Are You Ready for Sentient Disney Robots?

Some of the animatronics at Disney’s parks have been doing their herky-jerky thing since the Nixon administration. The company knows that nostalgia won’t cut it with today’s children.


GLENDALE, Calif. — I was en route to meet Groot.

Not an imitation Groot conjured with video or those clunky virtual reality goggles. The Walt Disney Company’s secretive research and development division, Imagineering, had promised a walking, talking, emoting Groot, as if the arboreal “Avengers” character had jumped off the screen and was living among us.

But first I had to find him. GPS had guided me to a warehouse on a dead-end street in Glendale, a Los Angeles suburb. The place seemed deserted. As soon as I parked, however, a man warily appeared from behind a jacaranda tree. Yes, I had an appointment. No, I was not hiding any recording devices. He made a phone call, and I was escorted into the warehouse through an unmarked door behind a dumpster.

In the back near a black curtain a little wrinkled hand waved hello.

It was Groot.

He was about three feet tall and ambled toward me with wide eyes, as if he had discovered a mysterious new life form. He looked me up and down and introduced himself.

audio-animatronics,” his word for mechanical figures with choreographed movements. There were endlessly harmonizing Small World dolls, marauding Caribbean pirates (“yo-ho!”), Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. The technology was a runaway hit, mesmerizing generations of children and helping to turn Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida into cultural touchstones and colossal businesses.

Disney’s 14 theme parks around the world attracted 156 million visitors in 2019, and the Disney Parks, Experiences and Products division generated $26 billion in revenue. The coronavirus pandemic severely disrupted operations for a year, but the masses have returned. The wait to get on the swaying Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Disney World on a recent day was two hours and 10 minutes — Delta variant, be darned.

Roblox online gaming universe and augmented reality Snapchat filters. Cars are driving themselves, and SpaceX rockets are autonomously landing on drone ships.

How are the rudimentary animatronic birds in Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room supposed to compete? They dazzled in 1963. Today, some people fall asleep.

“We think a lot about relevancy,” Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, said in April during a virtual event to promote the opening of an interactive Spider-Man ride and immersive “land” dedicated to Marvel’s Avengers. “We have an obligation to our fans, to our guests, to continue to evolve, to continue to create experiences that look new and different and pull them in. To make sure the experience is fresh and relevant.

“And all of that is risk,” Mr. D’Amaro acknowledged. “There is legacy here. People like the way things are. But we’re going to keep pushing, keep making it better.”

Wicked Witch of the West that flailed its arms and shifted its body with remarkable speed and precision.

More recently, Disney has introduced robot characters that seem to talk to guests (Mr. Potato Head, 2008). Others move with such elegance that some visitors mistake them for video projections (an “Avatar” shaman, 2017).

Disney attractions have always required the suspension of disbelief: Those are real flying galleons in Peter Pan’s Flight, not plastic ride vehicles on a rail. But advances in movie imagery — computer-generated animation, the blending of live-action footage with elaborate digital effects — have put pressure on Disney to make its robots more convincing.

“You know how Elsa moves,” said Kathryn Yancey, an Imagineering show mechanical engineer, referring to the “Frozen” princess. “Kids have watched the movie over and over, maybe even in the car that morning. So our animatronic Elsa also has to be fast and lyrical. She can’t be lumbering.”

WEB Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure, features a “stuntronic” robot (outfitted in Spidey spandex) that performs elaborate aerial tricks, just like a stunt person. A catapult hurls the untethered machine 65 feet into the air, where it completes various feats (somersaults in one pass, an “epic flail” in another) while autonomously adjusting its trajectory to land in a hidden net.

“It’s thrilling because it can be hard to tell whether it’s a robot or a person — the stuntronic Spider-Man, it’s that good,” Wade Heath said as he joined the line to re-ride WEB Slingers in early August. Mr. Heath, 32, a recruiter for Pinkerton, the security company, described himself as “a major Disney nerd” who has, at times, been surprised that the company’s parks have not evolved faster.

three years to develop. Disney declined to discuss the cost of the stuntronics endeavor, but the company easily invested millions of dollars. Now that the technology has been perfected, Disney plans to roll it out at other parks. WEB Slingers, for instance, has been greenlighted for Disneyland Paris.

