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Commentary: Rasa isn’t the only open source approach to natural language processing, but its large community suggests it’s doing something right.

Image: iStock/metamorworks

You want a conversational artificial intelligence (AI) platform? No problem–you just need to choose one. Microsoft has one (LUIS). So does Google (Dialogflow). AWS? Yep. (Lex.) But don’t stop now: There are hundreds of options (from Kore.ai to SAP to Cisco’s MindMeld to etc. etc.). 

Rasa‘s approach just might stand out.

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“We think that infrastructure for conversational interfaces in the long run will be open source,” said Tyler Dunn, a product manager at Rasa. To this end, Rasa, the company, open sourced its machine learning framework to automate text- and voice-based conversations.” The goal? To get beyond hard-coded, rules-based chat bots to AI that understands the context of what a person says. 

I’m not in a good position to gauge the utility of Rasa’s code. What I find fascinating is just how much community the project has attracted. This may well speak to the efficacy of Rasa’s open source approach, but also to how mainstream conversational AI has become, or soon will be.

More than open source

Rasa’s team could be right about the need to make conversational AI an open source problem, yet wrong in its approach. After all, there are plenty of other open source conversation AI platforms. Rasa isn’t the first to figure out that developers increasingly prefer open source infrastructure. 

SEE: Managing AI and ML in the enterprise 2020: Tech leaders increase project development and implementation (TechRepublic Premium)

While GitHub stars are a (highly) imperfect gauge of a project’s success, they are an indicator. Rasa has over 10,000 stars, while other open source projects like MindMeld (416), DeepPavlov (4,900), or BotPress (9,000) have fewer. Among this group, Rasa serves a different community: The kind that wants to dig deep into natural language processing (NLP). By contrast, a project like BotPress is popular with JavaScript developers who either can’t or don’t want to go lower in the stack.

Rasa’s community is interested in customizing NLP. This is one reason it attracts more than 10,000 people to its Rasa community forum. It’s also why Rasa has over 500 contributors to the project. When I expressed surprise that there would be a large population of developers with aptitude to be able to contribute meaningful code to something like Rasa, Alan Nichol, Rasa’s co-founder and CTO, told me that it’s “pretty much the opposite” of what I suggested. No, not all of these will be experts in NLP, he continued, but valuable contributions might be integrations with various messaging platforms, or extensions of Rasa’s functionality to support new APIs that chat platforms might use.

Even for those who don’t contribute back, it’s important that Rasa be open source, Nichol noted:

[C]onversational AI is one of the [areas of software] where you benefit most [from open source]. The fact that you can customize it to make it your own, even if those aren’t necessarily changes that you push upstream, it’s extremely valuable. Much more so than the amount of people who might write a custom something inside of MongoDB or something like that. The amount of people who may write a custom NLP component to do sentiment analysis or do some categorization of their users, or just to tweak some hyper-parameters, use word embeddings that they trained on their own company’s corpus, all those kinds of things. There are lots and lots of ways that people customize the software.

The real competition for something like Rasa is customers who might roll their own conversational AI bot, perhaps using TensorFlow. Rasa is built on TensorFlow, and for a sufficiently skilled team, they could bypass Rasa and work directly on the lower-level TensorFlow. Rasa’s bet is that most companies won’t have the expertise or patience to do this. 

They’ll also likely be looking for something ready for production, rather than projects like Uber’s Plato or Facebook’s ParlAI, which tends to be geared toward researchers. For Rasa, it has been important to merge language understanding and dialogue models into one end-to-end system, so that when you have messages that don’t neatly fit into a schema, the AI learns, rather than breaking down (“takes that user’s utterance and transforms it into a vector of floating point numbers into a continuous representation,” is the more geeky explanation that Nichols offered). 

The good news is that you don’t have to take my word for it–or the word of Nichols or Dunn. It’s open source. You can check it out on GitHub, customize it to meet your needs and, hopefully, submit a pull request to improve it. 

Disclosure: I work for AWS, but the views expressed herein are mine.

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Signal Back Up: Users May See Some Errors, Company Says Will Be Fixed in Next Update

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Signal said it had restored its services a day after the application faced technical difficulties as it dealt with a flood of new users after rival messaging app WhatsApp announced a controversial change in privacy terms.

Signal has seen a rise in downloads following a change in WhatsApp’s privacy terms, that required WhatsApp users to share their data with both Facebook and Instagram.

Signal users might see errors in some chats as a side effect to the outage, but will be resolved in the next update of the app, the company said in a tweet.

The error does not affect the security of the chat, the company added.

The non-profit Signal Foundation based in Silicon Valley, which currently oversees the app, was launched in February 2018 with Brian Acton, who co-founded WhatsApp before selling it to Facebook, providing initial funding of $50 million (roughly Rs. 365 crores).

