A Waymo engineer reveals how the self-driving car company develops its robot brains (GOOGL)

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Shilpa Waymo

  • Shilpa Gulati leads Waymo’s Behavior Prediction team.
  • The India-born engineer works on perfecting Waymo’s robot brains.
  • Her inspiration was reading Isaac Asimov’s legendary robot stories when she was 12 years old.


Editor’s note: Business Insider has been talking with Waymo employees from different parts of the company to learn more about their work. What we discovered were some of the coolest jobs at Alphabet, Waymo’s parent company. This is the latest profile in the series. To read the others, click here. For a brief history of Waymo, click here.

It’s a common Silicon Valley story: a young person reads science-fiction novels or watches some movies that feature robots and decides to make futuristic technology their life’s work. 

Cue Stanford, MIT, or CalTech. 

Shilpa Gulati leads the Behavior Prediction Team at Waymo and has worked on NASA projects as well as at Apple and self-driving startup Nuro, and she holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas, Austin. She, too, was inspired by sci-fi, but she wasn’t sitting in an American suburb when inspiration struck.

"I grew up in a small town in India," she said in an interview from Waymo headquarters, at the Alphabet Googleplex in Mountain View, CA.

"The wasn’t much to do but read books in summer," she added. Some of the books she encountered were in Isaac Asimov’s "Robot Series," originally published in the 1950s. Students of both Asimov and robots know that the extensive series contains Asimov’s now-famous "Three Laws of Robotics," which have actually shaped contemporary thinking about machine intelligence as it transitions from fantasy to reality.

Read more: A Waymo employee reveals what it’s like to create the unique voice of self-driving cars

Asimov’s books also featured something that would entrance a 12-year-old Gulati: "positronic brains," as Asimov termed them ("Star Trek" enthusiasts will recognize the reference, updated for the "Next Generation" in the character of the android Mr. Data).

"I didn’t know any such things existed," Gulati said. "That you could build a brain indistinguishable from a human brain!"

Making a career from childhood thrills — and becoming a female engineer against the odds

Waymo Launch

Excitement over a non-human human brain is understandable in a 12-year-old. What’s impressive about Gulati is that she’s maintained that childhood thrill for her work at Waymo. And in many ways, her success has had to draw on that adolescent revelation.

She noted that robotics didn’t provide a clear professional path when she was entering the field, and she also suffered from a lack of female role models in technology when she was growing up. But her parents were extremely supportive, and it helped that her father was a professor of mechanical engineering who let her tag along to professional fairs and joined her for science experiments when she was a kid.

After starting out at an aerospace company, Gulati joined Bosch in the early 2010s. She later moved on to Apple, leading an autonomous-systems team, and then to Nuro. (In 2008 and 2009, she also worked with NASA to develop an autonomous underwater vehicle that could potentially explore Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. The work took her to the frozen Antarctic.)

"Waymo and Google were always on my mind," she said, recalling her fascination with the Google Car project and its "secret sauce" of self-driving. When a position opened up last June, she had to take it.

"It’s really, really exciting," she said. "The talent is incredible. As a newcomer, I know they’ve been at it for ten years, but it feels like a hundred years of knowledge. It’s like going to Moon — only harder."

Behavior prediction is a challenging area, particularly as Waymo begins to commercialize its service, beginning in the Phoenix area with Waymo One in December of 2018.

Waymo’s autonomous "driver" — a combination of software programming and hardware sensors and radars — has racked up millions of miles in real-world testing and billions in simulations. The driver can operate in a sophisticated rendering of reality. But it can’t predict everything that will happen on the road. 

A modern Mr. Data at the wheel

star trek

That’s where Gulati’s team comes in, crunching data on what they call "relevant agents" — a cyclist, for example, or a pedestrian waiting near a crosswalk. The Waymo driver needs to be able to react safely to subtle relevant-agent cues, undertaking the sort of quick situational evaluation that human’s excel at, but that modern-day positronic brains struggle with as they crank through their algorithms.

