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Viva Technology Conference Gears Up for Biggest Edition Yet


PARIS — The Viva Technology conference in Paris is shaping up for its biggest edition yet, with French President Emmanuel Macron set to meet with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and more than a dozen technology bosses in the run-up to the annual event.

Macron has promised to question Zuckerberg, who is also due to testify before members of the European Parliament on Tuesday, on issues like tax and data privacy.

The French government’s Tech for Good Summit is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, the day before Macron attends VivaTech, where he will be welcomed by Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive officer of French luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, who is cohosting the event.

Arnault, France’s wealthiest man, has gathered a jury of industry heavy-hitters for the second edition of the LVMH Innovation Award, due to be handed out to one of the 30 preselected contestants who will present their ideas at the LVMH Luxury Lab during the third edition of the conference, set to run from Thursday to Saturday.

Joining Arnault, the jury’s chairman, will be Ginni Rometty, ceo of IBM; José Neves, founder and ceo of Farfetch; Richard Liu, founder, chairman and ceo of JD.com; Peggy Johnson, executive vice president of business development at Microsoft, and Jimmy Iovine, cofounder of Beats Electronics, WWD has learned exclusively.

The remaining jury members are Ian Rogers, chief digital officer at LVMH; Alexandre Arnault, ceo of German luggage maker Rimowa, and music producer Alex da Kid, a spokesman for LVMH said.

More than 820 start-ups from 58 countries applied for the award, representing a rise of almost 60 percent versus last year. They are from China, Canada, Israel, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States and France.

Among them are AlgiKnit, which creates textiles from recyclable biopolymers; Arylla, which makes an invisible ink that can be used to verify the authenticity of luxury goods; Bobbli, which allows viewers to purchase products seen in a movie or on television, and Foko Retail, an online application to manage physical stores.

In addition, 22 LVMH-owned brands will be present on the group’s stand.

Bernard Arnault will be among the several dozen speakers at Viva Technology, alongside Facebook’s Zuckerberg; Rometty; Jean-Paul Agon, chairman and ceo of L’Oréal; Satya Nadella, ceo of Microsoft; Dara Khosrowshahi, ceo of Uber, and Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer of Procter Gamble, among others.

Meanwhile, Rogers and Andrew Wu, LVMH group director for China, will take part in a CEO Forum talk about LVMH’s collaboration with start-ups in China.

The conference is organized by advertising and public relations company Publicis Groupe and French media group Les Échos, which belongs to LVMH and publishes the financial daily of the same name.

Micron CEO Mehrotra: ‘The Best Technology Portfolio in the World, Bar None’


Said Mehrotra, the number of AI-capable servers in the industry are going from a “tiny sliver” of all servers to nearly half of all shipments by 2025. Those demand trends are leading to what Mehrotra called a “virtuous cycle” that is driving memory-chip usage.

He predicted the data center market for both chips combined will rise from $29 billion annually last year to $62 billion by 2021. In mobile devices, the value of the memory-chip market will go from $45 billion to $54 billion by then. And the other two important markets, memory chips in cars, and the Internet of Things, would surge from $2.5 billion annually to $5.9 billion annually, and from $9 billion to $16 billion, respectively, as higher levels of autonomy in cars, and the explosion of connected devices, consume ever more memory, and memory chips become a larger component of the “bill of materials” of a device.

One juicy example: by 2021, most “premium” smartphones will have 12 gigabytes of DRAM and one terabyte of NAND flash.

Mehrotra’s head of technology, Scott DeBoer, said the company today faces the need to be “very uniquely thoughtful” about how technology is adapted to individual markets, in contrast to the generic needs of the past.

“These things have to be comprehended in very early stage of the development,” he said, referring to things such as reliability in data centers versus power consumption budgets in mobile devices.

DeBoer said the company was gaining the “confidence” to work on more and more forms of DRAM and things that are disruptive. That includes the current “1Y” technology and three forthcoming flavors, “1Z,” “1-alpha,” and “1-beta.”

DeBoer pointed out the many ways the company has improved its manufacturing. In five years, for example, the company’s NAND flash has gone from a 65% “gap” in the density of chips relative to competitors in 2013 to a 15% lead on those companies.

Among the more tantalizing tidbits: Micron is going to be introducing a product based on the “3-D Xpoint” technology it has developed with Intel (INTC), in the latter half of next year. So far, Intel is the only one that has shipped product based on 3-D Xpoint, which it brands “Optane.” (More on Intel here.)

But Mehrotra and his other executives declined to offer details on those products, an interesting mystery punctuating the talk.

One product that was introduced was the world’s first “four-bits-per-cell” solid-state drive.

“To some extent you have to be a NAND physicist to understand it and think it’s great,” said DeBoer, to general laughter from the audience.

Micron turns 40 this year, and Mehrotra pointed out the company has filed over 40,000 patents in that time, over 1,000 patents a year.

Micron has “the best technology portfolio in the world, bar none,” said Mehrotra, meaning, of all chip companies in any areas of semiconductors.

He then showed a video of testimonials from various customers and partners, among them, Nvidia (NVDA) CEO JensenHuang, who spoke about how the companies collaborate on what the memory-chip design needs to be to address GPU needs, and how the companies go to market. “The collaboration is really really deep.”

