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.
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“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.”
McDonald’s is raising wages at its company-owned restaurants. It is also helping its franchisees hang on to workers with funding for backup child care, elder care and tuition assistance. Pay is up at Chipotle, too, and Papa John’s and many of its franchisees are offering hiring and referral bonuses.
The reason? “In January, 8 percent of restaurant operators rated recruitment and retention of work force as their top challenge,” Hudson Riehle, senior vice president for research at the National Restaurant Association, said in an email. “By May, that number had risen to 72 percent.”
Restaurant workers — burger flippers and bussers, cooks and waiters — have emerged from the pandemic recession to find themselves in a position they could not have imagined a couple of years ago: They have options. They can afford to wait for a better deal.
In the first five months of the year, restaurants put out 61 percent more “workers wanted” posts for waiters and waitresses than they had in the same months of 2018 and 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic shut down bars and restaurants around the country, according to data from Burning Glass, a job market analytics firm.
replace their face-to-face workers with robots and software. Yet there are signs that the country’s low-wage labor force might be in for more lasting raises.
Even before the pandemic, wages of less-educated workers were rising at the fastest rate in over a decade, propelled by shrinking unemployment. And after the temporary expansion of unemployment insurance ends, with Covid-19 under control and children back at school, workers may be unwilling to accept the deals they accepted in the past.
Jed Kolko, chief economist at the job placement site Indeed, pointed to one bit of evidence: the increase in the reservation wage — the lowest wage that workers will accept to take a job.
According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the average reservation wage is growing fastest for workers without a college degree, hitting $61,483 in March, 26 percent more than a year earlier. Aside from a dip at the start of the pandemic, it has been rising since November 2017.
“That suggests it is a deeper trend,” Mr. Kolko noted. “It’s not just about the recovery.”
Other trends could support higher wages at the bottom. The aging of the population, notably, is shrinking the pool of able-bodied workers and increasing demand for care workers, who toil for low pay but are vital to support a growing cohort of older Americans.
“There was a work force crisis in the home care industry before Covid,” said Kevin Smith, chief executive of Best of Care in Quincy, Mass., and president of the state industry association. “Covid really laid that bare and exacerbated the crisis.”
more families turning their backs on nursing homes, which were early hotbeds of coronavirus infections, Mr. Smith said, personal care aides and home health aides are in even shorter supply.
“The demand for services like ours has never been higher,” he said. “That’s never going back.”
And some of the changes brought about by the pandemic might create new transition opportunities that are not yet in the Brookings data. The accelerated shift to online shopping may be a dire development for retail workers, but it will probably fuel demand for warehouse workers and delivery truck drivers.
The coronavirus outbreak induced such an unusual recession that any predictions are risky. And yet, as Ms. Escobari of Brookings pointed out, the recovery may provide rare opportunities for those toiling for low wages.
“This time, people searching for jobs may have a lot of different options,” she said. “That is not typical.”
“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.”
Roller-coaster operators and lemonade slingers at Kennywood amusement park, a Pittsburgh summer staple, won’t have to buy their own uniforms this year. Those with a high school diploma will also earn $13 as a starting wage — up from $9 last year — and new hires are receiving free season passes for themselves and their families.
The big pop in pay and perks for Kennywood’s seasonal work force, where nearly half of employees are under 18, echoes what is happening around the country as employers scramble to hire waiters, receptionists and other service workers to satisfy surging demand as the economy reopens.
For American teenagers looking for work, this may be the best summer in years.
As companies try to go from hardly staffed to fully staffed practically overnight, teens appear to be winning out more than any demographic group. The share of 16- to 19-year-olds who are working hasn’t been this high since 2008, before the unfolding global financial crisis sent employment plummeting. Roughly 256,000 teens in that age group gained employment in April — counting for the vast majority of newly employed people — a significant change after teenagers suffered sharp job losses at the beginning of the pandemic. Whether the trend can hold up will become clearer when jobs data for May is released on Friday.
It could come with a downside. Some educators warn that jobs could distract from school. And while employment can itself offer learning opportunities, the most recent wave of hiring has been led by white teens, raising concerns that young people from minority groups might miss out on a hot summer labor market.
antique roller coaster and snapping people into paddle boats when she thought it paid $9 — so when she found out the park was lifting pay to $13 an hour, she was thrilled.
