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Why We Need Mass Automation to Pandemic-Proof the Supply Chain

The scale of goods moving around the planet at any moment is staggering. Raw materials are dug up in one country, spun into parts and pieces in another, and assembled into products in a third. Crossing oceans and continents, they find their way to a local store or direct to your door. Magically, a roll […]

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The scale of goods moving around the planet at any moment is staggering. Raw materials are dug up in one country, spun into parts and pieces in another, and assembled into products in a third. Crossing oceans and continents, they find their way to a local store or direct to your door.

Magically, a roll of toilet paper, power tool, or tube of toothpaste is there just when you need it.

Even more staggering is that this whole system, the global supply chain, works so well that it’s effectively invisible most of the time. Until now, that is. The pandemic has thrown a floodlight on the inner workings of this modern wonder—and it’s exposed massive vulnerabilities.

The e-commerce supply chain is an instructive example. As the world went into lockdown, and everything non-essential went online, demand for digital fulfillment skyrocketed.

Even under “normal” conditions, most e-commerce warehouses were struggling to meet demand. But Covid-19 has further strained the ability to cope with shifting supply, an unprecedented tidal wave of orders, and labor shortages. Local stores are running out of key products. Online grocers and e-commerce platforms are suspending some home deliveries, restricting online purchases of certain items, and limiting new customers. The whole system is being severely tested.

Why? Despite an abundance of 21st century technology, we’re stuck in the 20th century.

Today’s supply chain consists of fleets of ships, trucks, warehouses, and importantly, people scattered around the world. While there are some notable instances of advanced automation, the overwhelming majority of work is still manual, resembling a sort of human-powered bucket brigade, with people wandering around warehouses or standing alongside conveyor belts. Each package of diapers or bottle of detergent ordered by an online customer might be touched dozens of times by warehouse workers before finding its way into a box delivered to a home.

The pandemic has proven the critical need for innovation due to increased demand, concerns about the health and safety of workers, and traceability and safety of products and services.

At the 2020 World Economic Forum, there was much discussion about the ongoing societal transformation in which humans and machines work in tandem, automating and augmenting the way we get things done. At the time, pre-pandemic, debate trended toward skepticism and fear of job losses, with some even questioning the ethics and need for these technologies.

Now, we see things differently. To make the global supply chain more resilient to shocks like Covid-19, we must look to technology.

Perfecting the Global Supply Chain: The Massive ‘Matter Router’

Technology has faced and overcome similar challenges in the past.

World War II, for example, drove innovation in techniques for rapid production of many products on a large scale, including penicillin. We went from the availability of one dose of the drug in 1941, to four million sterile packages of the drug every month four years later.

Similarly, today’s companies, big and small, are looking to automation, robotics, and AI to meet the pandemic head on. These technologies are crucial to scaling the infrastructure that will fulfill most of the world’s e-commerce and food distribution needs.

You can think of this new infrastructure as a rapidly evolving “matter router” that will employ increasingly complex robotic systems to move products more freely and efficiently.

Robots powered by specialized AI software, for example, are already learning to adapt to changes in the environment, using the most recent advances in industrial robotics and machine learning. When customers suddenly need to order dramatically new items, these robots don’t need to stop or be reprogrammed. They can perform new tasks by learning from experience using low-cost camera systems and deep learning for visual and image recognition.

These more flexible robots can work around the clock, helping make facilities less sensitive to sudden changes in workforce and customer demand and strengthening the supply chain.

Today, e-commerce is roughly 12% of retail sales in the US and is expected to rise well beyond 25% within the decade, fueled by changes in buying habits. However, analysts have begun to consider whether the current crisis might cause permanent jumps in those numbers, as it has in the past (for instance with the SARS epidemic in China in 2003). Whatever happens, the larger supply chain will benefit from greater, more flexible automation, especially during global crises.

We must create what Hamza Mudassire of the University of Cambridge calls a “resilient ecosystem that links multiple buyers with multiple vendors, across a mesh of supply chains.” This ecosystem must be backed by robust, efficient, and scalable automation that uses robotics, autonomous vehicles, and the Internet of Things to help track the flow of goods through the supply chain.

The good news? We can accomplish this with technologies we have today.

Image credit: Guillaume BolducUnsplash

Source: https://singularityhub.com/2020/07/10/why-we-need-mass-automation-to-pandemic-proof-the-supply-chain/

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How does it know?! Some beginner chatbot tech for newbies.

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Wouter S. Sligter

Most people will know by now what a chatbot or conversational AI is. But how does one design and build an intelligent chatbot? Let’s investigate some essential concepts in bot design: intents, context, flows and pages.

I like using Google’s Dialogflow platform for my intelligent assistants. Dialogflow has a very accurate NLP engine at a cost structure that is extremely competitive. In Dialogflow there are roughly two ways to build the bot tech. One is through intents and context, the other is by means of flows and pages. Both of these design approaches have their own version of Dialogflow: “ES” and “CX”.

