October 25, 2021

In Search of a Robot More Like Us

The task requires hardly any thought. But as Dr. Brooks points out, training a robot to do it is a vastly harder problem for artificial intelligence researchers than I.B.M.’s celebrated victory on “Jeopardy!” this year with a robot named Watson.

Although robots have made great strides in manufacturing, where tasks are repetitive, they are still no match for humans, who can grasp things and move about effortlessly in the physical world.

Designing a robot to mimic the basic capabilities of motion and perception would be revolutionary, researchers say, with applications stretching from care for the elderly to returning overseas manufacturing operations to the United States (albeit with fewer workers).

Yet the challenges remain immense, far higher than artificial intelligence hurdles like speaking and hearing.

“All these problems where you want to duplicate something biology does, such as perception, touch, planning or grasping, turn out to be hard in fundamental ways,” said Gary Bradski, a vision specialist at Willow Garage, a robot development company based here in Silicon Valley.

“It’s always surprising, because humans can do so much effortlessly.”

Now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, the Pentagon office that helped jump-start the first generation of artificial intelligence research in the 1960s, is underwriting three competing efforts to develop robotic arms and hands one-tenth as expensive as today’s systems, which often cost $100,000 or more.

Last month President Obama traveled to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to unveil a $500 million effort to create advanced robotic technologies needed to help bring manufacturing back to the United States. But lower-cost computer-controlled mechanical arms and hands are only the first step.

There is still significant debate about how even to begin to design a machine that might be flexible enough to do many of the things humans do: fold laundry, cook or wash dishes. That will require a breakthrough in software that mimics perception.

Today’s robots can often do one such task in limited circumstances, but researchers describe their skills as “brittle.” They fail if the tiniest change is introduced. Moreover, they must be reprogrammed in a cumbersome fashion to do something else.

Many robotics researchers are pursuing a bottom-up approach, hoping that by training robots on one task at a time, they can build a library of tasks that will ultimately make it possible for robots to begin to mimic humans.

Others are skeptical, saying that truly useful machines await an artificial intelligence breakthrough that yields vastly more flexible perception.

The limits of today’s most sophisticated robots can be seen in a towel-folding demonstration that a group of students at the University of California, Berkeley, posted on the Internet last year: In spooky, anthropomorphic fashion, a robot deftly folds a series of towels, eyeing the corners, smoothing out wrinkles and neatly stacking them in a pile.

It is only when the viewer learns that the video is shown at 50 times normal speed that the meager extent of the robot’s capabilities becomes apparent. (The students acknowledged this spring that they were only now beginning to tackle the further challenges of folding shirts and socks.)

Even the most ambitious and expensive robot arm research has not yet yielded impressive results.

In February, for example, Robonaut 2, a dexterous robot developed in a partnership between NASA and General Motors, was carried aboard a space shuttle mission to be installed on the International Space Station. The developers acknowledged that the software required by the system, which is humanoid-shaped from the torso up, was unfinished and that the robot was sent up then only because a rare launching window was available.

“We’re in a funny chicken-and-egg situation,” Dr. Brooks said. “No one really knows what sensors or perceptual algorithms to use because we don’t have a working hand, and because we don’t have a grasping strategy nobody can figure out what kind of hand to design.”

Dr. Brooks is also tackling the problem: In 2008 he founded Heartland Robotics, a Boston-based company that is intent on building a generation of low-cost robots.

And the three competing efforts to develop robotic arms and hands with Darpa financing — at SRI International, Sandia National Laboratories and iRobot — offer some reasons for optimism.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=0875e98b645b6afc8f3d24028e202ba4

Italy Approves an Austerity Package

The three-year plan is designed to eliminate the government’s budget deficit by 2014. The package is balanced between lowering spending and increasing revenues, Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti said, adding that the measures should also spur the growth of Italy’s dawdling economy.

“Reducing the budget deficit is not just about numbers, it is a political and ethical objective of a country,” Mr. Tremonti said at a news conference. “It is reflected in choices of responsibilities between citizens and generations.”

