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Amazon drone unit hit with layoffs as long-awaited program launches

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Amazon drone unit hit with layoffs as long-awaited program launches

Amazon Prime Air drone

Source: Amazon

In 2013, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos appeared on CBS’ “60 Minutes” to reveal a futuristic plan his company had been secretly pursuing to deliver packages by drone in 30 minutes. 

A pre-recorded demo showed an Amazon-branded “octocopter” carrying a small package off a conveyor belt and into the skies to a customer’s home, landing smoothly in the backyard, dropping off the item and then whizzing away. Bezos predicted a fleet of Amazon drones could take to the skies within five years and said, “it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

A decade later, Amazon is finally starting to launch drone deliveries in two small markets through a program called Prime Air. But just as it’s finally getting off the ground, the drone program is running squarely into a sputtering economy and CEO Andy Jassy’s widespread cost-cutting efforts.

CNBC has learned that, as part of Amazon’s plan to slash 18,000 jobs, its biggest headcount reduction in history, Prime Air is losing a significant number of employees. Sources familiar with the matter who asked not to be named for confidentiality said they learned about the Prime Air cuts on Wednesday, when two senior Amazon executives sent emails to employees notifying them that those impacted by the layoffs would be informed shortly. One person realized what was happening when they could no longer access Slack.

Staffers were let go across multiple sites, including Seattle, where Amazon is headquartered. Amazon’s drone test site in Pendleton, Oregon, was hit particularly hard, with half of the team being let go, one Prime Air employee wrote in a LinkedIn post, which he subsequently deleted.

Amazon declined to say how many Prime Air employees were laid off, and a spokesperson pointed back to Jassy’s blog post from earlier this month announcing the companywide cuts.

Jassy has resorted to trimming Amazon’s headcount, which grew massively during the Covid-19 pandemic, as he looks for ways to curtail expenses across the company. As part of his review, Jassy has zeroed in on some of Amazon’s more unproven bets, such as its Alexa, physical stores and robotics divisions. Now Prime Air is being added to the list of targets.

For Bezos, the staff reductions mark the latest setback in an ambitious project that’s been plagued with challenges.

Amazon spent years testing the drone technology in the English countryside to help Bezos realize his vision of even speedier delivery, dropping off some products without having to solely rely on gas-guzzling vehicles clogging up neighborhood roads.

However, the company scaled back its drone operations in the U.K. According to a 2021 story in Wired, Prime Air teams tasked with labeling drone footage raised concerns of managerial dysfunction.

Then in 2019, Jeff Wilke, who was Amazon’s consumer chief at the time, announced drones would be in operation “within months.” A year later, the Federal Aviation Administration gave the company approval to start trialing drone deliveries. 

But doubts about the viability of the drones emerged after the Prime Air unit suffered high turnover and employees said they were pressured to reach ambitious internal targets, sometimes at the risk of safety, according to Bloomberg. Employee departures accelerated after there were multiple crashes at Prime Air’s test site in Pendleton. One incident in June 2021 sparked a 20-acre fire, Insider reported.

“No one has ever been injured or harmed as a result of these flights, and each test is done in compliance with all applicable regulations,” Av Zammit, an Amazon spokesperson, said in an e-mailed statement.

Liftoff finally appeared imminent in 2023. Prime Air head David Carbon, a former Boeing executive who Amazon brought on in 2020, told reporters at an event in November of last year that by the end of the decade, the company had a goal of delivering 500 million packages by drone annually to millions of customers in major cities like Seattle, Boston and Atlanta. Carbon showed off a drone concept Amazon could begin using in 2024 that’s smaller and quieter than its current model.

Two employees said Carbon, who replaced Prime Air co-founder Gur Kimchi, was hired to turn Prime Air into a real business with a sensible budget.

Now, as Prime Air embarks on its most high-stakes real world experiment to date, the parent company is reckoning with slowing growth and macroeconomic headwinds. Jassy said in his announcement about layoffs this month that company leaders are “prioritizing what matters most to customers and the long-term health of our businesses.”

