Category Archives: Tech News

Ecosia Founder Plants Trees with Profits

Christian Kroll, the German founder of search engine Ecosia, says he wants “to make the world a greener, better place.”

He adds that he also wants “to prove that there is a more ethical alternative to the kind of greedy capitalism that is coming close to destroying the planet.”

Ecosia, which the 35-year-old Kroll launched in 2009, has a unique business model. Most of its profits are spent on planting trees, via 20 tree-planting projects it supports around the world.
The search engine makes money the same way as Google: by charging advertisers every time someone clicks on their ads. Since not everyone searching the internet clicks on an advertisement, the company estimates that it takes about 45 searches to raise just 0.22 euros (about 26 US pennies), which is the cost to plant one tree.

But strength is in numbers. Although the Berlin-based Ecosia has only 15 million users, compared to Google’s 5.6 billion searches per day, by giving away 80% of his profits Kroll has been responsible for the planting of over 105 million trees in Indonesia, Brazil, Kenya, Haiti, and beyond.

Despite this success, Kroll is thinking big. He is planning to “scale massively, win more users, and plant billions of trees.”

Kroll also says he will never purchase a yacht, as some other search engine founders have done. He explains why not:

“While they have big yachts, I have an inflatable dinghy that I take to lakes. Ego consumption is not appropriate in a world where there’s climate change.”

There is a more technical reason he will never buy a yacht, or any other expensive luxury: he put two legally binding restrictions on his business—shareholders and staff are forbidden from personally selling their shares or taking profits outside of the company.

Ecosia has 70 employees and puts its financial statements online monthly. All the company’s electrical needs are met through solar power. The company says that 80% of its users are under age 29.

Masks Mess with Facial Recognition Systems

Woman wearing face mask.

Now that we are out of lockdown and cautiously venturing back into society, masks have become a new fact of life. Although some people are refusing to wear them despite a study showing that when the mask order went into effect in New York City the new coronavirus case rate began to plunge by 3% per day, the vast majority are complying.

Along with social distancing and frequent hand washing, mask-wearing has proven the best way to prevent rampant COVID-19 infections, however, masks have some disadvantages. Many people are finding it difficult to recognize what otherwise would be familiar faces among the masked multitude. In addition to thwarting human facial recognition, masks are making it almost impossible for computer facial recognition systems to function.

The National Institute for Standards and Technology began a study to understand how facial recognition programs perform when faces are partially masked. In the meantime, some companies have tried to deal with the new situation.

A few companies that work with law enforcement agencies have experimented with creating algorithms that home in on eyebrows and eyes.

The NIST says under ideal conditions the best facial recognition systems fail only 0.3% of the time. This rate changes radically when conditions are not ideal, for instance when the face belongs to someone who is not the “ideal” race, age, or gender. With masks the ideal recognition failure rate skyrockets to 5% or more. The agency added that when asked to deal with masked faces, “many otherwise competent algorithms failed between 20% to 50% of the time.”

Amazon Introduces No-Check-Out Grocery Store

Colorful Carts, courtesy

Since 2015 Amazon has been working on providing customers with a fun visit to the grocery store that leaves out entirely the waiting online and bagging of groceries at the checkout. Now the dream is finally a reality.

In Woodland Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles, customers with Amazon accounts use their smartphones to sign in to use “Dash Carts,” high-tech shopping carts equipped with sensors and cameras with computer vision, and a built-in scale to weigh produce. All the technology is cleverly hidden, so customers feel like they are just shopping, and not part of a sci-fi experiment.

The Dash Cart also has a scanner for coupons, and a display that shows what is in the cart and how much it all will cost when you finally “Just Walk Out.” Removing an item placed in the cart is automatically accounted for in the total, as are the items added to the cart. Not needing to check-out when customers are done shopping also allows them to bag their purchases as they shop.

When it is time to leave, shoppers exit the store vie the Dash Cart lane. Amazon then automatically charges the credit card that is linked to their Amazon account. Receipts are sent via email.