The big exciting news for the financial types came at the end of the day, when Micron Chief Financial Officer David Zinsner said the company will undertake a $10 billion share repurchase starting in the fiscal year that begins in September. That announcement drew gasps from the audience, and Zinsner joked that he had been tempted to rip off his mic and walk off stage, which drew big laughs from the audience.

Micron shares today closed up $2.09, or almost 4%, at $55.48.

Update: The buyback really did the trick, boosting shares by $2.12, or almost 4%, to $57.60, in after-hours trading

See also: Part two of today’s meeting coverage.

Sign up to Review Preview, a new daily email from Barron’s. Every evening we’ll review the news that moved markets during the day and look ahead to what it means for your portfolio in the morning. 

Unistellar, France’s Largest Crowdfunded Technology Project, will be at Vivatech


Marseille and San Francisco, May 17. Citizen astronomy is coming to Vivatech! After its record-breaking crowdfunding campaign, the largest technology campaign in French history and one of the biggest ever seen in Europe, Unistellar will be at Vivatech 2018 to display its eVscope, a revolutionary digital telescope that is 100 times more powerful than conventional telescopes.

Founded in 2015 in Marseille and with offices in San Francisco, Unistellar is on a mission: allow everyone, everywhere—whether they’re downtown or in the remote countryside—to look deeply into the night sky, feel the sense of wonder this view has always created in human beings and share it with friends and relatives. “The eVscope is much more than a very friendly telescope that turns amateur astronomy into popular astronomy. Thanks to a radically new hybrid digital/optical system, it gives viewers access to amazing views of the universe normally accessible only from telescopes many times its size,” explained Antonin Borot, Chief of Optical Engineering at Unistellar.

Unistellar has invented and deployed a proprietary technology, relying on a low-light sensor, that accumulates light through a series of short exposures, making it possible to view live through its eyepiece the beautiful colors and shapes of galaxies and nebulae usually invisible through a regular or even a high-end telescope.

The eVscope is a user-friendly device that can recognize any astronomical object, guide people to them, and is controllable from a smartphone.  There is more, thanks to Unistellar’s partnership with SETI Institute, it is also a powerful scientific instrument: users can join observation campaigns run by leading astronomers to view stunning events like supernovae, comets or asteroid occultations, while they generate valuable new data for scientists around the world.

“We recently demonstrated the eVscope’s potential by observing and recording, from a location near Marseille, a stellar occultation by an asteroid,” said Franck Marchis, Chief Scientific Officer at Unistellar and Senior Astronomer at SETI Institute. “By combining our observation with two others made by amateur astronomers, we were able to estimate the shape and size of the main-belt asteroid (175) Andromache. This is an incredible first scientific result for our small but very mighty telescope.”

Last November, Unistellar made the decision to crowdfund its product on Kickstarter. The campaign was a record-shattering success, and raised a record $2.2 million from more than 2,000 backers. The eVscope is now also the biggest technology crowdfunded project in France and one of the biggest in Europe. A success that still is growing: “after multiple requests from people late to this campaign, we recently decided to reopen a new crowdfunding campaign” explained Laurent Marfisi, CEO of Unistellar.

Thanks to the support of Région Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Unistellar will attend Viva Technologies 2018. Come and meet us at booth J05-028. We’re looking forward to talking to you about our unique enhanced-vision technology and how it creates a whole new kind of popular astronomy.

About Unistellar

Created in 2015, Unistellar is a French start-up developing the eVscope, a revolutionary digital telescope 100 times more powerful than conventional telescopes. Compact and user-friendly, the eVscope makes it possible to observe deep sky objects from everywhere and to participate into scientific observation campaigns, in partnership with the SETI Institute.

The eVscope received a CES Innovation Award in 2018, in the Tech for a Better World category. In November 2017, it raised 2.2M USD through a Kickstarter campaign, making it one of the biggest technology crowdfunded projects in Europe.



There’s a crisis in psychology – here’s how technology could provide a solution


Psychologists obediently follow the same rules as other scientists. But their efforts haven’t yielded equivalent progress. In fact, in the last decade, psychologists have realised that some of their most intriguing findings are not reliable – when other researchers try to repeat the same study, they don’t find the same results.

Many people refer to this as a replication crisis in the field. But what is to blame for this problem and what can we do about it? In a new review, published in the General Review of Psychology, we describe a promising technological solution.

Most psychologists are convinced that the widespread misuse of statistics and poor research integrity – a euphemism for cheating – are ultimately to blame for the crisis. So, removing bad practices should solve the problem. Yet this often doesn’t work – seriously undermining confidence in the reliability of psychology.

We are convinced that tightening the regulation of research won’t fix the crisis. Instead, we need to go back over the past century to a crucial wrong turn in psychology that happened because of a limit in the technology of the time.

William James.
Notman Studios

In the late 19th century, the American philosopher William James argued that the essence of psychology is hidden purpose. He famously described the purposeful behaviour of a frog held under water in an inverted glass. Despite attempts by the experimenter to stop it, the frog eventually found its way up to the air in surprising ways. James argued that the frog’s purpose was to get to the surface and it did this in different ways each time.

