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The U.S. took the lead on cellular technology today when the Federal Communications Commission approved a plan making massive swaths of spectrum available for the next generation of wireless service, called 5G. Pushing the limits of physics, the promise of 5G is huge: data speeds from 10 to 100 times faster than what 4G offers (well over one gigabit per second for 5G) with virtually no lag, known as latency.
There will be some latency getting that technology into your hands, however, with some estimating that it could take up to 2020 just to settle on the standard, and then more time to get the technology into products. You sure won’t see 5G in the iPhone 7, expected in September. Think more about the iPhone 10, at best.
Think also about connected cars, refrigerators, drones—pretty much anything that has a battery or plug. The negligible latency might even enable a doctor in one location to operate on a patient in another location via Internet-connected robotic instruments. “If anyone tells you they know the details of what 5G will deliver, walk the other way,” said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler in a speech on June 20.
Also be wary of what cellular companies promise. Verizon has announced plans to offer 5G in 2017. South Korean carriers are aiming to have service in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. These will probably be limited, preliminary services that come out well before the technical standards have even been set.
What the FCC did today is open up an electromagnetic frontier of frequencies. Now it’s up to wireless companies to homestead the territory. The U.S. will be the epicenter for 5G, because it’s the first place in the world to open up the ultra-high frequencies that will make these data speeds possible: a massive swath of microwaves between 27.5GHz and 71 GHz. This is fundamentally different spectrum than what’s been used before, a range from around 600MHz to 3GHz. The FCC also just announced the intention to make another 18 GHz of spectrum available for 5G in the future.
These high frequencies were essentially considered garbage spectrum due to the technical challenges of making them useful. Today’s announcement by the U.S. about plans for 5G is a bit like its announcement in 1962 about plans to go the Moon. We know it’s technologically possible—once we invent the technology.
The benefit of these high frequencies is that their short wavelengths (a few millimeters) can squeeze in a huge amount of data. The downside is that they can’t carry it very far—as little as a few hundred feet, vs. miles for today’s 4G networks. These waves don’t go through walls nearly as well, either, making use in cities a potential nightmare.
But something has changed since the first cellular networks with their long-wavelength transmitters went up: The Internet is everywhere. It’s no longer far-fetched to imagine cellular transmitters on every block and even every floor of an office building. Wi-Fi already works that way in many places. And antenna technology is advanced enough to focus and direct the beams very precisely, possibly even to get them around obstacles.
Still, it’s going to take a while to build a meaningful amount of micro cells, as well as necessary backhaul: the high-speed wired (generally fiber optic) networks that connects them all to the Internet. Everyone may not be happy about these transmitters popping up all over the place. “Not in my backyard” protests might have to be expanded to include front yard and side yard. As part of its 5G plan, Wheeler said that, “the Commission has streamlined our environmental and historic preservation rules, and tightened our ‘shot clock’ for siting application reviews.” Environmental and historic preservation advocates may not be as sanguine.
For rural areas, where it’s uneconomical to put a cell on every block (if there even are blocks), the FCC is opening up low and midrange frequencies with very wide channels of at least 200 MHz to push through more data at once. Unlike previous cellular technologies that are assigned to fairly narrow ranges of frequencies, 5G is literally all over the spectrum.
The variety of frequencies that make 5G possible poses a final challenge: figuring out how everyone will use them. Some of that spectrum will be licensed. Companies will pay a fee for exclusive use of it, and auctioning off spectrum rights takes time. Other frequencies will be shared; companies will have to negotiate agreements to make that work. A big chunk will be unlicensed, meaning it’s continually up for grabs. That’s how Wi-Fi works; and as anyone trying to get online at a big event knows, it works terribly. Carriers will have to figure out much smarter ways for networks and devices to coordinate in order to avoid electromagnetic traffic jams. (Coincidentally, the US military’s DARPA is sponsoring a competition to develop better technologies for sharing the airways.)
In short, 5G is a very good thing, but good things take time.
Yesterday, a week after the girlfriend of Philando Castile broadcast the aftermath of his shooting by a police officer on Facebook Live, another live stream showing yet more violence began spreading on Facebook. A young black man listening to music with two friends in a car in Norfolk, Virginia, was broadcasting on Facebook Live when he and his cohorts were shot in a flurry of bullets. Unlike the first video, which was briefly taken off Facebook due to a “technical glitch,” the second video remained on the man’s Facebook page.
