The maker of the Chinese phones in question, Xiaomi, says its devices “do not censor communications.”

In addition to telling government offices to dump the phones, Mr. Abukevicius said in an interview that ordinary users should decide “their own appetite for risk.”

The Global Times, a nationalist news outlet controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, derided the Lithuanian report as a “new trick” by a small “pawn” in Washington’s anti-China agenda.

China has steadily ramped up pressure on Lithuania, last month recalling its ambassador from Vilnius and urging Lithuania’s envoy in Beijing to go home, which she did. It halted a regular cargo train to Lithuania, though it still lets other trains transit through the Baltic country filled with Chinese goods destined for Germany.

While not announcing any formal sanctions, China has added red tape to block Lithuanian exporters from selling goods in China.

Lithuania’s economy minister, Ausrine Armonaite, downplayed the damage, noting Lithuania’s exports to China accounted for only 1 percent of total exports. Losing that, she said, “is not too harmful.”

A bigger blow, according to business leaders, has been the disruption in the supply of Chinese-made glass, electronic components and other items needed by Lithuanian manufacturers. Around a dozen companies that rely on goods from China last week received nearly identical letters from Chinese suppliers claiming that power cuts had made it difficult fulfill orders.

“They are very creative,” said Vidmantas Janulevicius, the president of the Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists, noting that the delays were “targeted very precisely.”

Lithuania has made “a clear geopolitical decision” to side decisively with the United States, a longtime ally, and other democracies, said Laurynas Kasciunas, the chairman of the national security and defense committee. “Everyone here agrees on this. We are all very anti-communist Chinese. It is in our DNA.”

Tomas Dapkus in Vilnius, Monika Pronczuk in Brussels, and Claire Fu contributed reporting

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How to Find ‘Stalkerware’ on Your Devices

Fighting stalkerware is tough. You may not suspect it’s there. Even if you did, it can be difficult to detect since antivirus software only recently began flagging these apps as malicious.

Here’s a guide to how stalkerware works, what to look out for and what to do about it.

Surveillance software has proliferated on computers for decades, but more recently spyware makers have shifted their focus to mobile devices. Because mobile devices have access to more intimate data, including photos, real-time location, phone conversations and messages, the apps became known as stalkerware.

Various stalkerware apps collect different types of information. Some record phone calls, some log keystrokes, and others track location or upload a person’s photos to a remote server. But they all generally work the same way: An abuser with access to a victim’s device installs the app on the phone and disguises the software as an ordinary piece of software, like a calendar app.

From there, the app lurks in the background, and later, the abuser retrieves the data. Sometimes, the information gets sent to the abuser’s email address or it can be downloaded from a website. In other scenarios, abusers who know their partner’s passcode can simply unlock the device to open the stalkerware and review the recorded data.

So what to do? The Coalition Against Stalkerware, which was founded by Ms. Galperin and other groups, and many security firms offered these tips:

  • Look for unusual behavior on your device, like a rapidly draining battery. That could be a giveaway that a stalker app has been constantly running in the background.

  • Scan your device. Some apps, like MalwareBytes, Certo, NortonLifeLock and Lookout, can detect stalkerware. But to be thorough, take a close look at your apps to see if anything is unfamiliar or suspicious. If you find a piece of stalkerware, pause before you delete it: It may be useful evidence if you decide to report the abuse to law enforcement.

  • Seek help. In addition to reporting stalking behavior to law enforcement, you can seek advice from resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline or the Safety Net Project hosted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

  • Audit your online accounts to see which apps and devices are hooked into them. On Twitter, for example, you can click on the “security and account access” button inside the settings menu to see which devices and apps have access to your account. Log out of anything that looks shady.

  • Change your passwords and passcode. It’s always safer to change passwords for important online accounts and avoid reusing passwords across sites. Try creating long, complex passwords for each account. Similarly, make sure your passcode is difficult for someone to guess.

