Cheaper to Teach Humans than to Upgrade Robots

(p. A1) SASEBO, Japan—Yoshihisa Ishikawa’s one-night stay at a robot-staffed hotel in western Japan wasn’t relaxing.

He was roused every few hours during the night by the doll-shaped assistant in his room asking: “Sorry, I couldn’t catch that. Could you repeat your request?”

By 6 a.m., he realized the problem: His heavy snoring was triggering the robot.

Turns out, robots aren’t the best at hospitality. After opening in a blaze of publicity in 2015, Japan’s Henn na, or “Strange,” Hotel, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s first robot hotel, is now laying off its low-performing droids.

So far, the hotel has culled over half of its 243 robots, many because they created work rather than reduced it.

. . .

(p. A8) The hotel launched with around 80 robots. The initial positive reaction encouraged it to add many more for guests’ entertainment, such as a team of human and dog robot dancers in the lobby.

That’s when problems started to pile up, said the hotel’s general manager, Takeyoshi Oe.

Toshifumi Nakamura, a former hotel guest, recalled that about half the puppy-size lobby dancers appeared to be broken or in need of charging when he visited in mid-2016. Mr. Oe said the hotel increased overtime for the human staff to cope with the additional workload.

. . .

Mr. Ishikawa, the heavy snorer, said he wasn’t sure how to turn Churi off.

“She got a bad reputation,” said Hideo Sawada, president of the travel company that owns the hotel. Churi was among the robots removed.

. . .

Mr. Oe said the hotel has considered upgrading some robots but has to weigh the potentially high costs of frequent replacements. Churi was in service for four years, plenty of time for the technology to become outdated.

“Many people get a new phone every couple of years, so four years seems really old,” said Mr. Oe.

. . .

Mr. Sawada said he hasn’t given up on the idea of a hotel without human staff, but Strange Hotel has taught him that there are currently many jobs suited only for humans. “When you actually use robots you realize there are places where they aren’t needed—or just annoy people,” he said.

For the full story, see:

Alastair Gale and Takashi Mochizuki. “The World’s First Robot Hotel Is Looking for a Few Good Humans.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, January 15, 2019): A1 & A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 14, 2019, and has the title “Robot Hotel Loses Love for Robots.”)

More Job Quits Lead to Better Matches and Higher Productivity

(p. A1) Kimberly Enoch had a stable job working from home managing grants for a Little Rock, Ark., nonprofit, but she was bored and thought she could do better.

So she quit.

Within three months, she landed a job as a grant writer at Southern Bancorp Community Partners, snagging a 14% raise, a faster pace at work and an easy seven-minute commute.

“I knew I could do more,” Ms. Enoch said.

She is part of a bigger trend. Workers are choosing to leave their jobs at the fastest rate since the internet boom 17 years ago and getting rewarded for it with bigger paychecks and/or more satisfying work.

Labor Department data show that 3.4 million Americans quit their jobs in April [2018], near a 2001 peak and twice the 1.7 million who were laid off from jobs in April.

Job-hopping is happening across industries including retail, food service and construction, a sign of broad-based labor-market dynamism.

Workers have been made more confident by a strong economy and historically low unemployment, at 3.8% in May, the lowest since 2000. Ms. Enoch started getting interview opportunities the same day she began sending out applications online.

The trend could stoke broader wage growth and improve worker productivity, which have been sluggish in the past decade.

. . .

(p. A2) The recent uptick in quitting goes against a long-running decline in worker mobility. In recent decades, as the population aged and business startups became relatively more rare, employees tended to stick at their jobs longer, said Steven Davis, an economist at the University of Chicago who studies labor-market churn. He and co-author John Haltiwanger presented the findings of diminished economic dynamism to central bankers at the Federal Reserve’s annual Jackson Hole, Wyo., symposium in August 2014.

The problem was exacerbated by the 2007-2009 recession. Fretful workers stayed in roles that weren’t good matches for them, also hurting national productivity. Now that they are looking for better matches, productivity could improve.

For the full story, see:

Harrison, David and Eric Morath. “Economy Spurs Job Hopping.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, July 5, 2018): A1-A2.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 4, 2018, and has the title “In This Economy, Quitters Are Winning.”)