But as an increasing torrent of violent content is popping up in live streams, platforms like Facebook and Periscope are asking themselves what role they should have in choosing what their users see, and how exactly their teams of moderators will do that.
To the second question at least, platforms have one emerging idea: artificial intelligence.
“Being able to bounce porn inside livestreams or inside pre-recorded videos is already within the grasp of all the major tech companies,” says David Luan, founder of Dextro, a New York-based company that uses machine learning to make sense of video. Software like his is already being used to monitor video that’s both pre-recorded and live-streamed on services like Periscope, YouTube, and Facebook—all of which prohibit sexually explicit content. Luan says AI may be one reason why your feeds on those platforms feature little to no porn.
“We can already pick out when guns are present or when there’s a protest going on,” says Luan. And it can do it quickly. Luan says it takes his technology 300 milliseconds to determine what’s in a video once it hits their servers. That speed would be crucial for a platform like Facebook, with its 1.65 billion users, where live videos can quickly command an enormous audience.
In general, Luan says, image recognition has come a long way in the last two years. Companies like his use models and algorithms to identify concepts in streams as a way to help companies and users find the best content, or the section of a video they’re looking for. As such, artificial intelligence is becoming adept at perceiving objects in both images and video. Twitter’s AI team, known as Cortex, is using a large simulated neural network to determine what is happening in Periscope feeds in real time, in order to better recommend content to users.
“One thing that is interesting is that today we have more offensive photos being reported by AI algorithms than by people,” Facebook’s director of engineering for applied machine learning, Joaquin Candela, told TechCrunch in March. “The higher we push that to 100%, the fewer offensive photos have actually been seen by a human.”
AI can even attach sentiment or overarching descriptions to images like “happiness” or “anger.” Clarifai, another company that uses machine learning to analyze video, can recognize 11,000 different concepts, which includes both objects and scene descriptions. Matthew Zeiler, the company’s founder and CEO, says that AI can detect fighting by homing in on, say, clenched fists in a physical fight. But focusing on weaponry can be more predictive, he says, “because we could see these weapons before they’re used.” Once artificial intelligence knows what it’s looking for, it can set off an action—like shutting down a stream, or alerting a moderator—if these elements arise.
While researchers have made significant progress in “teaching” computers to see things in still images, processing live video is much harder. At Twitter, the AI team effectively built a custom supercomputer made entirely of heavy-duty graphics processing units (GPUs) to perform the video classification.
AI is also hampered in understanding the context of a situation, Luan says. “You have things that are very contextual, like someone being heckled in a way that’s really inappropriate, but that depends upon understanding some key characteristics about the scene.”
For example, an algorithm would not understand the racial undertones of a black man breaking a stained glass window depicting slaves picking cotton at one at the nation’s most prestigious universities. Artificial intelligence also wouldn’t be able to understand the nuanced hate speech in the heated argument between a group of white teenagers and a man with tan skin that erupted on a tram in Manchester after the U.K. announced its planned exit from the European Union. That requires cultural and historical context that artificial intelligence isn’t capable of capturing, at least not yet.
But an algorithm would be able to spot the police officer’s gun pointed at Philando Castile bleeding out in the driver’s seat of his car in Diamond Reynolds’s Facebook Live broadcast. What a human moderator with that information would do next is less clear.
The extent to which Facebook uses AI to weed out bad content is unknown, but the moderation system is still mostly human. Once a user flags a widely viewed live stream or video, it’s sent to one of the company’s four moderation operations, in Menlo Park, Austin, Dublin, and Hyderabad, India. There, moderators are told to stop any live stream that’s in violation of Facebook’s community standards, which forbids threats, self-harm, “dangerous organizations,” bullying, criminal activity, “regulated goods,” nudity, hate speech, and glorified violence.
Among the live videos Facebook has stopped this year was one from Paris showed an ISIS sympathizer streaming threats after allegedly murdering a police commander and his partner, and a video from Milwaukee of three teenagers who filmed themselves having sex. Another stream, filmed by a man as he was murdered in daylight on a Chicago street, remains on the site.