But it isn’t easy to test hidden purpose reliably in humans. Most research in psychology relies on getting large numbers of participants to provide data. The researchers then measure correlations, or the effects of experimental manipulations, in these groups. This research began before the time of the modern computer, when the researcher could simply present a “stimulus” to a participant and measure the response. And this approach persists today, making up the vast majority of studies in psychology.

Unfortunately, it’s not reliable. One recent series of “stimulus-response” studies were set up so that participants could respond to an image on a screen by either pushing or pulling a joystick. They were presented with either “negative” or “positive” images or words (stimuli). The researchers proposed that viewing a negative stimulus (such as an angry face) unconsciously activates the muscles that extend the arm. This is because that’s how we push something away if we are faced with it in real life. The initial studies supported this account – participants were quicker to respond to negative stimuli when the response was to push the lever away from them than when it was to pull it.

However, a huge review of over 68 attempts to test for this effect in more than 3,000 participants showed that this effect was not consistently repeated. Importantly, in tasks that were designed so that pushing the lever actually made the stimulus get closer, the opposite effect was found – negative stimuli were now associated with the response of pulling the lever.

The authors concluded that participants were actually controlling their perceived distance from the negative image through whatever action they could (just like James’s frog). But the traditional experimental design was simply not set up to test this.

Embracing VR

In our recent article, we bring together the advances that researchers have made using an approach known as perceptual control theory. It continues where James left off, assuming the hidden purposes of living things, but it tests for them using a sophisticated approach. It typically relies on computing capacity to measure people’s activities in virtual environments, and to build a computer model of the psychological processes within the individual.

The technique is based on creating a situation where the participant can pursue a goal, for example controlling the distance from a negative image on a screen using a joystick. It then measures every change that goes on in the situation continuously (for example by making real-time videos) – including disturbances that get in the way of the person’s goal, such as changes in the experimental set up or physical obstacles. All this data is then used to build a computer model of how each participant is pursuing their goal.

You can then repeat the situation, using the computer model to predict what the individual will do, and constantly compare with what they are doing. If the model fails, you improve it until you’ve got a good match – creating a “personal profile” for each individual. This can then be tested for replication over repeated sessions. You can also combine data for many individuals to look at mean effects to work out what goals are generally relevant to a given situation.

Replication … at last?

The result of this approach is typically a robust model of the psychological processes involved in an activity – such as tracking a target on a screen. These models have been shown to repeat a high level of accuracy over and over again, typically showing correlations over 0.98 – a perfect correlation is 1.0. A correlation shows the association between two different variables (for example stimuli and response). This is currently virtually unheard of in traditional psychology research, where correlations of as low as 0.3 are regarded as “statistically significant”.

Don’t worry, there’s hope.

You might think that modelling of this kind is only suitable for simple tasks, but a similar approach has been applied to many areas, including food competition in animals. This used frame-by-frame video analysis to show that a rat holding food in its mouth continually reorients its body to maximise the distance between its food and a competing animal’s mouth.

The same assumptions have informed treatments of spider phobia, helping to build tasks in which the participant can control their distance from a spider in a virtual corridor. Facing fears in this way is a treatment known as exposure therapy. However, it was previously unknown what level of control over the exposure works best. The study using this technique showed for the first time that people who have a higher degree of control over the exposure actually ended up avoiding spiders less after the experiment than those who had little control.

There are areas where it will be more challenging to use this technique – such as complex tasks involving memory and reasoning. Nevertheless, it could be easily applied in many areas.

The replication crisis has been the wake up call psychological science needed to think differently – now it is time to embrace the advances in technology that allow us to improve the field.

How Technology Will Help Workers Learn The Skills They Need To Stay Employable


Photo credit: Shutterstock

There’s no doubt that the job market is changing. Gone are the days of learning how to do one job, sticking with it for 40 years and retiring with a desirable pension. In 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers hold a job for an average of 4.2 years before moving on. And 35 percent of workplace skills in all industries are expected to change by 2020, according to the World Economic Forum.

New technological developments continue to make certain roles in the workplace obsolete. Because these innovations are inevitable, the conversation is turning to training workers so that their skills remain relevant. At the 2016 World Economic Forum, a key takeaway was that learning environments would need to change — and advances in technology could hold the key.

Workers have recognized the need to remain up-to-date, and according to Pew Research Center’s “The State of American Jobs” survey, 87 percent of employees are looking to learn new skills and hone the ones they have in order to remain competitive in the workplace. With technology disrupting that process, the good news is that it’s going to get easier to keep up with those steep learning curves. Here are three important job-training trends:

1.The Death of Workplace Classrooms

Kevin Young, head of SkillSoft EMEA, explains that the benefits of seminars and in-person teaching opportunities don’t justify the cost: “To put it simply, sending half your workforce across the country to attend a training course just does not make business sense,” he wrote in ComputerWeekly. “We instinctively think human-to-human contact is needed to teach — but as a result of technology we can now do much of this virtually, using video links, virtual role plays, augmented reality and simulations.”

Most people have been educated in person their entire lives, and this habit can be hard to break. With new advances in technology, however, employees can refresh their skills virtually. Remote learning also has the benefit of taking place anywhere and at any time, catering to the busy schedules of all professionals.