“I love it,” she said. She doesn’t even mind having to walk backward on the carousel to check that everyone is riding safely, though it can be disorienting. “After you see the little kids and they give you high-fives, it doesn’t matter at all.”
It’s not just Kennywood paying up. Small businesses in a database compiled by the payroll platform Gusto have been raising teen wages in service sector jobs in recent months, said Luke Pardue, an economist at the company. Teens took a hit at the onset of the pandemic but got back to their pre-coronavirus wage levels in March 2021 and have spent the first part of May seeing their wages accelerate above that.
raised the starting pay to $10 an hour and dropped the minimum age for applicants from 16 years old to 15. It seems to have worked: More teenagers applied and the city has started interviewing candidates for the open positions.
“Between 2020 and 2021, it seems like a lot of the retail starting salaries really jumped up, and we just kind of had to follow suit if we wanted to be competitive and get qualified applicants,” said Trace Stevens, the city’s director of parks and recreation.
Apps for Apps” deal in which applicants who were interviewed received a free appetizer voucher. Restaurants and gas stations across the country are offering signing bonuses.
But the perks and better pay may not reach everyone. White teens lost employment heavily at the beginning of the pandemic, and they’ve led the gains in 2021, even as Black teens have added comparatively few and Hispanic teens actually lost jobs. That’s continuing a long-running disparity in which white teens work in much greater numbers, and the gap could worsen if the current trajectory continues.
More limited access to transportation is one factor that may hold minority teens back from work, Ms. Sasser Modestino said. Plus, while places like Cape Cod and suburban neighborhoods begin to boom, some urban centers with public transit remain short on foot traffic, which may be disadvantaging teens who live in cities.
“We haven’t seen the demand yet,” said Joseph McLaughlin, research and evaluation director at the Boston Private Industry Council, which helps to place students into paid internships and helps others to apply to private employers, like grocery stores.
Ms. Sasser Modestino’s research has found that the long-running decline in teen work has partly come from a shift toward college prep and internships, but that many teens still need and want jobs for economic reasons. Yet the types of jobs teens have traditionally held have dwindled — Blockbuster gigs are a thing of the past — and older workers increasingly fill them.
Teenagers who are benefiting now may not be able to count on a favorable labor market for the long haul, said Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
“There may be what will surely be a brief positive effect, as young people can move into a lot of jobs where adults have receded for whatever reason,” he said. “It’s going to be temporary, because we always take care of the adults first.”
Educators have voiced a different concern: That today’s plentiful and prosperous teen jobs might be distracting students from their studies.
When in-class education restarted last August at Torrington High School, which serves 330 students in a small city in Wyoming, principal Chase Christensen found that about 10 of his older students weren’t returning. They had taken full-time jobs, including working night shifts at a nursing home and working at a gravel pit, and were reluctant to give up the money. Five have since dropped out of or failed to complete high school.
“They had gotten used to the pay of a full-time worker,” Mr. Christensen said. “They’re getting jobs that usually high schoolers don’t get.”
If better job prospects in the near term overtake teenagers’ plans for additional education or training, that could also spell trouble. Economic research consistently finds that those who manage to get through additional training have better-paying careers.
Still, Ms. Sasser Modestino pointed out that a lot of the hiring happening now was for summer jobs, which have less chance of interfering with school. And there may be upsides. For people like Ms. Bailley, it means an opportunity to save for textbooks and tuition down the road. She’d like to go to community college to complete prerequisites, and then pursue an engineering degree.
“I’ve always been interested in robots, I love programming and coding,” she said, explaining that learning how roller coasters work lines up with her academic interests.
Shaylah Bentley, 18 and a new season pass taker at Kennywood, said the higher-than-expected wage she’s earning will allow her to decorate her dorm room at Slippery Rock University. She’s a rising sophomore this year, studying exercise science.
“I wanted to save up money for school and expenses,” she said. “And have something to do this summer.”
A man in Arizona builds his shrunken cars out of refrigerators, but you’d never know it by looking at them. In Washington State, a teacher built his car from a boat, and there’s no mistaking it. And in Ghana, a student built a car that looks like a ramshackle DeLorean — and if you guessed that he made it with junkyard scraps, you’d be right.
Their creations turn heads, bring smiles and get them around town, all because they see promise in materials most of us would never put to use in the garage.