Part of the reason human moderators are still necessary—and widely used—in moderation systems is because of what artificial intelligence can’t understand. While AI may be faster at finding indications of violence, humans can understand more complicated scenarios like the altercation between that tram passenger and those angry Manchester teens.
That may be changing. “The pace of development in AI as a whole is super exponential,” says Luan. Gesture recognition is rapidly improving, he says, and while artificial intelligence can’t see concealed weapons, by the end of the year it may be able to.
While the kinds of things that AI is able to turn up and moderate against is getting more refined, that doesn’t mean we’ll be able to do away with human filters altogether. At the end of the day content flagging by human users is a crucial component of any platform, because in aggregate those flags say a lot about the kind of content users want to see as a whole. Furthermore, human moderators provide a crucial role in determining what content has public interest value (“raises awareness” in Facebook’s words) and which doesn’t.
But Facebook isn’t always so clear about why it deems a video permissible or unacceptable. Perhaps as artificial intelligence moderation tools are able to take on more of the burden of moderation and their accuracy inspires a greater degree of confidence, it will give platforms like Facebook and Periscope the opportunity to be more thoughtful and transparent about their decision to take down a video or keep it up.
It’s 9:30 on a drizzly morning in San Francisco’s SOMA district, and the day is just getting going at Seventh Son Tattoo. As I sit on a leather couch at the front of the studio with tattoo artist David Robinson, staffers are coming in, coffee is being brewed, and floors are being swept.
One of the other artists is working with an early client; I can hear them talking quietly in the back, along with the sound of a tattoo machine. (They don’t call them “guns” or “pens” anymore.) Robinson is showing me some of his recent tattoo designs, but he has no paper sketches or Polaroids. Everything is on his iPad Pro.
Tattoo artists are making a gradual conversion to digital, and the iPad Pro is proving to be a catalyst for an industry that so far has only reluctantly let go of ink pens and sketch paper. Pen and paper, after all, has been where the art in tattoo art has originated. The iPad Pro, with the help of the Apple Pencil stylus and some advanced image processing software, may be the first affordable technology that feels authentic enough to move artists away from the familiarity of pen and paper.
Robinson has been using the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil combo since December, and it’s gradually become a game changer—or, more accurately, a job changer.
“When it first came out I thought it would be cool to draw on, but I don’t think I realized until I started using it how much more I could use it for,” he said. He’s using the device to both design tattoos and help clients visualize how the tattoos will look on their bodies.
Part of the iPad Pro’s appeal to tattoo artists is simple: The larger version of the device has a huge 12.9-inch touch-screen display—about the size of a magazine—so there’s room to stretch out and do more detailed designs. (There’s also a model in the iPad’s traditional 9.7-inch size.) The design software has gotten better, too. Robinson uses a made-for-iPad app called Procreate, which, while not as feature-rich as Photoshop, contains many of the same basic attributes like layering and a wide variety of pens and brushes. Autodesk’s Sketchbook app is also widely used.
For Robinson and others in the tattoo trade, the iPad has become a central workspace for the artist and the client. Artists use it to rough out designs both during and after the first in-person meeting with the client.
“[The iPad] has allowed me to draw my sketches directly onto an image of the body part that would be tattooed upon,” says Delaware-based artist Fred Giovannitti. Robinson says that base body image is sometimes emailed from the client, and sometimes taken by the artist in the studio at the first meeting.
The image is then typically loaded into the iPad where it occupies a layer in the image-processing app (like Procreate). The artist can then sketch tattoo ideas on another layer over the body image. Or, as Giovannitti points out, the client will often have sample images of the desired design, which can also be imported into a layer and used as a guide for the design.
For some clients, there may be more than one of these “anchor images.” A “sleeve” tattoo, for example, may comprise three distinct images, each to be placed on a different part of the arm and each occupying a different layer in Procreate.
Tattoo artist Fred Giovannitti sketches a tattoo design with his iPad Pro.
From here, Giovannitti uses the Pencil in Procreate to tie the images together in a cohesive way. “I will use a brush or pencil tool to figure out how I will use an organic flow to tie all the images together into on composition tailored for a three-dimensional canvas,” he explains.