  • Enable two-factor authentication. For any online account that offers it, use two-factor authentication, which basically requires two forms of verification of your identity before letting you log into an account. Say you enter your user name and password for your Facebook account. That’s Step 1. Facebook then asks you to punch in a temporary code generated by an authentication app. That’s Step 2. With this protection, even if an abuser figures out your password using a piece of stalkerware, he or she still can’t log in without that code.

  • On iPhones, check your settings. A new stalker app, WebWatcher, uses a computer to wirelessly download a backup copy of a victim’s iPhone data, according to Certo, a mobile security firm. To defend yourself, open the Settings app and look at the General menu to see if “iTunes Wi-Fi Sync” is turned on. Disabling this will prevent WebWatcher from copying your data.

    Apple said this was not considered an iPhone vulnerability because it required an attacker to be on the same Wi-Fi network and have physical access to a victim’s unlocked iPhone.

  • Start fresh. Buying a new phone or erasing all the data from your phone to begin anew is the most effective way to rid a device of stalkerware.

  • Update your software. Apple and Google regularly issue software updates that include security fixes, which can remove stalkerware. Make sure you’re running the latest software.

In the end, there’s no true way to defeat stalkerware. Kevin Roundy, NortonLifeLock’s lead researcher, said he had reported more than 800 pieces of stalkerware inside the Android app store. Google removed the apps and updated its policy in October to forbid developers to offer stalkerware.

But more have emerged to take their place.

“There are definitely a lot of very dangerous, alarming possibilities,” Mr. Roundy said. “It’s going to continue to be a concern.”

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The Battle for Digital Privacy Is Reshaping the Internet

“The internet is answering a question that it’s been wrestling with for decades, which is: How is the internet going to pay for itself?” he said.

The fallout may hurt brands that relied on targeted ads to get people to buy their goods. It may also initially hurt tech giants like Facebook — but not for long. Instead, businesses that can no longer track people but still need to advertise are likely to spend more with the largest tech platforms, which still have the most data on consumers.

David Cohen, chief executive of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group, said the changes would continue to “drive money and attention to Google, Facebook, Twitter.”

The shifts are complicated by Google’s and Apple’s opposing views on how much ad tracking should be dialed back. Apple wants its customers, who pay a premium for its iPhones, to have the right to block tracking entirely. But Google executives have suggested that Apple has turned privacy into a privilege for those who can afford its products.

For many people, that means the internet may start looking different depending on the products they use. On Apple gadgets, ads may be only somewhat relevant to a person’s interests, compared with highly targeted promotions inside Google’s web. Website creators may eventually choose sides, so some sites that work well in Google’s browser might not even load in Apple’s browser, said Brendan Eich, a founder of Brave, the private web browser.

“It will be a tale of two internets,” he said.

Businesses that do not keep up with the changes risk getting run over. Increasingly, media publishers and even apps that show the weather are charging subscription fees, in the same way that Netflix levies a monthly fee for video streaming. Some e-commerce sites are considering raising product prices to keep their revenues up.

Consider Seven Sisters Scones, a mail-order pastry shop in Johns Creek, Ga., which relies on Facebook ads to promote its items. Nate Martin, who leads the bakery’s digital marketing, said that after Apple blocked some ad tracking, its digital marketing campaigns on Facebook became less effective. Because Facebook could no longer get as much data on which customers like baked goods, it was harder for the store to find interested buyers online.

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Thomas H. Lee Partners Acquires House of Design

NAMPA, Idaho & BOSTON–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Thomas H. Lee Partners, L.P. (“THL”), a premier private equity firm investing in growth companies, announced today that it has acquired a majority interest in House of Design LLC (the “Company”), a leading provider of robotic automation systems and software for the residential construction market. THL’s investment will strengthen House of Design’s existing capabilities and provide capital and resources for future growth investments. House of Design’s co-founders will hold minority positions in the Company. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

Founded in 2012 and based in Nampa, Idaho, House of Design is a leading provider of automated solutions for the building components and residential offsite construction industries. The Company designs and engineers robotic systems that increase component manufacturers’ production output and capacity while reducing the challenges of labor shortages. Proprietary software makes House of Design’s system the only fully automated system that can produce complex variable trusses and wall panels without robot retraining or resetting.

