If Israel was going to kill a top Iranian official, an act that had the potential to start a war, it needed the assent and protection of the United States. That meant acting before Mr. Biden could take office. In Mr. Netanyahu’s best-case scenario, the assassination would derail any chance of resurrecting the nuclear agreement even if Mr. Biden won.
Mohsen Fakhrizadeh grew up in a conservative family in the holy city of Qom, the theological heart of Shia Islam. He was 18 when the Islamic revolution toppled Iran’s monarchy, a historical reckoning that fired his imagination.
He set out to achieve two dreams: to become a nuclear scientist and to take part in the military wing of the new government. As a symbol of his devotion to the revolution, he wore a silver ring with a large, oval red agate, the same type worn by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and by General Suleimani.
He joined the Revolutionary Guards and climbed the ranks to general. He earned a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Isfahan University of Technology with a dissertation on “identifying neutrons,” according to Ali Akbar Salehi, the former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency and a longtime friend and colleague.
He led the missile development program for the Guards and pioneered the country’s nuclear program. As research director for the Defense Ministry, he played a key role in developing homegrown drones and, according to two Iranian officials, traveled to North Korea to join forces on missile development. At the time of his death, he was deputy defense minister.
“In the field of nuclear and nanotechnology and biochemical war, Mr. Fakhrizadeh was a character on par with Qassim Suleimani but in a totally covert way,” Gheish Ghoreishi, who has advised Iran’s Foreign Ministry on Arab affairs, said in an interview.
When Iran needed sensitive equipment or technology that was prohibited under international sanctions, Mr. Fakhrizadeh found ways to obtain them.
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.
Daily Business Briefing
“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.”
“You can pull a less-skilled worker in and have them adapt to our system much easier,” said Ryan Hillis, a Meltwich vice president. “It certainly widens the scope of who you can have behind that grill.”
With more advanced kitchen equipment, software that allows online orders to flow directly to the restaurant and other technological advances, Meltwich needs only two to three workers on a shift, rather than three or four, Mr. Hillis said.
Such changes, multiplied across thousands of businesses in dozens of industries, could significantly change workers’ prospects. Professor Warman, the Canadian economist, said technologies developed for one purpose tend to spread to similar tasks, which could make it hard for workers harmed by automation to shift to another occupation or industry.
“If a whole sector of labor is hit, then where do those workers go?” Professor Warman said. Women, and to a lesser degree people of color, are likely to be disproportionately affected, he added.
The grocery business has long been a source of steady, often unionized jobs for people without a college degree. But technology is changing the sector. Self-checkout lanes have reduced the number of cashiers; many stores have simple robots to patrol aisles for spills and check inventory; and warehouses have become increasingly automated. Kroger in April opened a 375,000-square-foot warehouse with more than 1,000 robots that bag groceries for delivery customers. The company is even experimenting with delivering groceries by drone.
Other companies in the industry are doing the same. Jennifer Brogan, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, a grocery chain based in New England, said that technology allowed the company to better serve customers — and that it was a competitive necessity.
“Competitors and other players in the retail space are developing technologies and partnerships to reduce their costs and offer improved service and value for customers,” she said. “Stop & Shop needs to do the same.”
Sitting on a stool several feet from a long-armed robot, Dr. Danyal Fer wrapped his fingers around two metal handles near his chest.
As he moved the handles — up and down, left and right — the robot mimicked each small motion with its own two arms. Then, when he pinched his thumb and forefinger together, one of the robot’s tiny claws did much the same. This is how surgeons like Dr. Fer have long used robots when operating on patients. They can remove a prostate from a patient while sitting at a computer console across the room.
But after this brief demonstration, Dr. Fer and his fellow researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, showed how they hope to advance the state of the art. Dr. Fer let go of the handles, and a new kind of computer software took over. As he and the other researchers looked on, the robot started to move entirely on its own.
With one claw, the machine lifted a tiny plastic ring from an equally tiny peg on the table, passed the ring from one claw to the other, moved it across the table and gingerly hooked it onto a new peg. Then the robot did the same with several more rings, completing the task as quickly as it had when guided by Dr. Fer.
how surgeons learn to operate robots like the one in Berkeley. Now, an automated robot performing the test can match or even exceed a human in dexterity, precision and speed, according to a new research paper from the Berkeley team.