2. The Rise of AI and Machine Learning

While AI will inevitably replace many jobs, it will also serve to educate employees to take on their next challenges. Christopher Pappas, expert in training management software and founder of the online resource eLearning Industry, explains in a blog post how technology and virtual training will change education: “The system will be able to predict every eventuality and desired outcome in a matter of seconds, then deliver eLearning content that caters to online learners’ individual needs, preferences, goals, and areas for improvement.”

Why You Must Treat Artificial Intelligence (AI) As A Very Special Technology



There are lots of technologies that attract our attention – and money – these days. We’re obsessed with blockchain, cryptocurrency, IOT, big data analytics, cybersecurity3-D printing and drones. We’re excited about virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality. We love talking about driverless cars, ships and planes. We can’t wait for 5G and Wi-Fi domes that solve all of our network access problems; and while we’re getting a little worried about social media and privacy, we’re still addicted to our ever-more-powerful smartphones. We buy everything online.  We’re into wearables. But there’s one technology that we all need to embrace: artificial intelligence (AI). While there are other families in the disruptive digital technology world, this one is special and one you cannot afford to treat as just another emerging technology. AI powers, amplifies and therefore supersedes them all.  

Why So Special?  

First, AI is special because it’s more than one technology. In fact, it’s a family of technologies. Secondly, AI is special because its application potential is so wide. Next, AI is special because it learns and sometimes even self-replicates. AI’s also special because it satisfies ROI models of all shapes and sizes. Finally, AI is everywhere: which companies – and countries – are not investing in AI? There’s a bona fide arms race underway among the players (which shows no signs of slowing anytime soon).

What is AI?

AI includes at least machine learning, deep learning, image recognition, robotic process automation, natural language processing, text mining, vision systems, speech systems, neural networks and pattern recognition, among other methods, tools and techniques that according to the father of AI, John McCarthy, represent “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs.”    

What Can AI Do?

There is very little AI cannot do.  The range of applications is staggering, including all of the vertical industries and every business process and model that supports them. AI will profoundly impact healthcare, transportation, accounting, finance, manufacturing, customer service, aviation, education, sales, marketing, law, entertainment, media, security, negotiation, war and peace. No industry or process is safe from the impact that AI – across all of its components – will have in the short-run and especially over the next seven to ten years. Keep in mind also that AI will integrate across business and technology architectures, data bases and applications. 

What Will AI Change?

Everything.  The timing – as always with the adoption of emerging technologies – is debatable. But the changes will not all be good. AI empowers good and evil. Note the ease with which fake news can be created and disseminated by intelligent “news” creators, and how easy it is for smart bots to service personal and professional confirmation biases intended to manipulate thinking and behavior. At the same time, good bots will make much of our personal and professional lives more efficient and productive, freeing us to pursue other activities. Will AI eliminate jobs? Of course, and this time the elimination of jobs will include so-called knowledge workers as well as the traditional manufacturing jobs we associate with automation and robotics which will increasingly behave in unsupervised contexts. Much of this capability will arrive simultaneously across whole industries, such as the automotive industry which will utilize robotic AI to manufacture driverless cars and then manage their movement across cities and towns across the world. Similarly, healthcare will be impacted from lifestyles, monitoring, diagnosis and treatment. No, AI will not kill us, but it will augment and replace many of us in the workplace. Again, it’s a question of when, not if, but impact will be sweeping and will likely happen much faster than many analysts predict. Regardless of how bullish or bearish you are about displacement, it’s safe to say that tens of millions of jobs – and knowledge-based careers– will be impacted — and in many cases eliminated — in the next five-to-seven years. 

Who’s Playing? 

Who isn’t?  Investments in all things intelligent are unprecedented.  All of the major technology companies are heavily invested in the technology, but the most important investment portfolio belongs to whole countries which have declared AI as a strategic national objective.  China, for example, has defined AI as one of its core industries. 

What to Do About AI?

If your company is not already investing in AI, it’s way past time. Step one is the modeling of your current and aspirational processes informed generously by the potential of AI and predictions about the evolution of your industry. Elaborate process models should be developed, tested, simulated and inventoried to inform your AI pilot agenda. The simplest way to build this agenda is to identify the processes most amenable to AI and simulate the impact intelligent systems might have on the costs and benefits of the target processes. The most robust simulations should rank-order the processes that should be piloted with new technologies. Corporate partnerships should also be aggressively pursued, especially since AI is so broad. Companies need enabling partners that, for example, provide AI development and application platforms (which will come from their cloud providers in most cases). University partnerships are also valuable. Companies should befriend AI start-ups. Many AI technology companies will scan the start-up terrain for acquisition targets. Just as many established companies will scan the same environment for the same reason.

National governments should strategically commit to AI. This means that the national research laboratories – like the National Science Foundation in the US – should receive additional, directed funds to pursue a broad program of research and development that assures a global presence in the development and application of AI, which should be declared a 21st century moonshot.

Do you have the right AI talent in your company? If you administered an AI IQ test back at the ranch, how well would the team do? If your company is like most, you will need to invest in AI education and training starting with executive education about the strategic role of AI in your industry.    