Signal faced a global outage that began on January 15. Although users could open the app and send messages, nothing was actually delivered.

Signal later sent Gadgets 360 a message with the following statement from its COO Aruna Harder: “We have been adding new servers and extra capacity at a record pace every single day this week, but today exceeded even our most optimistic projections. Millions upon millions of new users are sending a message that privacy matters, and we are working hard to restore service for them as quickly as possible.”

© Thomson Reuters 2021


Does WhatsApp’s new privacy policy spell the end for your privacy? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.



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CES 2021 wrap up: How enterprise tech makes all those smart toilets and robots possible

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From smart toilets and disinfecting robots to transparent OLED displays and sleep tech, CES 2021 was a showcase for the latest innovations in consumer and enterprise technology.

CES 2021 is a wrap. And although this year’s all-digital event was a significantly different experience from past shows, there was plenty of innovative tech on display. TechRepublic’s Steve Ranger, Teena Maddox, and Bill Detwiler join Karen Roby to discuss the products and technology trends that stood out. The following is a transcript of their discuss edited for readability.

Smart toilets, disaffecting robots and a flying Cadillac

Karen Roby: Teena, let’s start with you, just general impressions from the show and some things that maybe stood out to you.

Teena Maddox: Sure. As always, it was an interesting CES, full of really cool products. Even though this one was virtual, we still managed to find some really great things to write about for TechRepublic. One of the things that really stood out for me was just the fact that there was so much creativity still going on and people were still really interested. You had your virtual groups of people surrounding products. One of the things that got a lot of attention online was the product from TOTO that… I know you did a video about that, the wellness toilet that, not to get gross here, but it lets you know how you’re doing based on your bodily functions. I thought that was really interesting. That got a lot of attention.

Ever wanted a toilet to analyze your poop and tell you what it means about your health? Well, you’re in luck. Toto unveiled a concept toilet at CES 2021 that does just that. It scans your body and excrement to provide recommendations to improve your health.

 

Image: Toto

And then there was that really top of the line tub from Kohler that tops out around, I think, $16,000 that just gives you like this virtual environment. It has lighting, it has fog, it has music. It has a little bit of everything, and I really want that tub for my bathroom, but there’s no way I’m going to spend as much as a small car on a tub for my bathroom. So that got attention.

We wrote about tons of gaming monitors and laptops from so many fantastic brands, Dell and Acer and Lenovo, HP, everybody just really came out with some really great products. I talked to HyperX and they talked about how, they’re known for making gaming products, headsets and microphones and things like that, that gamers and streamers use, but everybody’s been buying them in this past year of course to work from home because they’re also great products to use as you’re doing things like we’re doing now, doing an online meeting, online videos. So they’ve really been working toward that and people have been using their products for double duty. So they introduced some new products and we wrote about those.

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This one is marvelous and cool. LG’s autonomous disinfecting robot uses UV-C light to disinfect high-touch, high-traffic areas. LG plans to offer the robot to hospitality, retail, corporate and education customers in early 2021. 

Image: LG

There’s just been so much cool stuff. There’s a lot of sleep tech, a lot of fitness tech and to be expected, there were a lot of masks that had really high tech features because tying tech with masks. I think some of them are a little over the top, like Air Pop Active Plus. It’s $150 mask that works with an app on your phone. I’m really not sure who really wants to spend $150 on a mask, but it’s there if somebody who does want to buy it. And then there were a lot of disinfecting robots. LG had a really cool one that uses UVC light to disinfect high touch, high traffic areas. And they’re going to market it to schools, to hospitals, to hotels, places like that. It rolls around and it disinfects on its own. So that is super cool. And Samsung had some disinfecting robots as well.

SEE: CES 2021: The big trends for business (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)

There was just quite an array of really cool products like that. But one that really stood out and I know this would have been that one, if everybody had been at CES in person, air taxis that always gets attention. And GM introduced the Cadillac E…I’m not sure how they pronounce it…but eVTOL air taxi, E-V-T-O-L. That is just really spectacular. They just did a virtual image of what it would look like and what it would be. They’re trying to get that created. It’s all electric with vertical takeoff and landing and it has speeds up to 56 miles per hour. So I thought that was super cool, but I could talk all day, but that’s just some of the stuff that we saw.

gm-evolt.jpg

Flying air taxis are always a huge draw at CES, and this year was no exception, even for a virtual CES. GM announced that it is working on a Cadillac personal aircraft, the eVTOL. it’s all electric with a vertical take-off and landing. It’s powred by a 90-kWh battery to reach speeds up to 56 mph. It’s in the conceptual stage and it’s pretty impressive.