Tacking this challenge with her team, Gulati stays well-organized and makes use of Alphabet’s flexible work culture. Each day ends with a review of what was accomplished and a look ahead to the next day’s schedule, a process than Gulati undertakes in the evenings. The following morning, she’s up at 7 AM, enjoys breakfast at 8 AM, and lands at the office around 10 after dropping off her child at school. The official work day wraps at 5 PM.

Consistency is vital because Gulati is serious about aiming for perfection. 

"If I were to look far into future," she said, "self-driving cars don’t have to have flaws. They can learn more from data than a human can. My prediction is that they’ll get better and better."

At the same time, she reminds herself to remain humble, erring on the side of caution and taking a conservative path to a fully autonomous tomorrow.

Nonetheless, for someone who, as she puts it, has been the only woman on most projects in her life, Gulati feels pride in how far she’s come. She read about robot brains when she was 12, and now she’s creating them.

"I can’t believe I’m living my dream, every single day."

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The Best Fujifilm X-Series Kits for Travel Photography

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The post The Best Fujifilm X-Series Kits for Travel Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Matt Murray.

Travel has always been my first love. In 1994 I bought my first camera – a Pentax Zoom 90 WR point and shoot – because I was going to Europe for a two-year working holiday. The only way to share photos with family back then was to have the film developed and post the prints home!

While photography (and technology) has changed remarkably in the last 25 years, what you should look for in a camera for travel photography is much the same: small, light, capable of great results and preferably weather resistant.

I’ve used all sorts of camera brands over the years. However, for me, Fujifilm X-Series cameras and lenses are the perfect travel companions. Whether it’s a trip to the Australian outback, visiting remote Buddhist temples in the Javanese jungle, photographing puffins in the Faroe Islands or capturing traffic trails in Taiwan, my X-Series cameras have always produced stunning results. Here are my recommended Fujifilm X-Series kits for your next big adventure.

Best minimalist kit

Camera: Fujifilm X100F
Lens: Fixed F2 Fujinon lens
Weight: 469 grams

The best minimalist kit choice was easily the stunning Fujifilm X100F. This is the best compact digital camera ever made. Yes, it really is that good!

Many photographers – including diehard users of other brands – use this as their “take everywhere” shooter. The X100F is small and quiet, and the fast f/2 Fujinon lens creates beautiful images. It may be small, but it boasts an impressive array of features including a leaf shutter and built-in neutral density filter.

Like all the cameras I feature in this article, the X100F can shoot RAW alongside Fujifilm’s array of stunning JPG film simulations, that replicate the look of classic films such as Provia and Velvia. Fujifilm cameras produce the best JPGs I’ve seen straight out of the camera.

This choice is a little unusual as it has a fixed lens. That’s right. You can’t take it off and swap it for another lens. If the 23mm focal length (35mm in full-frame terms) isn’t your preferred choice, the system also has wide-angle conversion and telephoto converter lenses. However, these do add extra weight to your kit. One of the few downsides to the X100F is that it’s not weather resistant. But, at least it’s small enough to fit in your pocket during a downpour.

One body plus one lens kit

Camera body: X-T30
Lens: XF 18-55mm F2.8-4 R LM OIS lens
Approximate weight: 693 grams

If you only have space to take one body and one lens on a trip, I would recommend the brand new Fujifilm X-T30 with the XF 18-55mm F/2.8-4 R LM OIS lens. I’ve been using this line of cameras since buying the X-T10 as a second body back up to my X-T1, and I’ve also used the X-T20. The X-T cameras with a “0” after them are lighter, cheaper, non-weather resistant versions of the flagship models, but usually feature much of the same technology. For example, the X-T30 has the same 26.1MP X-Trans 4 CMOS sensor as the X-T3.