The plan now goes to Parliament, which is expected to vote on it before the summer recess. But tensions over the measures have flared repeatedly within the cabinet in recent weeks, and the package is likely to face hurdles in Parliament.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has said that he would ask for a confidence vote.

Mr. Tremonti did not provide details on the final version of the budget, but draft versions indicated that the bulk of the cuts would come from reductions in spending on local governments and ministry budgets, an extension of existing wage and hiring freezes for public workers and reductions in tax breaks for companies and families.

In addition, the drafts called for increases in costs to the public for some medical services and a gradual increase in the age at which women will be eligible for pensions.

A commission will consider reductions in politicians’ salaries and benefits, to bring public officials’ compensation in line with European Union standards.

Greece’s debt crisis has brought much attention to the finances of other European countries in recent months. Italy’s public debt is about 120 percent of its gross domestic product, which is one of the highest ratios in the world and has put the nation under particular scrutiny.

Growth remains sluggish — just 0.1 percent in the first quarter of this year. Confindustria, Italy’s principal business association, said last month that it had cut its economic growth forecasts to 0.9 percent for 2011 and 1.1 percent for 2012, and it warned that the forecasts could drop even lower if the government’s finances were not overhauled.

Moody’s warned in June that it could downgrade Italy’s credit rating, a month after Standard Poor’s changed its credit rating for the country from stable to negative.

The most significant measures in the new austerity package would go into effect only in 2013 and 2014, after the current government’s mandate expires in 2013. These are designed to yield about $58 billion of the plan’s $68 billion in savings. Opposition leaders and some economists criticized the backloading of the plan, saying that drastic cuts to government spending were the only credible way to sort out Italy’s financial problems.

“They put off until later difficult decisions to make,” said Francesco Daveri, an economist at the University of Parma. “But correcting pensions in 2020, in politics that’s like saying who knows when that’ll happen.”

Some analysts said that the government, reeling from recent losses in local elections and referendums, had little political freedom to propose bold but unpopular measures.

But others said that by putting off the bulk of the austerity measures, the government’s actions were less credible. “This is not the right signal,” said Tito Michele Boeri, a professor of economics at Bocconi University in Milan.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/01/world/europe/01italy.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Your Money: On the Hunt For a Better 401(k) Plan

If you work for a large employer, there are often people in human resources with their own ideas about what the investment choices should be and how everyone should share in the costs. And there may be a committee, too, that helps govern things.

Then again, the stakes are often a little lower. Larger employers, thanks to plans that are stuffed with thousands of workers’ life savings, tend to have better investment choices and lower costs. Smaller employers, with little leverage and few or no assets, routinely end up with expensive plans and subpar investment choices.

And then there’s Alan Wenker, the controller for Feed Products North, a small company in Maplewood, Minn., that sells minerals to animal feed mills. Armed with a pretty good understanding of the markets, he still spent an entire decade engaged in stop-and-start efforts to find a better plan for himself and the 25 or so colleagues he has today.

Yes, you read that right. Ten years. It should not take that long, and the marketplace for retirement plans for smaller employers has improved a bit since Mr. Wenker set out on his quest.

Still, anyone at a smaller company who would like to cut costs in half while also improving the investment choices, as he did, would be wise to consider the hurdles he had to clear and the obstacles in his way.

So why are all the details so important? Most people starting their careers now will spend 45 years trying to save enough so they can stop working someday. But if the investment costs and fees inside your 401(k) or similar fund average, say, 1 percent of your assets each year instead of 0.25 percent, the difference can cost over $100,000 by the time those 45 years are up.

And that’s just the fees side. Most actively managed mutual funds, which try to pick investments that will do better than an index of similar securities, often don’t actually outperform that index over long periods of time. Even so, many employers, out of ignorance or blind faith, don’t provide a full menu of index funds in their retirement plans.

Mr. Wenker was only beginning to understand all this in 2000, when he went to work for Feed Products North. He’s 47 years old now, but he’d spent the bulk of his adulthood paying off his student loans and hadn’t paid much attention to the details of the 401(k) plan he had access to at a previous job.