Bob Weis, who leads Disney’s 1,000-plus member Imagineering division. In the beginning, it was just an expensive research project with no clear outcome.

“It’s not easy to prove return on investment for never-considered-possible inventions,” Mr. Weis said. “Our longstanding history of creating experiences that completely wow guests — for them to suspend disbelief and live in that moment — has paved the way for acceptance of this inherent risk.”

But budgets are not endless. “We have to be discerning because, as you can imagine, we have plenty of amazing ideas, capabilities and stories,” Mr. Weis added.

Boston Dynamics, where he contributed to an early version of Atlas, a running and jumping machine that inspires “how did they do that” amazement — followed by dystopian dread.

Baby Yoda and swinging ones like Spider-Man — that are challenging to bring to life in a realistic way, especially outdoors.

About 6,000 animatronics are in use at Disney parks worldwide, and almost all are bolted to the floor inside ride buildings. It’s part of the magic trick: By controlling the lighting and sight angles, Disney can make its animatronics seem more alive. For a long time, however, Disney has been enamored with robotics as an opportunity to make the walkways between rides more thrilling.

“We want to create incredible experiences outside of a show box,” said Leslie Evans, a senior Imagineering executive, referring to ride buildings. “To me, that’s going to be next level. These aren’t just parks. They are inhabited places.”

Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, unveiled in 2019, asks groups of riders to work together to steer the ship. The ride’s queuing area features an impressive Hondo Ohnaka animatronic. (He’s a miscreant from the “Clone Wars” animated series.)

In 2003, Disney tested a free-roving animatronic dinosaur named Lucky; he pulled a flower cart, which concealed a puppeteer. In 2007, the company experimented with wireless animatronic Muppets that rode around in a remote-controlled vehicle and chatted with guests. (A technician operated the rig from afar.) Lucky and the Muppet Mobile Lab have since been retired.

play test” stage — a short, low-profile dry run at a theme park to gather guest feedback. Disney declined to say when or where.

Richard-Alexandre Peloquin was also towering in the air, except his lower body was ensconced in a contraption/costume that gave him legs the size of oil barrels and feet that resembled those of a Wampa, a furry “Star Wars” ice beast.

Asya Cara Peña, a ride development engineer, piped up with a rudimentary explanation. They were developing a full-body exoskeleton that could be applied to a wide variety of oversize characters — and that counteracted the force of gravity. Because of safety concerns, not to mention endurance, the weight of such hulking costumes (more than 40 pounds) could not rest entirely or even mostly on a puppeteer’s shoulders. Instead, it needed to be redirected to the ground.

“But it also needs to look natural and believable,” Ms. Peña said. “And it has to be something that different performers of different body types with different gaits can slip into with identical results.”

Just then, Mr. Becker began to sway unsteadily. “Whoa! Be careful!” Ms. Peña shouted, rushing to help him sit down on an elevated chair.

“We still have a long way to go,” Mr. Becker said a bit sheepishly. “The challenge is to not just have a big idea, but to get it all the way to the park.”

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Flood Deaths in China Show Road Risks From Climate Change

ZHENGZHOU, China — More than 200 cars were caught in a highway tunnel on Tuesday in central China when record-setting rainfall soaked the area. Torrents of water poured in the tunnel’s entrances, nearly filling it to the ceiling.

The death toll that day probably would have been higher had it not been for a semiretired special forces commando who swam back and forth among the bobbing, colliding vehicles to rescue drowning drivers as their cars filled with water and sank. The authorities are still draining the tunnel, and have said that at least four people died.

Initially, international attention to transportation safety risks from extreme weather focused on drownings in a subway tunnel that filled with water during the same cloudburst in Zhengzhou, in central China’s Henan Province. But the highway-tunnel flooding deaths highlight the risks that climate change can also pose to motorists, transportation safety experts said this weekend.

