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Chinese authorities dish out $5M in fines for developers of PUBG hack software

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 10:47 PM PDT

There has long been speculation and evidence of cheating software for PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), but action is being taken to stamp it out. The makers of the smash-hit game have confirmed that they have worked with authorities in China who have dished out over $5 million in fines to at least 15 people caught developing hacks that help players cheat.

PUBG, in case you missed it, is one of the top-grossing games in the world this year. A shoot-up battle royale game that sees players battle to survive to the end, PUBG grossed $700 million in revenue via PC sales last year and that’s only increased in 2018 as the title landed on mobile. It’s particularly big in China where internet giant Tencent is the publishing partner.

That Tencent link might have proved useful, as Bluehole — the company behind PUBG — revealed in a statement that Chinese authorities have helped it clamp down on hacking programs, handing out the huge number of fines in the process:

Here's some translated information from the local authorities we worked with on this case:

“15 major suspects including "OMG", "FL", "火狐", "须弥" and "炎黄" were arrested for developing hack programs, hosting marketplaces for hack programs, and brokering transactions. Currently the suspects have been fined approximately 30mil RNB ($5.1mil USD). Other suspects related to this case are still being investigated.

While the programs were being developed in China and there were users there too, it isn’t clear whether that reach extended to gamers in the U.S. and other countries.

Beyond just cheating, there is also a significant risk for those who use the hacked software.

Bluehole said it found evidence that the programs were used by their developers to infect host PCs in order to “control users' PC, scan their data, and extract information illegally.” Some, it is said, used Trojan Horse software to steal user information — that could mean information from when they shop online (like credit card numbers), the content of emails, and more.

Telegram blocked in Iran as the government orders telecoms to cut off access

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 07:29 PM PDT

As Moscow erupts in protests over its own ban, Iran’s judiciary has just ordered the nation’s telecommunications providers to block Telegram . According to the Wall Street Journal, Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency stated that the decision was issued via a court ruling in Tehran. An estimated 40 million Iranians — half of the country’s population — use Telegram to communicate.

“Considering various complaints against Telegram social networking app by Iranian citizens, and based on the demand of security organisations for confronting the illegal activities of Telegram, the judiciary has banned its usage in Iran," Iranian state TV reported, according to Reuters.

As of Monday, Telegram appears to still be functioning in the country following the court order. When the ban is executed, the popular messaging app will join the ranks of Facebook and Twitter, two other social media platforms banned in Iran. Government employees were ordered to quit the app earlier this month and the Iranian government launched its own Telegram competitor, a messaging app called Soroush, last week.

In January, Iran temporarily restricted Telegram access, ostensibly to quell anti-government demonstrations. When bans have occurred in the past, tech-savvy Iranians have turned to proxy services and other tools to keep connected.

In the past, Iran has suggested that it would allow Telegram and other messaging apps to operate domestically if they transferred their data servers into the country rather than storing data abroad. Given that such a move would meaningfully compromise a messaging app’s privacy in such a restrictive country — something Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov isn’t keen on — Iran will pursue control of the  messaging service with an outright ban instead.

DARPA is funding new tech that can identify manipulated videos and ‘deepfakes’

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 06:27 PM PDT

The Menlo Park-based nonprofit research group SRI International has been awarded three contracts by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to wage war on the newest front in fake news. Specifically, DARPA’s Media Forensics program is developing tools capable of identifying when videos and photos have been meaningfully altered from their original state in order to misrepresent their content.

The most infamous form of this kind of content is the category called “deepfakes” — usually pornographic video that superimposes a celebrity or public figure’s likeness into a compromising scene. Though software that makes that makes deepfakes possible is inexpensive and easy to use, existing video analysis tools aren’t yet up to the task of identifying what’s real and what’s been cooked up.

As articulated by its mission statement, that’s where the Media Forensics group comes in:

“DARPA's MediFor program brings together world-class researchers to attempt to level the digital imagery playing field, which currently favors the manipulator, by developing technologies for the automated assessment of the integrity of an image or video and integrating these in an end-to-end media forensics platform.