China Steals Micron Memory Chip Innovations

(p. A8) A Wall Street Journal study of 10 recent technology-related prosecution cases in Taiwan found that in nine of those, prosecutors allege the technology ended up with or was intended for companies in China.

China’s technology ministry has in public statements said Taiwan and China should cooperate in high-tech sectors including semiconductors. It didn’t reply to requests for comment on the Taiwanese cases.

One case involved a Taiwanese unit of Idaho-based Micron Technology Inc., America’s largest memory-chip manufacturer. On a spring day in 2016, a 41-year-old engineer for the unit opened his company laptop and, according to Taiwanese prosecutors, tapped into Google search: “clear computer use records.”

Wang Yongming found a file-erasing program called CCleaner, which he used to try to delete traces of more than 900 files from his laptop before returning it to his employer, the prosecutors say.

Ten months after Mr. Wang returned the laptop to the company and left for a job with a smaller Taiwanese rival, United Microelectronics Corp. , Taiwanese authorities say they unearthed evidence of the documents, which detailed production-design secrets of Micron’s memory chips.

In August, Mr. Wang and others were indicted in Taiwan on charges of stealing Micron’s trade secrets for illegal use in China. Prosecutors allege Mr. Wang transferred the data to his new employer, which used the designs in service of a Chinese chip maker called Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit Co. Jinhua is now planning to mass produce its own version of the chips.

In Mr. Wang’s case, prosecutors say he has confessed to some charges. Mr. Wang couldn’t be reached, and his attorneys declined to comment. UMC declined to comment. Micron, in a separate lawsuit in California, alleges Jinhua masterminded the plan to take a shortcut through a thicket of knowledge Micron accumulated during decades of investment.

. . .

Around the time Mr. Wang left Micron Taiwan, in April 2016, the company conducted an internal investigation based on suspicions that he had made illegal copies of documents. When investigators raided UMC in February 2017, say Taiwanese prosecutors and Micron, Mr. Wang handed his personal cellphone to an assistant and instructed her to take it away—unaware that prosecutors had already obtained a court order to track the device, which investigators allege also contained incriminating information.

UMC, which Mr. Wang joined in April 2016 a few days after trying to erase files from his laptop, had in January 2016 struck a deal with Jinhua to supply the designs to mass-produce DRAM in exchange for more than $700 million in fees, equipment and a cut of future licensing revenues. Before then, UMC was mostly a foundry that made other companies’ designs. Micron alleges in its civil lawsuit that Jinhua knew that the technology to be delivered under the deal would be based on Micron’s designs.

. . .

“The Micron trade secrets that Wang stole proved invaluable to UMC’s development effort and critical to the timeline of the Jinhua DRAM project,” Micron said in its filing.

The speed of UMC’s design development helped Jinhua in October 2016 to start marketing its first two DRAM products, which it called F32 and F32S—names that Micron says were identical to the ones used for chips it produced at its Taiwan facility.

For the full story, see:

Chuin-Wei Yap. “China Targets Taiwan’s Tech Secrets.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, July 2, 2018): A1 & A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 1, 2018, and has the title “Taiwan’s Technology Secrets Come Under Assault From China.”)

Permissionless Surgical Innovation

(p. 15) When a patient’s heart gave out on the cardiac surgeon Denton Cooley’s operating table in 1969, he refused to let the man go gently into that good night. Instead, he dispatched an associate to find a sheep and pluck out its heart. Cooley sewed it into his patient’s chest. This was apparently the kind of thing you could do — without asking anyone’s permission — in the 1960s.

The patient died (of course) but Cooley pressed on. A year later, he tried another experimental procedure — an artificial heart developed and some would say stolen from his rival at Baylor University in Houston. He never asked the university’s permission because, well, that would have required going through a committee run by said rival. “We administered to Baylor University the biggest enema,” Cooley reportedly told a colleague after the surgery. “It will be remembered in years to come.”

And this, readers, is how the first artificial heart came to be implanted in a patient. (The man survived three days with the device, before receiving a transplant from a donor and dying the following day.) Such are the brazen feats that Mimi Swartz chronicles in her book “Ticker,” a brief history of the artificial heart. Swartz is an executive editor of Texas Monthly, and she is based in Houston, home to four medical schools and much of the last century’s pioneering heart research. These are physicians who have a lot more in common, she writes, “with the people who crossed Everest’s Khumbu Icefall or took the first steps on the moon.”