Kelvin Odartei Cruickshank, who is 19 and lives in Accra, Ghana’s capital city, has had a passion for building machines since he was 10. “I started by building prototype or micro-machines such as vacuum cleaners, robots, cars, a helicopter, etc.,” he said in interviews that were conducted via email and WhatsApp.
He moved on to bigger machines and got to work building, from scratch, a two-person car made from scrap materials that cost around $200. It took three years to complete. Mr. Cruickshank used scrap metal and parts not normally used in cars because of financial constraints.
a 1928 Chevy two-door sedan. The car is less than four and a half feet high and is just nine feet long — about 70 percent the size of the original. The engine clocks in at 13 horsepower, with 12-inch pneumatic tires and a three-speed transmission “from a 1964 three-wheeled mail cart,” he said.
“I didn’t have room for a full-size car in the trailer park we lived in, nor money to buy one, so I built my own little car,” he said. The project used nine old refrigerators and “was a work in progress for eight years,” Mr. Adams said.
Dwarf Car Museum in Maricopa.
All of his cars draw looks.
“A man was beside me at a stoplight,” Mr. Adams said of a quick neighborhood jaunt in the Grandpa Dwarf. “He looked down at me and said, ‘Hey, man, where’d you get that, out of a crackerjack box?’”
Mr. Adams also recalled an officer stopping him on the highway. “When he came up to my door,” he said, “he got down on his knees and looked in the window at me and said, ‘Sir, this is the first time I ever had to get on my knees to talk to somebody in a car.’”
Mr. Lorentz, too, enjoys making people laugh. “I tell my students they need to think ‘outside the boat,’” he said.
ZHAOQING, China — Xpeng Motors, a Chinese electric car start-up, recently opened a large assembly plant in southeastern China and is building a matching factory nearby. It has announced plans for a third.
Another Chinese electric car company, Nio, has opened one large factory in central China and is preparing to build a second a few miles away.
Zhejiang Geely, owner of Volvo, showed off an enormous new electric car factory in eastern China last month rivaling in size some of the world’s largest assembly plants. Evergrande, a troubled Chinese real estate giant, has just built electric car factories in the cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou and hopes to be making almost as many fully electric cars by 2025 as all of North America.
China is erecting factories for electric cars almost as fast as the rest of the world combined. Chinese manufacturers are using the billions they have raised from international investors and sympathetic local leaders to beat established carmakers to the market.
Europe is on track to make 5.7 million fully electric cars by then.
have plans to catch up. In April, President Biden called for the United States to step up its electric vehicle efforts. During a virtual visit to an electric bus factory in South Carolina, he warned, “Right now, we’re running way behind China.”
North American automakers are on track to build only 1.4 million electric cars a year by 2028, according to LMC, compared with 410,000 last year.
eliminate gasoline and diesel engines entirely in the next 15 years.
For the new Chinese cars, name recognition will be a major challenge. The brands are mostly unfamiliar even to Chinese drivers. On roads filled with Buicks, Volkswagens and Mercedes-Benzes, they could struggle to stand out.
Alibaba, the e-commerce company, and two state-backed firms have set up an electric car joint venture under the name IM Motors, which plans to begin delivering cars early next year.
Evergrande named its brand Hengchi, pronounced “Hung-cheh.” A stock market mania for electric cars has propelled the Hong Kong-traded shares of the company’s electric car unit, Evergrande New Energy Vehicle, to almost the same market capitalization as G.M.
Evergrande plans to make and sell a million fully electric cars a year by 2025. So far, it has sold none.
Geely, an industry veteran with recognized brands in China, has named its electric brand Zeekr, which rhymes with “seeker.” It plans to begin delivering cars in October.
The Zeekr is being made in a new electric car factory near Ningbo, on China’s eastern coast. The factory is a cavernous space with miles of white conveyor belts and rows of 15-foot cream-colored robots made by ABB of Sweden. It has an initial capacity of 300,000 cars a year, larger than most car factories in Detroit, and floor space for expansion.
“What is the most important thing is, China has the market,” said Zhao Chunlin, the factory’s general manager.
Mr. He named Xpeng, pronounced “X-pung,” after himself. Xpeng’s niche feature is a cooing, Siri-like voice assistant that guides the car’s internet services, like directions and music, and its computer-assisted highway driving. Xpeng plans to have the capacity to make 300,000 cars a year by 2024; last year it sold fewer than one-tenth that many.
