to change my destination during the trip?” And then there’s an armada of pricey engineers standing ready to solve vexing road problems, like what to do when a lane is blocked by double-parked cars, orange traffic cones, or the occasional taco truck.

All this human capital means more, not less, expense; bloated, not pared down, balance sheets. And that’s problematic for an industry that has struggled to turn a profit. In 2019 alone, ride-hailing companies lost over $10 billion, their financial statements being described as, “a hemorrhaging fountain of red ink with no path to profitability.” Company execs had hoped self-driving investments would provide relief. The available evidence suggests otherwise.

It’s time we see the driverless dream for what it is: a Disneyland-style spectacle that can’t “live up to its sci-fi imaginings, a series of very expensive and glitzy pilot projects that can’t cut it in the real world.” Driverless technology may,, on its best days, be astounding, but those days have been few and far between. Self-driving algorithms may – given the frequency of human folly – make intuitive sense but intuition isn’t always right.

Earlier this year, the UK government suggested that driverless cars could soon hit the A10, an major road in England that connects London to various cities to its north. “We’re on the cusp of a driving revolution,” noted Transport Minister Rachel Maclean. But turning that revolution into reality demands a guarantee of technological perfection – a guarantee that few, if any, driverless tech developers can give. Until that happens, expect human drivers to stick around.

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Europe has fined Google $10 billion in recent years. Now Germany is investigating whether its data slurping gives it an unfair advantage.

Sundar Pichai
Sundar Pichai, Alphabet’s chief executive, is facing up to another antitrust case.

  • German officials have launched a fresh antitrust investigation into Google’s business practices.
  • The tech giant has been fined more than $10 billion by European legislators in recent years.
  • Germany’s FCO said Google’s data collection practices gave it a ‘strategic advantage.’
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Google is facing yet another antitrust probe in Europe, after German authorities announced they were investigating whether the firm’s data collection practices give it an unfair advantage.

On Tuesday morning, the Federal Cartel Office (FCO) issued a statement saying it would investigate Google’s business practices in line with a recent amendment to German law, which enables it to “intervene earlier and more effectively … against the practices of large digital companies.”

The watchdog said that Google’s panoply of essential digital services, such as search, YouTube, Maps, Android, and Chrome, it “could be considered to be of paramount significance for competition across markets.”

FCO president Andreas Mundt added that the probes would take into account “whether consumers wishing to use Google’s services have sufficient choice as to how Google will use their data.”

The FCO is running two simultaneous investigations to that end, one against Google Germany, and one against its European HQ in Ireland.

Changes to German competition law has enabled authorities to be more proactive in their scrutiny of tech giants, with the FCO also launching probes into Facebook and Amazon’s business practices in recent months.

The European Union has hit the tech giant with more than $10 billion in fines over the past few years, and launched a further two probes into its advertising practices on the continent earlier this year.

The European Commission has previously fined Google for anti-competitive behaviour three times in as many years: first for $2.7 billion in 2017, again for $5 billion in 2018, and once more for $1.7 billion in 2019. The firm has repeatedly rejected the EU’s findings, however, and met officials in court to appeal the first fine in February 2020.

Insider approached Google for comment.

Are you a current or former Googler with more to share? You can contact this reporter securely using the encrypted messaging app Signal (+447801985586) or email (mcoulter@businessinsider.com). Reach out using a nonwork device.

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Google unveils ‘magic window’ that can let people chat virtually in lifelike 3D

Google Project Starline 3d virtual chat
  • Google announced a lifelike virtual meeting screen that uses 3-D imaging tech on Tuesday.
  • The company unveiled the project, which is still in the works, during its annual I/O conference.
  • Google’s 2021 I/O developer conference runs through Thursday.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Google announced an in-the-works product that would allow people to meet virtually via a “magic window.”

The pseudo-video chat technology, known as Project Starline, would allow users to “see another person, life-size and in three dimensions,” google said. It uses

The technology employs 3D imaging and real-time compression “to capture people as they are,” according to Steve Seitz, Google’s director of engineering.

“So it really feels like you’re talking with someone right in front of you,” Seitz said in a video.