His new company had no plan at all in 2000, so he decided to start one. And he took the path of least resistance, signing up for the 401(k) plan that his company’s payroll processor, ADP, offered. When Feed Products North switched to Paychex a couple of years later, Mr. Wenker moved the plan as well.

All along, however, his opinions about investing were evolving. He’d read Andrew Tobias’s book “The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need” and became a fan of the public radio show now called “Marketplace Money.”

As Mr. Wenker became more aware of the importance of diversification and low costs, he said he realized that his Paychex plan had no index funds and was costing him and his colleagues about 2 percent of their balances each year. (Paul Davidson, director of product management at Paychex, said the company had done some research and discovered that the high costs resulted from Mr. Wenker getting assistance from an outside broker. Mr. Wenker countered that his Paychex representative had urged him to use a broker but that no broker even called him for two years to help with the plan until he urged Paychex to intervene.)

After his realization, Mr. Wenker started shopping around, even picking up the phone when the cold callers rang. “But you always end up at the same place that you already are,” he said. “which is a set of mutual funds and a nice guy with a glossy brochure. But the funds are essentially all the same. They tend to have higher expenses, because they have to pay for the guy in the suit with the glossy brochures.”

As Mr. Wenker got wise to the sales pitches, he often found himself dumbfounded. “I once had a stockbroker nearly yell at me that there was no such thing as a no-load mutual fund,” he said, referring to the front-end and other fees that mutual fund companies sometimes charge and that the broker was insisting were mandatory. “I stared at him in utter disbelief. There are people that believe that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time. So I can’t convince you to believe something you don’t want to.”

Why such ignorance? Jessica Weiner, who spent years working at insurance companies that pitched plans to small businesses before starting a consulting group called the Value Quotient, has an explanation. “One of the realities you have in the smaller market is that the brokers who get involved with a plan are typically benefits experts,” she said. “I call them incidental brokers.”

As in, 401(k)’s are incidental to them. An afterthought. Where they really make their money is pushing health, life and other insurance, especially policies aimed at senior executives and company owners.

At one point in his search, Mr. Wenker thought to call Vanguard, since it had the broadest selection of index funds and the lowest costs at the time. But Vanguard does not administer 401(k) plans for small companies.

Here is what is supposed to happen today if someone like Mr. Wenker calls Vanguard, according to Gerry Mullane, a principal in the company’s institutional investor group: The representative should refer the caller to a local financial planner or smaller administrator who can help set up a retirement plan that includes Vanguard funds.

Mr. Wenker did not receive a referral when he called several years ago, so he continued his hunt. “Maybe I should have called Vanguard back 25 times until I understood it completely,” he said. “But that’s not all I have to do. A sense of practicality jumps in there as well.”

And therein lies one of the biggest challenges for anyone like him. If you run the finance operation of a small company, you have hundreds of tasks to take care of. Fixing a middling 401(k) plan is something you end up doing on your own time, if you can even make the time when you’re also a father, as Mr. Wenker is.

His breakthrough came in 2008, when he stumbled upon an article about Dimensional Fund Advisors, a mutual fund company that does not attempt to pick stocks but constructs its low-cost portfolios in a way that often ends up outperforming index funds by a bit.

Mr. Wenker called the company for help. Generally, it only lets people invest in its funds through financial advisers. So it put him in touch with Stephen Varley in Minneapolis, and within a year, Mr. Wenker and his colleagues had a new plan with better funds, personalized advice and an overall cost that was more than 50 percent less than what they had been paying before.

Tales like these don’t always have happy endings. The company owner may be a friend or a relative of the person making money by servicing your retirement plan. Or you may have delusional colleagues in charge of the retirement plan who think they can pick market-beating investments with their third arms when they’re not doing their day jobs.

But if you’re like Mr. Wenker, whose boss let him make the call, there are some options available now that can help. Many, in fact, are cheaper than using funds from Dimensional Fund Advisors while also paying for a financial adviser’s time.