Image: General Motors

Karen Roby: Yeah. And as you mentioned, Teena, when you see so much, whether you’re in person or virtually, it all kind of starts to run together by the end of the week. There’s just so much- 

Teena Maddox: Yes. I was running around virtually. I had 15 tabs open at once, so it was like the equivalent of running place to place in a taxi in Vegas like we usually do. And I still feel like at the end of the week, there’s like another thousand things I didn’t cover that I want to. So you still have that feeling, but it’s still a lot of fun and there’s still some more things that we’re wrapping up and writing about today because there’s a lot of really great things that come out and things that we’ll be writing about in weeks to come that just are things that were conceptual that may or may not be created, but still really inspired great stories out of us and others.

SEE: Best robots at CES 2021: Humanoid hosts, AI pets, UV-C disinfecting bots, and more (TechRepublic)

Tech to help us sleep better and PC innovations

Karen Roby: Yeah, I think so, too. And Steve, we talked several days ago on the front end of CES about what is this going to be like going to a virtual experience? We’re so used to that hands-on opportunity and when people collaborate but I think all in all, it turned out okay.

Steve Ranger: I think absolutely. In fact, I’m really amazed by the amount of energy and kind of enthusiasm and excitement there has been around CES and all the CES products. I mean who knows, maybe being virtual means we get to see more stuff, rather than be hiking from place to place. So then from hall to hall, actually just flipping between tabs like Teena was doing, means you get to see more stuff, which is great. Like her, I thought the robots is really interesting this year. Obviously, that really plays into what’s been happening in the last year or so.

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Some models include special lighting to encourage sleep and the ability to track overall sleep habits. 

One of the things I thought was quite interesting was a lot of the sleep tech, because on first glance, I thought, wow, this is just the tech industry finding something else they can encroach on and put a few chips into and resell us our own sleep again. But actually the more I thought about it was, well with loads of like exercise and things like that, we are present. So we kind of know if we’re out for a run and we have a vague idea of what we’re doing. When you’re asleep, you’re asleep. You have no idea what’s going on. So actually maybe sleep is one of the really good things to be measuring and trying to understand because it’s the whole chunk of the day when you really pretty much aren’t there.

So I think a lot of people are getting more sleep at the moment because they’re going outside less. So actually trying to understand what your sleep patterns are and trying to optimize that I think is a really good thing because actually, a lot of the time we’re not getting enough sleep, we’re not getting good sleep. So I started off rather kind of doubtful about some of these technologies. The more I think about them, the more I think they might actually have some interesting uses there.

The other thing that I saw that was really good, which comes every year, but I kind of like, is all the innovation around laptops and PCs. Certainly when we were speaking a while back, we were saying, there’s a renaissance of interest in the PC because many of us are at home working on PCs and we’re not using smart phones or tablets or whatever. And actually the PC, which had been kind of on a downward trend is actually back up again right now. And so it was nice to see a lot of companies playing with the idea of new screens or different screens.

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Image: ASUS

So there was some laptops with a combined e-ink screen that you could use in different ways or a laptop with a secondary screen on the front that you could use alongside the keyboard. I guess none of these things are likely to take over the world simply because we are so used to the form factor we have with one screen, one keyboard. But I think it’s really nice to see there is still some innovation in what is a really traditional form factor that’s been around 30 years or longer. So I liked to see that as well.

SEE: The weird, the wacky and the marvelous at CES 2021 (TechRepublic)

And as Teena said, the robots is always good fun to look at some robots and for once they might actually have some actual uses this time in terms of healthcare and that kind of thing. So yeah, I think actually, I’m surprised by the levels of interest and innovation we saw and I think that’s a really good sign for the industry.

All-digital CES 2021 had its advantages

Karen Roby: Yeah, definitely, Steve. I agree with you. And especially with the sleep tech, interesting to see what we can learn that otherwise we’d have no idea about. And Bill, one of the things that’s been great about CES being virtual is that more people will have access to the information, otherwise that people can’t get to Vegas or don’t feel like they’re part of the show, but that was a big difference this year.

Bill Detwiler: Yeah, it is. And we’ve seen that with other events that have gone virtual in the wake of the COVID pandemic, is that it has enabled more people to participate, which is a good thing because, for the industry, for just society, for closing that technology gap and the only thing that I hope we see more in the future as we go back to the new normal of in-person events mixed with a digital event. Because let’s remember, most of these events always had a digital component. It’s just that it wasn’t the focus. Going forward now in the new normal, when we go back to in-person events, that there is a greater emphasis on the digital portion of the event and in allowing people to continue to participate, that maybe just can’t be there physically.