THL’s investment in House of Design will accelerate the Company’s ability to build upon its leading robotic technology and software platform and accelerate new product innovation for its customers.

“Our partnership with THL is a monumental milestone for the Company,” said Shane Dittrich and Ryan Okelberry, Co-Founders of House of Design. “THL brings the expertise and sophistication needed to reach the next stage in our Company’s growth, and we have a shared vision for how to get there. We are excited to partner with THL and leverage their deep automation expertise and financial and operational resources to fuel House of Design’s growth strategy.”

“We are thrilled to partner with the House of Design team,” said Mike Kaczmarek, Managing Director at THL. “Persistent labor scarcity in the construction industry is driving greater need for automated solutions, and House of Design’s offerings help address labor shortage and worker safety challenges while providing an attractive ROI to the customer. THL is excited to support House of Design in continuously growing and innovating its product offerings to help customers increase production throughput and revenue.”

Stifel acted as financial advisor, Kirkland & Ellis LLP acted as legal advisor and PwC acted as accounting and tax advisor to THL. PEAK Technology Partners, a San Francisco based investment bank, acted as the exclusive financial advisor and Stoel Rives acted as legal advisor to House of Design.

About House of Design

House of Design has established itself as a thought leader and premier provider of robotic solutions, dynamic software applications, and system integration services. Through a multitude of successful automation projects across varied industries, House of Design is recognized as an innovative, collaborative partner committed to the success of the clients it serves.

Founded in 2012 by two engineers, House of Design has grown to 100+ employees and one of the largest robotic integrators in the West. Over the last ten years House of Design has been recognized nationally for its innovation in the robotics industry and as a small business leader in Idaho. The company’s vision is to ensure that execution matches strategy, emerging opportunities are captured, and team members grow, prosper and their work changes the world.

For more information, please visit www.thehouseofdesign.com.

About Thomas H. Lee Partners

Thomas H. Lee Partners, L.P. (“THL”) is a premier private equity firm investing in middle market growth companies exclusively in three sectors: Financial Services, Healthcare and Technology & Business Solutions. THL couples deep sector expertise with dedicated internal operating resources to transform and build great companies of lasting value in partnership with management. The Firm’s domain expertise and resources help to build great companies with an aim to accelerate growth, improve operations and drive long-term sustainable value. Since 1974, THL has raised more than $30 billion of equity capital, invested in over 160 companies and completed more than 500 add-on acquisitions representing an aggregate enterprise value at acquisition of over $210 billion. THL invests in automation companies through its flagship private equity fund and a dedicated automation fund. For more information, please visit www.thl.com.

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Apple Security Update Closes Spyware Flaw in iPhones, Macs and iWatches

The consortium did not disclose how it had obtained the list, and it was unclear whether the list was aspirational or whether the people had actually been targeted with NSO spyware.

Among those listed were Azam Ahmed, who had been the Mexico City bureau chief for The Times and who has reported widely on corruption, violence and surveillance in Latin America, including on NSO itself; and Ben Hubbard, The Times’s bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon, who has investigated rights abuses and corruption in Saudi Arabia and wrote a recent biography of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

It also included 14 heads of state, including President Emmanuel Macron of France, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly of Egypt, Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, Saad-Eddine El Othmani, who until recently was the prime minister of Morocco, and Charles Michel, the head of the European Council.

Shalev Hulio, a co-founder of NSO Group, vehemently denied the list’s accuracy, telling The Times, “This is like opening up the white pages, choosing 50,000 numbers and drawing some conclusion from it.”

This year marks a record for the discovery of so-called zero days, secret software flaws like the one that NSO used to install its spyware. This year, Chinese hackers were caught using zero days in Microsoft Exchange to steal emails and plant ransomware. In July, ransomware criminals used a zero day in software sold by the tech company Kaseya to bring down the networks of some 1,000 companies.

For years, the spyware industry has been a black box. Sales of spyware are locked up in nondisclosure agreements and are frequently rolled into classified programs, with limited, if any, oversight.