The initiative “is a technology project that combines advances in hardware and software to help people feel like they’re together, even when they’re apart,” he continued.

It’s unclear when or if the product will ever be available for mass use, but the announcement comes more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, which forced many to rely on video conferencing both for work and personal purposes.

Each spring, Google hosts its annual I/O developer’s conference, its biggest event of the year. This year’s event is being held virtually and lasts through Thursday. CEO Sundar Pichai delivered his Keynote speech this afternoon.

Last year’s Google I/O conference was canceled entirely in light of the pandemic.

Read more: Inside Google DeepMind’s secret talks to launch a futuristic food division with controversial vegan startup Hampton Creek

The company typically unveils new technologies that it has in the works, including new software updates. In 2019, the last time Google held its I/O conference, the company announced revamped augmented reality features.

This year, Google could unveil a budget-friendly Pixel 5a smartphone and a more affordable version of Google’s Pixel Buds wireless headphones.

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Watch US soldiers fire artillery through the Army’s cool new night-vision goggles

Screenshot of a US Army video showing artillery fire through the lenses of the service's newest night vision goggles
A still image from a US Army video showing artillery fire through the lenses of the service’s newest night-vision goggles.

  • The Army has put out several videos of training seen through its new ENVG-B night-vision goggles.
  • One wild-looking video shows soldiers firing M777 Howitzers.
  • An earlier video shows soldiers firing machine guns and mortars as seen through the goggles.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US Army has put out several videos in recent weeks showing the field of battle through the service’s new night-vision goggles, including one showing artillery fire.

The most recent video shows soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery, which is assigned to the 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division, firing M777 Howitzers at Yakima Training Center in Washington state.

The scenes in the video, which look like something straight out of a video game, were shot through the Army’s new Enhanced Night Vision Goggles – Binocular (ENVG-B).

An earlier video showed, through the lenses of the ENVG-B system, soldiers from 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division, conducting a platoon live-fire exercise including mortar and machine-gun fire.

The ENVG-B is an Elbit Systems of America product that the Army started fielding in fall 2019 at Fort Riley in Kansas as a replacement for the older monocular PVS-14 night vision devices.

Moving away from the traditional green of older night-vision systems, the newer ENVG-B offers a clearer picture of the battlespace.

ENVG-B
An ENVG-B device on display at Elbit Systems.

Insider recently had the opportunity to test-out the helmet-mounted binocular goggles equipped with image intensified white phosphor tubes and thermal imaging, among other improvements to legacy night-vision devices.

In addition to the I2 technology and thermal, the goggles also offer an outline mode, which can be seen in the recent videos, and an augmented-reality overlay for better situational awareness.

Some of the different view modes for the ENVG-B
Some of the different view modes for the ENVG-B.

In the heads-up display, soldiers can see a compass and other digital tools, such as force tracking.

Using the Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK) software application, troops can mark friendly forces with a blue marker, enemy forces with a red marker, and unidentifiable persons or objects with a question mark.

John Ennis, a member of the Elbit Systems product development team, told a handful of reporters recently that “if you saw something on the side of the road that you thought was an IED or something, you could actually mark it [and] broadcast it out to your team.”

The markers are visible to all soldiers connected to the network on a personal Nett Warrior device on their vest and in their advanced night-vision goggles in an augmented-reality space. US soldiers can customize how much or little they see.

Vest with Nett Warrior device equipped with ATAK at Elbit Systems
A vest with Nett Warrior device equipped with ATAK.

The goggles can connect wirelessly to a soldier’s rifle through the Family of Weapon Sights-Individual for rapid target acquisition and more accurate shooting, even from the hip and around corners.

With a picture-in-picture setup in the heads-up display, soldiers can simultaneously see what is in front of them and wherever their weapon is aiming.

ENVG-B and mock weapon equipped with FWS-I at Elbit Systems
An ENVG-B and mock weapon equipped with FWS-I at Elbit Systems.

Soldiers can also transmit live video from unmanned aerial systems directly into the heads-up display.

One soldier who had the opportunity to try out the ENVG-B a couple of years ago described it as an “insane game changer,” stating in a 2019 Army release that “nothing else offers these kinds of capabilities.”