Indeed, the deaths show that road engineers, like subway-system designers, will need to cope with the more intense rainfalls associated with climate change, said Kara M. Kockelman, a transportation engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

1993 during the Mississippi River floods in the Midwest to alleviate pressure on dams when the water behind them became dangerously high.

Only two months ago, the Henan Province government was promoting its “smart tunnel” investments in the same mile-long, four-lane highway tunnel that flooded on Tuesday. Sensors could be used to track and precisely locate any person or vehicle, and to closely monitor the tunnel’s water pumps. An artificial intelligence system could be used to instantly analyze problems and suggest solutions.

Highway tunnels, including Zhengzhou’s, are built with their own pumping systems. But extreme cloudbursts like the one last week, in which eight inches of rain fell in a single hour, pose formidable challenges for road designers.

To work, such pumping systems need to be able to move the water somewhere that is not underwater itself. Zhengzhou is nearly flat and slow to drain. The entire street at the south end of the tunnel filled with water several feet deep.

Dr. Kockelman said that any investigation of what went wrong in Zhengzhou would need to examine whether the exit point for the pumps had become submerged. That could cause the flow of water through the pumps to reverse direction and fill the tunnel.

Liu Chunge, an owner of a tiny grocery store that sits two stairs above the sidewalk next to the south end of the tunnel, said that the water in the streets rose fast. She was soon calf-deep inside her store.

The freezer from which she sells ice cream began to float, so she loaded beverage bottles onto it to force it back down to the floor.

“I’ve never experienced such a big flood,” said Ms. Liu, 50. “In previous floods, the water never rose above the two steps.”

Zhengzhou officials have held three news conferences since the tunnel floods, but they have yet to directly explain what went wrong.

Local authorities have struggled to remove water from the highway tunnel. On Friday afternoon, they were operating a pair of pumps nearly the size of commercial jet engines attached to bright red, fire engine-size suction trucks at the tunnel’s south end. But the muddy water was still deep enough in the tunnel that only the roof of a white car inside was visible.

Several workers maneuvered a large yellow tow truck to try to pull a mud-covered black minivan out of the tunnel’s exit. The minivan had its rear wheels on a nearly yard-high highway median, and its driver’s door hung open. Five other mud-soaked cars and vans lay in the water nearby, including a dark blue Ford sedan with a white car on its roof.

Many Zhengzhou residents watched and filmed the crews’ work on Friday afternoon, and were occasionally chased away by a few municipal police officers.

As for Mr. Yang, Caocao gave him a new, $25,000 electric minivan on Friday night.

Li You, Claire Fu and Liu Yi contributed research.

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What Ever Happened to IBM’s Watson?

IBM insists that its revised A.I. strategy — a pared-down, less world-changing ambition — is working. The job of reviving growth was handed to Arvind Krishna, a computer scientist who became chief executive last year, after leading the recent overhaul of IBM’s cloud and A.I. businesses.

But the grand visions of the past are gone. Today, instead of being a shorthand for technological prowess, Watson stands out as a sobering example of the pitfalls of technological hype and hubris around A.I.

The march of artificial intelligence through the mainstream economy, it turns out, will be more step-by-step evolution than cataclysmic revolution.

Time and again during its 110-year history, IBM has ushered in new technology and sold it to corporations. The company so dominated the market for mainframe computers that it was the target of a federal antitrust case. PC sales really took off after IBM entered the market in 1981, endorsing the small machines as essential tools in corporate offices. In the 1990s, IBM helped its traditional corporate customers adapt to the internet.

IBM executives came to see A.I. as the next wave to ride.

Mr. Ferrucci first pitched the idea of Watson to his bosses at IBM’s research labs in 2006. He thought building a computer to tackle a question-answer game could push science ahead in the A.I. field known as natural language processing, in which scientists program computers to recognize and analyze words. Another research goal was to advance techniques for automated question answering.