Sources with knowledge of Prime Air said cuts in the drone delivery business were expected considering the division’s many struggles. Employees in the design, maintenance, systems engineering, flight testing and flight operations units were part of the layoffs, the sources said.

Zammit said Amazon remains committed to its delivery operations in its two initial markets — College Station, Texas, and Lockeford, California.

“We will gradually expand deliveries to more customers in those areas over time,” Zammit said. “Our team is also continuing to work on the development of our next-generation drone system.”

Drones in the neighborhood

In College Station, a city about 100 miles northwest of Houston that’s home to Texas A&M University, an Amazon drone delivery center sits just off a state highway, tucked behind a row of car dealerships. At the warehouse on site, all goods must weight five pounds or less.

Four launch and landing pads occupy the grounds, where unmanned aircrafts will be dispatched to take goods to residents in a handful of suburban neighborhoods located within a few miles of the facility.

Lockeford is a town of 3,500 people, south of Sacramento. An Amazon executive said in July that after looking at locations across the country, Amazon chose these two markets because of their demographics and topography.

Nina Rinchich is one of the residents in the College Station area who signed up to try Prime Air. About a month ago, an Amazon employee visited her home in Edelweiss Gartens, a subdivision a few miles south of Amazon’s drone facility.

Prime Air test participants were given a QR-code like tile that instructs the drone where to land.

Tyler Tesch

Rinchich said she’s always embraced new technologies and loves the idea of added convenience. She has a smart TV, an Echo speaker and smart light bulbs in her home. 

“Anything that makes my life easier is a good thing,” Rinchich said. 

Participation in the service requires a Prime membership. Residents also have to live within roughly four miles of the Amazon facility, and their yard has to meet certain specifications, such as being clear of power lines or trees that might obstruct the drone’s flight path. To entice potential participants, Amazon is offering them up to $100 worth of gift cards. 

Once a person signs up, an Amazon employee comes out to measure their backyard. If it meets Amazon’s requirements, the customer is given a tile with a unique QR-like code that helps the drone recognize where to land. The yard should be clear when the drone approaches.

While Rinchich said she signed up “without hesitation,” not everyone in the area shares her enthusiasm.

Some residents of College Station and surrounding towns attended a “meet and greet” session in July, where Amazon displayed a Prime Air drone up close and let people register for the service.

Patrick Williams, a software engineering consultant, took his 12-year-old daughter, Monica. They live in a rural area called Foxfire, less than two miles by car from the Amazon facility. Monica Williams told CNBC that the size of the drone took her by surprise. Each one is about 6.5 feet wide and almost 4 feet tall, weighing 87 pounds. That’s with nothing on board.

Monica Williams, a College Station resident, poses with a Prime Air drone at a community event in July.

Patrick Williams

“It was maybe twice the size of me, or three times. It was huge,” Monica said. “That just makes me nervous to have something that big flying above me all of the time.” 

Debates over safety, privacy

The same month as the meet and greet, College Station’s city council held a meeting with Prime Air employees in attendance.

Concerns about safety, privacy and noise were common themes among residents who spoke at the meeting. One person suggested that neighborhood homeowners’ associations consider banning drone deliveries in their communities altogether.

City Councilman Dennis Maloney asked Sean Cassidy, Prime Air’s director of safety, flight operations and regulatory affairs, how loud the drones would be.

“If I’m a neighbor and I’m nine feet away, is it going to sound like a backfire of a car?” Maloney asked.

“We kind of balk at making direct comparisons to gas powered things,” Cassidy, a former Alaska Airlines pilot, replied. “It’s a whirring noise you’d associate with an electrically powered device that happens to have a propeller attached to it. And it’s for a very short period of time.” 