Mr. He made his first fortune developing a mobile phone browser company, UCWeb. He sold it to Alibaba in 2014 and became president of Alibaba’s mobile business services unit. The same year he helped bankroll two former executives from state-owned Guangzhou Auto to start Xpeng.
Three years later, Mr. He took direct control of Xpeng and left Alibaba, which also acquired a small stake in the automaker. Mr. He said that his second child had been born, and that he wanted to be able to tell his son that he led a car company. Mr. He holds 23 percent of Xpeng’s shares, while Alibaba holds 12 percent.
Chinese government officials have helped along the way. A state-owned enterprise in Zhaoqing, a 1,000-year-old jade-carving town near Guangzhou, lent $233 million to Xpeng in 2017 for the construction of its initial factory with annual capacity of about 100,000 cars. The city has been subsidizing the company’s interest payments since then, according to Xpeng’s regulatory filings.
The city of Wuhan helped Xpeng buy land and borrow money at low interest rates for a new plant there. The Guangzhou government also helped Xpeng start building its factory in that city, said Brian Gu, vice chairman and president of Xpeng.
Last year, after weathering the pandemic, Xpeng cashed in on Wall Street, where Tesla’s rise whetted investor appetite for the industry. The Chinese company raised $5 billion in an initial public offering and subsequent share sales. It is spending part of the money on new factories and part of it on research and development, particularly in autonomous driving.
Xpeng’s deep pockets are visible in costly automation at its Zhaoqing factory. Robots lift 44-pound car roofs of dark tinted glass, apply aerospace-strength glue and press them into place. Waist-high robots glide across the gray concrete floor, carrying instrument panels while playing an instrumental version of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” (The robots came programmed that way, company officials explained.)
The factory took only 15 months to build, considerably faster than assembly plants in the West. Yan Hui, the general manager of the factory’s final assembly area, said decisions were made more quickly than at the German auto parts manufacturer where he used to work.
“Any design change took a long time — sign, sign, even sign in German,” he said. “But at Xpeng, we can just make the change.”
Even though many of the electric car brands are new to China, their owners already have ambitions abroad. Xpeng is starting to export cars to Europe, beginning with Norway. Chery, a big state-owned automaker in central China, announced last week that it would start exporting gasoline-powered cars to the United States next year and follow with electric cars.
The United States will be a difficult market. The Trump administration imposed 25 percent taxes in 2018 on cars imported from China, which has slowed exports. Many electric car parts are covered by the same tariffs. That makes it harder, but not impossible, for Chinese companies to start shipping electric cars in kits to the United States for assembly.
For now, Chinese companies see huge potential to build their brands.
Michael Dunne, the chief executive of ZoZo Go, a consulting firm specializing in the electric car industry in Asia, said the industry’s outlook was becoming clear: “China is going to be the global dominator when it comes to making electric cars.”
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.”
Arrival, a small electric vehicle company, is creating highly automated “microfactories” where its delivery vans and buses will be assembled by multitasking robots, breaking from the approach pioneered by Henry Ford and used by most of the world’s automakers.
The advantage, according to Arrival, is that its microfactories will cost about $50 million rather than the $1 billion or more required to build a traditional factory, Neal E. Boudette reports for The New York Times.
“The assembly line approach is very capital-intensive, and you have to get to very high production levels to make any margin,” said Avinash Rugoobur, Arrival’s president and a former General Motors executive. “The microfactory allows us to build vehicles profitably at really any volume.”
The company is also replacing most steel parts used in vehicles with components made from advanced composites, a mix of polypropylene, a polymer used to make plastics, and fiberglass. These parts are to be held together by structural adhesives instead of metal welds.
factories in England and the United States, says this method should yield vans that cost a lot less than other electric models and even today’s standard, diesel-powered vehicles.
He opened his laptop, where the desktop image was the Wu-Tang logo rendered in rainbow colors so that it resembled the ‘80s-era Apple logo. Rogen clicked over to a folder marked ESCAPE, revealing hundreds of documents within. Every time he and Goldberg have an idea for a movie, Rogen explained, they start compiling lists of “ideas for anything: characters, scenes, lines, plot twists, turns — it could be as general as, like, ‘Someone locks themselves in the closet while trying to hide,’ or it could be like, ‘OK, this character’s been this way their whole life. … ’”
Over time, whether they’re in the same room or emailing back and forth, as they’ve done during the pandemic, Rogen and Goldberg sculpt these lists into outlines, then sculpt those outlines into scripts: “You start to say, ‘OK, these 10 things could go together,’” Rogen said. “Or, ‘OK, that’s a chunk of a movie,’ or, ‘If we want all these ideas in the same movie, what’s a character that could support that?’”
