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Google’s language techniques help O2 Czech Republic reveal network secrets

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Czech VR firm is bringing sports bootcamp to the masses
Among the VR standouts at CES 2018, this company is bringing advanced athletic training to the masses.

O2 Czech Republic has demonstrated that Word2vec, a neural-network technique developed to understand human languages, can interpret raw cell-tower data, potentially improving network performance. 

It also hopes to develop the technique to uncover trends in customer geolocation.

The independent network provider, which licenses the O2 brand, is developing Word2vec to overcome the problem of messy, unreliable data resulting from SIM cards connecting to network base transceiver stations, says Jan Romportl, O2 Czech Republic chief data scientist.

“Anybody who talks to me from outside the industry thinks we’ve got great geolocation data about all our customers. When people learn the truth, they get very disappointed,” he tells ZDNet.

SEE: IT pro’s guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)    

The problem is that network base stations were never designed to provide meaningful location data. Their connections to individual devices can appear quite random, and many handovers between cells are not recorded.

A known route, such as a journey by train, appears to jump unpredictably between base stations, according to the recorded data, making it very difficult to pinpoint the location from this source alone. GPS data, meanwhile, is only available to phone operating-system providers and apps with which customers have agreed to share the data.

The O2 Czech Republic data-science team wanted to use records of contact between SIM cards and base stations to segment its customers based on their patterns of movement, but it also wanted to use the data to improve network performance.

Having grappled unsuccessfully with these problems, the team turned to Word2vec, developed by researchers led by Tomáš Mikolov at Google, to find out if it could reveal the locations of those base stations from raw network data without additional tagging or interpretation.

Word2vec is a group of machine-learning models that express words as vectors, typically in 100 or more dimensions, based on analysis of a corpus of data, such as the text from Wikipedia.

The process produces word embeddings, which data scientists can manipulate to create linguistically meaningful abstractions. For example, the vector of ‘Queen’ is almost equal to ‘King + Woman – Man’.

The technique is not normally used outside natural-language processing. But O2 Czech Republic’s data-science team thought it might help interpret the corpus of data it collects from SIM cards connecting to base stations.

“We used absolutely no other information; just plain text of the cell ID tokens,” Romportl says.

The team used Word2vec for each cell, creating a 100-dimensional vector for each of the 50,000 cell IDs. The problem was then to reduce the number of dimensions to produce a meaningful interpretation of the data.

Having read research published in 2018, one data scientist on the team suggested a new algorithm called Uniform Manifold Approximation and Projection for Dimension Reduction (UMAP).

“We had no idea how it worked. We just took the default parameters we needed to reduce 100-dimensional space to a 2D space and just did the scatter plot,” Romportl says.

They were amazed by the results.

“It was the best things I’ve seen in my data-science career. If you flip from the scatter plot to look at the map of the Czech Republic, you can see the reduction was able to create the longitude and latitude coordinates of each tower,” he says.

“That data was not in the original state. It was just a stream of tokens. The neural network is a universal algorithm for dimensionality reduction. It compressed all invisible patterns into 100D space, all the patterns that relate to the location of the base stations. It was a eureka moment for us.”

O2 Czech Republic already knew the location of its base stations, but the findings presented at Teradata Universe EMEA Conference 2019 Madrid demonstrate that Word2vec can be developed to reveal other hidden characteristics of the network, to help improve its performance and customer experience, he says.

The team is also planning to use a related technique, Doc2Vec, to group customers into segments based on their journey patterns, helping outside partners in marketing and public-sector planning, for example.

Although Word2vec has been used outside language processing, O2 Czech Republic’s approach to geospatial data is probably a first, says James Kobielus, lead analyst for data science at research company Wikibon.

“These methods have been kicking around for a while, but what the O2 people are doing sounds very interesting. It’s not anything I’ve seen done elsewhere and as far as I can tell it is an innovation in the application of Word2vec,” he says.

SEE: Sensor’d enterprise: IoT, ML, and big data (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

O2 Czech Republic’s work with Word2vec shows why data scientists should be allowed to experiment, says Torsten Volk, industry analyst at Enterprise Management Associates.

“Data scientists are rare and cost a lot of money to hire. Businesses think they had better produce something that works, so they tend to use established techniques that produce results. But they are generally not exploring and finding new things.”

Organizations hoping to find value in the increasing volumes of data they collect could benefit from a more opened-ended approach to data sciences, exploring new applications of machine-learning techniques, as O2 Czech Republic has done, he says.