Finally, brutal process assessments are necessary to optimize AI. No process should be exempt from what AI might offer. But make no mistake, much of this is political. There will be Luddites who challenge the applicability and power of AI. But AI is different from the other “stand-alone” emerging technologies. AI can disrupt your business in ways you need to identify – before you’re disrupted. So do you need an AI “czar”? You absolutely do.  

Embracing Technology Begins With Your Travel Agency Website


Just last month I traveled to Las Vegas to serve as a panelist for the Travel Agent Forum’s Technology Boot Camp. During the three-day conference, I spoke to many agents who were in various stages of the business. Upon my return, I conducted an informal email assessment relating to the questions I was asked during the panel discussion.

This column will be the first of a series of articles that puts the spotlight on why technology is quickly becoming a requirement for success—and how you can evaluate strategies to embrace solutions that will meet the needs of your agency.

With technology, I’ve found that agents fall into three categories: those who love and embrace it, those who hate it and those who don’t know enough about it to have an opinion.

Those who have embraced technology are working it into every aspect of their business to make their agencies more efficient and to create exceptional experiences for their clients. Those who hate it typically aren’t looking to grow their business or are very resistant to change. Then there are those who are by no means opposed to technology but aren’t quite sure where to begin. They might begin to research a given product or tool but don’t believe they have the knowledge or skill sets to ensure the right choices for their agencies.

For the uninitiated, the best place to begin is with your website, which will serve as the epicenter of your agency. Everything else will build from there.

Here is a list of questions to ask a prospective website solution provider:

—Will you have full control of customizing the website?

—Do you need to create travel content?

—Can you create your own content?

—Will the website offer integrated tools to easily create a marketing workflow?

—Does the provider offer indepth training?

—Does the platform provide financial value?

—Is the provider in it for the long haul?

—What does the provider’s one-, two- and three-year roadmap look like – and is it willing to share that?

—How – specifically – can the provider’s website solution help grow your business? (Its answer will tell you a lot.)

—What distinguishes the provider from the competition?

My travel agency has grown tenfold because of my Agent Studio website and social media marketing efforts. I swear by technology and I firmly believe that those who do not embrace it will eventually be left behind.

Don’t become irrelevant. Kick off your technology strategy with a robust website that entices visitors to want to know more about your travel services. That’s when everything will begin to fall into place.

How technology has redefined the job of the repo man


By Todd C. Frankel | Washington Post

CLEVELAND — The computer in the spotter car shouted “Hide!” and repo agent Derek Lewis knew that meant to keep driving like nothing happened. He’d just found another wanted vehicle. He was about to ruin someone’s day. Best not to draw attention.

It helped that he wasn’t in a tow truck, the stereotypical image of a repo man. Lewis drove a beat-up Ford Crown Victoria sedan. It had four small cameras mounted on the trunk and a laptop bolted to the dash. The high-speed cameras captured every passing license plate. The computer contained a growing list of hundreds of thousands of vehicles with seriously late loans. The system could spot a repossession in an instant. Even better, it could keep tabs on a car long before the loan went bad.

Now, Lewis had a live hit in a parking lot. He glanced at his laptop. The plate matched a blue 2006 BMW 325xi. He twisted in his seat. “It’s right there,” he said.

Technology has made the repo man ruthlessly efficient, allowing this familiar angel of financial calamity to capitalize on a dark corner of the United States’ strong economy: the soaring number of people falling behind on their car payments.

No longer tethered to a tow truck and able to use big data to find targets, the repossession industry is booming at an unexpected time. Although the U.S. economy recently entered its second-longest-ever period of expansion, the auto loan delinquency rate last year reached its highest point since 2012, driven by souring subprime auto loans. It’s evidence of how the economic recovery has not been evenly felt, with some of Americans’ biggest purchases — automobiles — being fueled by unsustainable borrowing rather than rising wages.

And the repo man has noticed the change.

“So much of America is just a heartbeat away from a repossession — even good people, decent people who aren’t deadbeats,” said Patrick Altes, a veteran agent in Daytona Beach, Fla. “It seems like a different environment than it’s ever been.”

Repo agents are the unpopular foot soldiers in the nation’s $1.2 trillion auto loan market. They don’t make the loans or issue the repossession orders that, for some high-risk customers, can come as soon as a single payment is days late. But they are the closest most people come to a faceless, sophisticated financial system that can upend their lives.

– – –

Relentless Recovery is Ohio's largest company in the business of repossessing vehicles. Must credit: Photo by Dustin Franz for The Washington Post
Relentless Recovery is Ohio’s largest company in the business of repossessing vehicles. (Dustin Franz/For the Washington Post)

Lewis rolled to a far corner of the parking lot, next to an apartment building overlooking Lake Erie, and called the BMW’s lender.

“I’m sitting on a live hit for you,” he said.

He texted for a company tow truck. It was seven minutes away. This was the hard part. He had to just hope the vehicle’s driver didn’t come out and drive away. It would be like watching a fish wiggle free of the hook.

He sat in silence, one of the few times his spotter car wasn’t logging new plates, each one trumpeted by a video-game-like bing. The system picked up passing cars. Parked cars. Cars stashed in driveways. As many as 10,000 every eight-hour shift.