NSO’s clients previously infected their targets using text messages that cajoled victims into clicking on links. Those links made it possible for journalists and researchers at organizations like Citizen Lab to investigate the possible presence of spyware. But NSO’s new zero-click method makes the discovery of spyware by journalists and cybersecurity researchers much harder.

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In Epic vs. Apple Court Fight, a Win for App Developers

Apple is widely expected to ask a judge to keep the order from going into effect. Either company could also appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In that court, a three-judge panel could review the decision, a process that could take a year or more. After a ruling there, Apple or Epic could appeal to the Supreme Court.

The ruling allows both sides to claim a partial victory. Apple now has a court ruling that says it does not run a monopoly in an important digital marketplace, which undercuts its opponents’ efforts to claim that it violates antitrust laws. But Epic’s lawsuit could also force Apple to crack open its airtight iPhone software to create an avenue for developers to avoid its commission.

Apple’s shares fell nearly 3 percent on the Nasdaq exchange after the ruling was announced.

“Today the court has affirmed what we’ve known all along: The App Store is not in violation of antitrust law,” Apple said in a statement. “As the court recognized, ‘Success is not illegal.’ Apple faces rigorous competition in every segment in which we do business, and we believe customers and developers choose us because our products and services are the best in the world.”

The ruling did uphold many of the principles of Apple’s App Store business, including that it can prohibit third-party iPhone app marketplaces and can continue to charge a 30 percent commission on many transactions. Epic had challenged those practices.

“It puts an economic question mark around the App Store, but at the same time, it affirms the principles” of the business, said Adam Kovacevich, a former Google lobbyist who now runs a tech-policy group that is in part sponsored by Apple.

Tim Sweeney, Epic’s chief executive, said on Twitter that he was not satisfied with the ruling because it did not go far enough in allowing companies to complete in-app transactions with their own payment systems, versus having to direct customers to outside websites. He said Fortnite would not return to the App Store until such rules were in place.

“Today’s ruling isn’t a win for developers or for consumers,” he said. “We will fight on.”

Mr. Rubin, the antitrust lawyer, said that Apple would feel relieved to dodge being labeled a monopoly, but that the judge’s verdict would most likely do little to strengthen its standing in other investigations because antitrust lawsuits can vary. He said Apple might also have to consider lowering its commission now that it will be easier for developers to send customers elsewhere to make purchases.

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Biden’s Electric Car Plans Hinge on Having Enough Chargers

For years, start-ups, automakers and other companies have been slowly building chargers, mainly in California and other coastal states where most electric cars are sold. These businesses use different strategies to make money, and auto experts say it is not clear which will succeed. The company with the most stations, ChargePoint, sells chargers to individuals, workplaces, stores, condo and apartment buildings, and businesses with fleets of electric vehicles. It collects subscription fees for software that manages the chargers. Tesla offers charging mainly to get people to buy its cars. And others make money by selling electricity to drivers.

Once the poor cousin to the hip business of making sleek electric cars, the charging industry has been swept up in its own gold rush. Venture capital firms poured nearly $1 billion into charging companies last year, more than the five previous years combined, according to PitchBook. So far in 2021, venture capital investments are up to more than $550 million.

On Wall Street, publicly traded special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, have struck deals to buy eight charging companies out of 26 deals involving electric vehicle and related businesses, according to Dealogic, a research firm. The deals typically include an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars from big investors like BlackRock.

“It’s early, and folks are trying to wrap their heads around what does the potential look like,” said Gabe Daoud Jr., a managing director and analyst at Cowen, an investment bank.

These businesses could benefit from the infrastructure bill, but it is not clear how the Biden administration would distribute money for charging stations.

Another unanswered question is who will be the Exxon Mobil of the electric car age. It might well be automakers.

Tesla, which makes about two-thirds of the electric cars sold in the United States, has built thousands of chargers, which it made free for early customers. The company could open its network to vehicles made by other automakers by the end of the year, its chief executive, Elon Musk, said in July.

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How Facebook Relies on Accenture to Scrub Toxic Content

In 2010, Accenture scored an accounting contract with Facebook. By 2012, that had expanded to include a deal for moderating content, particularly outside the United States.