After overcoming initial skepticism, Mr. Ferrucci assembled a team of scientists — eventually more than two dozen — who worked out of the company’s lab in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., about 20 miles north of IBM’s headquarters in Armonk.

The Watson they built was a room-size supercomputer with thousands of processors running millions of lines of code. Its storage disks were filled with digitized reference works, Wikipedia entries and electronic books. Computing intelligence is a brute force affair, and the hulking machine required 85,000 watts of power. The human brain, by contrast, runs on the equivalent of 20 watts.

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For China’s Business Elites, Staying Out of Politics Is No Longer an Option

Internet infrastructure operators like Didi must now prove their political and legal legitimacy to the government, Ma Changbo, an online media start-up founder, wrote on his WeChat social media account.

“This is the second half of the U.S.-China decoupling,” he wrote. “In the capital market, the model of playing both sides of the fence is coming to an end.”

Didi, Ms. Liu and Mr. Liu didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

China’s internet companies have benefited from the best of two worlds since the 1990s. Many received foreign venture funding — Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, was funded by Yahoo and SoftBank, while Tencent, another internet titan, was backed by South Africa’s Naspers. They also copied their business models from Silicon Valley companies.

The Chinese companies gained further advantages when Beijing blocked almost all big American internet companies from its domestic market, giving its home players plenty of room to grow. Many Chinese internet firms later went public in New York, where investors have a bigger appetite for innovative and risky start-ups than in Shanghai or Hong Kong. So far this year, more than 35 Chinese companies have gone public in the United States.

Now the Didi crackdown is changing the calculations for many in China’s tech industry. One entrepreneur who has set her sights on a listing in New York for her enterprise software start-up said it would be harder to go public in Hong Kong with a high valuation because what her company did — software as a service — was a relatively new idea in China.

A venture capitalist in Beijing added that because of China’s data security requirements, it was now unlikely that start-ups in artificial intelligence and software as a service would consider going public in New York. Few people were willing to speak on the record for fear of retaliation by Beijing.

At the same time, the United States has become more hostile to Chinese tech companies and investors. As Washington has ramped up its scrutiny of deals that involve sensitive technologies, it has become almost impossible for Chinese venture firms to invest in Silicon Valley start-ups, several investors said.

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The Tech Cold War’s ‘Most Complicated Machine’ That’s Out of China’s Reach

SAN FRANCISCO — President Biden and many lawmakers in Washington are worried these days about computer chips and China’s ambitions with the foundational technology.

But a massive machine sold by a Dutch company has emerged as a key lever for policymakers — and illustrates how any country’s hopes of building a completely self-sufficient supply chain in semiconductor technology are unrealistic.

The machine is made by ASML Holding, based in Veldhoven. Its system uses a different kind of light to define ultrasmall circuitry on chips, packing more performance into the small slices of silicon. The tool, which took decades to develop and was introduced for high-volume manufacturing in 2017, costs more than $150 million. Shipping it to customers requires 40 shipping containers, 20 trucks and three Boeing 747s.

The complex machine is widely acknowledged as necessary for making the most advanced chips, an ability with geopolitical implications. The Trump administration successfully lobbied the Dutch government to block shipments of such a machine to China in 2019, and the Biden administration has shown no signs of reversing that stance.

Congress is debating plans to spend more than $50 billion to reduce reliance on foreign chip manufacturers. Many branches of the federal government, particularly the Pentagon, have been worried about the U.S. dependence on Taiwan’s leading chip manufacturer and the island’s proximity to China.

A study this spring by Boston Consulting Group and the Semiconductor Industry Association estimated that creating a self-sufficient chip supply chain would take at least $1 trillion and sharply increase prices for chips and products made with them.

Moore’s Law, named after Gordon Moore, a co-founder of the chip giant Intel.

In 1997, ASML began studying a shift to using extreme ultraviolet, or EUV, light. Such light has ultrasmall wavelengths that can create much tinier circuitry than is possible with conventional lithography. The company later decided to make machines based on the technology, an effort that has cost $8 billion since the late 1990s.

