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A robot sheepdog? ‘No one wants this,’ says one shepherd

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It’s certainly an arresting image: a four-legged robot trots across a grassy hillside, steering a herd of sheep without a human in sight. The apparently seamless fusion of the futuristic and the agrarian feels refreshing — even hopeful — at a time when so much progress relies upon the destruction of the natural world.

But is it realistic? Could a robot actually take on the job of a sheepdog?

The footage comes from New Zealand firm Rocos, which announced a partnership this week with Boston Dynamics, maker of the four-legged Spot robot that stars in the video (and many others). Rocos makes software to control robots remotely, and the video demonstrates one potential use-case: agriculture.

“Equipped with payloads like heat, LIDAR, gas and high resolution camera sensors, Spot navigates rugged environments to capture data in real time,” says the company in a blog post. “In agriculture, farmers can access information such as more accurate and up-to-date yield estimates. This provides access to a new category of automation, and a safer, more efficient business.”

Now, it’s clear that the video is mostly a fun teaser rather than a serious claim by Rocos (or Boston Dynamics) that robots will soon be replacing sheepdogs. But it does invite a tantalizing question: if that did happen, how well would the robots fare? It’s not like the danger of biting off more than you can chew has deterred tech companies in the past.

Terrible, is the answer of a man who should know: sheep farmer and author James Rebanks, whose 2015 autobiographical book describes life as a shepherd in England’s Lake District.

“The robot might be an amazing tool for lots of things but it is worthless and unwanted as a sheepdog,” Rebanks told The Verge. “No one who works with sheep needs or wants this — it is a fantasy.”

Rebanks says robots simply don’t have the motor skills or the intelligence needed for such demanding work, and they likely won’t for a long time to come.

“Moving sheep isn’t just being behind them, it is about doing whatever the controller asks, and sometimes what needs doing based on [the dog’s] own intelligence beyond the handlers control,” he says. “A shift to the left or right of a few inches can turn the sheep, and a great dog can judge their characters and how much to do or not do.”

This relationship between sheep and dog — the dynamic of two intelligent beings — is vital, says Rebanks, and it’s rooted in the evolutionary history of predator and prey.

“Sheep obey based on carefully judged finely tuned movements, and because of the eye of the dog that intimidates them, and because the dog can ultimately enforce discipline with its teeth,” he says, adding that this “isn’t a good thing or needed often” but a valid threat. “The sheep respond as they do because they evolved with wolves and being hunted.”

He adds that, in the Rocos video, it’s clear that the sheep aren’t really obeying the robot at all. “If you watch carefully the sheep are breaking and taking the piss out of it — within a week they would be laughing at it,” he says. “Sheep have intelligence and will quickly work it out and completely disrespect it.”

Of course, criticizing the video might seem a little unsporting, given neither Rocos nor Boston Dynamics is selling its wares as sheepdog replacements. But the video represents a specific vision of the agricultural future that is incredibly popular right now. Farm automation is a fast-growing business, and companies are developing a range of technologies for it, from robot cricket farms to automated hydroponics.

Robots are becoming increasingly common in agriculture, as with this machine made by Dutch firm Lely, which pushes cattle feed back toward their pens.
Photo: Lely

But how far should we be mechanizing our food, especially if that food is an intelligent being in its own right?

Rebanks is skeptical to the extreme. Farming by robots and drones won’t make food production more sustainable or eco-friendly, he says, but it will instead exacerbate current problems with our food supply system.

“The most productive and sustainable [agriculture] on earth is labour intensive — more people, more contact,” he says. But the push for robots is “part of a relentless drive to de-skill, mechanize and simplify farm work to take people out of the fields — the exact opposite of what our society needs.”

To illustrate the problems, he points to a recent essay in The New York Review of Books, which describes how COVID-19 has exposed the flaws of America’s highly efficient but incredibly fragile meat industry. “The rush to embrace efficiency generating technologies has trashed the Midwest,” he says. “A battery operated sheepdog is the least of our worries.”

At the end of the day, says Rebanks, the sheepdog is a proven solution to an unusual problem, the “ultimate technology for this job,” he says. They’re bred, trained, and sold by people who respect their work; they don’t need fossil fuels to run; and, importantly, they are “a friend and companion to their shepherds.” Who could ask for more?