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This was an interesting CES. Microsoft partnered with CTA to really sort of bring the virtual side of things to life. Microsoft has been on and off at CES, and this was a chance to showcase what they can do in that realm. Whereas maybe Microsoft competitors, Amazon through its home and consumer electronics brands and Google through its consumer electronics brands have been there in the past and Microsoft sometimes has been there and then has not been there. But this was really interesting to see the technology that they used to pull it off. And I think they did a pretty good job. I’ve been going for many, many years, and I will say that this definitely felt like more of a fire hose of information coming at you. There were a lot of products being released simultaneously. You had competing events happening at the same time or during the same week. So I think there’s a little more work to do around that for future shows, but all in all, I think it was a really solid virtual CES.

CES is a showcase for enterprise, as much as consumer, tech

Karen Roby: Yeah. Most definitely. I think that it will be interesting, like you said, to see how this year influences next year when assuming, we’re back in person.

CES 2021 must-read coverage

Bill Detwiler: Yeah. And one of the things I thought was really interesting. Before we did this call this morning, I went back and I was looking at some old footage of CES from actually 1991. So 30 years ago. It was some footage from a show that I used to watch back here in the US on Public Television. There was show called The Computer Chronicles, which was all about the early days of computer technology in the eighties. And they were interviewing several people at CES. It was still in Vegas. This time they split it up. They actually had a summer and a winter CES. And of course, the big computer show at the time was COMDEX, which isn’t really around anymore like it was back then. And so they were interviewing Nolan Bushnell, who was co-founder of Atari, creator of Pong, and it was interesting to me that he was really talking about the merging of computers or computer circuits and chips at the time, with consumer electronics, because, up until then, consumer electronics were really about car alarms, cell phones.

They weren’t seen as computing devices. And in that transition from the late eighties into the nineties, you started to see people just thinking about electronics and consumer electronics as functional devices, tools that served a purpose. You could embed smarts into them and make them better products that helped people in their lives. And now we’re seeing the same trends, 30 years later, the same discussions. I know we talked about it earlier this week. You’re seeing that, except it’s not silicon that we’re talking about. Although we talk about that a little bit with miniaturization and power, low power chips, things like that, that allow us to put computers into your toaster. But they’re talking about the cloud now. We’re talking about 5G. We’re talking about enabling these technologies, these underlying enterprise technologies that put the smarts in all these smart gadgets that we have around our house that are being shown off at CES.

Karen Roby: Yeah. It’s always interesting and fun to look back on YouTube. It’s crazy when you look back at that old video and the quality of it and things like that. But man, we’ve definitely come a long way. And one thing too guys, before we jump off here, I think one thing that really raised some eyebrows is the president of Microsoft, Brad Smith coming on and talking about tech and how the industry has to remember ethics, improve in ethics, and that tech must be used for good. And in light of everything going on in the world, very poignant time for him to be speaking.

Bill Detwiler: Yeah. I think that is something that people sometimes don’t think about with technology, but tech is a tool like anything else. It’s either a benefit or a hazard.

Karen Roby: Yeah. Most definitely. All right. Well, we have got loads of coverage for you on ZDNet and Tech Republic from everything CES 2021. We hope you’ll check it out there. Thanks for being with us here today.

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Glimpse of a blazar in the early universe

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The supersharp radio “vision” of the U.S. National Science Foundation‘s Very Long Baseline Array has revealed previously unseen details in a jet of material ejected at three-quarters the speed of light from the core of a galaxy some 12.8 billion light-years from Earth.

Glimpse of a blazar in the early universe

A blazar with its jet pointed toward Earth, the brightest radio-emitting blazar yet seen at such a distance. Image credit: Spingola et al.; Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

The galaxy, dubbed PSO J0309+27, is a blazar, with its jet pointed toward Earth. A blazar is a feeding supermassive black hole in the heart of a distant galaxy that produces a high-energy jet viewed face-on from Earth. PSO J0309+27 is the brightest radio-emitting blazar yet seen at such a distance; it’s also the second-brightest X-ray emitting blazar at such a distance.

PSO J0309+27 is viewed as it was when the universe was less than a billion years old, or just over 7% of its current age.

In this image, the brightest radio emission comes from the galaxy’s core, at the bottom right. The jet is propelled by the gravitational energy of a supermassive black hole at the core and moves outward, toward the upper left. The jet seen here extends some 1,600 light-years and shows structure within it.

An international team of astronomers observed the galaxy in April and May of 2020. The researchers report their results in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

“This research is important for understanding jets launched by feeding supermassive black holes,” says Joseph Pesce, a program director in NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences. “The observation allows for a more detailed assessment of differences between objects that are large distances from Earth (and in the early universe) and those relatively closer to Earth.”

Source: NSF




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