The development process quickly went global. ASML now assembles the advanced machines using mirrors from Germany and hardware developed in San Diego that generates light by blasting tin droplets with a laser. Key chemicals and components come from Japan.

a final report to Congress and Mr. Biden in March, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence proposed extending export controls to some other advanced ASML machines as well. The group, funded by Congress, seeks to limit artificial intelligence advances with military applications.

Mr. Hunt and other policy experts argued that since China was already using those machines, blocking additional sales would hurt ASML without much strategic benefit. So does the company.

“I hope common sense will prevail,” Mr. van den Brink said.

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Sundar Pichai Faces Internal Criticism at Google

OAKLAND, Calif. — The seeds of a company’s downfall, it is often said in the business world, are sown when everything is going great.

It is hard to argue that things aren’t going great for Google. Revenue and profits are charting new highs every three months. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is worth $1.6 trillion. Google has rooted itself deeper and deeper into the lives of everyday Americans.

But a restive class of Google executives worry that the company is showing cracks. They say Google’s work force is increasingly outspoken. Personnel problems are spilling into the public. Decisive leadership and big ideas have given way to risk aversion and incrementalism. And some of those executives are leaving and letting everyone know exactly why.

“I keep getting asked why did I leave now? I think the better question is why did I stay for so long?” Noam Bardin, who joined Google in 2013 when the company acquired mapping service Waze, wrote in a blog post two weeks after leaving the company in February.

Sundar Pichai, the company’s affable, low-key chief executive.

Fifteen current and former Google executives, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering Google and Mr. Pichai, told The New York Times that Google was suffering from many of the pitfalls of a large, maturing company — a paralyzing bureaucracy, a bias toward inaction and a fixation on public perception.

The executives, some of whom regularly interacted with Mr. Pichai, said Google did not move quickly on key business and personnel moves because he chewed over decisions and delayed action. They said that Google continued to be rocked by workplace culture fights, and that Mr. Pichai’s attempts to lower the temperature had the opposite effect — allowing problems to fester while avoiding tough and sometimes unpopular positions.

A Google spokesman said internal surveys about Mr. Pichai’s leadership were positive. The company declined to make Mr. Pichai, 49, available for comment, but it arranged interviews with nine current and former executives to offer a different perspective on his leadership.

“Would I be happier if he made decisions faster? Yes,” said Caesar Sengupta, a former vice president who worked closely with Mr. Pichai during his 15 years at Google. He left in March. “But am I happy that he gets nearly all of his decisions right? Yes.”

a fixture at congressional hearings. Even his critics say he has so far managed to navigate those hearings without ruffling the feathers of lawmakers or providing more ammunition to his company’s foes.

The Google executives complaining about Mr. Pichai’s leadership acknowledge that, and say he is a thoughtful and caring leader. They say Google is more disciplined and organized these days — a bigger, more professionally run company than the one Mr. Pichai inherited six years ago.

challenge Amazon in online commerce a few years ago. Mr. Pichai rejected the idea because he thought Shopify was too expensive, two people familiar with the discussions said.

to select Halimah DeLaine Prado, a longtime deputy in the company’s legal team.

Ms. Prado was at the top of an initial list of candidates provided to Mr. Pichai, who asked to see more names, several people familiar with the search said. The exhaustive search took so long, they said, that it became a running joke among industry headhunters.

Mr. Pichai’s reluctance to take decisive measures on Google’s volatile work force has been noticeable.

vowing to restore lost trust, while continuing to push Google’s view that Dr. Gebru was not fired. But it fell short of an apology, she said, and came across as public-relations pandering to some employees.

David Baker, a former director of engineering at Google’s trust and safety group who resigned in protest of Dr. Gebru’s dismissal, said Google should admit that it had made a mistake instead of trying to save face.