The project is a part of a much wider effort to bring artificial intelligence into the operating room. Using many of the same technologies that underpin self-driving cars, autonomous drones and warehouse robots, researchers are working to automate surgical robots too. These methods are still a long way from everyday use, but progress is accelerating.
where there is room for improvement — by automating particular phases of surgery.
significantly improved the power of computer vision, which could allow robots to perform surgical tasks on their own, without such markers.
The change is driven by what are called neural networks, mathematical systems that can learn skills by analyzing vast amounts of data. By analyzing thousands of cat photos, for instance, a neural network can learn to recognize a cat. In much the same way, a neural network can learn from images captured by surgical robots.
inserting a needle for a cancer biopsy or burning into the brain to remove a tumor.
“It is like a car where the lane-following is autonomous but you still control the gas and the brake,” said Greg Fischer, one of the Worcester researchers.
Many obstacles lie ahead, scientists note. Moving plastic pegs is one thing; cutting, moving and suturing flesh is another. “What happens when the camera angle changes?” said Ann Majewicz Fey, an associate professor at the University of Texas, Austin. “What happens when smoke gets in the way?”
For the foreseeable future, automation will be something that works alongside surgeons rather than replaces them. But even that could have profound effects, Dr. Fer said. For instance, doctors could perform surgery across distances far greater than the width of the operating room — from miles or more away, perhaps, helping wounded soldiers on distant battlefields.
The signal lag is too great to make that possible currently. But if a robot could handle at least some of the tasks on its own, long-distance surgery could become viable, Dr. Fer said: “You could send a high-level plan and then the robot could carry it out.”
The same technology would be essential to remote surgery across even longer distances. “When we start operating on people on the moon,” he said, “surgeons will need entirely new tools.”
“This is about getting the best, optimal delivery vehicle for us,” Mr. Wake said.
Globally, UPS operates a fleet of about 120,000 vehicles, and around 13,000 of them use alternatives to diesel engines such as batteries.
In addition to UPS, BlackRock and the South Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia have invested in Arrival.
Electric vehicle companies have attracted frenzied interest from investors, who hope to find the next Tesla, which is valued at more than $650 billion, more than G.M., Ford Motor, Toyota Motor and Volkswagen combined. Wall Street’s interest has encouraged a parade of fledgling companies — some, including Arrival, that are not yet selling vehicles, let alone making a profit — to list their shares on the stock exchange.
A few have already disappointed investors. The stock of Nikola, which is trying to develop heavy trucks powered by batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, plunged after a small investment firm, Hindenburg Research, said the company had exaggerated its technological abilities. Nikola denied wrongdoing but acknowledged in a February securities filing that some of what it had previously said about its vehicles and technology was inaccurate.
The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Nikola and another company, Lordstown Motors, which aims to make electric pickup trucks. Hindenburg also published a report about Lordstown, accusing it of exaggerating interest in its trucks and its production abilities. Lordstown denies Hindenburg’s claims.
Many E.V. start-ups have acquired stock listings by merging with special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs — businesses set up with a pot of cash and a stock listing. Such mergers allow start-ups to join the stock market without the scrutiny of an initial public offering of stock.
Arrival completed its merger with a SPAC in March. But it remains a long way from turning its vision into a viable business. It has assembled a few prototype vans but has not yet begun testing them on public roads. The company’s shares started trading on March 25 at $22.40 but have since fallen to about $14.
The robots are coming. Not to kill you with lasers, or beat you in chess, or even to ferry you around town in a driverless Uber.
These robots are here to merge purchase orders into columns J and K of next quarter’s revenue forecast, and transfer customer data from the invoicing software to the Oracle database. They are unassuming software programs with names like “Auxiliobits — DataTable To Json String,” and they are becoming the star employees at many American companies.
Some of these tools are simple apps, downloaded from online stores and installed by corporate I.T. departments, that do the dull-but-critical tasks that someone named Phil in Accounting used to do: reconciling bank statements, approving expense reports, reviewing tax forms. Others are expensive, custom-built software packages, armed with more sophisticated types of artificial intelligence, that are capable of doing the kinds of cognitive work that once required teams of highly-paid humans.
White-collar workers, armed with college degrees and specialized training, once felt relatively safe from automation. But recent advances in A.I. and machine learning have created algorithms capable of outperforming doctors, lawyers and bankers at certain parts of their jobs. And as bots learn to do higher-value tasks, they are climbing the corporate ladder.
quietly building for years, but accelerating to warp speed since the pandemic — goes by the sleepy moniker “robotic process automation.” And it is transforming workplaces at a pace that few outsiders appreciate. Nearly 8 in 10 corporate executives surveyed by Deloitte last year said they had implemented some form of R.P.A. Another 16 percent said they planned to do so within three years.