Prime Air drones are not expected to exceed noise levels of 58 decibels at any property line, according to an FAA environmental assessment issued in December. That’s below the threshold outlined in College Station’s daytime noise ordinance, which says noise at the property line must not exceed 63 decibels, or about as loud as an outdoor air conditioning unit, one official said at the meeting. 

Amazon tried to ease residents’ fears that there will be constant drone traffic overhead. The company expects to conduct up to 25 flights per day over the area eligible for delivery, which is divided into four different zones. 

“It’s a very modest, incremental start and basically that’s the whole purpose of this,” Cassidy said. “To learn through the operational lessons, through the community feedback, through getting direct feedback from our customers on how we can improve the operation.” 

Regarding crashes, Cassidy said those incidents are part of the testing process. He said Amazon has high safety standards for the public trials in College Station and Lockeford.

“We sequester that to the test range with our experimental aircraft, and the reason we do that is we can wring all this stuff out before we put it in front of our customers,” he said. “Our obligation is to make sure that the first and the thousandth delivery are all safe.” 

College Station residents also expressed concern about the prospect of drones harming the deer, foxes and birds that are native to the area. An FAA review of proposed Prime Air operations in College Station found they were unlikely to disturb wildlife. Amazon also assured the FAA it would monitor the flight area for birds like Bald Eagles and woodpeckers and take avoidance measures if determined to be necessary.

Tyler Tesch, a Google software engineer, registered for Prime Air shortly after moving to College Station. He said he received an email from Amazon earlier this month that required him to agree to Prime Air’s terms and conditions, including staying at least 100 feet clear of the drone or inside the home during a delivery and agreeing not to touch the drone or throw anything at it.

“We will be launching the service in phases to members of your community in the coming months,” the email stated. “As we continue to expand, we will update you when drone delivery is available for your household.”

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How Auto-GPT will revolutionize AI chatbots as we know them

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How Auto-GPT will revolutionize AI chatbots as we know them

Artificial intelligence chatbots such as OpenAI LP’s ChatGPT have reached a fever pitch of popularity recently not just for their ability to hold humanlike conversations, but because they can perform knowledge tasks such as research, searches and content generation.

Now there’s a new contender taking social media by storm that extends the capabilities of OpenAI’s offering by automating its abilities even further: Auto-GPT. It’s part of a new class of AI tools called “autonomous AI agents” that take the power of GPT-3.5 and GPT-4, the generative AI technologies behind ChatGPT, to approach a task, build on its own knowledge, and connect apps and services to automate tasks and perform actions on the behalf of users.

ChatGPT might seem magical to users for its ability to answer questions and produce content based on user prompts, such as summarizing large documents or generating poems and stories or writing computer code. However, it’s limited in what it can do because it’s capable of doing only one task at a time. During a session with ChatGPT, a user can prompt the AI with only one question at a time and refining those prompts or questions can be a slow and tedious journey.

Auto-GPT, created by game developer Toran Bruce Richards, takes away these limitations by allowing users to give the AI an objective and a set of goals to meet. Then it spawns a bot that acts like a person would, using OpenAI’s GPT model to perform AI prompts in order to approach that goal. Along the way, it learns to refine its prompts and questions in order to get better results with every iteration.

It also has internet connectivity in order to gather additional information from searches. Moreover, it has short- and long-term memory through database connections so that it can keep track of sub-tasks. And it uses GPT-4 to produce content such as text or code when required. Auto-GPT is also capable of challenging itself when a task is incomplete and filling in the gaps by changing its own prompts to get better results.

According to Richards, although current AI chatbots are extremely powerful, their inability to refine their own prompts on the fly and automate tasks is a bottleneck. “This inspiration led me to develop Auto-GPT, which can apply GPT-4’s reasoning to broader, more complex problems that require long-term planning and multiple steps,” he told Vice.

Auto-GPT is available as open source on GitHub. It requires an application programming interface key from OpenAI to access GPT-4. And to use it, people will need to install Python and a development environment such as Docker or VS Code with a Dev Container extension. As a result, it might take a little bit of technical knowhow to get going, though there’s extensive setup documentation.