Lewis compared each scan to planting a seed.

“Is it going to grow into a repo?” he said. “Or are they going to pay their bills?”

Lewis works for Relentless Recovery, the largest repo company in Ohio and its busiest collector of license plate scans. Last year, the company repossessed more than 25,500 vehicles — including tractor trailers and riding lawn mowers.

Business has more than doubled since 2014, the company said. Even with the rising deployment of remote engine cutoffs and GPS locators in cars, repo agencies remain dominant.

Relentless scanned 28 million license plates last year, a demonstration of its recent, heavy push into technology. It now has more than 40 camera-equipped vehicles, mostly spotter cars. Agents are finding repos they never would have a few years ago.

The company’s goal is to capture every plate in Ohio and use that information to reveal patterns. A plate shot outside an apartment at 5 a.m. tells you that’s probably where the driver spends the night, no matter their listed home address. So when a repo order comes in for a car, the agent already knows where to look.

“It’s kind of scary, but it’s amazing,” said Alana Ferrante, chief executive of Relentless.

Lewis, 33, got his start repossessing cars when he was 14, helping his dad tow vehicles in the dead of night. His dad moved on to construction. But Lewis kept at it, eventually getting burned out on chasing cars. He went to work as a firefighter and paramedic — which provoked very different reactions from people — before returning a few years ago to the job he knew best. And for a while, the job remained mostly the same. He’d prowl around in a tow truck, armed with paper orders and a map, just praying the target vehicle was parked where it was supposed to be.

That all changed in recent years.

Repos remain risky. Lewis has had a gun pointed at him three times and a cigarette stubbed out on his forehead once. He’s had people come out screaming at him. He’s seen them break down in tears.

Lewis, who as operations director still regularly does repos, tries to follow one main rule: “Don’t make someone’s bad situation worse.” So he avoided hospital parking lots. But he loved shopping malls, especially the last row of lots, where the employees park. Discount stores were another target.

“For getting a live hit, this is the place to be,” he said earlier, weaving his way past rows of cars outside a Dollar General.

It could feel like he was preying on the poor. Lewis said he just went where the repos were. Even then, repos clustered in unexpected ways. Lewis pointed to one apartment complex so stocked with repos it became his honey hole. Yet similar buildings nearby were repo deserts.

Nationwide, repo agents described a broadening base of people struggling to stay current on their auto loans. In the old days, agents picked up mostly entry-level cars — Chevy Chevettes and Dodge Neons.

“Now it’s all over the place,” said Altes, the Daytona Beach agent, who is also the former head of the repo trade group Time Finance Adjusters.

Agents today get assignments for high-end brands such as Mercedes-Benz. They take the new cars of Uber drivers. Relentless picked up its first 2018 model last year, just weeks after it debuted. The only cars still rarely seen are Subarus and Volvos — the unflashy favorites of the urbane upper middle class.

Now, Lewis kept his eye on the blue BMW, a vehicle that might cost $37,000 new but after more than a decade was worth less than $8,000. The tow truck rolled up. Lewis slipped on a pair of work gloves.

“You ready?” he shouted at the tow truck driver.

The best repo is a quick “hook and roll.” This wasn’t one of them. The BMW had all-wheel drive. All four wheels needed to be off the ground. The tow truck swung its lift under the rear tires of the backed-in BMW. Lewis and the tow driver jumped out to assemble a metal dolly to raise the front tires. Time crawled. Lewis scanned the lot. A woman walked toward them. He watched with relief as she climbed into a different car.

“See you, guys,” the tow truck driver shouted, pulling away with the bounty — worth about $400 to Relentless.

First repo of the day. Thousands of seeds planted.

– – –

Travis Wolford, 24, cleans personal belongings out of a newly repossessed car at Relentless Recovery's lot in April. Must credit: Photo by Dustin Franz for The Washington Post
Travis Wolford, 24, cleans personal belongings out of a newly repossessed car at Relentless Recovery’s lot in April. (Dustin Franz/For the Washington Post)

Although there are no national auto repossession statistics, other measures point to a growing problem. More than 4 percent of auto loans were at least 90 days late at the end of 2017 — the highest rate in five years. That number jumps to almost 10 percent for subprime auto loans alone, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Affordability is one factor. The average new car price has soared 20 percent over a decade, to $35,500, while wages have been sluggish. Auto loans now carry higher balances and longer terms, stretching out the timeline for trouble to appear.

Analysts point to a period from 2014 to 2016, when auto lenders got too loose with credit. That helped the United States sell a record number of automobiles in 2016. But it also pushed the delinquency rate higher.

“As a result, the markets pulled back a little bit,” said Amy Crews Cutts, chief economist at Equifax.

The rate of auto loan write-offs — which includes repos — is trending higher but remains below its 2009 peak, according to Equifax numbers.

Repo agents have their own theories about what’s going on — from fading attachment to vehicles to an increased willingness to walk away, a lesson learned from the housing crisis. One national list of active automobile repossession orders reached 360,000 this year, more than double what it was at the same time last year.

Lewis believed the industry followed a pulse. April was always slow because people made car payments with tax refunds. But repos soared on bad news, such as with the loss of 1,500 autoworker jobs in Lordstown, Ohio, announced this year. Lewis recently heard that a nuclear power plant near Cleveland might shutter.