That year, Facebook sent employees to Manila and Warsaw to train Accenture workers to sort through posts, two former Facebook employees involved with the trip said. Accenture’s workers were taught to use a Facebook software system and the platform’s guidelines for leaving content up, taking it down or escalating it for review.

What started as a few dozen Accenture moderators grew rapidly.

By 2015, Accenture’s office in the San Francisco Bay Area had set up a team, code-named Honey Badger, just for Facebook’s needs, former employees said. Accenture went from providing about 300 workers in 2015 to about 3,000 in 2016. They are a mix of full-time employees and contractors, depending on the location and task.

The firm soon parlayed its work with Facebook into moderation contracts with YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest and others, executives said. (The digital content moderation industry is projected to reach $8.8 billion next year, according to Everest Group, roughly double the 2020 total.) Facebook also gave Accenture contracts in areas like checking for fake or duplicate user accounts and monitoring celebrity and brand accounts to ensure they were not flooded with abuse.

After federal authorities discovered in 2016 that Russian operatives had used Facebook to spread divisive posts to American voters for the presidential election, the company ramped up the number of moderators. It said it would hire more than 3,000 people — on top of the 4,500 it already had — to police the platform.

“If we’re going to build a safe community, we need to respond quickly,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in a 2017 post.

The next year, Facebook hired Arun Chandra, a former Hewlett Packard Enterprise executive, as vice president of scaled operations to help oversee the relationship with Accenture and others. His division is overseen by Ms. Sandberg.

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Apple and Google’s Fight in Seoul Tests Biden in Washington

WASHINGTON — For months, Apple and Google have been fighting a bill in the South Korean legislature that they say could imperil their lucrative app store businesses. The companies have appealed directly to South Korean lawmakers, government officials and the public to try to block the legislation, which is expected to face a crucial vote this week.

The companies have also turned to an unlikely ally, one that is also trying to quash their power: the United States government. A group funded by the companies has urged trade officials in Washington to push back on the legislation, arguing that targeting American firms could violate a joint trade agreement.

The South Korean legislation would be the first law in the world to require companies that operate app stores to let users in Korea pay for in-app purchases using a variety of payment systems. It would also prohibit blocking developers from listing their products on other app stores.

How the White House responds to this proposal poses an early test for the Biden administration: Will it defend tech companies facing antitrust scrutiny abroad while it applies that same scrutiny to the companies at home?

executive order to spur competition in the industry, and his top two antitrust appointees have long been vocal critics of the companies.

The approach the White House chooses may have widespread implications for the industry, and for the shape of the internet around the world. A growing number of countries are pursuing stricter regulations on Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, fragmenting the rules of the global internet.

American officials have echoed some of the industry’s complaints about the proposal, saying in a March report it appeared to target American companies. But trade officials have yet to take a formal position on it, said Adam Hodge, a spokesman for the United States Trade Representative. He said officials were still considering how to balance the claim that the legislation discriminates against American companies with the belief among tech critics in South Korea and America that the legislation would level the playing field.

“We are engaging a range of stakeholders to gather facts as legislation is considered in Korea, recognizing the need to distinguish between discrimination against American companies and promoting competition,” Mr. Hodge said in a statement.

Apple said that it regularly dealt with the United States government on a range of topics. During those interactions it discussed the South Korean app store legislation with American officials, including at the U. S. Embassy in Seoul, the company said in a statement.

The company said the legislation would “put users who purchase digital goods from other sources at risk of fraud, undermine their privacy protections, make it difficult to manage their purchases” and endanger parental controls.

A Google spokeswoman, Julie Tarallo McAlister, said in a statement that Google was open to “exploring alternative approaches” but believed the legislation would harm consumers and software developers.

The proposal was approved by a committee in the Korean National Assembly last month, over the opposition of some in the Korean government. It could get a vote in the body’s judiciary committee as soon as this week. It would then require a vote from the full assembly and the signature of President Moon Jae-in to become law.

The proposal would have a major impact on Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store.