How does it work?

In a text interface, Auto-GPT asks the user to give the AI a name, a role, an objective and up to five goals that it should reach. Each of these defines how the AI agents will approach the action the user wants and how it will deliver the final product.

First, the user sets a name for the AI, such as “RestaurantMappingApp-GPT,” and then set a role, such as “Develop a web app that will provide interactive maps for nearby restaurants.” The user can then set a series of goals, such as “Write a back-end in Python” and “Program a front end in HTML,” or “Offer links to menus if available” and “Link to delivery apps.”

Once the user hits enter, Auto-GPT will begin launching agents, which will produce prompts for GPT-4, then approach the original role and each of the different goals. Finally, it will then begin refining and recursing through the different prompts that will allow it to connect to Google Maps using Python or JavaScript.

It does this by breaking the overall job into smaller tasks to work on each, and it uses a primary monitoring AI bot that acts as a “manager” to make sure that they coordinate. This particular prompt asks the bot to build a somewhat complex app that could go awry if it doesn’t keep track of a number of different moving parts, so it might take a large number of steps to get there.

With each step, each AI instance will “narrate” what it’s doing and even criticize itself in order to refine its prompts depending on its approach toward the given goal. Once it reaches a particular goal, each instance will finalize its process and return its answer back to the main management task.

Trying to get ChatGPT or even the more advanced, subscription-based GPT-4 to do this without supervision would take a large number of manual steps that would have to be attended to by a human being. Auto-GPT does them on its own.

The capabilities of Auto-GPT are beneficial for neophyte developers looking to get ahead in the game, Brandon Jung, vice president of ecosystem at AI-code completion tool provider Tabnine Ltd., told SiliconANGLE.

“One benefit is that it’s a good introduction for those that are new to coding, and it allows for quick prototyping,” Jung said. “For use cases that don’t require exactness or have security concerns, it could speed up the creation process without having to be part of a broader system that includes an expert for review.”

Being able to build apps rapidly, including all the code all at once, from a simple series of text prompts would bring a lot of new templates for code into the hands of developers. Essentially providing them with rapid solutions and foundations to build on. However, they would have to go through a thorough review first before being put into production.

What kind of applications can Auto-GPT be used for?

That’s just one example of Auto-GPT’s capabilities. With its capabilities, it has wide-reaching possibilities that are currently being explored by developers, project managers, AI researchers and anyone else who can download its source code.

“There are numerous examples of people using Auto-GPT to do market research, create business plans, create apps, automate complex tasks in pursuit of a goal, such as planning a meal, identifying recipes and ordering all the ingredients, and even execute transactions on behalf of the user,” Sheldon Monteiro, chief product officer at the digital business transformation firm Publicis Sapient, told SiliconANGLE.

With its ability to search the internet, Auto-GPT can be tasked with quick market research such as “Find me five gaming keyboards under $200 and list their pros and cons.” With its ability to break a task up into multiple subtasks, the autonomous AI could then rapidly search multiple review sites, produce a market research report and come back with a list of gaming keyboards that come in under that amount and supply their prices as well as information about them.

A Twitter user named MOE created an Auto-GPT bot named “Isabella” that can autonomously analyze market data and outsource to other AIs. It does so by using the AI framework Lang-chain to gather data autonomously and do sentiment analysis on different markets.

Because Auto-GPT has access to the internet, and it can take actions on behalf of the user, it can also install applications. In the case of Twitter user Varun Mayya, who ask the bot to build some software, it discovered that he did not have Node.js installed – an environment that allows JavaScript to be run locally instead of in a web browser. As a result, it searched the internet, discovered a StackOverflow tutorial and installed it for him so it could proceed with building the app.