“Google’s lack of courage with its diversity problem is ultimately what evaporated my passion for the job,” said Mr. Baker, who worked at the company for 16 years. “The more secure Google has become financially, the more risk averse it has become.”

Some critiques of Mr. Pichai can be attributed to the challenge of maintaining Google’s outspoken culture among a work force that is far larger than it once was, said the Google executives whom the company asked to speak to The Times.

“I don’t think anyone else could manage these issues as well as Sundar,” said Luiz Barroso, one of the company’s most senior technical executives.

acquire the activity tracker Fitbit, which closed in January, took about a year as Mr. Pichai wrestled with aspects of the deal, including how to integrate the company, its product plans and how it intended to protect user data, said Sameer Samat, a Google vice president. Mr. Samat, who was pushing for the deal, said Mr. Pichai had identified potential problems that he had not fully considered.

“I could see how those multiple discussions could make somebody feel like we’re slow to make decisions,” Mr. Samat said. “The reality is that these are very large decisions.”

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5 Tips to Take Command of Your iPhone

Last month, Apple released an update to its operating system, iOS 14.5, which gives users more control of their personal data. But if you’re looking to gain more control over the iPhone itself, you also have options. Want to put your favorite apps within easy reach, tag friends in Messages or set your preferred browser to open links? You can do all that and more.

Here are a few quick tips for enhancing the iPhone experience. Next week’s Tech Tip column will round up a few helpful hints for the Android faithful.

The Control Center — that handy panel of often-used settings summoned with a finger swipe — first appeared back in 2013 and got more useful when Apple began to let users add their preferred buttons a few years later. If you haven’t tinkered with your Control Center to add the features and functions you use the most, just open the Settings icon on the home screen, scroll down to Control Center and give it a tap.

Credit…Apple

From the list on the next screen, choose the icons for the apps and settings you want to live in your Control Center. While tools like the Flashlight are typically there by default, you can remove those you never use and add icons for apps you want, like the Magnifier, the QR Code scanner or even the Shazam music recognition feature. To rearrange the order of the icons on the screen, drag them up and down the list before you close the Settings app.

Back Tap feature to have your iPhone perform a specific action when you give it quick taps on the back.

Credit…Apple

To set it up, open the Settings, select Accessibility and then Touch, and scroll down to Back Tap. Once you select Back Tap, select either Double or Triple Tap and choose an action on the next screen, like opening the Spotlight search app or the Control Center or running a Shortcut you’ve set up with Apple’s Shortcuts app. You can assign two separate tasks to the Double Tap and Triple Tap functions — and Back Tap should work even if your iPhone is in a case.

Tired of the iPhone always opening the Safari browser instead of your favored DuckDuckGo when you tap a link, or firing up Apple’s Mail program instead of the Gmail app when you select an email address from your Contacts list? If your iPhone is running iOS 14 or later, you can choose the apps you want as your default programs.

Messages chat or get someone’s attention in a group conversation, just as you can on some social media platforms? You can do both.

Credit…Apple

To reply to a certain message in either a one-on-one or group chat where everyone is using the Messages app, press your finger on that message until a menu appears. Select Reply, enter your response and tap the blue Send arrow. To tag someone in a conversation so he or she gets a notification, put the @ symbol in front of the name or just type the name and select it when it pops up onscreen from your Contacts.

Apple’s Siri voice assistant, celebrating a decade on the iPhone this October, has been losing ground in knowledge and usefulness to Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant in recent years. To boost Siri’s powers, Apple added more skills in iOS 14. And with iOS 14.5, it now includes a more diverse set of voices.

Credit…Apple

To change how and when Siri sounds, open the Settings icon on the home screen, select Siri & Search and make your selections. You can also opt to display your conversations on the screen by tapping Siri Responses and turning on “Always Show Siri Captions” and “Always Show Speech” to make sure you see the last word, too.

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Jobs Report Is Expected to Show a Big Gain: Live Updates

jobs report Friday morning. Forecasters surveyed by Bloomberg estimate that payrolls grew by 978,000 last month and that the unemployment rate fell to 5.8 percent from 6 percent.

