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AI Weekly: AI helps companies design physical products

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This week in a paper published in the journal Nature, researchers at Google detailed how they used AI to design the next generation of tensor processing units (TPU), the company’s application-specific integrated circuits optimized for AI workloads. While the work wasn’t novel — Google’s been refining the technique for the better part of years — it gave the clearest illustration yet of AI’s potential in hardware design. Previous experiments didn’t yield commercially viable products, only prototypes. But the Nature paper suggests AI can at the very least augment human designers to accelerate the brainstorming process.

Beyond chips, companies like U.S.- and Belgium-based Oqton are applying AI to design domains including additive manufacturing. Oqton’s platform automates CNC, metal, and polymer 3D printing and hybrid additive and subtractive workflows, like creating castable jewelry wax. It suggests a range of optimizations and fixes informed by AI inspection algorithms, as well as by pre-analyses of part geometry and real-time calibration. For example, Oqton can automatically adjust geometries to get parts within required tolerances, simulating heat treatment effects like warpage, shrinkage, and stress relief on titanium, cobalt, chrome, zirconia, and other materials.

While it’s still in the research stages, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory developed an AI-powered tool called LaserFactory that can print fully functional robots and drones. LaserFactory leverages a three-ingredient recipe that lets users create structural geometry, print traces, and assemble electronic components like sensors, circuits, and actuators. As the researchers behind LaserFactory note in a paper describing their work, it could in theory be used for jobs like delivery or search-and-rescue.

At Renault, engineers are leveraging AI-powered software created by Siemens Digital Industries Software to automate the design of automated manual transmission (AMT) systems in cars. AMT, which behaves like an automatic transmission but allows drivers to shift gears electronically using a push-button, can take up to a year of trial and error to ideate, develop, and thoroughly validate. But Siemen’s tool enables Renault engineers to drag, drop, and connect icons to graphically create a model of an AMT. The software predicts the behavior and performance of the AMT’s components and makes any necessary refinements early in the development cycle.

Even Nutella is tapping AI for physical products, using the technology to pull from a database of dozens of patterns and colors to create different versions of its packaging. In 2017, working with advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather Italia, the company splashed over 7 million unique designs on “Nutella Unica” jars throughout Italy, which sold out in a month.

Philosophical shift

People might perceive these applications as taking agency away from human designers, but the coauthors of a recent Harvard Business School working paper argue that AI actually enables designers to overcome past limitations — from scale and scope to learning.

“In the context of AI factories, solutions may even be more user-centered, more creative, and continuously updated through learning iterations that span the entire life cycle of a product. Yet, we found that AI profoundly changes the practice of design,” the coauthors write. “Problem solving tasks, traditionally carried on by designers, are now automated into learning loops that operate without limitations of volume and speed. These loops think in a radically different way than a designer: they address complex problems through very simple tasks, iterated exponentially.”

In a recent blog post, user experience designer Miklos Philips echoed the findings of the Harvard Business Review paper contributors, noting that designers working with AI can create prototypes quickly and more cheaply due to the increased efficiency it offers. AI’s power will lie in the speed in which it can analyze vast amounts of data and suggest design adjustments, he says, so that a designer can cherry-pick and approve adjustments based on data and create the most effective designs to test expediently.

In any case, the ROI of AI-assisted design tools is potentially substantial. According to a 2020 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey, companies in manufacturing expect efficiency gains over the next five years attributable to digital transformations, including the adoption of AI and machine learning. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 76% of respondents to a Google Cloud report published this week said they’ve turned to “disruptive technologies” like AI, data analytics, and the cloud, particularly to help navigate challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Given the business value, AI-powered design is likely here to stay — and to grow. That’s generally good news not only for designers, but for the enterprises and consumers that stand to reap the benefits of automation across physical product creation.

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Steam Summer Sale: 10 discounted PC games to buy now

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EA

Amazon Prime Day is out, Steam’s annual Summer Sale is very much in. There are tons of PC games with huge discounts on the Steam store at the moment, such that the store has a choose-your-own-adventure style menu to help you browse through them all. It’s worth taking time out to explore it all, especially if you’re into indie games. 

To help get you going, we’ve picked out 10 fantastic games that are discounted on Steam. This include brand-new titles like Mass Effect Legendary Edition as well as games that are slightly older but still great. 

Steam Summer Sale lasts until July 8th, and we’ll update this post as new titles are added or new gems unearthed. 

Valve

Half-Life: Alyx isn’t just a new Half-Life game — which is like purified air at this point — it’s also the best reason to invest in VR yet. A fully-fledged AAA developed from the ground up for virtual reality platforms is exciting, especially when it comes with a pedigree like Half-Life. 

BioWare

Mass Effect Legendary Edition is just over a month old, yet here it is in Steam’s Summer Sale. It’s $10 off, a 17% reduction, at $49. That’s some amazing bang for your buck when you consider the hours and hours and hours (and hours) of content here, which includes the three main Mass Effect games plus all their DLC content. 

Supergiant Games

Hades won many Game of the Year Awards in 2020, and now is a fabulous time to see why. It’s a stylish game in every sense, from the art to the combat, and includes many memorable characters. It’s absolutely worth playing — especially for just $17.50. 

EA

Battlefield V is the most recent game in the storied franchise, launching back in 2018. It’s gotten a bunch of expansions and DLC content, which is all included in the Definitive Edition. It’s massively discounted, at just $12.50, and will serve as good target practice ahead of Battlefield 2042. 