I’d start with administrators like Employee Fiduciary, the Online 401(k) and Invest n Retire. They should all be able to provide a plan with low-cost mutual funds or other investments. The ShareBuilder 401(k) plans are also worth a look, as is Charles Schwab’s new initiative to set up plans that include only exchange-traded funds.

If those five don’t work for you, or if you decide, as Mr. Wenker did, that you want an adviser on call, you can phone Vanguard at 1-800-841-7999 and ask for the referral that Mr. Wenker didn’t get several years ago. Dimensional offers referrals, too.

This sort of pursuit will require a bit of baseline knowledge on your part. If you don’t have a head for numbers or lack confidence in your analytical skills, draft someone who does and reel in other allies if you can.

“You have to be a nerd like me to even care about this,” Mr. Wenker said. “For me, it was a labor of love.”

And if it isn’t love for you? Just think about the $100,000 you stand to lose and see if that inspires your inner nerd.

Twitter: @ronlieber

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=d561b6cd9215106ebd9be914a3beda06

Borrowing Costs Rise for Portugal Despite Deal on Bailout

The auction, which raised €1.1 billion, or $1.6 billion, came hours after José Sócrates, the caretaker prime minister, announced that he had agreed to terms for a loan package of €78 billion from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

The exact terms of the deal, outlined in a nationally televised speech late Tuesday, were expected to be officially confirmed Thursday and only after further talks between the creditors and the center-right Portuguese opposition parties Wednesday.

Mr. Sócrates resigned in March after Parliament refused to endorse his proposals for additional austerity measures. To break the political deadlock, Portugal is set to hold a general election June 5.

But in the meantime, the caretaker government officially asked for assistance last month after the government had failed to meet its 2010 deficit target and investors had sent borrowing costs to record high levels. Those developments heightened concerns about its ability to meet refinancing obligations.

Officials from the I.M.F., the European Commission and the European Central Bank then went to Lisbon to discuss an aid package that would allow Portugal to receive E.U.-led rescue funding by June, the month when it is to face its toughest refinancing hurdles this year.

Underlining Portugal’s economic difficulties, the I.M.F. also forecast last month that the Portuguese economy would contract 1.5 percent this year and 0.5 percent in 2012, which would add up to one of the most protracted downturns in all of Europe.

On Tuesday, Mr. Sócrates, who is negotiating while campaigning for the June 5 election, suggested that Portugal had negotiated better terms for its bailout than those accepted last year by Greece and Ireland. He highlighted creditors’ agreement to give Portugal more time to cut its budget deficit than his government had initially foreseen. He also described the outcome of the negotiations as “a good deal that defends Portugal.”

In the absence of more details about the aid program, however, some analysts poured cold water on his characterization. Also, with the election ahead, the center-right opposition parties are unlikely to want Mr. Sócrates to reap political benefit from negotiating a bailout for which they blame his government in the first place.

Gilles Moec, a fixed-income analyst at Deutsche Bank, said in a research note, “Sócrates may have gone too fast in going public on the package, sidelining the opposition and spinning his role in the negotiations as a protector of his electoral base.”

He added: “It could create a volatile news flow in the coming few days and also create the possibility of some re- negotiation of the package after the elections.”

On Wednesday, Portugal sold three-month Treasury bills at an average yield of 4.65 percent, the country’s debt management agency said. That was higher than the 4.05 percent yield when Portugal last sold such bills April 20. The auction attracted bids for 1.9 times the amount offered, compared with a bid-to-cover ratio of 2 two weeks earlier.

Chiara Cremonesi, a fixed-income analyst at the Italian bank UniCredit, said that the auction had gone well, given that the rise in the cost of financing was below the level on the secondary market.

Still, she urged caution, adding, “Portugal will not be immune over the next months from market pressure, given it still has to convince markets that it has a credible growth strategy and given that the debate of a Greek debt restructuring will continue.”