Dialogflow ES is the older version of the Dialogflow platform which works with intents, context and entities. Slot filling and fulfillment also help manage the conversation flow. Here are Google’s docs on these concepts: https://cloud.google.com/dialogflow/es/docs/concepts

Context is what distinguishes ES from CX. It’s a way to understand where the conversation is headed. Here’s a diagram that may help understand how context works. Each phrase that you type triggers an intent in Dialogflow. Each response by the bot happens after your message has triggered the most likely intent. It’s Dialogflow’s NLP engine that decides which intent best matches your message.

Wouter Sligter, 2020

What’s funny is that even though you typed ‘yes’ in exactly the same way twice, the bot gave you different answers. There are two intents that have been programmed to respond to ‘yes’, but only one of them is selected. This is how we control the flow of a conversation by using context in Dialogflow ES.

Unfortunately the way we program context into a bot on Dialogflow ES is not supported by any visual tools like the diagram above. Instead we need to type this context in each intent without seeing the connection to other intents. This makes the creation of complex bots quite tedious and that’s why we map out the design of our bots in other tools before we start building in ES.

The newer Dialogflow CX allows for a more advanced way of managing the conversation. By adding flows and pages as additional control tools we can now visualize and control conversations easily within the CX platform.

source: https://cloud.google.com/dialogflow/cx/docs/basics

This entire diagram is a ‘flow’ and the blue blocks are ‘pages’. This visualization shows how we create bots in Dialogflow CX. It’s immediately clear how the different pages are related and how the user will move between parts of the conversation. Visuals like this are completely absent in Dialogflow ES.

It then makes sense to use different flows for different conversation paths. A possible distinction in flows might be “ordering” (as seen here), “FAQs” and “promotions”. Structuring bots through flows and pages is a great way to handle complex bots and the visual UI in CX makes it even better.

At the time of writing (October 2020) Dialogflow CX only supports English NLP and its pricing model is surprisingly steep compared to ES. But bots are becoming critical tech for an increasing number of companies and the cost reductions and quality of conversations are enormous. Building and managing bots is in many cases an ongoing task rather than a single, rounded-off project. For these reasons it makes total sense to invest in a tool that can handle increasing complexity in an easy-to-use UI such as Dialogflow CX.

This article aims to give insight into the tech behind bot creation and Dialogflow is used merely as an example. To understand how I can help you build or manage your conversational assistant on the platform of your choice, please contact me on LinkedIn.

Source: https://chatbotslife.com/how-does-it-know-some-beginner-chatbot-tech-for-newbies-fa75ff59651f?source=rss—-a49517e4c30b—4

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Who is chatbot Eliza?

Between 1964 and 1966 Eliza was born, one of the very first conversational agents. Discover the whole story.

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Frédéric Pierron

Between 1964 and 1966 Eliza was born, one of the very first conversational agents. Its creator, Joseph Weizenbaum was a researcher at the famous Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). His goal was to enable a conversation between a computer and a human user. More precisely, the program simulates a conversation with a Rogérian psychoanalyst, whose method consists in reformulating the patient’s words to let him explore his thoughts himself.

Joseph Weizenbaum (Professor emeritus of computer science at MIT). Location: Balcony of his apartment in Berlin, Germany. By Ulrich Hansen, Germany (Journalist) / Wikipedia.

The program was rather rudimentary at the time. It consists in recognizing key words or expressions and displaying in return questions constructed from these key words. When the program does not have an answer available, it displays a “I understand” that is quite effective, albeit laconic.

Weizenbaum explains that his primary intention was to show the superficiality of communication between a human and a machine. He was very surprised when he realized that many users were getting caught up in the game, completely forgetting that the program was without real intelligence and devoid of any feelings and emotions. He even said that his secretary would discreetly consult Eliza to solve his personal problems, forcing the researcher to unplug the program.

Conversing with a computer thinking it is a human being is one of the criteria of Turing’s famous test. Artificial intelligence is said to exist when a human cannot discern whether or not the interlocutor is human. Eliza, in this sense, passes the test brilliantly according to its users.
Eliza thus opened the way (or the voice!) to what has been called chatbots, an abbreviation of chatterbot, itself an abbreviation of chatter robot, literally “talking robot”.

Source: https://chatbotslife.com/who-is-chatbot-eliza-bfeef79df804?source=rss—-a49517e4c30b—4

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How to take S3 backups with DejaDup on Ubuntu 20.10

DejaDup is the default backup application for Gnome. It’s a GUI for duplicity, focuses on simplicity, supports incremental encrypted backups and up until recently supported a large number of cloud providers. Unfortunately as of version 42.0, all major cloud providers have been removed. Thus given that Ubuntu 20.10 ships with the specific version, any user […]

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DejaDup is the default backup application for Gnome. It’s a GUI for duplicity, focuses on simplicity, supports incremental encrypted backups and up until recently supported a large number of cloud providers. Unfortunately as of version 42.0, all major cloud providers have been removed. Thus given that Ubuntu 20.10 ships with the specific version, any user who upgrades and has backups on Amazon S3 won’t be able to access them. In this blog post, we will provide a solution that will allow you to continue taking backups on AWS S3 using DejaDup.

