YouTube’s live TV service is here

Google announced YouTube TV at the end of February, and today the live TV streaming service is ready to launch. It’s available today on your phone and computer in five markets: New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia. If you hadn’t heard yet, the $35 monthly service offers live streams from all four major broadcast networks (CBS, Fox, NBC and ABC) and a host of other networks like ESPN, FX, the CW and many others. All told, YouTube TV is launching with 39 stations, but 10 more (including AMC, IFC and BBC America) will arrive soon.

At launch, you’ll use either the new YouTube TV app (for iOS or Android) or the web-based interface to access the new service. Ironically, the only way to get YouTube TV onto an actual TV set is with a Chromecast — there aren’t apps for the Apple TV or other set-top boxes or consoles yet. Google says they’ll come, but for now the website and app will be the primary way to interact with YouTube TV.

We’ll have a more extensive walkthrough of the new service soon, but for starters there are a few things it does very well. YouTube TV is very fast at getting you into live TV — when you’re browsing things to watch, live previews start almost immediately. It’s not entirely necessary to get a preview of what’s on the channel, but it’s a very engaging feature that can also keep you from clicking through to something that’s on commercial break.

Another noteworthy feature is how many channels offer on-demand movie libraries. While finding large libraries of TV shows that are available on demand isn’t easy, there are a bunch of movies from networks like FX, Syfy and Showtime (the latter channel is only available as a paid add-on, though). You can add these films to your library and watch them any time, though you might have to deal with some ads or see a movie that has been edited in some way from the original version. Still, the amount of films that you can just jump right into is impressive.

The UI is also pretty well done, particularly the "live" section of the app. There, you can vertically scroll through a list of channels and see everything that’s playing right at that moment. The top-most program in the list goes live with a video preview, and as you scroll down that’ll dynamically update if you want a preview of what’s on. When I first started using the app, I found this to be the best place to go to find programs to start watching and adding to my library. Before long I had a half-dozen shows and a handful of movies saved or set to be recorded.

We’ll have more to say about the service soon — but if you want to try it yourself, grab YouTube TV from your app store of choice or go to You’ll have to live in one of those five metro areas, though. Google’s offering a free month trial, and you can also get a free Chromecast with your first month’s payment. There are a handful of services like YouTube TV already out there, but Google’s offering probably worth a look if you need live TV but don’t want to pay the cable company.

from Engadget

Experts Suspect Nerve Agent Was Used In Syrian Attack

Experts are increasingly confident that a powerful nerve agent was used to kill and injure victims in an attack on a rebel-held region of Syria on Tuesday.

More than 70 people were killed in a bombing in Idlib province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The organization says that the death toll so far includes 20 children.

In a separate statement, Doctors Without Borders said one of its teams had examined eight survivors of the attack who had exhibited symptoms of exposure to “a neurotoxic agent such as sarin” — including constricted pupils and muscle spasms. Those symptoms are consistent with “any one of the chemicals in that chemical family of nerve agents,” agrees Dan Kaszeta, a chemical weapons expert with Strongpoint Security, a London-based consultancy.

Kaszeta says it’s the strongest evidence of an attack using nerve agent since an August 2013 strike on a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds of people. After that incident, President Bashar Assad’s regime was pressured into surrendering more than 1,000 tons of chemicals to international observers. Syria also joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty prohibiting the use of such weapons.

The surrender of the weapons material was considered one of the few diplomatic wins for the Obama administration, which struggled to respond to the Syria crisis.

Since then, combatants in Syria, including government forces, have been accused of regularly violating the convention. But Kaszeta says most chemical attacks in the region have involved chlorine gas, which is much less lethal.

“Chlorine is primarily is an irritant to the respiratory tract,” Kaszeta says. Although formally considered a chemical weapon, it only kills in extremely high concentrations. “It’s sort of a glorified tear-gas.”

By contrast, nerve agents such as sarin work by disrupting the nervous system’s communications with muscles throughout the body. Exposure to tiny quantities causes spasms and pinprick pupils — of the sort seen in videos from Tuesday’s attack, Kaszeta says.

The Russian government has claimed the chemicals were released after Syrian government forces hit a rebel chemical depot. Kaszeta says that’s doubtful because nerve agents are unstable and are typically stored as two separate chemicals. With sarin, for example, one of those precursor chemicals is highly flammable isopropyl alcohol.

“You drop a bomb on it, the whole thing is going up in a huge fireball,” he says. Even if the nerve agent was pre-mixed, a bomb strike would fail to disperse it in a way that could cause mass casualties.

Kaszeta says he thinks the most likely source of chemical was the Syrian regime. Sarin and other nerve agents are hard to make, and it’s unlikely that rebel groups would have access to it. Assad was known to hold large quantities of “precursor chemicals” used to make sarin, and although the government surrendered much of that material, it’s possible that some was left undeclared to international inspectors.