The Google store accounted for 75 percent of global app downloads in the second quarter of 2021, according to App Annie, an analytics company. Apple’s marketplace accounted for 65 percent of consumer spending on in-app purchases or subscriptions.

One way software developers make money is by selling products directly in their apps, like Fortnite’s in-game currency or a subscription to The New York Times. Apple has insisted for years that developers sell those in-app products through the company’s own payment system, which takes up to a 30 percent cut of many sales. Last year, Google indicated it would follow suit by applying a 30 percent cut to more purchases than it had in the past. Developers say that the fees are far too steep.

After South Korean lawmakers proposed the app store bill last year, the Information Technology Industry Council, a Washington-based group that counts Apple and Google as members, urged the United States Trade Representative to include concerns about the legislation in an annual report highlighting “barriers” to foreign trade. The group said in October that the rules could violate a 2007 accord that says neither country can discriminate against firms with headquarters in the other.

Apple said that it was not unusual for an industry group to provide feedback to the trade representative. The company said the government had explicitly asked for comment on potentially discriminatory laws. In a statement, Naomi Wilson, the trade group’s vice president of policy for Asia, said that it encouraged “legislators to work with industry to re-examine the obligations for app markets set forth in the proposed measure to ensure they are not trade-restrictive and do not disproportionately affect” American companies.

When the trade representative’s report was published in March — just weeks after Mr. Biden’s nominee to the position was sworn in — it included a paragraph that echoed some of the tech group’s concerns. The report concluded that the South Korean law’s “requirement to permit users to use outside payment services appears to specifically target U.S. providers and threatens a standard U.S. business model.”

The American report did not say the law would violate the free trade agreement with South Korea. But in July, the managing director of a group called the Asia Internet Coalition, which lists Apple and Google as two of its members, pointed to the report when he told Korea’s trade minister that the law “could provoke trade tensions between the United States and South Korea.”

“The Biden administration has already signaled its concerns,” the director said in a written comment in July.

American diplomats in Seoul also raised questions about whether the legislation could cause trade tensions.

“Google said something like that, and a similar opinion was expressed by the U.S. Embassy in Korea,” said Jo Seoung Lae, a lawmaker who backs the legislation. He added that the embassy had been in touch with his staff throughout June and July. Park Sungjoong, another lawmaker, also said that the embassy had expressed trade concerns about the law.

Mr. Jo said that a Google representative had visited his office to express opposition to the proposal, and that Apple had also “provided their feedback” opposing the legislation.

Mr. Jo said that he had requested that the United States provide its official position, but he said he had not received one yet.

American trade officials sometimes defend companies even when they are criticized by others in the administration. While former President Donald J. Trump attacked a liability shield for social media platforms, known as Section 230, his trade representative wrote a similar provision into agreements with Canada, Mexico and Japan.

But Wendy Cutler, a former official who negotiated the trade agreement between South Korea and the United States, said that it would be difficult for America to argue that the Korean rules violate trade agreements when the same antitrust issues are being debated stateside.

“You don’t want to be calling out a country for potentially violating an obligation when at the same time your own government is questioning the practice,” said Ms. Cutler, now the vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “It weakens the case substantially.”

South Korean and American app developers have run their own campaign for the new rules, arguing it would not trigger trade tensions.

In June, Mark Buse, the top lobbying executive at the dating app company Match Group and a former board member of a pro-regulation group called the Coalition for App Fairness, wrote to Mr. Jo, the Korean lawmaker, supporting the proposal. He said that the Biden administration knew about concerns around the tech giants, making trade tensions less likely.

Later that month, Mr. Buse attended a virtual conference about the app store legislation hosted by K-Internet, a trade group that represents major Korean internet companies like Naver, Google’s main search competitor in South Korea, and Kakao.

Mr. Buse, who traveled to Seoul this month to press the case for the legislation on behalf of the Coalition for App Fairness, made it clear that his employer considered it a high-stakes debate. He listed the many other countries where officials were concerned about Apple’s and Google’s practices.

“And all of this,” he said, “is following the leadership that the Korean assembly is showing.”

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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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