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Zoom has temporarily removed Giphy from its chat feature

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Zoom has temporarily disabled the integration of GIF platform Giphy in its chat feature, the company said in a blog post. “Once additional technical and security measures have been deployed, we will re-enable the feature.” Zoom didn’t offer any specifics beyond that on Giphy’s removal.

The company mentioned the change as part of its latest list of security updates to the platform, which also includes limits on screen sharing, changes to muting and unmuting functions, and restrictions on logging in to meetings from multiple devices (for meetings that require registration).

The move comes a few days after Facebook acquired Giphy for over $300 million, with plans to integrate it into Instagram. How that acquisition will affect Giphy integrations with other platforms like Twitter, TikTok, and iMessage — all competitors to Facebook— remains unclear, but Facebook has had well-documented issues with privacy and security.

At the time of the Facebook acquisition, Giphy’s GIFs did not use any embedded tracking, and its API did not have access to users’ data, according to the company.

Zoom likewise has seen its share of security problems as demand for its service has soared during the coronavirus pandemic, with people working and schooling remotely.

Zoom and Giphy did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

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Glitch lays off ‘substantial number of employees’ to cut costs

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Glitch laid off “a substantial number of employees” on Thursday in an effort to cut costs and ensure “long term viability,” the company confirmed in an email to The Verge. Glitch said it had to “significantly cut operating costs” due to market conditions.

At least 18 people were laid off, according to two former employees who asked to remain anonymous. Glitch had about 50 employees before the layoffs, the sources said. Glitch declined to comment on how many employees were laid off. The company said it is offering “severance, health insurance, and support in finding new employment” to employees who were laid off.

Glitch CEO Anil Dash tweeted that the layoffs came as a result of being a “small company in a fiercely competitive space in a tough economy.”

Glitch is a coding platform that launched in 2017 under what was then known as Fog Creek Software. The platform has a quirky look and emphasizes its ease of use — anyone is supposed to be able to jump in, remix someone else’s code, and launch a bite-sized app that will run on Glitch’s servers.

The service has been completely free to use nearly all of the past three years, though. It wasn’t until one month ago — about a month into the pandemic — that Glitch launched a subscription service, offering users the ability to pay $10 per month for expanded capabilities. The service had a slow start, according to both sources, with one describing the launch as “underwhelming.”

In March, Glitch employees voted to form a union under the Communications Workers of America, making them one of the first tech companies to organize. Glitch agreed to voluntarily recognize the union, but the union had not yet negotiated a contract with the company. The Verge has reached out to the union for comment.

Glitch raised $30 million in funding in 2018. It said the funding would allow the company to “build the kind of platform and community that fits” its ambitious vision.

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Sony’s WH-1000XM4 headphones may let you pair more than one device

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A new leak hints at what to expect from Sony’s WH-1000XM4, the upcoming successor to the WH-1000XM3, one of the best wireless headphones on the market.

The details come from Twitter user justplayinghard, who tweeted out information they obtained from a recent teardown of Sony’s Headphones Connect app. The code hints that the M4 headphones may be able to simultaneously pair with two devices, a feature not present in its predecessor. On the current model, you have to reconnect if you want to use a different device.

The M4 may also include a feature called “Smart Talking,” allowing the headphones to detect voices and adjust the ambient sound so you can hear conversations without taking off the headphones. Its predecessor has something similar called Ambient Sound Mode, which lets you hear ambient sound while wearing the headphones.

Images of what the headphones could look like also surfaced from the teardown, and they appear very similar to the M3, as previous leaks showed.

Sony’s upcoming headphones previously leaked in March through a filing from Anatel, a Brazilian regulatory agency. The leak included photos of the M4, which look slightly thicker than the M3. They also revealed that the new headphones may include longer battery life, possibly hitting the 40-hour range on a single charge — four hours up from its predecessor’s typical battery life.

The teardown does not indicate when the headphones will come out, nor has Sony released any information on the M4 headphones. A release may be coming soon, as the headphones appear to have passed through the Federal Communications Commission for approval in late 2019.

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