Amazon has been experimenting with the technology at their “Amazon Go” stores, where take-out meals and snacks can be purchased without bothering about a cashier. But the sheer scale of Amazon’s “Just Walk Out” grocery stores makes this a milestone for the company.

“You need to be able to add that and keep track of all of that and it just increases the complexity,” Dilip Kumar, Amazon’s vice president of physical retail and technology, said. “Plus, the weighing component of it also has to be very robust to be able to allow for a very accurate receipt experience for a customer.”

Amazon Opens Grocery with Auto Checkout

Consumers no longer need to worry about the long lines at the checkout counter, or if they have over 10 items, or cash or credit. Amazon is making buying groceries almost as easy as opening the door to your own pantry, where even the need to open your wallet has been annihilated.

The cashier-strapped supermarket opened this week in Seattle, the birthplace of Amazon. The store bodes well for an enormous disruption in the $800 billion grocery store industry.
Shoppers enter the store and scan their smartphone app. A myriad of cameras and sensors pay careful attention to what comes off the shelves and charges it all to the consumer’s Amazon account.

The new store, named Amazon Go Grocery, is an expansion of Amazon’s two-year-old chain of 25 Amazon Go convenience stores, which are only one-fifth the size of the 10,400 square-foot full-size grocery and stock mostly soft drinks and sandwiches.

Dealing with produce was a special challenge. Consumers like to squeeze their tomatoes and avocados before purchasing, which makes it difficult for the sensors to keep track of what’s what. Nothing is weighed at Amazon Go Grocery. The fruit and veggies are per item, with oranges going for 53 cents apiece, and bananas 19 cents.

Another type of grocery store is in the planning stages by Amazon to open in the Los Angeles area later this year. Amazon says it will not be a cashier-free store, but what it will be is still a secret. The company has also not said whether more Amazon Go Grocery stores are being planned for other locations, and they also say they are not planning to bring autonomous shopping to their 500 Whole Foods groceries, which they purchased in 2017.

Not everything about Go Grocery is an improvement. Shoppers must bag their own groceries as they shop. Also, Amazon has eliminated the friendly butcher, baker, and deli-counter worker. Instead, these items are found pre-packaged in refrigerated shelves.

Helping fellow shoppers can lead to trouble. If someone needs help with an item on a high shelf, if you are taller and get the item down for that person, you will be charged if the person you helped leaves with that item.

With all-new technologies come a few bumps. But overall, this seems to be a positive move forward for the grocery sector.

Huawei Introduces 5G Folding Phone

Huawei Technology in Shenzhen, China

Called the Mate X, Huawei unveiled its latest addition to the innovative cell-phone market place, further challenging market leaders Samsung of Korea and Apple of the USA. China’s powerhouse tech company introduced its phone immediately before the beginning of the four-day Mobile World Conference 2019, in Barcelona.

The phone is compatible with superfast, next-generation 5G networks, expected to replace older and slower networks over the next few years. The phone also folds in half, an innovation that the industry is hoping will get phones out of the current creativity slump. Others believe the market for folding phones is limited, at least in the near future.
The Mate X is Huawei’s solution to the problem of bigger screens and longer battery life. Richard Yu, head of the company’s consumer business group asked at a fancy media launch party,

“How can we bring bigger innovation to this smartphone industry?”

The phone won’t be available for purchase for another few months and will cost about 2,299 Euros ($2600.) Samsung’s Galaxy Fold sells for almost $2000.

Users of the Mate X can still view it even when its closed, as the phone’s screen wraps around the outside. The Galaxy Fold’s screen closes shut and cannot be viewed unless its open. When open the Mate X is 8 inches on the diagonal, about the same size as a smaller tablet.

Huawei developers took three years just on the phone’s hinge, which does not leave a space when the phone is closed.

“No matter how innovative and technology-advanced the new device is, it will take a lot more time for a critical mass of consumers to experience the benefits of foldable phones and 5G technology,” one analyst said. Huawei still “has to find its own brand voice to differentiate from Samsung and Apple and stop acting as a technology challenger,” he added.