Alternatives for the camera body would be the X-T20 and the X-E3. The X-T20 gives you a screen that tilts up and down for overhead and low to the ground shots. Whereas, the X-E3 is the more minimalist choice, and features a joystick that controls where the focus point is in the frame. The X-T30 and the X-T3 have both of these features.

My choice of lens for this kit is the XF 18-55mm F/2.8-4 R LM OIS. Not only is it one of my favorite Fujifilm lenses, but it’s also the lens that I’ve used the most over the last three years.

Often sold with camera bodies, many newcomers to the X-Series remark that the XF 18-55mm F2.8-4 R LM OIS lens is “surprisingly good for a kit lens.” In no way is this lens like the subpar beginner kit lenses produced by other manufacturers. The XF 18-55mm F/2.8-4 R LM OIS is a stunningly sharp lens in its own right and has produced some of my favorite images ever.

It may not be weather resistant, but it does feature OIS (optical image stabilization) to ensure your shots are as sharp as possible at lower shutter speeds. It’s a variable aperture zoom lens, meaning that the maximum aperture changes as you zoom through the range. However, you can still shoot at f/2.8 at the 18mm focal length, and f/4 at the 55mm end. It’s a top lens for landscape, cityscape, and portraits.

Best kit under 1kg

Camera body: X-T30
Lenses: XF 18-55mm F/2.8-4 R LM OIS + XF 35mm f/1.4 R
Approximate weight: 880 grams

My picks for the best kit weighing under 1kg include the same choices as the ‘One body plus one lens’ kit above, with the addition of the XF 35mm f/1.4 R. The first time I used this lens, I was blown away by its sharpness and stunning bokeh. It’s a top lens for portraits, still life subjects and even street shooting.

It did have a reputation of being slow to focus, but with Fujifilm’s ongoing firmware updates to both lenses and camera bodies, this has greatly improved. I wouldn’t hesitate to use it in any situation. This lens has a fast maximum aperture of f/1.4 that enables you to shoot images handheld at night without raising the ISO too high or lowering the shutter speed too low.

One zoom, two fast primes kit

Camera bodies: X-T30
Lenses: XF 18-55mm F2.8-4 R LM OIS + XF 35 1.4 R + XF 60mm f2.4 R Macro
Approximate weight: 1.095kg

For a lightweight travel kit weighing just over 1kg and featuring two fast prime lenses, add the XF 60mm f/2.4 R Macro to the kit above. This is another option often overlooked by newer lenses on the block, but it offers superb image quality for portraits and macro shots.

Although it’s not a true macro lens (it offers 1:2 magnification rather than the standard 1:1 magnification for a true macro lens), it is an incredibly light option for close up shots. It weighs less than a third of the weight of Fujifilm’s XF 80mm F/2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro lens.

Best weather resistant kit

Camera bodies: X-T3
Lenses: XF 16mm F1.4 R WR, 23f2, XF 50-140mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR.
Approximate weight: 2.6 kg check

The best weather resistant kit features Fujifilm’s newest X-Series flagship camera. The X-T3 has won high praise from users and critics alike since its release in mid-2018. It is an impressive performer, having the fastest autofocus in the X-Series lineup and a continuous shooting rate of up to 20 frames per second. I’ve really enjoyed using this camera alongside my X-T2, which is still an excellent camera.

The newcomer to this kit is the XF 16 f/1.4 WR lens – often praised as the best lens in the X-Series lineup. Weather resistant, the lens is optically stunning, and a solid performer for landscape, cityscape, and low light shots. With a close focusing distance of 15cm, the XF 16 f1.4 WR lens is highly versatile. I’ve loved using it for food photography.

Best travel kit with zoom lenses

Camera bodies: X-T3 and X-T30
Lenses: XF 18-55mm F/2.8-4 R LM OIS and XF 50-140mm F/2.8 R LM OIS WR.
Weight: 1.8kg

This kit gives you the best of both worlds: the light X-T30 with the XF 18-55mm F/2.8-4 R LM OIS lens, and a weather resistant combo of the X-T3 with the stunning XF 50-140mm F/2.8 R LM OIS WR lens.

