3G void limits West Bank’s smartphone revolution

Updated 24 January 2018
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3G void limits West Bank’s smartphone revolution

LIKE MANY YOUNG Palestinians, Amir was excited to get his first smartphone, despite the heavy price tag. But he did not keep it long after realizing the lack of 3G network meant its applications were largely unusable.
“I sold my iPhone because I just couldn’t use it when I was out and about,” said the Internet cafe worker, who asked to be given a pseudonym.
“It’s expensive to buy a smartphone, so without the full benefits there’s no point having one,” he added.
With the latest Samsung Galaxy or iPhone costing $400 it is a considerable investment, but for those keeping pace with developments on Twitter and Facebook, a smartphone has become the tool of choice.
As telecom companies in the Middle East prepare to launch the next generation of high-speed mobile phone Internet services, commonly known as 4G, the Palestinian territories still have no access to 3G, meaning they are unable to fully use their smartphones on the go.
As a result, most mobile phone owners simply do not use 3G. And many feel the cost of a smartphone is hardly worthwhile.
“I can’t get 3G with a Palestinian provider, so I have to have two contracts, one Palestinian and one Israeli, which is cumbersome and expensive,” said 27-year-old Jeryes, who runs a bookshop in Ramallah.
Israel’s refusal to give Palestinian mobile companies access to the necessary frequencies for 3G means West Bank residents must sign up with an Israeli company to get mobile Internet, but calling rates are more expensive in the territories.
Palestinian mobile operators do not include the price of a phone in their monthly packages, adding to the expense.
Sabri Saidam, telecommunications adviser to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, said Israel had repeatedly refused to grant 3G access to Palestinian phone companies for “security” reasons.
“Over the past few years several requests have been made and have been denied” to import the technology and get access to the frequencies needed for 3G, he said.
“Israel persistently refuses the application for 3G on the basis of security,” Saidam told AFP.
“This is even though there are Israeli companies illegally operating in the Palestinian territories providing 3G for their customers,” he said, referring to the more than 500,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.
But despite being a nuisance for those who want to use 3G, the issue for most Palestinians is primarily political.
Mobile phone shop worker Alaa Qawasmi, 27, said he was more angry about what the Israeli stranglehold on 3G represented.
“The main reason we don’t have 3G is because of the occupation,” he said. “Meanwhile, the technology Israeli phone users have is far better, and there are so many services we can’t use.”
But the obstacle can be overcome, thanks to wireless technology.
“It doesn’t affect me much,” said Omar, an IT worker in hospitals who did not wish to give his real name.
“Almost everywhere has wireless Internet.”
Mobile users can sit in cafes or at home, using connections there to have full access to their smartphone features — though some such as digital maps are not updated for West Bank residents, meaning the usefulness of the smartphone is limited, said Omar.
3G “would be nice to have, but we have more important problems here,” he said.
A campaign launched by an IT expert during a visit by US President Barack Obama in March to draw attention to the lack of 3G in Ramallah was dismissed by some commentators as potentially overshadowing more crucial political issues.
Ruba Abu Roqqti, visiting her local phone shop, said what was more important was having Internet access at all, let alone on the move.
“If you’re disconnected from the web it means you’re half-dead,” she jested — before asking what 3G actually was.
“If it were available, that would be good,” she said, “but it’s not a big problem, I hadn’t even heard of it.”
Though the 3G issue looks far from being sorted, the Palestinians did celebrate a more significant web-based victory in May, as Internet giant Google recognized their upgraded UN status, placing the name “Palestine” on its search engine instead of “Palestinian Territories.”
Posters on the way into Ramallah from the Israeli-controlled Qalandia checkpoint in the West Bank urged Internet users to “log on” to Google.ps and support the Palestinian cause of achieving full independent statehood.


