Posted Sep. 5, 2017 at 10:29 a.m.

Tech wrap: Robot tax?; Roku IPO; Angry Birds IPO' drones tackle Harvey

Published: 2017-09-05 10:29:56
Updated: 2017-09-05 10:29:56

Bulldog Bulldog

In today's Bulldog wrapup of technology news:

  • San Francisco official pushes robot tax to battle automation
  • Video streaming player pioneer Roku seeks $100M in IPO
  • Angry Birds maker Rovio plans initial public share offering
  • After Harvey, insurance drones take to the Texas skies

The details:

  • San Francisco official pushes robot tax to battle automation

Security guard Eric Leon watches the Knightscope K5 security robot as it glides through the mall, charming shoppers with its blinking blue and white lights. The brawny automaton records video and sounds alerts. According to its maker, it deters mischief just by making the rounds.

Leon, the all-too-human guard, feels pretty sure that the robot will someday take his job.

"He doesn't complain," Leon says. "He's quiet. No lunch break. He's starting exactly at 10."

Even in the technology hotbed stretching from Silicon Valley to San Francisco, a security robot can captivate passers-by. But the K5 is only one of a growing menagerie of automated novelties in a region where you can eat a delivered pizza made via automation and drink beers at a bar served by an airborne robot. This summer, the San Francisco Chronicle published a tech tourism guide listing a dozen or so places where tourists can observe robots and automation in action.

Yet, San Francisco is also where workers were the first to embrace mandatory sick leave and fully paid parental leave. Voters approved a $15 hourly minimum wage in 2014, a requirement that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law for the entire state in 2016. And now one official is pushing a statewide "tax" on robots that automate jobs and put people out of work.

It's too soon to say if the effort will prevail, let alone whether less-progressive jurisdictions might follow suit. The tussle points to the tensions that can flare when people embrace both technological innovation and a strong brand of social consciousness.

Such frictions seem destined to escalate as automation makes further inroads into the workplace. One city supervisor, Norman Yee, has proposed barring food delivery robots from city streets, arguing that public sidewalks should be solely for people.

"I'm a people person," Yee says, "so I tend to err on the side of things that should be beneficial and safe for people."

  • Video streaming player pioneer Roku seeks $100M in IPO

Video streaming player pioneer Roku is going public, hoping to raise money to expand into more households and fend off competitive threats from bigger technology companies.

Roku listed a $100 million fundraising target in a Friday regulatory filing. But that figure is likely to change after its investment bankers gauge the demand for its initial public offering of stock. Companies typically complete their IPOs two to four months after filing then getting approval from government regulators.

The documents provided the first peek at Roku's finances and other previously confidential information.

Like many young tech companies, Roku is still unprofitable. Last year, it lost nearly $43 million on $399 million in revenue. Since its 2002 inception, Roku has amassed $244 million in losses.

The Los Gatos, California, company boasted 15 million active users at the end of June, but that number doesn't reflect the total audience that watches online video through its streaming players, which are usually connected to large-screen televisions. That's because multiple players can belong to the same account. People streamed 9.5 billion hours of video on Roku players last year, according to its IPO documents.

Roku generates most of its revenue from selling its streaming players, but it's increasingly bringing in money from advertising and commissions from subscriptions and other transactions made on its devices. In an attempt to broaden its audience, Roku said it may cut the prices on its players and try to increase its revenue from advertising sales.

Pursuing that strategy may require more money, one of the reasons that Roku is going public now. The company currently has about $70 million in cash.

  • Angry Birds maker Rovio plans initial public share offering

Rovio Entertainment, the Finnish maker of "Angry Birds" and other popular mobile games, says it plans an initial public offering and a listing of its shares on the Helsinki stock exchange.

Chief Executive Kati Levoranta says the company "is stronger than ever" and well-positioned in the fast growing mobile gaming market with a diversified games portfolio.

Levoranta added Tuesday that recent launches — Angry Birds Evolution, Battle Bay and Angry Birds Match — have been doing well. He called the share listing "an important milestone in developing Rovio into an even stronger games-first entertainment company."

The company, based in Espoo, Finland, didn't give an estimated share price or company value.

  • After Harvey, insurance drones take to the Texas skies

Insurance adjusters are bringing more drones with them than ever before as they head to Texas to assess the damage from Harvey.

Companies are using the drones on a much larger scale to record images, save time and spare human adjusters from venturing into potentially unsafe areas. Insurers have increased their fleets since the Federal Aviation Administration eased some restrictions a year ago, and tried them out in areas of the southeastern U.S. hit by Hurricane Matthew last October.

Travelers Insurance, based in Hartford, had 65 certified drone pilots as of Friday among the 600 employees deployed to the Houston area. Claims specialist Laura Shell, who will be in Texas this week, spent last week at the company's training center in Windsor, Connecticut, learning how to pilot drones.

"This is great," said Shell, 55, of Lexington, Virginia, whose job typically has involves climbing a lot of ladders. "It's going to allow me to get a look into areas that aren't easily accessible and onto roofs and do it quickly."

The drones will dramatically cut the time it takes to assess damage, according to Jim Wucherpfennig, vice president of claims for Travelers. The company has trained 300 employees as certified drone operators and expects to have about 600 by early 2018, he said.

Instead of making two or three trips to a house, often with an outside contractor trained in setting up scaffolds and ladders, the adjusters will now be able to do detailed exterior inspections in one trip. The drone's camera is linked to an application on the employee's phone, allowing them to take measurements and shoot high-definition photos and videos, often while the customer looks on.

The drones do have limitations. They cannot fly in heavy wind or rain, and they cannot go inside homes to inspect damage.

That's one reason State Farm has decided, for now, not to use its drone fleet in Houston, spokesman Chris Pilcic said.

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