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Virgin Galactic ‘Weeks’ Away From Space Flight

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Virgin Galactic is “more than tantalizingly close” to leaving Earth’s atmosphere, according to Richard Branson.

“We should be in space within weeks, not months,” the Virgin Group founder and CEO told CNBC this week.

“And then we will be in space with myself in months and not years,” he continued. “And then we’ll be in space with people not too long after that.”

Since its founding in 2004, the spaceflight company has been on a rollercoaster to the cosmos: The White Knight Two carrier plan and suborbital SpaceShipTwo flew together in 2010.

But a series of delays has grounded the firm, which suffered a disaster four years ago, when the VSS Enterprise broke apart in midair, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold.

Replacement ship VSS Unity completed its first successful glide test in December 2016, and another six by January of this year. It performed powered test flights in April and May.

Keep an eye on the sky this month, as Virgin Galactic gears up to finally take its first trip to space.

Branson, of course, is not alone in his mission: The British entrepreneur is in a closely-fought race with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who will reportedly charge $200,000 to $300,000 for a seat on one of its Blue Origin rockets.

Virgin, meanwhile, offers tickets for $250,000 a pop (but hopes that amount will drop to around $40,000 or $50,000 over the next decade).

High prices meet equally high demand, according to Branson, whose company has reportedly already sold 650 tickets as of mid-July.

“If I have a room full of 10 people, eight out of 10 would love to go to space, if they could afford it,” he told CNBC. “So I think the market for people who would love to become astronauts and go to space is gigantic. And it is up to us to produce as many spaceships as we can to cater with that demand.”

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa last month became SpaceX’s first private astronaut, set to travel beyond low-Earth orbit in 2023. Meanwhile, NASA scientist Drew Feustel recently said goodbye to the International Space Station with a stirring song. Find out more about outer space here.

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IBM AI Loses Debate to Human Champion

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In the battle of man versus machine, crushing defeats by DeepMind’s artificially intelligent Go and StarCraft gaming systems tipped the scales in favor of automation.

But humankind is making a comeback.

On Monday, IBM’s seven-year-old AI debating system Project Debater went head-to-head with a mortal world debate champion Harish Natarajan in a public contest.

The pair, moderated by Intelligence Squared host John Donvan, delivered arguments for and against the resolution “We should subsidize preschool.”

With just 15 minutes to prepare for the event, Project Debater and Natarajan each delivered a four-minute opening statement, four-minute rebuttal, and two-minute summary.

A tall, sleek monolith with a rectangular mouth of blue sound waves, the IBM machine’s knowledge base consists of about 10 billion sentences, collected from newspapers and journals.

In a live debate, it searches for short pieces of text in its massive digital library to defend or oppose the motion.

“This requires a deep understanding of human language and its infinite nuances and very precise stance identification,” creators Ranit Aharonov and Noam Slonim wrote in a blog post. “[That’s] something that is not always easy for humans and is certainly very difficult for computers.”

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In a matter of seconds, Project Debater can remove redundant argumentative texts, select the strongest remaining claims and evidence, arrange them by theme, and create a narrative of support or contention.

It also listens to and digests the opponent’s responses, building a counterstatement in a “surprisingly charming and human-sounding” way, according to Donvan.

Project Debater debuted in June, participating in its first live public event before a small audience. At this week’s IBM Think conference in San Francisco, it faced off against Natarajan in front of a large in-person audience, with many more watching via livestream (video above).

The winner was determined by his (Natarajan’s) or her (Project Debater’s) ability to convince the audience of the persuasiveness of their arguments. Results were formulated in a real-time online poll.

Before the debate, 79 percent of the audience agreed that preschools should be subsidized, while 13 percent disagreed (8 percent were undecided). After hearing both sides present, 62 percent agreed that preschools should be subsidized, while 30 percent disagreed—clinching Natarajan’s win.