As coronavirus infections ebb, vaccinations spread, restrictions lift and businesses reopen, the labor market has been healing. The March gain, subject to revision on Friday, was 916,000.

“Recovery in employment will come in fits and starts,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton. “But we’re going to see a lot of strong gains this year.”

Mall traffic has picked up, Ms. Swonk said, but manufacturing may be hobbled by bottlenecks in the supply chain. Restaurants, hotels and travel are coming back online, she said, but it is unclear whether the job increases in those industries will exceed the seasonal gains typical at this time of year.

The economy still has a lot of ground to recover before returning to prepandemic levels. In March, there were roughly 8.4 million fewer jobs than in February 2020, and the labor force has shrunk.

Employers, particularly in the restaurant and hospitality industry, have reported scant response to help-wanted ads. Several have blamed what they call overly generous government jobless benefits, including a temporary $300-a-week federal stipend that was part of an emergency pandemic relief program.

But the most solid evidence of a real shortage of workers, many economists say, would be rising wages. And that is not happening in a sustained way. As Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said at a news conference last week: “We don’t see wages moving up yet. And presumably we would see that in a really tight labor market.”

Millions of Americans have said that health concerns and child care responsibilities — with many schools and day care centers not back to normal operations — have kept them from returning to work. Millions of others who are not actively job hunting are considered on temporary layoff and expect to be hired back by their previous employers once more businesses reopen fully.

The good news, said Robert Rosener, a senior U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley, is that the choppiness in the labor market that results from successive rounds of openings and closings seems to be easing. “People are going back to work and are more likely to stay at work,” he said.

Employers say supplemental unemployment benefits are making it difficult to hire. But some former food-service workers are shifting to warehouse jobs or work-from-home positions.
Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times

This week the Republican governors of Montana and South Carolina said they planned to cut off federally funded pandemic unemployment assistance at the end of June, citing complaints by employers about severe labor shortages.

That means jobless workers there will no longer get a $300-a-week federal supplement to state benefits, and the states will abandon a pandemic program that helps freelancers and others who don’t qualify for state unemployment insurance. (Montana will, however, offer a $1,200 bonus for those taking jobs.)

“What was intended to be short-term financial assistance for the vulnerable and displaced during the height of the pandemic has turned into a dangerous federal entitlement, incentivizing and paying workers to stay at home,” declared Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina.

But that view is just one piece of a broad debate about the impact of temporarily enhanced unemployment benefits during the pandemic.

Gail Myer, whose family owns six hotels in Branson, Mo., says the $300-supplement is indeed a barrier to hiring. “I talk to people all over the country on a regular basis in the hospitality industry, and the No. 1 topic of discussion is shortage of labor,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Mr. Myer said, there were about 150 full-time employees at his six hotels. Now, staffing is down about 15 percent, he said. Jobs at Myer Hospitality for housekeepers, breakfast attendants and receptionists are advertised as paying $12.75 to $14 an hour, plus benefits and a $500 signing bonus.

Worker advocacy groups offer a different perspective. “The shortage of restaurant workers we are seeing across the country is not a labor-shortage problem; it’s a wage-shortage problem,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, a minimum-wage advocacy group.

In surveys of food service workers by One Fair Wage and the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, three-quarters cited low wages and tips as the reason for leaving their jobs since the coronavirus outbreak. Fifty-five percent mentioned concerns about Covid-19 as a factor. And nearly 40 percent cited increased hostility and harassment from customers, often related to wearing masks, in addition to long-running complaints of sexual harassment.

Amy Glaser, senior vice president at the staffing firm Adecco, said former restaurant workers and others were migrating toward warehousing jobs that had raised wages to as high as $23 an hour and customer service jobs that could be done from home.

Whether the U.S. depends on open pit mines or a more environmentally friendly option called lithium brine extraction will depend on how successful groups are in blocking projects.
Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times

The United States needs to quickly find new supplies of lithium as automakers ramp up manufacturing of electric vehicles.