Judging by the popularity of laser tattoo removal, it’s clear that many, many people end up regretting their tattoos. Cutting down on this “tattoo remorse” might be one of the iPad’s biggest values to both artist and client. Clients naturally have some anxiety about the final result of the work; after all, a tattoo is more or less permanent. The iPad lets the client see both the aesthetic and the placement of the tattoo in the context on the affected body part before any ink flows.
Robinson said this is particularly important to people getting tattoos that cover large areas of the body, or to people who already have lots of tattoos. “Where you have a person who wants to fit a tattoo in between two tattoos that are already there, you can just take a picture of that empty space and have it fit in there exactly,” he told me. Visualizing a new tattoo on the iPad allows him to make quick sizing and positioning tweaks to make the design fit better.
Other clients come to Robinson hoping to carefully cover over an old tattoo that’s been lasered off. Even after a laser treatment, the faint outlines of the old tattoo are often still visible, and the coloration of the skin in the area is different. So the new tattoo’s lines and coloration must be perfectly placed to cover over the old tattoo.
The image of the tattoo design is superimposed over a photograph of the appropriate body part to give the client a clear idea of the result. The tattoo has been carefully placed to harmonize with an existing tattoo.
After Giovannetti has sat with a client, he instantly stores his consultation notes and sketches to the iPad. “Post-consultation, the digital process allows me more time to elaborate on the artwork [and] create a more complete and detailed version of the sketch that I can instantly email to my client for further approval,” he says. “This all helps to build the client’s anticipation and enthusiasm towards the project.”
Robinson usually meets with the client in person only once before they come in for the tattoo. In the meantime he works on his sketches of the tattoo on the iPad. He says he doesn’t like to send the client too many previews of the design, because it often leads to the client overthinking the idea or collecting too many opinions from other people.
For Robinson, the iPad sketching goes on up until the very last step in the design process. But he, like others, returns to the paper medium for the last steps before applying the tattoo.
“What I feel [the iPad] is used best for is getting the concept down—all your sketching, the layout of the tattoo, placement, and all that kind of stuff,” Robinson says. “Get that all dialed in, and do your final crisp line drawing on paper.”
Then, on the day of the tattoo, he reviews the final line drawing with the client. Any last-minute changes can be made on the iPad then and there.
When a stencil is needed to apply a complex design to the skin, Giovannitti traces out the lines of each layer of the design in Procreate. In the end, this creates a final, two-dimensional line drawing. But before the line drawing can be sent out to a thermal printer, it must first make a stop at his laptop, where he uses Photoshop to get the sizing of the stencil drawing just right.
“This has to be done because I have yet to find a drawing app with ruler guides to size my image to the very specific size it needs to be,” Giovannitti says. “For example, if the the face design has to be exactly 4.5 inches from forehead to chin, the only way to do it is in an app with real-time rulers that will translate to the printer.”
The thermal printout is fed into a special machine that makes the stencil drawing, which then transfers the line drawing to the body part being tattooed. Once transferred to the skin, the lines provide the map Giovannitti follows with the tattoo machines. He may also free-form draw some additional lines to the skin with a marker.
So the iPad Pro doesn’t entirely digitize the art of giving tattoos—paper is still used in some crucial parts of the process. But the device does provide an important focal point for collaboration between the artist and the client, which creates more transparency and may cut down on tattoo remorse later on.
Robinson says it took him a little while to get used to sketching on the iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil. Unlike paper (and unlike the screens of other tablets he’s tried) the iPad’s screen is a large piece of glass with no texture—it’s completely smooth. So the tip of the Pencil moves more freely over the iPad surface than a real pen moves over paper.
But as he did it more, Robinson says it began to feel more natural. “It looks like a sketch, and it feels like you’re sketching.” Apple says when the iPad Pro senses the Pencil, it scans the stylus’s signal at a rate of 240 times per second—twice as fast as it scans a finger touching the screen. This eliminates almost all the delay between the touch of the Pencil to the screen and the appearance of the line it’s drawing.
Robinson says the pressure sensitivity of the Pencil further contributes to the “natural” feeling of drawing. When the user presses down hard on the screen, the Pencil makes a hard, dark line; when he exerts very little pressure it produces a light line. Procreate allows users to control the range of light to dark as it relates to the range of pressure that can be applied.
The Pencil weighs about three quarters of an ounce. “It’s actually heavier than a lot of the pens we use, but I kind of like it,” Robinson says.