Most of this automation is being done by companies you’ve probably never heard of. UiPath, the largest stand-alone automation firm, is valued at $35 billion — roughly the size of eBay — and is slated to go public later this year. Other companies like Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism, which have Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola and Walgreens Boots Alliance as clients, are also enjoying breakneck growth, and tech giants like Microsoft have recently introduced their own automation products to get in on the action.
Executives generally spin these bots as being good for everyone, “streamlining operations” while “liberating workers” from mundane and repetitive tasks. But they are also liberating plenty of people from their jobs. Independent experts say that major corporate R.P.A. initiatives have been followed by rounds of layoffs, and that cutting costs, not improving workplace conditions, is usually the driving factor behind the decision to automate.
Craig Le Clair, an analyst with Forrester Research who studies the corporate automation market, said that for executives, much of the appeal of R.P.A. bots is that they are cheap, easy to use and compatible with their existing back-end systems. He said that companies often rely on them to juice short-term profits, rather than embarking on more expensive tech upgrades that might take years to pay for themselves.
“It’s not a moonshot project like a lot of A.I., so companies are doing it like crazy,” Mr. Le Clair said. “With R.P.A., you can build a bot that costs $10,000 a year and take out two to four humans.”
led some companies to turn to automation to deal with growing demand, closed offices, or budget constraints. But for other companies, the pandemic has provided cover for executives to implement ambitious automation plans they dreamed up long ago.
“Automation is more politically acceptable now,” said Raul Vega, the chief executive of Auxis, a firm that helps companies automate their operations.
Before the pandemic, Mr. Vega said, some executives turned down offers to automate their call centers, or shrink their finance departments, because they worried about scaring their remaining workers or provoking a backlash like the one that followed the outsourcing boom of the 1990s, when C.E.O.s became villains for sending jobs to Bangalore and Shenzhen.
But those concerns matter less now, with millions of people already out of work and many businesses struggling to stay afloat.
Now, Mr. Vega said, “they don’t really care, they’re just going to do what’s right for their business,” Mr. Vega said.
Sales of automation software are expected to rise by 20 percent this year, after increasing by 12 percent last year, according to the research firm Gartner. And the consulting firm McKinsey, which predicted before the pandemic that 37 million U.S. workers would be displaced by automation by 2030, recently increased its projection to 45 million.
Recent studies by researchers at Stanford University and the Brookings Institution compared the text of job listings with the wording of A.I.-related patents, looking for phrases like “make prediction” and “generate recommendation” that appeared in both. They found that the groups with the highest exposure to A.I. were better-paid, better-educated workers in technical and supervisory roles, with men, white and Asian-American workers, and midcareer professionals being some of the most endangered. Workers with bachelor’s or graduate degrees were nearly four times as exposed to A.I. risk as those with just a high school degree, the researchers found, and residents of high-tech cities like Seattle and Salt Lake City were more vulnerable than workers in smaller, more rural communities.
“A lot of professional work combines some element of routine information processing with an element of judgment and discretion,” said David Autor, an economist at M.I.T. who studies the labor effects of automation. “That’s where software has always fallen short. But with A.I., that type of work is much more in the kill path.”
Many of those vulnerable workers don’t see this coming, in part because the effects of white-collar automation are often couched in jargon and euphemism. On their websites, R.P.A. firms promote glowing testimonials from their customers, often glossing over the parts that involve actual humans.
“Sprint Automates 50 Business Processes In Just Six Months.” (Possible translation: Sprint replaced 300 people in the billing department.)
found that for most of the 20th century, the optimistic take on automation prevailed — on average, in industries that implemented automation, new tasks were created faster than old ones were destroyed.
rejected calls to fund federal worker retraining programs for years, and while some of the money in the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill Democrats hope to pass this week will go to laid-off and furloughed workers, none of it is specifically earmarked for job training programs that could help displaced workers get back on their feet.
Another key difference is that in the past, automation arrived gradually, factory machine by factory machine. But today’s white-collar automation is so sudden — and often, so deliberately obscured by management — that few workers have time to prepare.
“Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation,” from which this essay is adapted.