“I expect we’ll see some from that,” he said.

His own industry has seen changes, too. Regulators, led by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, have cracked down on the job’s outlaw attitude. Lenders have pushed agents to take certification courses. Last year, Relentless switched its 120 workers from contractors to employees in an effort to change the culture and its incentives.

The camera systems have made agents more productive but also opened them up to new challenges.

Repo agents are responsible for the majority of the billions of license plate scans produced nationwide. But they don’t control the information. Most of that data is owned by Digital Recognition Network (DRN), a Fort Worth company that is the largest provider of license-plate-recognition systems. And DRN sells the information to insurance companies, private investigators — even other repo agents.

DRN is a sister company to Vigilant Solutions, which provides the plate scans to law enforcement, including police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Both companies declined to respond to questions about their operations. The potential misuse of the plate data has drawn criticism from privacy groups. A federal court in Nevada ruled in January that the scans do not amount to unwarranted surveillance because they are essentially snapshots taken in public.

Still, officials in Alameda, California, this year put on hold a contract to buy Vigilant’s technology over worries the scans could be used for federal immigration enforcement.

For repo companies, one worry is whether they are producing information that others are monetizing.

– – –

Relentless Recovery uses cars equipped with cameras that can instantly detect a license plate and alert the driver if a car is targeted for repossession. Must credit: Photo by Dustin Franz for The Washington Post
Relentless Recovery uses cars equipped with cameras that can instantly detect a license plate and alert the driver if a car is targeted for repossession. (Dustin Franz/For the Washington Post)

Now it was after midnight and Lewis was back at work, trying to rouse himself with Red Bull. This time he drove a tow truck. And he had his eye on a potential repo: a 2016 Chevy Cruze.

The order was only a few hours old. Half of Relentless’s repos are found within the first two days. After 10 days, most vehicles disappear.

But Lewis had a plate scan for the Chevy taken five days earlier, at 8:39 a.m. outside an apartment complex. He bet that was the car owner’s home.

Lewis loved being back in a hulking Ford F-450. Moving to a spotter car had been “like getting neutered,” he said. But he realized the change was better for business.

“I had to ask myself, ‘Do I want to make money, or do I want to look like a tough guy in a tow truck?’ ” he said.

He pulled up to a quiet garden-style apartment complex. The plate scan’s GPS coordinates pointed to exactly where the car should be. And it was.

The tow truck’s rumble seemed impossibly loud. Darkened apartment windows lined the parking lot. Lewis backed up the truck and guided the lift. He jumped out with a flashlight and verified it was the right car. He got back in, lifted the vehicle higher and pulled away. A real hook and roll.

Safely out of sight, he pulled over to inspect the vehicle. He could see a woman’s sunglasses in the front console. A “black ice” air freshener and knickknacks dangled from the rearview mirror. In the back was a child’s car seat.

Lewis didn’t flinch. He knew a mother was probably going to walk outside in the morning and realize her car was gone. She might call the police to report it stolen. But she had to have known this moment was coming after a flurry of lender late notices and phone calls. Lewis understood. What do you do against the inevitable? He has four children of his own. He had paid to get strangers’ cars out of repo before. But this was his job. He’d been doing it most of his life. And technology hadn’t yet figured out how to soften the blow.

After her car was towed to Relentless, the woman’s personal items would be stored in a cardboard box, amid the stacks of boxes from other repos. The car might be gone, the missed payments and repo fee too much to make up, but she could get her items back for $50.

The repo man had a policy, part of that aim to not make a bad situation worse.

The child’s car seat was always returned for free.

Scientists Change Biology with Technology


Scientists Change Biology with Technology

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Imagine storing digital information in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the substance that carries genetic information in the cells of living things.

What about wearing a device that makes you more intelligent or creating new materials by changing the genes of microorganisms?

These ideas may sound unreal, but scientists are creating technologies that use their knowledge of biology and make changes with a computer. These scientists are working with artificial intelligence (AI), using the power of computers to copy intelligent human behavior.

Some of the researchers presented their findings at the 2018 Milken Institute Global Conference. The meeting was held recently in Los Angeles, California.

The researchers spoke at a group discussion called “Things That Will Blow Your Mind.”

“The machine finds stuff in biology that a human would never find,” said Joshua Hoffman, chief executive officer of Zymergen. He said his company is performing experiments that would never have been possible just a few years ago.

Changing microbial genes

Zymergen uses computers to design experiments that change the genetic structure of microorganisms. As a result of the changes, the chemicals produced by microbes can make stronger or better materials.

Zymergen uses computers to design experiments that change the genetic structure of microorganisms.

Zymergen uses computers to design experiments that change the genetic structure of microorganisms.

“We use automation and machine learning to engineer microbes… to turn them into the chemical factories of the future,” Hoffman said. “What we’re doing is we’re searching the genome for the things that might work. What machine learning does is it looks for patterns that a human wouldn’t find in ways that are more likely than not to have the genetic changes in the genome that are going to have the impact, the trait, that we want.”

Hoffman said that what takes humans years to discover, computers can do in months. His company works mainly with the chemicals and materials industry, as well as agricultural companies.