Or they could wait for the competition to do it first. 

Umap scatter plot compared to a map of the Czech Republic.

Uniform Manifold Approximation and Projection (UMAP) scatter plot compared to a map of the Czech Republic.


Image: Jan Romportl/O2 Czech Republic

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GM is throwing even more money at EVs and autonomous vehicles

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General Motors plans to dramatically increase its spend on electric vehicles and autonomous driving, pledging $35 billion through 2025 as it races to bring new EVs to market. The company had previously said it would spend $27 billion in the same period, and will now pull forward battery manufacturing plans for its Ultium platform.

The goal now is to build two battery cell manufacturing plants in the US by mid-decade, to join the first plants that are currently under construction in Tennessee and Ohio. Right now, GM isn’t saying where it expects the new facilities to be located, or how much capacity they’re likely to have, with those details still to be confirmed.

As for the vehicles that will actually use those batteries, there GM is expanding its goals too. In November 2020, the automaker had said it planned 30 new EVs by 2025 globally; two-thirds of that range would be available in North America. Now, though, it’s adding new commercial products.

“GM will add to its North America plan new electric commercial trucks and other products that will take advantage of the creative design opportunities and flexibility enabled by the Ultium Platform,” the automaker said today. “In addition, GM will add additional US assembly capacity for EV SUVs.”

That US manufacturing component is key, given signs from the American government that future incentives and credits available to electric vehicle buyers will be dependent – in part – on where the car, SUV, or truck was built. According to the latest proposals, the maximum incentive of $12,500 would only be accessible for a vehicle priced at under $80,000, built in the US, and in a factory where workers are part of, or represented by, a labor union.

Location isn’t the only issue there. Although GM has revealed two Ultium-based vehicles, the GMC Hummer EV and Cadillac Lyriq, only the Cadillac looks set to come in at under that $80k ceiling. For GM to continue benefiting from the maximum incentives, it needs to figure out a way to make more affordable electric vehicles.

On the autonomous side of things, there GM has a number of fingers in the pie. Cruise, of which GM is the majority owner, already announced this week that it had secured $5 billion in credit from GM Financial in order to place a bulk order of the Origin AVs specially designed for its ride-hailing service. Revealed early last year, Origin – which has no traditional car controls – will be among the first Ultium-based EVs to go into production.

Cruise is also working with Honda, which co-developed the Origin, on an AV testing program in Japan. Honda, meanwhile, is co-developing two electric EVs with GM that will be based on Ultium. One of those will be branded as a Honda in the US, and the other an Acura.

It’s a time of big promises for automakers right now, as they tool up to try to carve out space in the growing electric vehicle category. Recent chip supply-chain struggles have threatened to put a dampener on those efforts, at least temporarily – GM said earlier this month that it would be cutting some features from its current vehicles, to work around shortages in hardware – but the reality is that none of the car companies can afford to slow down if they’re to meet both their self-imposed efforts and the requirements of legislators around things like emissions reductions.

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BMW X5-based hydrogen fuel cell prototype begins testing in Europe

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BMW has begun testing an X5-based prototype running a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain. Affectionately referred to as the BMW i Hydrogen NEXT, the prototype is an all-electric vehicle fueled by the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen in a fuel cell. The German automaker firmly believes that hydrogen fuel cell technology can replace internal combustion engines, plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), and battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) as the future of mobility.

“Hydrogen fuel cell technology can be an attractive option for sustainable drive trains – especially in larger vehicle classes,” explained Frank Weber, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG responsible for Development. “That is why road testing of near-standard vehicles with a hydrogen fuel cell drivetrain is an important milestone in our research and development efforts.”

BMW has unveiled plans of releasing a limited series of hydrogen fuel cell SUVs in 2022. The carmaker is on track to debut a small production run of hydrogen-powered BMW X5 SUVs by later next year. Proof of this is the launch of a real-world testing program for the BMW I Hydrogen NEXT.

Unbeknownst to many, BMW’s been dabbling with hydrogen technology since the early 2000s. The automaker released a limited production run of the BMW Hydrogen 7 luxury car based on a V12-powered 7 Series limousine. But instead of having a fuel cell and electric motors, the Hydrogen 7 had the same 6.0-liter gasoline V12 engine that runs on both hydrogen and gasoline, officially making it the world’s first production-ready hydrogen vehicle.

However, BMW only built 100 examples of the Hydrogen 7, and all were available for lease to selected high-profile clients only. BMW will aim for more than 100 private lease clients for its next-gen hydrogen fuel cell SUV, and the proof is in the pudding.