For the full review, see:

Sarah Zhang. “The Tin Man’s Dilemma.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, Sept. 22, 2018): 15.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sept. 17, 2018, and has the title “The Quest to Create and Perfect an Artificial Heart.”)

The book under review, is:

Swartz, Mimi. Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart. New York: Crown, 2018.

To Compete with Electric Engines, Aramco Incrementally Improving Fuel Efficiency of Combustion Engines

(p. B1) NOVI, Mich.—The world’s largest oil company has 30 engineers working away in this Detroit suburb on a project that sounds counterintuitive: an engine that burns less oil.

But there is a common-sense explanation for why the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., known as Saudi Aramco, wants a more efficient internal combustion engine. It is trying to protect its market share by slowing a potential exodus to electric vehicles.

David Cleary, head of Saudi Aramco’s Detroit Research Center, said the company’s goal with its research is to preserve the market for fuel. To that end, he said, any breakthroughs in better-engine designs would be widely shared.

“We are trying to get technology into production, and we want to be very fast,” Mr. Cleary said.

While electric-vehicle adoption remains small globally, and is expected to rise gradually, the prospect of a large-scale shift is setting up a showdown between oil companies and utilities over who will power tomorrow’s cars.

For the full story, see:

Russell Gold. “Big Oil Reinvents Engines to Survive.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, July 16, 2018): B1-B2.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 15, 2018, and has the title “Oil, Utilities Fight to Fuel Vehicles of the Future.”)

“Land Rebound” May Slow Glacial Retreat by 40%

(p. A5) The complex relationship between Antarctica’s glaciers and the land on which they rest may help slow the rate of ice loss in the long term, according to a new method for modeling such interactions.

. . .

The new model takes into account, at a higher resolution than previous ones, the way land springs up after ice is removed, according to glaciologists. (Models break up geographical areas into grids, like pixels in a photo. The smaller the area those grids represent, the more detail a model has.) The land rebound helps stabilize glaciers by propping them up at the point where the frozen rivers start to float. The ground’s hold increases friction, which steadies them.

The phenomenon has been documented and studied in other parts of the world, including North America, which was once covered with glaciers.

The effect is greatest after a lot of a glacier’s mass has been lost, according to the study, which was published Thursday [April 25, 2019] in the journal Science.

. . .

The team focused on West Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier, which scientists believe is especially vulnerable to climate change. Earlier this year, NASA scientists used radar to find a massive gap between its ice and the bedrock, where water could creep in and melt it from below.

Within the next 100 years, the rebound of land beneath Thwaites could slow down the glacier’s retreat by about 1%, according to the study. But by 2350, that effect could hover around 40%, as more mass is lost and the earth has more opportunity to rebound.

For the full story, see:

Daniela Hernandez. “Study Sees Slower Glacial Retreat.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, April 26, 2019): A5.

(Note: bracketed date, and ellipses, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 25, 2019, and has the title “New Model Suggests Slower Decline of Glaciers.”)

Productivity Rises at Fastest Rate in Almost 10 Years

(p. A2) WASHINGTON—U.S. workers’ efficiency improved during the past year at the best pace in nearly a decade, laying groundwork for stronger wage growth and continued economic expansion.

The productivity of nonfarm workers, measured as the output of goods and services for each hour on the job, increased at a 3.6% seasonally adjusted annual rate in the first quarter from the prior three months, the Labor Department said Thursday [May 2, 2019]. From a year earlier, productivity rose 2.4%. That was the best gain year-over-year since the third quarter of 2010, when the economy was just emerging from a deep recession.

Productivity tends to be strong in the early days of an economic cycle. Accelerating improvement nearly 10 years after the recession ended raises hopes that a combination of more efficient workers and Americans rejoining the labor force could provide necessary fuel to extend one of the longest expansions in the post-World War II era.

For the full story, see:

Eric Morath. “Productivity Rises at Fastest Pace in Years.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, May 3, 2019): A2.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 2, 2019, and has the title “U.S. Worker Productivity Advances at Best Rate Since 2010.”)