He added that Zymergen works on creating non-harmful chemical products that protect plants from disease.

Improving the human brain

Vivienne Ming set up Socos Labs, an independent research group.

Ming studies how the brain works. She wants to know if it is possible to make human beings more intelligent by physically putting things into their brain.

“How much you can think about, pay attention to, mentally operate on at any given moment … we’ve actually found that we can increase that by about 15 percent,” she said.

Laboratories around the world are already studying different ways to improve the brain’s cognition and treat conditions like autism and depression.

Ming said one example of how this research could help is by improving the cognition of under-served children.

Instead of requiring students to attend special classes, Ming said, “We might actually be able to use that technology that brings them right back up with the rest of the kids.”

In a world with artificial intelligence, improving cognition is one way for humans to compete with machines, she added.

DNA information storage

Hyunjun Park and his company, Catalog, make artificial DNA used to store digital information.

Hyunjun Park, and his company, Catalog, make artificial DNA used to store digital information.

Hyunjun Park, and his company, Catalog, make artificial DNA used to store digital information.

Park warned that since people are creating so much information from the internet, social media, and wireless communications, we soon will not have enough space to store it. He feels we need a new way to save this information.

Park said current digital forms of information storage take up lot of land and city space. It also costs lots of money to supervise.

However, Park feels that DNA can store much more information, and that it can last thousands of years. He says his company has learned how to do it for less money than other laboratories.

Park said his company’s researchers use a liquid, which they move to look like different pieces of DNA. Then, for storage, they dry it into particles, which are stored in a container.

He said an industrial size model for DNA storage can be ready as early as 2019.

Park says that as biology scientists continue to explore the future of artificial intelligence, investors are starting to pay attention.

“These traditional investors…they are now looking at biotech and seeing this as really the future of innovation,” Park said.

I’m Phil Dierking.

Elizabeth Lee reported this story for VOANews.com. Phil Dierking adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

What do you think they will learn about Mars? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

artificial – adj. made, produced, or done to seem like something natural​

automation – n. to run or operate (something, such as a factory or system) by using machines, computers, etc., instead of people to do the work​

cognition – n. the activities of thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering​

digital – adj. using or characterized by computer technology​

genome – n. the complete set of genes or genetic material present in a cell or organism.​

impact – n. the act or force of one thing hitting another​

innovation – n. the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods​

trait – n. a quality that makes one person or thing different from another​

stuff – n. materials, supplies, or equipment​

pattern – n. the regular and repeated way in which something happens or is done​

Autonomous Helicopter Technology Wins Another Major Award


The Howard Hughes Award — given by the American Helicopter Society — was presented here May 17 to the Office of Naval Research and Aurora Flight Sciences for their joint work on the Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System, or AACUS.

Marine Corps Sgt. Dionte Jones watches as an UH-1 “Huey” helicopter equipped with the Office of Naval Research-sponsored Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System kit departs the landing zone following a resupply mission he requested using a handheld tablet at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

Marine Corps Sgt. Dionte Jones watches as an UH-1 “Huey” helicopter equipped with the Office of Naval Research-sponsored Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System kit departs the landing zone following a resupply mission he requested using a handheld tablet at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

Autonomous Huey

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AACUS enables rotary-wing aircraft to fly completely autonomously even in austere environments.

“The team is honored to be recognized for our work,” said Knox Millsaps, head of Office of Naval Research’s air warfare and weapons department. “But we’ll know if our work has been a real success if it can keep even one more warfighter safe and out of harm’s way during a resupply mission — that’s our true measure of success.”

Sensors, Software Package

AACUS is a package of sensors and software that can be integrated into rotary-wing aircraft to provide safe, reliable and rapid delivery of cargo to Marines in the field using autonomous capabilities. These capabilities include flight, route planning, obstacle avoidance, landing selection — even on unprepared fields — and takeoffs.

AACUS employs an intuitive handheld tablet that allows a Marine in the field to call up needed supplies quickly and easily.

That capability was on display in December 2017 when AACUS successfully completed its final demonstration — featuring a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter — at the Urban Training Center at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. A highlight of the demonstration included a Marine requesting an autonomous resupply after only 15 minutes of training.

An UH-1 “Huey” helicopter equipped with an Office of Naval Research-sponsored Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System kit makes an approach for landing during final testing at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

An UH-1 “Huey” helicopter equipped with an Office of Naval Research-sponsored Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System kit makes an approach for landing during final testing at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

Huey Kit

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Revolutionary Technology

“The AACUS technology provides a revolutionary way to resupply our forces in the field,” Millsaps said. “It could simplify the logistics train for supplying critical warfighting cargo to forward-deployed troops, and do this in a more economical manner without placing human pilots at risk in high-threat environments.”

AACUS has won and been nominated for other high-profile awards as well. In addition to receiving the Howard Hughes Award, the technology was a finalist for the recent National Aeronautic Association’s 2017 Robert J. Collier Trophy.

And earlier this month, the program received the Xcellence Award in the category of “Detect and Avoid” from the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International.

AACUS was developed under an Office of Naval Research innovative naval prototype program in partnership with technology company Aurora Flight Sciences. The program is now with the Marine Corps for further experimentation and development.