Although this technology is impressive, higher-end threats posed by near-peer adversaries like China and Russia, such as electronic warfare threats, mean that US soldiers have to be ready to go back to the basics if necessary.

Artillery fire through the lenses of the ENVG-B
Artillery fire through the lenses of the ENVG-B

“All this technology is great,” Jeff Lee, a member of the Elbit Systems business development team with a background in special operations, said recently.

“We always want to be at the cutting edge all the time,” he continued, “but we always also have to remember our roots and be able to do things without all those capabilities in case it gets taken away.”

If the advanced ENVG-B features were ever suddenly not available on the battlefield, soldiers could still use the base night-vision capabilities.

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How San Antonio-based CPS Energy is helping the city recover from the winter storm and making its energy systems more resilient

Residential Solar 2548 4
CPS Energy installing residential solar panels.

  • CPS Energy is working to make energy and electricity more affordable and reliable in San Antonio.
  • Efforts include revamping infrastructure and increasing sustainability after the winter storm.
  • It’s also one of the city’s partners in its smart-city initiative to pilot smart streetlights.
  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”

When a winter storm hit the state of Texas in February, millions of people lost power, including hundreds of thousands in San Antonio.

IMG_20210215_095626__01
The February 2021 winter storm.

Three months later, the city is still feeling the effects. Electricity bills have been much higher than usual, and the event highlighted the vulnerability of the power grid.

Long before the winter storm, CPS Energy, the electric utility for San Antonio and surrounding areas, had been surveying residents to understand what they considered most important. Affordability and reliability usually topped the list, with resiliency a lower priority, Paula Gold-Williams, the company’s president and CEO, told Insider.

Paula Gold Williams portrait 5x7
Paula Gold-Williams.

“Right now, we are in the middle of an affordability tsunami for customers,” she said. “Every time we surveyed them resiliency was always last. Most people thought that was something that the utility needed to focus on, not anything that would ultimately affect them.”

High natural-gas prices and systemic issues with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the organization that operates the state’s electrical grid, trickled down to residents across the state, Gold-Williams, a lifelong San Antonio resident, said. Texas is the only state to use its own power grid, meaning it doesn’t have to adhere to federal regulations.

The winter storm put resiliency at the forefront. Gold-Williams said the industry needs to reimagine power grids and revamp aging infrastructure. CPS Energy is also working with the city of San Antonio on sustainability and smart-city projects.

Here’s a look at some of their biggest initiatives.

It’s supporting measures to minimize the impact of the storm

Supply and demand issues have contributed to the high energy bills following the February storm. Extreme cold weather knocked out generating units and froze natural-gas stores, causing skyrocketing prices for natural gas, which CPS Energy uses to generate heat and electricity.

CPS Energy, which was established in 1860 and is owned by the city of San Antonio, has worked to minimize the effects on residents. Gold-Williams said they’re looking for ways to spread out the costs over the next decade.

The utility also issued one-time credits to residents who lost power for 24 hours during the storm of $8.75, the amount of a flat monthly service charge. Customers who were without electricity for 48 hours or more will receive an additional $50 to $100. More than 250,000 residents are eligible for the credits, which are costing a total of $3.5 million.

In March, CPS Energy filed a lawsuit against ERCOT for its “lack of oversight, preparedness, and failure to follow its own protocols that resulted in $16 billion in overcharges to market participants and customers,” a news release said. EROCT made a $16 billion pricing error the week after the winter storm and allowed the 30-day timeframe for corrections to pass.

Gold-Williams said the utility has been working to better winterize its plants for the past decade, but the state just wasn’t prepared for the unprecedented and prolonged freezing temperatures that it saw in February.

In response, President Joe Biden recently announced plans to devote $8.25 billion to modernize the nation’s electrical grid and support clean-energy goals, a move Gold-Williams applauds.

“We need innovation” in power generation and distribution systems, she said.

It’s piloting smart streetlights to save money

CPS Energy is one of the city of San Antonio’s partners in its smart-city initiative to launch more data- and technology-oriented projects.

“It’s helping us look at technology from an applied standpoint,” Gold-Williams said. “We’re trying to make things happen and not just talk about strategies.”