Weighing in at 995 grams, you might actually question why I would choose this lens as part of a travel kit? I’ve even been laughed at when I’ve suggested this lens for travel. Although it’s heavy, this lens is a must-have in my travel photography kit.

Like an equivalent focal range 70-200mm, the lens has a constant maximum aperture of f/2.8, meaning that you can shoot with a shallow depth of field throughout the zoom range. This is particularly helpful during low light situations, or to achieve shallow depth of field at any time.

This XF 50-140mm F/2.8 R LM OIS WR lens also features OIS (optical image stabilization) and has a pleasing bokeh. I’ve used this lens for landscape, cityscape, and portraits. If I could only pick one lens for travel, I’d have to flip a coin to choose between the two amazing zooms in this kit.

If you have different weight or budget considerations, you could substitute the excellent XF 55-200mm F/3.5-4.8 R LM OIS lens in this kit. I’ve never regretted taking this lens along with me on trips, but if you plan on shooting in low light at the far range of the zoom, you will be shooting at a maximum aperture of f/4.8, which may slow down shutter speeds. Thankfully, this is another lens with OIS (optical image stabilization).

My favorite kit

Camera bodies: X-T3 and X-T2
Lenses: XF 16mm F/1.4 R WR + XF 18-55mm F/2.8-4 R LM OIS + XF 35mm f/1.4 R + XF 50-140mm F/2.8 R LM OIS WR
Approximate weight: 2.9 kg

This is my favorite kit. It may be the heaviest listed in this list, but this is what I would typically take on my travel adventures. It pairs two weather resistant camera bodies with my two favorite zooms and two favorite primes. This kit has a reach from 16-140mm (24-210 in full-frame terms) and covers many shooting situations. The XF 50-140mm F/2.8 R LM OIS WR lens may not be the longest in the X-Series lineup, but it’s still capable of capturing stunning wildlife images.

X-Series options I don’t recommend for travel kits

X-T100

In 2018, Fujifilm released the entry-level X-T100. Although this attractive looking camera looks very much like the rest of the X-Series line-up, its autofocus can’t match the cameras I’ve featured above.

18-135mm lens

The XF18-135mm lens is often on the list of recommended lenses for Fujifilm travel photography. Having owned and used one, it doesn’t make my list. For a slower, all-in-one travel zoom, I don’t think it has enough reach.

27mm lens

The 27mm F/2.8 pancake lens is sharp, and you can often buy them at a bargain price. It’s a firm favorite amongst many Fujifilm photographers, but it doesn’t make my list as it’s the only lens in the lineup not to have a ring on the lens to change aperture.

 

Conclusion

The Fujifilm X-Series range is perfect for travel photographers for so many reasons.

With an impressive lineup of prime and zoom lenses for all budgets, the X-Series has you covered for a wide range of situations including low light photography and adverse weather conditions. The camera bodies feature retro charm and excellent ergonomics, and no other system can match the beauty of Fujifilm’s straight out of camera JPGs.

Whether it’s a day trip near home or the trip of a lifetime, Fujifilm X-Series is my number one recommendation for travel photography.

Do you use Fujifilm Cameras for your travel photography? Let us know what you use in the comments below.

The post The Best Fujifilm X-Series Kits for Travel Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Matt Murray.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Astrophotography and The Gear Needed to Succeed

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Have you ever wanted to be able to capture stunning pictures of the night sky but weren’t really sure what you needed to do, and didn’t really know what equipment you would need? If so this beginner’s guide to astrophotography is for you. In this guide we will take a look at the basics of astrophotography and will cover things such as camera settings, the 500 rule, how to stack images, and we will take a look at the gear you’ll need to create out of this world Milky Way and night sky images.

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