Lithium is used in electric car batteries because it is lightweight, can store lots of energy and can be repeatedly recharged. Other ingredients like cobalt are needed to keep the battery stable.

But production of raw materials like lithium, cobalt and nickel that are essential to these technologies are often ruinous to land, water, wildlife and people, Ivan Penn and Eric Lipton report for The New York Times. Mining is one of the dirtiest businesses out there.

That environmental toll has often been overlooked in part because there is a race underway among the United States, China, Europe and other major powers. Echoing past contests and wars over gold and oil, governments are fighting for supremacy over minerals that could help countries achieve economic and technological dominance for decades to come.

Mining companies and related businesses want to accelerate domestic production of lithium and are pressing the administration and key lawmakers to insert a $10 billion grant program into President Biden’s infrastructure bill, arguing that it is a matter of national security.

“Right now, if China decided to cut off the U.S. for a variety of reasons we’re in trouble,” said Ben Steinberg, an Obama administration official turned lobbyist. He was hired in January by ​Piedmont Lithium, which is working to build an open-pit mine in North Carolina and is one of several companies that have created a trade association for the industry.

So far, the Biden administration has not moved to help push more environmentally friendly options — like lithium brine extraction, instead of open pit mines. Ultimately, federal and state officials will decide which of the two methods is approved. Both could take hold. Much will depend on how successful environmentalists, tribes and local groups are in blocking projects.

Investors have put more than $475 million into Cerebras, a start-up that makes artificial-intelligence processors.
Credit…Jessica Chou for The New York Times

Even as a chip shortage is causing trouble for all sorts of industries, the semiconductor field is entering a surprising new era of creativity, from industry giants to innovative start-ups seeing a spike in funding from venture capitalists that traditionally avoided chip makers, Don Clark reports for The New York Times.

“It’s a bloody miracle,” said Jim Keller, a veteran chip designer whose résumé includes stints at Apple, Tesla and Intel and who now works at the artificial intelligence chip start-up Tenstorrent. “Ten years ago you couldn’t do a hardware start-up.”

Chip design teams are no longer working just for traditional chip companies, said Pierre Lamond, a 90-year-old venture capitalist who joined the chip industry in 1957. “They are breaking new ground in many respects,” he said.

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New ideas are flooding into the semiconductor industry even as chip shortages remain.

Even as a chip shortage is causing trouble for all sorts of industries, the semiconductor field is entering a surprising new era of creativity, from industry giants to innovative start-ups seeing a spike in funding from venture capitalists that traditionally avoided chip makers, Don Clark reports for The New York Times.

“It’s a bloody miracle,” said Jim Keller, a veteran chip designer whose résumé includes stints at Apple, Tesla and Intel and who now works at the artificial intelligence chip start-up Tenstorrent. “Ten years ago you couldn’t do a hardware start-up.”

Chip design teams are no longer working just for traditional chip companies, said Pierre Lamond, a 90-year-old venture capitalist who joined the chip industry in 1957. “They are breaking new ground in many respects,” he said.

  • Equity investors for years viewed semiconductor companies as too costly to set up, but in 2020 they plowed more than $12 billion into 407 chip-related companies, according to CB Insights. Cerebras, a start-up that sells massive artificial-intelligence processors that span an entire silicon wafer, for example, has attracted more than $475 million. Groq, a start-up whose chief executive previously helped design an artificial-intelligence chip for Google, has raised $367 million.

  • Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company and Samsung Electronics have managed the increasingly difficult feat of packing more transistors on each slice of silicon. IBM on Thursday announced another leap in miniaturization, a sign of continued U.S. prowess in the technology race.

  • More companies are concluding that software running on standard Intel-style microprocessors is not the best solution for all problems. Giants like Apple, Amazon and Google more recently have gotten into the act. Google’s YouTube unit recently disclosed its first internally developed chip to speed video encoding. And Volkswagen said last week that it would develop its own processor to manage autonomous driving.

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