The mandatory rant (feel free to skip)

The removal of the cloud providers should not come as a surprise. I’m not exactly sure which version of DejaDup deprecated them but it was around the release of Ubuntu 17.10 when they were all hidden as an option. So for 3 long years, people who had backups on Amazon S3, Google Cloud Storage, Openstack Swift, Rackspace etc could still use the deprecated feature and prepare for the inevitable removal.

So why complain you might ask? Well, first of all, when you update from an earlier version of Ubuntu to 20.10, you don’t really know that the all cloud providers are removed from DejaDup. Hence if something goes wrong during the update, you won’t be able to easily access your backups and restore your system.

Another big problem is the lack of storage options on the last version of DejaDup. They decided to change their policy and support only “consumer-targeted cloud services” but currently they only support Google Drive. So they eliminated all the cost efficient options for mass storage and kept only one single very expensive option. I’m not really sure how this is good for the users of the application. Linux was always about having a choice (too much of it in many cases), so why not maintain multiple storage options to serve both the experience and inexperienced users? Thankfully because we are on Linux, we have option to fix this.

How to use Deja Dup v42+ with AWS S3

WARNING: I have not tested thoroughly the following setup so use it at your own risk. If the computer explodes in your face, you lose your data, or your spouse takes your kids and leaves you, don’t blame me.

Installing s3fs fuse

With that out of the way, let’s proceed to the fix. We will use s3fs fuse, a program that allows you to mount an S3 bucket via FUSE and effectively make it look like a local disk. Thankfully you don’t have to compile it from source as it’s on Ubuntu’s repos. To install it, type the following in your terminal:

sudo apt install s3fs

Setting up your AWS credentials file

Next, we need to configure your credentials. The s3fs supports two methods for authentication: an AWS credential file or a custom passwd file. In this tutorial we will use the first method but if you are interested for the latter feel free to view the s3fs documentation on Github. To setup your credentials make sure that the file ~/.aws/credentials contains your AWS access id and secret key. It should look like this:


[default]
aws_access_key_id=YOUR_ACCESS_KEY_ID
aws_secret_access_key=YOUR_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY

Mounting your bucket to your local filesystem

Once your have your credentials file you are ready to mount your backup bucket. If you don’t remember the bucket name you can find it by visiting your AWS account. To mount and unmount the bucket to/from a specific location type:


# mount
s3fs BUCKET_NAME /path/to/location

# unmount
fusermount -u /path/to/location

Mounting the bucket like this is only temporary and will not persist across reboots. You can add it on /etc/fstab but I believe this only works with the passwd file. If you want to use your AWS credentials file an easy workaround it to create a shortcut in your Startup Applications Preferences.

Note that you can add a small 10 sec delay to ensure that the WiFi is connected before you try to mount the bucket. Internet access is obviously necessary for mounting it successfully. If you are behind VPNs or have other complex setups, you can also create a bash script that makes the necessary checks before you execute the mount command. Sky is the limit!

Configuring DejaDup

With the bucket mounted as a local drive, we can now easily configure DejaDup to use it. First of all we need to change the backend to local. This can be done either by using a program like dconfig or the console with the following command:

gsettings set org.gnome.DejaDup backend 'local'

Finally we open DejaDup, go to preferences and point the storage location to the directory that has your S3 backup files. Make sure you select the subdirectory that contains the backup files; this is typically a subdirectory in your mount point that has name equal to your computer’s hostname. Last but not least, make sure that the S3 mount directory is excluded from DejaDup! To do this, check the ignored folders in Preferences.

That’s it! Now go to your restore tab and DejaDup will be able to read your previous backups. You can also take new ones.

Gotchas

There are a few things to keep in mind in this setup:

  1. First of all, you must be connected on the internet when you mount the bucket. If you are not the bucket won’t be mounted. So, I advise you instead of just calling the mount command, to write a bash script that does the necessary checks before mounting (internet connection is on, firewall allows external requests etc).
  2. Taking backups like that seems slower than using the old native S3 support and it is likely to generate more network traffic (mind AWS traffic costs!). This is expected because DejaDup thinks it’s accessing the local file-system, so there is no need for aggressive caching or minimization of operations that cause network traffic.
  3. You should expect stability issues. As we said earlier, DejaDup does not know it writes data over the wire so much of the functionalities that usually exist in such setups (such as retry-on-fail) are missing. And obviously if you lose connection midway of the backup you will have to delete it and start a new one to avoid corrupting your future backups.
  4. Finally keep in mind that this is a very experimental setup and if you really want to have a reliable solution, you should do your own research and select something that meets your needs.

If you have a recommendation for an Open-Source Backup solution that allows locally encrypted incremental backups, supports S3 and has an easy to use UI please leave a comment as I’m more than happy to give it a try.

About Vasilis Vryniotis

My name is Vasilis Vryniotis. I’m a Data Scientist, a Software Engineer, author of Datumbox Machine Learning Framework and a proud geek. Learn more

Source: http://blog.datumbox.com/how-to-take-s3-backups-with-dejadup-on-ubuntu-20-10/

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