In addition, Kaszeta says, the Syrian regime is still believed to have experts who could make nerve agent from scratch. “It’s not like we arrested their scientists and chemical engineers and technicians,” he says. “Nothing happened to those guys.”

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says it is “seriously concerned about the alleged chemical weapons attack” and is gathering and analyzing information “from all available sources.”

If it is true that Syria is once again using nerve agents, Kaszeta says it would be a huge strike against the international system of treaties and inspections designed to prevent the use of chemical weapons.

Three years ago, “[Assad] used some, maybe all, of his chemical weapons as a poker chip, and gave that up for another chip that said, ‘Don’t bomb me,” Kaszeta says. But the use of chemical weapons has continued, and the regime may now be emboldened.

“I hate to be pessimistic about this whole thing, but he’s gotten away with it so far, why wouldn’t he get away with it again?”

from NPR Topics: News

India’s Most Polluted River Actually Bubbles With Toxic Foam

from Wired Top Stories

A Robot with Its Head in the Cloud Tackles Warehouse Picking

RightHand’s robot grabs items from a bin and places them on a conveyor belt.

Hidden inside a busy industrial building in Somerville, Massachusetts, a robot arm spends its day picking up seemingly random objects—bottles of shampoo, onions, cans of shaving foam—from a conveyor belt that goes in a circle about 10 meters in diameter.

The odd-looking setup is a test bed for a system that could take on many of the mundane picking tasks currently done by hand in warehouses and fulfillment centers. And it shows how advances in robotic hardware, computer vision, and teleoperation, along with the ability for machines to learn collaboratively via the cloud, may transform warehouse fulfillment in coming years.

The new robotic picking platform, which uses a combination of a hybrid gripper and machine learning, and which was developed by a startup called RightHand Robotics, can handle a wide variety of objects faster and more reliably than existing systems.

The company launched its platform, called RightPick, at a supply chain industry event earlier this month. It is targeting fulfillment for the pharmaceutical, electronics, grocery, and apparel industries.

When I visited RightHand Robotics early this year, the company’s cofounders, Yaro Tenzer and Leif Jentorf, showed me several prototypes they had developed. Besides the conveyor-belt scenario, these included a setup designed to match that of a company that sends packages of cosmetics tailored to individual customers. The company’s system could pick a customer’s items from several bins attached to a circular carousel. They also showed me a system learning to grasp a particular object by trying, over and over again, to move items piled up in one bin to another bin.

Picking different types of objects piled into a bin may sound simple, but it remains a huge challenge for robots, especially if the objects are unfamiliar. Humans are able to guess how an occluded object looks and feels, and we apply years of grasping experience to the task. Fulfillment centers typically handle a range of products, making them difficult to automate. Amazon, for example, has only been able to automate parts of its centers so far.

RightHand’s system grabs objects using a compliant fingered hand with a suction cup at its center. A camera is  embedded in the hand to help figure out which appendage  to use and how to grasp the item. The company employs machine learning to refine its control algorithm over time, and the tricks learned by one robot are fed back to a cloud server so that they can be shared with others. It is also possible for RightHand’s engineers to log into a system remotely to solve problems, or to help a company train the robot to pick a new object.

It is difficult to gauge the reliability and speed of such a system, or to tell how it might deal with any number of awkward new objects, but it appeared capable of picking up common objects you might find in a grocery store about as fast as a person could.

Ken Goldberg, a professor at UC Berkeley and an expert on robot vision, manipulation, and learning, says it remains very difficult for robots to rummage for items in a cluttered bin. He says he is impressed by the hybrid  gripper and adds that applying machine learning via the cloud, so that every robot deployed by the company gets smarter over time, makes a lot of sense. “This is a clever mechanism,” Goldberg says. “These guys are smart.”

At the start of this month, RightHand received $8 million in Series A  funding. The company’s early investors include Playground Global. This Palo Alto incubator and venture fund was created by Andy Rubin, who led the creation of Google’s Android smartphone operating system and who later managed the company’s foray into robotics with the acquisition of a number of startups working on various robot technologies. 

Tenzer and Jentorf both studied in Harvard’s Biorobotics Lab, and early company employees come from robotics labs at Yale and MIT.

Over the past year or so, the company has been working with a number of large logistics companies and retailers to prove the reliability of its system. “When we saw the tech and the progress they’ve made on the business side, we got really excited,” says Mark Valdez, a partner at Playground Global. “There’s an opportunity to build a virtuous cycle and a network effect for some of these software-defined hardware products.”

Besides Amazon, many other companies are trying to develop robots capable of grasping a range of objects from a disordered pile. “This is a major frontier for robotics right now,” says Goldberg of UC Berkeley.

from Technology Review Feed – Tech Review Top Stories