Meanwhile, Finland moved closer Wednesday to potential support for Portugal’s rescue package, as the biggest party in the Finnish Parliament decided to separate euro rescue negotiations from its talks on forming a coalition government with the True Finns, a party critical of euro-zone bailouts that won 19 percent of the vote in an election last month.

The arrangement could allow Finland to decide on whether to support further euro rescue packages before a meeting of E.U. finance ministers May 16, as well as before the formation of a new Finnish coalition government.

Some analysts expressed surprise Wednesday that Portugal had apparently managed to negotiate a slower deficit-cutting timetable than initially envisaged, as well as terms that might allow it simply to roll over outstanding money-market securities to cover its financing needs next year. The negotiations in Portugal, however, come amid heightened concerns that Greece will soon have to restructure its debt, despite having received emergency funding last year. Greece secured a bailout package worth €110 billion, and Ireland one worth €85 billion.

Under the three-year plan negotiated between the government and creditors, Portugal will need to cut its budget deficit to 5.9 percent of gross domestic product this year, 4.5 percent in 2012 and 3 percent in 2013. That is a slower schedule than that pledged by the government in March, when it said that it aimed for a deficit of 4.6 percent this year, 3 percent in 2012 and 2 percent in 2013. Ralph Solveen, a Commerzbank economist, said that “the relatively moderate conditions of the program indicate that the E.U. and the I.M.F. would also be prepared to show an accommodating stance toward Greece and Ireland with regard to the comparatively harsh terms of their financial aid programs if need be.”The €78 billion package was in line with estimates made last month by senior E.U. officials of what Portugal would require. Analysts estimate that about €12 billion of that money will be channeled toward the banking sector.

“The size of the package signals the determination of the E.U. authorities to ring-fence problems in the periphery, especially given the elevated market concerns about Greece and subsequent contagion risks that could arise from that,” Barclays Capital said in a research note Wednesday.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/05/business/global/05portugal.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Portugal Sells Debt but at a Much Higher Rate

Portugal sold 455 million euros, or $650 million, of one-year Treasury bills at an average yield of 5.9 percent, the country’s debt management agency said. That was significantly higher than the 4.33 percent yield when Portugal last sold such bills on March 16. The auction attracted bids for 2.6 times the amount offered, compared with a bid-to-cover ratio of 2.2 two weeks earlier.

The agency also sold 550 million euros of six-month bills at an average yield of 5.12 percent, compared with a yield of 2.98 percent at a previous auction of on March 2.

The sale came after the ratings agency Moody’s cut the sovereign rating of Portugal on Tuesday for the second time in a month, which helped send yields on Portuguese government debt to their highest levels since the launch of the euro. On Wednesday, Moody’s also downgraded by one or more notches the senior debt and deposit ratings of seven Portuguese banks.

“The weakening credit strength of Portuguese banks is driven by the challenging operating environment and a loss of market confidence that is closely correlated with the sovereign’s credit challenges,” Moody’s said.

Caught in a political crisis and facing tough refinancing hurdles for the next three months, Portugal is under intense pressure from financial markets to join Greece and Ireland in seeking a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg, who also presides over meetings of euro zone ministers, recently estimated that 75 billion euros would be needed.

The Portuguese debt agency provided no indication as to who had been bidding at its auction on Wednesday. However, market analysts have speculated that demand has been bolstered recently by investors from strong emerging markets like Brazil and China.

Portuguese banking executives warned this week that they did not want to take on more sovereign debt, urging the caretaker government of Prime Minister José Sócrates to negotiate an international bridge loan with Portugal’s European partners. Such a stop-gap measure would allow the country to meet its financing obligations until a new government is in place, with sufficient legitimacy to negotiate a possible bailout.

Mr. Sócrates, who had been governing without a parliamentary majority, resigned last month after lawmakers rejected his latest austerity package. Portugal is set to hold another general election on June 5, which would likely mean that a new government would take office at the end of June or in early July, depending on whether the voting produces a clear-cut outcome.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/07/business/global/07euro.html?partner=rss&emc=rss