A Smart Streetlight Technology pilot recently debuted in partnership with the city, AT&T, and Itron. Existing CPS Energy lighting will be equipped with sensors in four areas of the city that allow them to be controlled remotely and test air quality, temperature, ambient noise, parking, and flooding.

Brooks 4
A smart streetlight.

The goal is to gather data to enable the city to save money and address community needs, Gold-Williams said. Research shows installing smart streetlights can save cities money and reduce energy use.

Based on what they learn from the data, the project will be expanded and scaled to the rest of the city.

It’s promoting renewable energy

One way CPS Energy is addressing aging infrastructure and sustainability in San Antonio is through the Flexible Path strategy, which aims to reduce coal and gas usage and increase renewable energy by 2040. This year, the utility is launching a “community-wide dialogue” for the strategy.

Renewable energy use in San Antonio increased 69% from 2010 to 2018, and will increase another 127% under the plan, according to CPS Energy. Gas usage will decrease 72%, and coal will be reduced an additional 61% after dropping 44% from 2010 to 2018. Other initiatives include expanding solar and wind resources and integrating battery storage and electric vehicles.

EV Charging
An electric vehicle charging station.

CPS Energy is currently evaluating request-for-proposal (RFP) responses for the FlexPOWER Bundle. The program will replace gas steam units that are near the end of their lifecycle and increase the number of solar resources, energy storage, and “all-source firming capacity,” or any technology that can be utilized when renewables aren’t available. The company plans to announce the projects selected this summer.

In March, the utility launched another RFP to develop the next phase of its Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP), focusing on conservation and energy efficiency. The FlexSTEP RFP aims to strengthen CPS Energy’s reliability by blending “Tried & True” programs, like rebates for being energy efficient, with “Innovative & New” solutions to help customers save money and learn new, more efficient energy-use behaviors.

The Flexible Path strategy emphasizes not relying on what’s been done before, being open to new ideas, and embracing technology and change, Gold-Williams said. Modernizing aging infrastructure and decreasing reliance on nonrenewable energy are issues utility companies worldwide are facing.

“We all have the same problems,” Gold-Williams said. “Our customers are trying to live their lives and they want it to be enabled by advances in technology. We have to embrace all that. We have to partner. We have a lot to learn from technology, but we have a lot to offer in terms of the complexity of our products and services.”

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Facebook moderators are told that singing karaoke might help them cope with filtering graphic, violent content, a worker said. ‘You don’t always feel like singing after you’ve seen someone battered to bits.’

mark zuckerberg facebook
Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill October 23, 2019 in Washington, DC.

  • Facebook content moderators are told singing karaoke might help them cope with their job, one moderator said Wednesday.
  • Moderators sift through graphic content including child exploitation, suicide, and violence.
  • “You don’t always feel like singing, frankly, after you’ve seen someone battered to bits,” Isabella Plunkett said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Facebook content moderators are advised to sing karaoke and paint to cope with filtering disturbing, graphic content from the social-media platform all day, a worker told a government committee on Wednesday.

Content moderators trawl through graphic posts, pictures, and videos that users have uploaded onto the site and delete some of them, with the aim of making Facebook more user-friendly.

During a hearing on Facebook’s treatment of subcontracted content moderators in the Irish Parliament, moderator Isabella Plunkett, who works for Covalen, one of Facebook’s largest contractors in Ireland, said Facebook’s support for moderators was well-intentioned, but insufficient for the strain of the job.

“To help us cope, they offer ‘wellness coaches,'” the 26-year-old said. “These people mean well, but they’re not doctors. They suggest karaoke or painting but you don’t always feel like singing, frankly, after you’ve seen someone battered to bits.”

Child exploitation, suicide, and graphic violence are just some of the types of content Plunkett said she sees on a daily basis.

“I have horrible lucid dreams about the things I’ve seen and for months I’ve been taking antidepressants because of this content,” she told the committee.

She separately received a referral to the company doctor, but didn’t hear back about a follow-up appointment, she said.

Read more: Facebook delays meeting with advertisers after Oversight Board kicks Trump ban back to the platform

Facebook has been heavily criticized for its treatment of these workers. Most recently, a Facebook content moderator in Texas reportedly shared a note internally condemning the company for advising workers to do “breathing exercises” after looking at disturbing content.