Savage Interactive, which makes Procreate, says all of the 128 brushes in its app now take advantage of the Apple Pencil’s pressure and tilt, which creates shading like the side of a pencil.
For many tattoo artists, the iPad represents the first time much of their work has been digitized.
In general, the introduction of the iPad in the tattoo process eliminates a lot of paper. “We’re not running to the copy machine so much,” Robinson said. “If we want to flip a drawing or invert it, we just tap a button and we can do it on [the iPad], instead of trying to print it out and resize it.”
Having everything stored on the iPad or in the cloud also reduces the amount of stuff tattoo artists have to carry when they travel. This is a big deal for Giovannitti, who travels from his Delaware home to Las Vegas every month to ink.
Same for Robinson, who just spent a week working in San Diego. “All I had to bring was my iPad and all my reference materials were in there—everything I needed was either on the iPad or on a Google Drive account,” he says. “Before, I would have to bring my tracing paper, sketchbooks, masking tape, all the books I would need.” Robinson said. “My backpack would just be loaded.”
A purist might say the iPad removes some of the art from tattooing. Robinson and Giovannitti would tell you there’s just as much art in the process as ever, it’s just moved to a different medium.
And the iPad Pro certainly isn’t the only option on the market for tattoo artists. Some artists opt for a (more expensive) Wacom tablet. The Wacom Cintiq Companion 2 (with pen stylus) costs $2,500. Wacom tablets run various kinds of design software, such as one of the Clip Studio products from the Japanese graphics software company Celsys.
The 12-inch iPad Pro, on the other hand, starts at $799 for a model with 32 GB of storage and Wi-Fi and ranges up to $1,299 for one with 256 GB of storage and both cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity. The Pencil stylus is $99. Procreate costs $6 at the App Store.
The iPad Pro’s (relatively) low price point might let many artists reap the rewards of digitization for the first time—without losing too much of the artistic feel traditionally associated with pen and paper.
Turns out large numbers of Nest security camera users point their devices through a window toward the outside, so the company took the clue and built the Nest Cam Outdoor. The new camera is basically a Nest Cam wrapped in a stylish weatherproof container. It sells for the same $199 price as the Nest Cam Indoor, as the company now calls it. It is the company’s first product in a year, a turbulent period that saw the recent departure of its charismatic founder Tony Fadell, who was replaced by former Motorola Home executive Marwan Fawaz.
Like the Nest Cam, the outdoor version also gives a wide 130-degree view and can stream 1080p HD video. A Night Vision mode illuminates the whole scene with eight LED lights. Nest Cam Outdoor has both a microphone and a speaker, making it a sort of intercom system when paired with a smartphone running the Nest app.
With the new camera comes a new software feature called Person Alerts, which uses computer vision technology to detect people in the camera’s field of view. In the demo video, a suspicious person ventures up onto a user’s porch, looks around, and checks the front door. The owner’s voice is then heard issuing from the camera’s speaker, saying, “Hey what do you want?” causing the stranger to turn and leave in a hurry. In another scene a postman shows up in the camera’s view, looks into the lens and says, “Hi, I have a package for you.” The owner, talking through the camera’s speaker, tells the postman to leave the package in the back of the house.
The owner was alerted to those unexpected visitors (one potentially dangerous and one not) when the Nest Cam sent an alert through the app. Person Alerts, Nest says, will become available in September, and then only to users with Nest Aware cloud video archiving subscriptions.
By the sound of things, the Person Alerts feature is just the start of Nest’s plans for computer vision. “Person Alerts are the first of a new generation of intelligent alerts from Nest that leverage Google’s expertise in machine learning and powerful algorithms to deliver deeper insights to customers about what’s happening at home,” says the company, which was acquired by Google in 2014 and is now an Alphabet company.
The Nest Cam Outdoor comes with an extra-long 25-foot power cable that can extend to a nearby outdoor power outlet. The cable can be painted to match the wall siding. The camera itself can attach to an outside metal surface (like a rain gutter) with a powerful magnetic base (included).
Nest Cam Outdoor will hit store shelves this fall in the U.S. and Canada. A two-pack will be available later for $348. The Nest Aware subscriptions cost $10 for a 10-day subscription or $30 for a 30-day subscription. Additional cameras cost extra.