He scrolled through the folder. “These are our ‘Escape’ files — oh, Jesus — going back to January 2016,” he said. He glanced at an early list. “This totally changed,” he said, opening another. “These are gags,” he explained. Rogen and Goldberg had collected dozens of Keaton-worthy ideas, which he asked me not to reveal. He scrolled to another document, dated February 2019 and titled “Boarded Action Beats” — “These are gags we started to actually draw,” he said.
Working with an illustrator, Rogen and Goldberg had completed what was in essence a digital flip book diagraming every scene in “Escape.” “We’re literally storyboarding every second of the movie,” Rogen said. One open-ended, three-word gag I’d seen in a list from May 2019 — centered delightfully on something you could buy in a hardware store — had been storyboarded into an elaborate action sequence. Rogen showed it to me frame by frame, narrating as he went. “She’s trying to go from there to there … these guys are chasing her. … ” His finger tapped the right arrow. “She grabs that guy, he’s falling, bam, whoop!”
Even in flip-book form, the scene was funny. “We need to know if these jokes are working, and if the timing is right,” Rogen said, “and you can’t do a table read and see if people laugh or not, because that would be me saying, like, ‘He throws the thing, it bounces off the door, it hits him in the face.’” He laughed. “We need to be able to see that!”
There’s a story Mark Rogen tells about the early days of Seth’s career:When the family first moved to L.A., for ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ Seth signed with a manager and a lawyer, and after some time, “his lawyer threatened to fire him, because Seth kept getting offered different gigs and saying, ‘I’m not doing that, that’s not a movie I’d go see and it’s not a movie I’d want my friends to see me in.’”
Rogen’s self-assurance might be the most enviable thing about him: The fact that, with rare exceptions, he has only ever seemed to work on exactly what he wants to work on. Rogen once recalled his friend Jonah Hill’s approaching him for advice after being offered a part in a “Transformers” sequel. “I can see if Steven Spielberg’s calling you, asking you to do something, how that’s hard to turn down,” Rogen told an interviewer, recounting the exchange. But in this case, he told Hill: “You want to make a movie about fightin’ robots? Make your own movie about fightin’ robots. You can do that. That’s on the table now.” This story has an echo in “Yearbook,” in a chapter where Spielberg himself actually invites Rogen and Goldberg to collaborate on a project inspired by the 1984 sci-fi movie “The Last Starfighter.” The same idea had already occurred to them, and they decided they’d rather just make their own version. Rogen isn’t overly concerned in the book with flattering the powerful. There’s also a funny story about George Lucas — that, within moments of meeting Rogen and Goldberg in 2012, he expressed his certitude that the world would end later that year (Lucas, through a representative, denied this account) — and an even funnier story about Nicolas Cage pretending to be a white Bahamian for a possible role in “The Green Hornet,” bellowing improvised dialogue in a Caribbean patois.
Bessemer — the Alabama city where Amazon warehouse workers recently voted not to join a union — is named for Henry Bessemer, a British inventor who revolutionized steelmaking. When an Alabama businessman founded the city in 1887, he called it Bessemer in the hope that it would become a steel-industry center.
It did. Using iron ore and the other natural resources in Alabama, Bessemer’s steel mills thrived. They provided jobs that helped many workers build middle-class lives. They were typical of the broad-based American prosperity of the mid-20th century.
Today, those steel jobs are long gone, done in by technology and global competition. Bessemer no longer makes any steel. On the site of a former mill — one owned by U.S. Steel — is the giant Amazon warehouse that has been in the news because of the union vote.
Amazon soundly defeated the union’s organizing effort by emphasizing that it already paid well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25. And that’s true: All of its employees make at least $15 an hour. The message resonated. Relative to other jobs they might find, Amazon workers decided they were already doing pretty well.
that were once available — factory jobs and others that allowed workers to rise up the economic ladder — Amazon jobs don’t look so appealing. Fifteen dollars an hour for a full-time worker translates to about $31,000 a year, less than half of U.S. median family income and low enough in many cases for a family to qualify for subsidized school lunches.