Capcom

Video game remakes are very hot right now, and Resident Evil 2 is arguably the best one yet. It’s a faithful remake of the PlayStation 1 original (unlike Final Fantasy 7 Remake, which is more of a reimagining), and it’s a fantastic one. Racoon City is horrifying, but worth a visit — especially at $16. 

Square Enix

Final Fantasy was a console exclusive for many years, so many PC diehards probably missed out. If you’re curious about the franchise and looking for an in, Final Fantasy X is as good a place as any. The remastered combo of X and X-2 are 50% off.

Microsoft Studios

Forza Horizon 4 is on Xbox Game Pass, so you should play it through that service if you haven’t already. If you’re not into subscriptions though, the excellent open-world racer is 50% off right now. 

Giant Sparrow

What Remains of Edith Finch is a narrative-based game that you can breeze through in about three hours. It explores the traumas experienced by the Finch family and the story of its eponymous character through a series of minigames. That may not sound too exciting — but it’s a three hours you won’t forget. 

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Windows 11 will change how you use your PC

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People who want to jump between entirely different desktops can do that, too. Not only can you have different desktops for home, school and work, but they’ll also follow you around to whatever Windows 11 computer you’re using. Your different computers can sync up over the cloud: Leave work, open your laptop at home, and your screen should be just how you left it — windows, tabs and all. The Start menu even saves your most recent files, so you don’t have to click around to reopen them.

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BuzzFeed Confirms Plan to Go Public

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BuzzFeed, the digital publisher known for viral content, announced on Thursday its plan to go public through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, signaling a shift in the business strategy of the once high-flying media start-up.

BuzzFeed said it planned to merge with a publicly listed shell company, 890 Fifth Avenue Partners, in what is known as a SPAC deal. It will be valued at $1.5 billion, a decline from its 2016 valuation of $1.7 billion. As part of the proposed transaction, BuzzFeed will raise $438 million, with $150 million of that coming as debt financing.

BuzzFeed also announced that it would acquire Complex Networks in the deal for a total of $300 million, with $200 million in cash and the rest in stock. Known primarily for its pop culture coverage, Complex also hosts events on food, sports and sneaker collecting.

Jonah Peretti, the founder and chief executive of BuzzFeed, announced the merger at a news conference at the company’s Manhattan headquarters. “This is a very exciting day for BuzzFeed and a great day for our employees and our partners,” he said.

Once seen as the future of the media, BuzzFeed has become something of an outlier in an industry that has lately rewarded subscription-driven publications and newsletter platforms. If the investors in 890 Fifth Avenue vote in favor of the transaction, BuzzFeed expects to close the deal by the end of the year, and the shares will trade under ticker symbol BZFD.

Adam Rothstein, the executive chairman of 890 Fifth Avenue Partners and a venture investor known for investments in Israeli tech start-ups, will join BuzzFeed’s board. Made up of veterans from the worlds of finance and media, the board includes current and former executives at ESPN, NBC, Playboy, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Subversive Capital and the A&E cable network.

BuzzFeed’s institutional shareholders, which include media giants like NBCUniversal and venture capitalists, will be subject to a six-month lockup period after the deal closes, preventing them from selling shares immediately. But former BuzzFeed employees should be able to cash out any shares they may own as soon as the company goes public. Mr. Peretti said in an interview that he would have majority control over the new BuzzFeed once the merger closes through a special class of shares.

“To me it was important to have the ability to really focus on the long term of the company and balance all the constituencies and stakeholders and to have founder control was a way to do that,” he said. Other publicly traded media companies, including The New York Times, have similar arrangements.

Mr. Peretti’s growth strategy appears to hinge on acquiring companies — in part to gain leverage over major distributors like Google and Facebook, but also because BuzzFeed has yet to achieve the kind of needed scale on its own.

In 2018, he quietly sought possible mergers with competitors such as Vice Media, Group Nine and Vox Media. In November, Mr. Peretti orchestrated BuzzFeed’s acquisition of HuffPost, the site he helped found in 2005 with Arianna Huffington and the investor Kenneth Lerer.

With the addition of Complex, BuzzFeed expects revenue to grow 24 percent to $521 million this year with pretax profit of about $57 million. Next year, it estimates revenue will hit $654 million and pretax profit $117 million.

Still, that may not be enough.

“We’ll have opportunities to pursue more acquisitions, and there are more exciting companies out there that we want to pursue,” Mr. Peretti said during the news conference on Thursday.

When asked which companies he might look to acquire, he responded: “I don’t know. You have any ideas?”

Hatched out of a small office in New York’s Chinatown in 2006, when Mr. Peretti was the chief technology officer of The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed started as an experiment in creating content meant to be shared on the web. He left what is now HuffPost in 2011, after AOL bought it for $315 million, and ended up transforming his project into a stand-alone media company with the help of $35 million from investors.

BuzzFeed soon became one of the fastest-growing digital publishers, eventually raising $500 million, and was hailed as the future of news media. But in recent years, it has missed ambitious revenue targets, and some of its investors have agitated for a sale.

After a series of layoffs in 2019, BuzzFeed started to diversify its business, selling branded cookware and ramping up its product recommendation section, garnering a commission on each sale through affiliate agreements with Amazon and other companies. “Our model evolved,” Mr. Peretti said in an interview last year.

SPAC deals, once an arcane Wall Street maneuver, have become more common over the last year. Special purpose acquisition companies — shell corporations that list on a stock exchange — are usually created with the goal of buying a private business and taking it public.

Group Nine, the BuzzFeed rival, has gone a different route. It created a SPAC of its own in December, with the aim of finding a company to acquire before going public.

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