Despite the setback, IBM should consider this a win: More than half of participants said that Project Debater better enriched their knowledge about the topic, compared to only 20 percent for Natarajan.

“Ultimately, what we saw was that the interaction of man and machine could be enriching for both,” Slonim said in a statement following the debate. “It’s not a question of one being better than the other, but about AI and humans working together.”

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‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Taps Performance Capture Tech to Elevate Effects

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Alita: Battle Angel is a thrilling mix of powerful cyborgs, post-apocalyptic cities, and gory fights. The sci-fi movie’s action sequences are courtesy of an advanced innovation: performance capture technology.

The futuristic flick, which hits theaters on Feb. 14, follows Alita (Rosa Salazar), an abandoned cyborg who becomes a fierce warrior to fight corrupt forces. This plot would be hard to accomplish with basic animation, however, performance capture technology enabled the movie’s team to generate lifelike special effects, PCMag reported.

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“This is the tech we’ve been developing. In an earlier test shoot, for [a movie that never got made, based on the novel] Brother Termite, when aliens were arriving, we had an actor perform with an umbrella rig around his head—12 cameras—everywhere,” Jon Landau, the producer of the film, told PCMag. “We saw a future where we would use that facial performance capture to drive performance rather than animating it.”

To make this digital vision possible, Alita: Battle Angel’s team partnered with Weta Digital, a visual effects company based in New Zealand. Unlike other animation systems, this performance capture technology doesn’t interfere with actors’ performances.

Rosa Salazar as Alita in ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ (Photo Credit: PCMag)

“The giant system [we have today], when it loses a data point, it’s still able to solve for the skeleton and what the muscles do,” Landau added. “[In our partnership with] Weta Digital … we’re now [able] to create Salazar’s performance from the inside, driving the performance from a muscle base—not putting a mask on the actor through animation—to make sure we are living up to the performance that Salazar is giving us.”

According to Weta Digital, performance capture technology notes details of an actor’s face performance, analyzes how their muscles move, and then maps these motions onto a virtual character. (For example, see Salazar above with dots on her face during the filming process.) What makes this technology cool is that it provides animated figures with human-like reactions, so directors can keep a good shooting flow without stopping to map every facial movement.

“I’m pretty technically proficient and I usually do my own visual effects supervisor role, but now I get to geek out with [Weta Digital],” Robert Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel’s director, told PCMag. “We can take it to another level having them and their knowledge.”

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General Motors Starts Taking Orders for Its First Electric Bike

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General Motors is reimagining future transportation with its first ARĪV electric bike brand.

In November 2018, General Motors held a global crowdfunding campaign for its new eBike brand. After fans submitted potential names, General Motors decided to call the brand ARĪV, which is pronounced like “arrive.”

The brand includes two connected eBikes: the Meld compact eBike and the Merge folding eBike, which will each retail between $3,106 and $3,782 in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. General Motors, which is taking preorders for the eBikes now via BikeExchange.com, said it will start shipping orders in a few months.

General Motors didn’t provide too many details on the eBikes, however, it said that the eBikes’ motors can reach speeds up to 15.5 mph and contain four levels of pedal-assisted power. There are also key safety features, including a rechargeable front, rear LED lights, and oversized break rotors. Plus, the eBikes’ batteries can be charged in approximately 3.5 hours and receive up to 40 miles of ride time on a single charge.

ARĪV Merge Electric Bike (Photo Credit: General Motors)

Connectivity is another key feature for both eBikes: They can connect to an app that provides users with key riding metrics, including distance, motor assist level, remaining battery level, and speed. Each eBike comes with a Quad Lock mount as well, so users can safely secure a smartphone to the handlebars during rides. General Motors also said it’s working on additional app features, including, “a mode that will use a proprietary algorithm to help riders arrive at their destination sweat-free.”

General Motors did not disclose if its new eBikes will be available in the U.S. and other countries, however, more details on specs and pricing are available on Bike Exchange’s website.

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