That is not the kind of pay that seems likely to help the country again build a growing, thriving middle class. And Amazon jobs are looking more and more like the future of the U.S. economy.
‘Akin to a factory’
Amazon is the country’s fastest-growing company by many measures. Its founder and chairman, Jeff Bezos, is the world’s richest man. It employs about 1.3 million people worldwide, up from 750,000 only a year and a half ago. Among American companies, only Walmart has a larger work force.
Alec MacGillis, the author of an excellent new book about Amazon, called “Fulfillment,” points out that Amazon’s warehouse jobs have a lot in common with the industrial jobs of the past. They are among the main options for people who graduate from high school or community college without specific job skills. They are also physically demanding and dangerous.
MacGillis is careful to remind people about the injuries and deaths that came with old factory jobs, and he documents the similar risks that warehouse jobs can bring. Jody Rhoads was a 52-year-old mother and breast cancer survivor in Carlisle, Pa. Her neck was crushed by a steel rack while she was driving a forklift in an Amazon warehouse, killing her. (“We do not believe that the incident was work related,” an Amazon manager reported to the federal government, falsely suggesting her death was from natural causes.)
Spencer Cox, a former Amazon worker who’s now writing a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Minnesota about the company, told my colleague David Streitfeld, “Amazon is reorganizing the very nature of retail work — something that traditionally is physically undemanding and has a large amount of downtime — into something more akin to a factory, which never lets up.”
But for all of the similarities to factory work, Amazon jobs also have crucial differences. They are more isolating, as MacGillis explained to me. Rather than working in teams of people who are creating something, warehouse workers often work alone, interacting mostly with robots. Amazon jobs also pay less than many factory jobs did.
MacGillis tells the story of three generations of Bodani men who worked in the Sparrows Point steel mill, near Baltimore. The youngest, William Bodani Jr., was making $35 an hour in 2002 (about $52 in today’s dollars), along with bonuses. That’s enough for a solid middle-class income.
With the steel mill gone from Sparrows Point, Bodani instead took a job at the Amazon warehouse that occupies the same land. He was in his late 60s at the time and was making a fraction of what he once had.
It would be one thing if this sort of downward mobility were a reflection of the U.S. economy’s overall performance. But it’s not. Economic output is much higher, per person, than it was two decades ago and vastly higher than it was in Bessemer’s 20th century heyday. The bulk of the gains, however, have flowed to a narrow slice of workers — among the upper middle class and especially the affluent.
For many others, an Amazon job looks preferable to the alternatives, even if it is also part of the reason that so many American families are struggling.
the rapper DMX, who died on Friday.
Lives Lived: His famous clients included Marlon Brando, Magic Johnson, Morgan Freeman and Britney Spears. But he chose not to defend O.J. Simpson. Howard Weitzman has died at 81.
ARTS AND IDEAS
performing a song, often next to the singer. The best renditions don’t convey just the lyrics of a song; they convey its emotion.
writes in The Times. Deaf singers prepare by experiencing a song however they can. Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant, a deaf actor and dancer, tucked a small speaker into his clothes, so that he could feel the vibrations of “Midnight Train to Georgia” while recording an interpretation for a series of American Sign Language covers of seminal songs by Black women.
“Sometimes interpreters don’t show the emotions that are tied to the music,” Primeaux-O’Bryant said. “And deaf people are like, ‘What is that?’”
In the performance, Primeaux-O’Bryant tugged at an invisible whistle to correspond to the woo-woo of the band’s horns. To interpret a drawn-out “oh,” he used movements that gently extended the words, his hands fluttering into his lap.
For more: Watch a clip of Primeaux-O’Bryant’s performance here.AndGQ profiled Matt Maxey, who translates Chance the Rapper at his concerts.
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
Saturday Night Live” reacted to the Derek Chauvin trial. Carey Mulligan hosted.
Now Time to Play
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Where grizzlies might beat the heat (three letters).
If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David
P.S. Sixty-six years ago today, a trial showed that Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was highly effective. The results received “fanfare and drama far more typical of a Hollywood premiere than a medical meeting,” The Times reported.
You can see today’s print front page here.
Today’s episode of “The Daily” is about Europe’s vaccine rollout. On the Book Review podcast, Blake Bailey discusses his new biography of Philip Roth, and the debate over Roth’s legacy.
Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at email@example.com.
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