Auto-GPT isn’t the only autonomous agent AI currently available. Another that has come into vogue is BabyAGI, which was created by Yohei Nakajima, a venture capitalist and artificial intelligence researcher. AGI refers to “artificial general intelligence,” a hypothetical type of AI that would have the ability to perform any intellectual task – but no existing AI is anywhere close. BabyAGI is a Python-based task management system that uses the OpenAI API, like Auto-GPT, that prioritizes and builds new tasks toward an objective.

There are also AgentGPT and GodMode, which are much more user-friendly in that they use a web interface instead of needing an installation on a computer, so they can be accessed as a service. These services lower the barrier to entry by making it simple for users because they don’t require any technical knowledge to use and will perform similar tasks to Auto-GPT, such as generating code, answering questions and doing research. However, they can’t write documents to the computer or install software.

Autonomous agents are powerful but experimental

These tools do have drawbacks, however, Monteiro warned. The examples on the internet are cherry-picked and paint the technology in a glowing light. For all the successes, there are a lot of issues that can happen when using it.

“It can get stuck in task loops and get confused,” Monteiro said. “And those task loops can get pretty expensive, very fast with the costs of GPT-4 API calls. Even when it does work as intended, it might take a fairly lengthy sequence of reasoning steps, each of which eats up expensive GPT-4 tokens.”

Accessing GPT-4 can cost money that varies depending on how many tokens are used. Tokens are based on words or parts of phrases sent through the chatbot. Charges range from three cents per 1,000 tokens for prompts to six cents per 1,000 tokens for results. That means using Auto-GPT running through a complex project or getting stuck in a loop unattended could end up costing a few dollars.

At the same time, GPT-4 can be prone to errors, known as “hallucinations,” which could spell trouble during the process. It could come up with totally incorrect or erroneous actions or, worse, produce insecure or disastrously bad code when asked to create an application.

“[Auto-GPT] has the ability to execute on previous output, even if it gets something wrong it keeps going on,” said Bern Elliot, a distinguished vice president analyst at Gartner. “It needs strong controls to avoid it going off the rails and keeping on going. I expect misuse without proper guardrails will cause some damaging unexpected and unintended outcomes.”

The software development side could be equally problematic. Even if Auto-GPT doesn’t make a mistake that causes it to produce broken code, which would cause the software to simply fail, it could create an application riddled with security issues.

“Auto-GPT is not part of a full software development lifecycle — testing, security, et cetera — nor is it integrated into an IDE,” Jung said, warning about the potential issues that could arise from the misuse of the tool. “Abstracting complexity is fine if you are building on a strong foundation. However, these tools are by definition not building strong code and are encouraging bad and insecure code to be pushed into production.”

The future of Auto-GPT and other autonomous agents

Tools such as Auto-GPT, BabyAGI, AgentGPT and GodMode are still experimental, but there are broader implications in how they could be used to replace routine tasks such as vacation planning or shopping, explained Monteiro.

Right now, Microsoft has even developed simple examples of a plugin for Bing Chat. It allows users to ask it to offer them dinner suggestions that will have its AI – which is powered by GPT-4 – will roll up a list of ingredients and then launch Instacart to have them prepared for delivery. Although this is a step in the direction of automation, bots such as Auto-GPT are edging toward a potential future of all-out autonomous behaviors.

A user could ask for Auto-GPT to look through local stores, prepare lists of ingredients, compare prices and quality, set up a shopping cart and even complete orders autonomously. At this experimental point, many users may not be willing to allow the bot to go all the way through with using their credit card and deliver orders all on its own, for fear that it could go haywire and send them several hundred bunches of basil.

A similar future where an AI does this for travel agents using Auto-GPT may not be far away. “Give it your parameters — beach, four-hour max travel, hotel class — and your budget, and it will happily do all the web browsing for you, comparing options in quest of your goal,” said Monteiro. “When it is done, it will present you with its findings, and you can also see how it got there.”

As these tools begin to mature, they have a real chance of providing a way for people to automate away mundane step-by-step tasks that happen on the internet. That could have some interesting implications, especially in e-commerce.

