Buffalo News selected for Google news digital subscriptions lab
The Buffalo News is one of 10 newspaper publishers picked to be part of a new program backed by Google aimed at helping local media build online subscriptions.
The initiative, called the Google News Initiative Subscriptions Lab, is a six-month program aimed at helping those newspapers revamp and improve their digital subscription process.
With the newspaper industry grappling with declining print revenue in the internet age, digital subscriptions are viewed as a key element for local media companies, both now and in the future.
“This effort will give us access to these partners’ tremendous resources as well as insight from peers at other participating newspapers,” said Buffalo News Publisher Warren T. Colville. “I expect it to be a significant boost to our work creating a digitalsubscription business that supports our journalism for years to come.”
The program was developed as a partnership between the Google News Initiative and the Local Media Association, an industry trade group. As part of the program, consultants from FTI Consulting will do an evaluation of each participating publisher’s digital subscription efforts, while also conducting market research to help determine the size and scope of the market and also the willingness of readers to pay.
The publishers also will be able to tap into support from Google teams that have expertise in areas such as data, technology, product and subscriptions.
“We know that reader revenue is our future,” said Brian J. Connolly, The News’ vice president for innovation and business development. “That reader revenue is likely to come from digital subscribers. This is going to give us the resources to jumpstart those efforts.”
The Google program includes 10 publishers of varying sizes across the United States and Canada. The other publishers, selected out of 21 that were invited to apply, include: El Nuevo Día, the Baltimore Sun, the Columbus Dispatch, the Houston Chronicle, the Idaho Press, the Portland (Me.) Press Herald, the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., the Southeast Missourian and the Toronto Star.
The program is expected to be
a French-born researcher, was a key figure in the development of Google Brain, the company’s central artificial intelligence lab. His team recently moved into a new lab on Google’s main campus in Mountain View.
While the machines may not be as eye-catching as humanoid robots, Google researchers believe that the subtly more advanced technology inside them gives them more potential in the real world. The company is developing ways for these robots to learn skills on their own, like sorting through a bin of unfamiliar objects or navigating a warehouse filled with unexpected obstacles.
Google’s new lab is indicative of a broader effort to bring machine learning to robotics. Researchers are exploring similar techniques at places like the University of California, Berkeley, and OpenAI, the artificial intelligence lab founded by the Silicon Valley kingpins Elon Musk and Sam Altman. In recent months, both places have spawned startups trying to commercialize their work.
Many believe that machine learning – not extravagant new devices – will be the key to developing robotics for manufacturing, warehouse automation, transportation and many other tasks.
“Robotics has long held the popular imagination, but what is easily the most important change is the application of machine learning,” said Sunil Dhaliwal, a general partner with Amplify Partners, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. “The utility is in the software.”
Robots are already used in warehouses and on factory floors, but they can handle only specific tasks, like picking up a particular object or turning a screw. Google wants the machines it is working with to learn on their own.
On a recent afternoon inside Google’s new lab, a robotic arm hovered over a bin filled with Ping-Pong balls, wooden blocks, plastic bananas and other random objects. Reaching into this pile of clutter, the arm grabbed a banana between two fingers and, with a gentle flick of the wrist, tossed it into a smaller bin several feet away.
For a robot, it was a remarkable trick. When first presented with that pile of clutter, the arm did not know how to pick up a single object. But equipped with a camera that looked down into the bin, the Google system analyzed its own progress during about 14 hours of trial and error.
The arm eventually learned to toss items into the right bins about 85 percent of the time. When the researchers tried the same task, their accuracy rate was about 80 percent.
It may sound simple enough, but writing computer code to tell a machine how to do that would be extremely difficult. “It is learning more complicated things than I could ever think about,” said Shuran Song, one the primary researchers on the project.
Researchers believe these machines could work in warehouses and distribution centers run by companies like Amazon and UPS. Today, humans sort through items that move in and out of distribution centers. A system like Google’s could automate at least part of the process, though it is unclear when it will be ready for commercial use. Amazon, which has already deployed other kinds of robotics in its distribution centers, is interested in this kind of technology.
But many robotics experts warn that moving this kind of machine learning into the real world will be difficult. Technology that does well in the lab often breaks down inside a distribution center because it can’t deal with unexpected objects it hasn’t seen before or tasks that require movements it has never tried.
“This is not the right solution for all problems,” said Leif Jentoft, chief executive of the Massachusetts company RightHand Robotics and a seasoned robotics researcher. “These technologies can sometimes seem more powerful than they are.”
In another corner of Google’s lab, researchers are training robotic hands to manipulate objects – push, pull and spin them in subtle ways.
The three-fingered hands are hardly complex, at least in the physical sense. The software helping them learn is the breakthrough, and researchers hope the hands can eventually learn to use tools and other equipment.
Google is taking a similar approach with all its robotic hardware. The arm that tosses objects into a bin is not an elaborate machine designed by Google engineers. Built by Universal Robots, it is commonly used for manufacturing and other tasks. Google is training it to do things it couldn’t otherwise do.
“Learning is actually helping us overcome the challenges of low-cost robots,” said Vikash Kumar, the Google researcher who oversees this project.