Like other content moderators, Plunkett wasn’t allowed to speak to her friends and family about her work because she signed a non-disclosure agreement when she started the job, she said.

“You feel alone.”

Moderators are told to limit their exposure to self-harm and child abuse to two hours every day, but that doesn’t happen, Plunkett said, without elaborating.

A Facebook spokesperson told Insider that the company provides support for its content reviewers, “as we recognise that reviewing certain types of content can sometimes be hard.”

Content moderators have “in-depth training” and access to psychological support for their wellbeing, the spokesperson said.

“We are also employing technical solutions to limit their exposure to potentially graphic material as much as possible. This is an important issue, and we are committed to getting this right,” they added.

A Covalen spokesperson told Insider in a statement: “We value our employees and the vital work they do. Content moderation is critical in keeping our online communities safe but we know that reviewing certain types of content on social media platforms can be difficult.”

They said Covalen provides a range of well-being measures for moderators, including 24-hour support and supervision, wellness coaching by “highly-qualified professionals,” and enhanced training on trauma, stress management, and personal resilience.

Plunkett said that her job as a moderator was to “train the algorithm” and pick up particular hate speech and graphic videos so that one day a machine will be able to do it, rather than humans.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in 2019 that some of the stories of Facebook content moderators struggling to cope with the daily work were “a little overdramatic.” Zuckerberg made the comments during a company-wide meeting in the summer of that year, in response to an employee question on news reports featuring traumatized content moderators. The audio was obtained by The Verge.

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How Boston Consulting Group’s vision of a ‘bionic workplace’ can help companies build a seamless and resilient hybrid model

microsoft middle east remote work
The “bionic company” combines tech with the “flexibility, adaptability, and comprehensive experience of humans” to create a “superhuman enterprise.”

  • BCG’s “The Bionic Company” envisions a workplace where tech combines with human adaptability.
  • It’s one model for the future of the post-pandemic company considering going hybrid or fully remote.
  • It involves tech being a main focus, bucking traditional leadership, and giving employees autonomy.
  • This article is part of a series called “Future of Work,” which examines how business leaders are rethinking the workplace.

With the Biden administration setting a goal of 70% of US adults having at least one vaccine shot by July 4, business owners and employers are now anticipating a return to the workplace in some form.

As much as dealing with the pandemic itself was a completely new challenge, envisioning the shape of the workplace in its aftermath has become a discipline all its own.

Brandy Aven, associate professor of organizational theory, strategy, and entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, told Insider that companies are not going to be able to take a one-size-fits-all approach.

Brandy Aven
Brandy Aven.

“Leadership should consider each worker’s situation and circumstances in as nuanced a way as possible rather than try to generate a uniform or blanket policy,” she said. “Similarly, the motivation and rationale for bringing workers back to the office should also be carefully considered and discussed with your workforce.”

Aven’s recommendation for companies includes a “collective dialogue” to generate solutions.

“In general, I would first aim to get individual feelings in a manner that will allow as many people to share their concerns and situations – for example, a survey or one-on-ones,” Aven said. An online forum or discussion board are other options.

This is one path forward in what consultant Paula Rizzo, author of two books on organization, labels as “an opportunity to not go back to the way things were.”

Paula Rizzo
Paula Rizzo.

“None of us are the same. Now people have this new sort of freedom from working remotely, and now everything is changing again,” she told Insider. How companies handle this change, Rizzo added, will determine how successful they are at retaining their employees.

“We’ve got a challenge where when we come back into the world of mixing virtual and physical interaction again, companies really need to think about how they make it the best of both of those experiences,” Rich Hutchinson, managing director and senior partner and social impact practice leader at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), said. “I really believe that people thrive on engagement and seeing other people, but the flip side is that there are huge benefits in being more productive in what you’re doing, but also spending more time with your family or being more flexible with where you are.”

Rich Hutchinson
Rich Hutchinson.

Hutchinson was one of the authors of a recent BCG report envisioning the future of the workplace entitled “The Bionic Company.” In it, the consulting group envisions a workplace where technology combines with the “flexibility, adaptability, and comprehensive experience of humans” to create a “superhuman enterprise.”