BMW claims the i Hydrogen NEXT prototype combines hydrogen fuel cell technology with BMW’s fifth-gen eDrive technology, the latter also found in the BMW iX3 and incoming iX and i4 models. Capable of generating a maximum of 374 horsepower, BMW’s hydrogen fuel cell prototype is churning out the same power level as the brand’s six-cylinder inline petrol engines.

Similar to Jaguar Land Rover’s Defender hydrogen prototype, the i Hydrogen NEXT has a performance battery pack that boosts power when accelerating while recovering energy from braking and coasting. The prototype has two 700-bar storage tanks made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) that collectively hold six kilograms of hydrogen.

BMW has partnered with Japanese auto giant Toyota in developing the fuel cell for its i Hydrogen NEXT prototype. The two carmakers have been working since 2013 to study and optimize the scalability of hydrogen fuel cells in future vehicle offerings.

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Lincoln pledges full electrification by 2030

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Lincoln will electrify its entire range by 2030, the automaker has announced, joining the industry shift toward ousting combustion engines in favor of zero-emissions. It comes after launching plug-in hybrid versions of several of its SUVs, with Lincoln promising to debut its first all-electric model in 2022.

By midway through this decade, meanwhile, Lincoln says it expects half of its global sales volume to be of zero-emissions vehicles. That’s ambitious, given right now the company doesn’t even have one such car to sell. Models like the Corsair Grand Touring offer a PHEV drivetrain, but the reality is that you only get 25 miles of electric range before the gas engine kicks in full-time.

Lincoln’s answer will be a new platform. It’s a newly flexible architecture, the automaker says, capable of underpinning rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive battery-electric models: Lincoln plans to use it for four “new and distinct” EVs. This is, it’s worth noting, different from the Rivian skateboard platform; Lincoln had originally intended to use that for its EV, but that project has been put on hold.

Exactly what form its first electric model will take, Lincoln is coy on. The obvious option would be an SUV or crossover, of course. Not only is that the direction in which the market – and Lincoln’s existing sales – is trending, bigger cars offer more space to accommodate larger battery packs.

However Lincoln has been flirting with other possibilities, at least in concept form. The Zephyr Reflection was a design exercise with the tastes of the Chinese market – a huge one for the automaker – in mind, revealed at Auto Shanghai 2021 back in April. Evolving the recognizable cues of the discontinued Lincoln Continental, but with altogether bolder styling, it was billed as a preview of what the brand could do in the future. Lincoln’s exterior tease of the new EV’s front light graphics seems to line up with what we’ve seen from Zephyr Reflection.

Meanwhile, that concept’s approach chimes with what the automaker is saying about its upcoming EV. “Evolving Lincoln’s design, the fully electric Lincoln will deliver a more spacious interior that creates the ultimate expression of the Lincoln sanctuary,” the company promises. “On approach, the exterior presents a striking, modern aesthetic, while the iconic Lincoln star evolves to meet an electrified future. Thoughtful details inside create a truly rejuvenating space for all, with clever storage solutions and minimalistic panels, while a larger, expansive panoramic vista roof enhances natural light and provides a more open, airy feel throughout.”

That’s a whole lot of design-speak, but there’s no denying that EVs do have clear advantages in luxury vehicles. Instantaneous torque but from a quieter drivetrain, along with less intrusion from mechanical components into the cabin, all make a lot of sense for a high-end vehicle.

Lincoln’s target is more aggressive than that of corporate parent Ford, it’s worth noting. Ford expects to have around 40-percent of its models electric by 2030, though it does a commercial range of work trucks to consider. Lincoln, in contrast, has a much more focused portfolio.

As for charging, Lincoln plans to borrow Ford’s strategy of collating other providers into a central interface. That’ll be the Lincoln Charging Network, with partners like Electrify America and others included into the Lincoln Way app. You’ll presumably also be able to access that through Lincoln’s new infotainment system, which it is building atop Android.

Finally, there’ll be Lincoln ActiveGlide, a hands-free highway driving assistance system. Like Ford BlueCruise, it’ll use driver-attention cameras to make sure the person behind the wheel is paying attention to the road, even if their hands aren’t on the wheel. However it will only operate on stretches of pre-mapped, divided highway. Ford plans an over-the-air update to deliver BlueCruise functionality to Mustang Mach-E and F-150 models with the right hardware package later in 2021.

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