“How will companies adapt when these agents are browsing sites and eliminating your product from the consideration set before a human even sees the brand?” said Monteiro. “From an e-commerce standpoint, if people start using Auto-GPT tools to buy goods and services online, retailers will have to adapt their customer experience.”

* Image: Freepik

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The Top 10 Benefits of Amazon AWS Lightsail: Why It’s a Great Choice for Businesses

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Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a popular cloud computing platform that offers a wide range of services to individuals and businesses alike. One of the services offered by AWS is Amazon Lightsail, which is a simplified and user-friendly way to launch and manage virtual private servers (VPS). In this article, we will discuss the benefits of using Amazon Lightsail for your business.

Cost-effective

One of the primary advantages of using Amazon Lightsail is its cost-effectiveness. The service offers a flat monthly fee for each instance, which makes it easy to predict costs and plan for your budget. Moreover, the pricing is transparent, with no hidden costs or surprises.

Lightsail Pricing

User-friendly

Amazon Lightsail is designed to be user-friendly, making it easy for even non-technical users to deploy and manage virtual private servers. The platform provides a simplified control panel that includes pre-configured software packages, such as WordPress, LAMP, and more. These packages are preconfigured, making it easy to deploy and set up a web application in minutes.

Scalable

Amazon Lightsail is designed to be scalable, which means you can easily upgrade your resources as your business grows. The platform provides a range of instance sizes to choose from, with varying CPU, RAM, and storage options. You can also scale up or down as needed, making it easy to manage your resources and costs.

Reliable

Amazon Lightsail is built on top of the AWS infrastructure, which means it benefits from AWS’s robust and reliable cloud infrastructure. This ensures that your applications and data are always available and accessible, with minimal downtime.

Secure

Amazon Lightsail provides a secure and reliable environment for your applications and data. The platform includes a range of security features, such as built-in firewalls, DDoS protection, and SSL/TLS encryption. Moreover, Lightsail instances are isolated from each other, which provides an additional layer of security.

Integrated with AWS services

Amazon Lightsail is fully integrated with other AWS services, making it easy to use Lightsail with other AWS services such as Amazon S3, Amazon RDS, and more. This integration provides a comprehensive cloud computing platform, enabling you to build and run complex applications.

Quick and easy deployment

Amazon Lightsail provides a quick and easy way to deploy web applications, with pre-configured templates for popular applications such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and more. This makes it easy to deploy a web application in just a few clicks, without the need for technical knowledge.

High-performance

Amazon Lightsail instances are built on top of the latest generation of AWS infrastructure, providing high-performance and low-latency connectivity. This ensures that your applications and data are always accessible and responsive, with fast and efficient data transfer.

Easy to manage

Amazon Lightsail provides a simplified management interface, making it easy to manage your virtual private servers. The platform includes tools for monitoring your instances, configuring backups, managing DNS records, and more. Moreover, the platform provides a range of APIs and CLI tools, making it easy to automate management tasks.

Flexible

Amazon Lightsail is flexible, allowing you to choose the operating system and software stack that best suits your needs. The platform supports a range of operating systems, including Ubuntu, Debian, CentOS, and more. Moreover, you can install and configure any software stack that you need, giving you complete control over your environment.

In conclusion, Amazon Lightsail is a cost-effective, user-friendly, scalable, reliable, secure, integrated, quick, high-performance, easy-to-manage, and flexible platform for deploying and managing virtual private servers. If you’re looking for a simplified and efficient way to manage your cloud computing resources, Amazon Lightsail is definitely worth considering.

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Binance’s BNB Chain to Offer New Decentralized Storage System

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Binance’s BNB Chain to Offer New Decentralized Storage System

The release of the decentralized storage system’s white paper was having a modest effect on the price of other storage tokens on Wednesday. Filecoin (FIL), storj (STORJ), and arweave (AR) are now trading 2%, 5% and 6%, respectively, above their pre-announcement prices.

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