Amazon’s ‘collaborative’ robots offer peek into the future

A woman works at a distribution station at the 855,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, on February 5, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 20 February 2019
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Amazon’s ‘collaborative’ robots offer peek into the future

  • Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centers, which chief technologist for Amazon Robotics Tye Brady says have changed the way the company operates

NEW YORK: Hundreds of orange robots zoom and whiz back and forth like miniature bumper cars — but instead of colliding, they’re following a carefully plotted path to transport thousands of items ordered from online giant Amazon.
A young woman fitted out in a red safety vest, with pouches full of sensors and radio transmitters on her belt and a tablet in hand, moves through their complicated choreography.
This robot ballet takes place at the new Amazon order fulfillment center that opened on Staten Island in New York in September.
In an 80,000 square-meter (855,000 square-foot) space filled with the whirring sounds of machinery, the Seattle-based e-commerce titan has deployed some of the most advanced instruments in the rapidly growing field of robots capable of collaborating with humans.
The high-tech vest, worn at Amazon warehouses since last year, is key to the whole operation — it allows 21-year-old Deasahni Bernard to safely enter the robot area, to pick up an object that has fallen off its automated host, for example, or check if a battery needs replacing.
Bernard only has to press a button and the robots stop or slow or readjust their dance to accommodate her.

Amazon now counts more than 25 robotic centers, which chief technologist for Amazon Robotics Tye Brady says have changed the way the company operates.
“What used to take more than a day now takes less than an hour,” he said, explaining they are able to fit about 40 percent more goods inside the same footprint.
For some, these fulfillment centers, which have helped cement Amazon’s dominant position in global online sales, are a perfect illustration of the looming risk of humans being pushed out of certain business equations in favor of artificial intelligence.
But Brady argues that robot-human collaboration at the Staten Island facility, which employs more than 2,000 people, has given them a “beautiful edge” over the competition.
Bernard, who was a supermarket cashier before starting at Amazon, agrees.
“I like this a lot better than my previous jobs,” she told AFP, as Brady looked on approvingly.
What role do Amazon employees play in what Brady calls the human-robot “symphony?“
In Staten Island, on top of tech-vest wearers like Bernard, there are “stowers,” “pickers” and “packers” who respectively load up products, match up products meant for the same customers and build shipping boxes — all with the help of screens and scanners.
At every stage, the goal is to “extend people’s capabilities” so the humans can focus on problem-solving and intervene if necessary, according to Brady.
At the age of 51, he has worked with robotics for 33 years, previously as a spacecraft engineer for MIT and on lunar landing systems of the Draper Laboratory in Massachusetts.
He is convinced the use of “collaborative robots” is the key to future human productivity — and job growth.
Since Amazon went all-in on robotics with the 2012 acquisition of logistics robot-maker Kiva, gains have been indisputable, Brady says.
They’ve created 300,000 new jobs, bringing the total number of worldwide Amazon employees up to 645,000, not counting seasonal jobs.
“It’s a myth that robotics and automation kills jobs, it’s just a myth,” according to Brady.
“The data really can’t be denied on this: the more robots we add to our fulfillment centers, the more jobs we are creating,” he said, without mentioning the potential for lost jobs at traditional stores.

For Brady, the ideal example of human-robot collaboration is the relationship between “R2D2” and Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars.”
Their partnership, in which “R2D2” is always ready to use his computing powers to pull people out of desperate situations “is a great example of how humans and robots can work together,” he said.
But despite Brady’s enthusiasm for a robotic future, many are suspicious of the trend — a wariness that extends to the corporate giant, which this month scrapped high-profile plans for a new New York headquarters in the face of local protests.
Attempts by Amazon employees to unionize, at Staten Island and other sites, have so far been successfully fought back by the company, further fueling criticism.
At a press briefing held last month as part of the unionization push, one employee of the facility, Rashad Long, spoke out about what he said were unsustainable work conditions.
“We are not robots, we are human beings,” Long said.

Many suspect Amazon’s investment in robotics centers aims to eventually automate positions currently held by humans.
For Kevin Lynch, an expert in robotics from Northwestern University near Chicago, the development of collaborative robots is “inevitable” and will indeed eventually eliminate certain jobs, such as the final stage of packing at Amazon for instance.
“I also think other jobs will be created,” he said. “But it’s easier to predict the jobs that will be lost than the jobs that will be created.”
“Robotics and artificial intelligence bring clear benefits to humanity, in terms of our health, welfare, happiness, and quality of life,” said Lynch, who believes public policy has a key role to play in ensuring those benefits are shared, and that robotics and AI do not sharpen economic inequality.
“The growth of robotics and AI is inevitable,” he said. “The real question is, ‘how do we prepare for our future with robots?“