But even as these companies build up their chatbot armies, we’re probably not headed for another bitter ecosystem war, like the one that led to the dominance of iOS and Android. Instead, we’re likely to have lots of bot-infused messaging services living together in harmony for years to come. Here are a few reasons why:
At least for now, the best chatbots don’t try to accomplish too much, says Brendan Bilko, head of product at Dexter, a company that offers bot creation tools and also builds some bots on behalf of larger clients. Bilko believes that chatbots should focus on being good at a single task, which in turn makes them easier to port across different messaging services.
“Because they’re simple enough, we have the flexibility to go cross-platform,” he says.
It helps that compared to building an app, making a chatbot is fairly simple, Bilko says. Bot developers don’t have to worry about creating full menu systems, artwork, and animations because a lot of that overhead is replaced by a messaging window.
“When you’re building an app for iOS . . . it’s a blank canvas,” Bilko says. “With these messaging platforms, everything’s very much templatized, so the content is what’s speaking to users more than the UI is.”
While chatbot platforms will inevitably become more complex, most of the work to create them may still happen outside of any particular messaging service. That’s been the case with Mosaic, a chatbot that controls various smartphone devices through Slack, Facebook Messenger, SMS, and Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.
Sumang Liu, Mosaic’s CEO and cofounder, says most of the company’s efforts go toward building those integrations and correctly interpreting natural language. So when the user saysm “I’m hot”—a statement with several potential meanings—Mosaic knows to turn down the user’s Nest thermostat.
“From our experience, the heavy-lifting work is on the back end,” Lui says. “Plugging into chatbots is just creating an interface. Interface is very important, but Facebook makes it relatively easy for developers to do that.”
With smartphone apps, developers gravitated toward iOS and Android—and away from alternatives like Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10—because of market share. Messaging is different because there are so many large-scale platforms already, and as developers experiment, they may discover that some messaging platforms are better suited for their bots than others.
Bilko discovered this himself while working with a business client to build a set of bots for Slack, Facebook Messenger, and SMS. Going in, the client assumed that the Slack version would see the most use. In fact, usage on Facebook Messenger was seven times greater. That client is now investing entirely in building bots for Messenger.
“Initially, it’s kind of figure out what works, see what piece of pasta sticks to the wall, and then go from there,” Bilko says.
Even if the same bot is available on multiple platforms, the experience on each one may differ. With the group shopping bot Kip, for instance, the Slack version focuses on coordinating purchases with a team of employees, so they can purchase lunch together or have an office manager authorize a supply order.
But with the messaging app Kik, users are much younger, and tend not to have any purchasing power. As such, Kip’s chatbot highlights the wish-list function, which users can fill out for their parents.
“It might be the same technology, but . . . we’ll highlight different sets of features,” says Rachel Law, Kip’s cofounder and CEO.
Some chatbots, like Kip, are collaborative by nature. And in those cases, requiring all users to work with a single messaging service would be a major limitation.
Beyond group shopping bots like Kip, Law points to gaming as one example. A multiplayer game, played via text, might not be as popular if it’s confined to one platform. “You’d be limiting yourself to one group of players, as opposed to having players on Facebook, having players on Line, and having players on Kik,” Law says.
The same is true, she adds, with bots that involve scheduling. Requiring everyone to use Skype, for instance, would be a poor strategy for a chatbot that’s trying to coordinate meetings with multiple people. “You need it to be cross-platform, otherwise it won’t work, because you’re limiting your user base to one group of users,” Law says.
There may even be some scenarios where a single user wants to interact with a chatbot in different apps. That’s one reason Mosaic has supported Facebook, SMS, Slack, and Alexa.
“There are a lot of differences between platforms in terms of chatbots—their form factors, their interaction, their power varies a lot,” Mosaic’s Liu says. “But from a customer’s perspective, they just want to access the most convenient entrance at their most convenient moment.”
Still, all this work creating chatbots across different messaging platforms does introduce some unique headaches. As Law points out, all of the major chatbot platforms are constantly adding new features for developers to take advantage of. And with so many platforms to deal with, making sure they’re all running properly can be a hassle.
For that issue, Kip has come up with a novel solution: Every morning, a bot runs a quick check on every platform Kip supports, asking if each respective bot is alive or dead.