This breaks down into several actionable steps that all businesses should keep in mind.

Make technology a priority

First, companies must work to integrate the technology they’ve leveraged during the pandemic into their regular workflow, and evaluate how those processes can be further deployed as workers return to the workplace.

“How will the core processes of the business evolve?” and “How will humans and technology create a more efficient process?” are the key questions leaders should be asking, Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson gave an example of outcomes he’s seen these questions produce in action at a leading retailer. The company “built an algorithm to choose fashions for the next season. The algorithm improved on human choices alone,” he said. “But the best results were achieved when human recommendations were both inputs to an improved algorithm and also experts audited the outcomes. It’s an example of leveraging the power of humans and technology together.”

Becoming a “bionic company” isn’t just for large enterprises, either.

“The trick for small companies and entrepreneurs is to think about their processes in this bionic or digital mindset from the beginning, or adopt them in order of the ones where they think they’ll get the biggest bang for the buck,” Hutchinson said. “But because you’re small, I actually think you can build in a lot of the agile organizational mindset or the technology mindset pretty easily,” he added.

Buck the traditional leadership model and remain transparent

The next consideration is how leadership functions as you come back to work after the pandemic.

In the bionic workplace, it differs from the traditional top-down model, Hutchinson said. In traditional leadership, direction comes from the top and flows down to employees without much input or room for questioning, whereas in bionic leadership, it’s team-based, where the teams build products or drive outcomes and are charged with accomplishing their missions on their own.

“Leadership becomes much more about how I structure my teams, what are they working on, what’s the mission, do I have the right composition of talent on those teams, can I help remove roadblocks from them along the way, and if the project just isn’t working, do I shut it down and redeploy that talent onto other teams that have better uses?” Hutchinson said. “It’s basically how do you set up the teams, charge them with the mission, remove the roadblocks, and let them go, rather than managing a team and sort of orchestrating its activities in a very controlled manner.”

Keeping workers motivated throughout the changes that encompass a return to the workplace is another critical consideration, Hutchinson said. He said that taking the time to explain how the changes are going to be beneficial not just for the company, not just for the customer, but also for the workers, is key to their success. Having reached an unprecedented level of transparency during the pandemic, there’s no going backward.

For example, many companies that are digital natives use agile staffing processes to supplement their core employee base. Hutchinson said that handled properly, employees don’t see this as a threat.

“Employees are restaffed to other work that is now higher value. They see that making the company efficient through technology helps it win,” he said. “Growth creates opportunities for the employee. And agile staffing makes work more interesting rather than stagnant.”

That type of communication is common among companies that originated during the digital age, Hutchinson said.

“One of the things the digital natives have done really well is helping people understand that if we can grow and become more efficient and leverage these techniques into a more bionic operating model, that actually creates more opportunity for all of us, and our sincere goal is to help people find new roles and grow,” he said. “So I think there’s a large part of it that’s down to how the company executes it and helps people see the positives in their journey.”

Give employees an opportunity to structure their days

As business owners start pondering how to move forward, employees’ views will be central to considerations, Hutchinson said. He predicts that more autonomy in the workplace is almost unavoidable.

Employees “sharing what worked and what didn’t – and what they are looking for in a job moving forward – both will shape how employers structure jobs post-pandemic,” Hutchinson said. “For some, the pandemic has meant they needed to and could work in a more independent manner. Where this worked, I think employees will push hard for it to stick.”

Rizzo also believes that employees should get a head start on showing employers what they want and need by planning out what they’d like their work model to look like.

“We have an advantage because we know it’s coming,” she said. “We were all blindsided when remote work became full time, now you have some perspective – use it! Make a list of what you’re better suited to do at home and what works better in the office as you design your hybrid work model. It’s a good time to craft your days in a particular way that will make you more efficient, no matter where you are.”

Hutchinson identified less management, or the feeling of less management, as a benefit of the bionic workplace as well.

“They find that they’re operating more agile, which can be really energizing because it doesn’t feel as managed, it feels much more self-directed and they’re much more empowered,” he said.

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