If successful, the MediFor platform will automatically detect manipulations, provide detailed information about how these manipulations were performed, and reason about the overall integrity of visual media to facilitate decisions regarding the use of any questionable image or video.”

While video is a particularly alarming application, manipulation even poses a detection challenge for still images and DARPA is researching those challenges as well.

DARPA’s Media Forensics group, also known as MediFor, began soliciting applications in 2015, launched in 2016 and is funded through 2020. For the project, SRI International will work closely with researchers at the University of Amsterdam (see their paper “Spotting Audio-Visual Inconsistencies (SAVI) in Manipulated Video” for more details) and the Biometrics Security & Privacy group of the Idiap Research Institute in Switzerland. The research group is focusing on four techniques to identify the kind of audiovisual discrepancies present in a video that has been tampered with, including lip sync analysis, speaker inconsistency detection, scene inconsistency detection (room size and acoustics) and identifying frame drops or content insertions.

Research awarded through the program is showing promise. In an initial round of testing last June, researchers were able to identify “speaker inconsistencies and scene inconsistencies,” two markers of video that’s been tampered with, with 75% accuracy in a set of hundreds of test videos. In May 2018, the group will be conducting a similar test on a larger scale, honing its technique in order to examine a much larger sample of test videos.

While the project does have potential defense applications, the research team believes that the aims of the program will become “front-and-center” in the near future as regulators, the media and the public alike reckon with the even more insidious strain of fake news.

“We expect techniques for tampering with and generating whole synthetic videos to improve dramatically in the near term,” a representative of SRI International told TechCrunch.

“These techniques will make it possible for both hobbyists and hackers to generate very realistic-looking videos of people doing and saying things they never did.”

Twitter announces new video partnerships with NBCUniversal and ESPN

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 03:30 PM PDT

Twitter is hosting its Digital Content NewFronts tonight, where it’s unveiling 30 renewals and new content deals — the company says that’s nearly twice as many as it announced last year.

Those include partnerships with the big players in media — starting with NBCUniversal, which will be sharing live video and clips from properties including NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC and Telemundo.

Twitter also announced some of the shows it will be airing as part of the ESPN deal announced earlier today: SportsCenter Live (a Twitter version of the network’s flagship) and Fantasy Focus Live (a live stream of the fantasy sports podcast).

Plus, the company said it’s expanding its existing partnership with Viacom with shows like Comedy Central's Creator's Room, BET Breaks and MTV News.

During the NewFronts event, Twitter’s head of video Kayvon Beykpour said daily video views on the platform have nearly doubled in the past year. And Kay Madati (pictured above), the company’s head of content partnerships, described the company as “the ultimate mobile platform where video and conversation share the same screen.”

Twitter NewFronts

Jack Dorsey

As Twitter continues to invest in video content, it’s been emphasizing its advantage in live video, a theme that continued in this year’s announcement.

“Twitter is the only place where conversation is tied to video and the biggest live moments, giving brands the unique ability to connect with leaned in consumers who are shaping culture," said Twitter Global VP of Revenue and Content Partnerships Matthew Derella in a statement. "That's our superpower."

During the event, Derella also (implicitly) contrasted Twitter with other digital platforms that have struggled with questions about transparency and whether ads are running in an appropriate environment. Tonight, he said marketers could say goodbye to unsafe brand environments and a lack of transparency: “And we say hello to you being in control of where your video aligns … we say hello to a higher measure of transparency, we say hello to new premium inventory and a break from the same old choices.”

On top of all the new content, Twitter is also announcing new ad programs. There are Creator Originals, a set of scripted series from influencers who will be paired up with sponsored brands. (The program is powered by Niche, the influencer marketing startup that Twitter acquired a few years ago.) And there’s a new Live Brand Studio — as the name suggests, it’s a team that works with marketers to create live video.

AM to DM

Here are some other highlights from the content announcements:

  • CELEBrate, a series where people get heartwarming messages from their idols from Ellen Digital Studios.
  • Delish Food Day and IRL from Hearst Magazines Digital Media.
  • Power Star Live, which is “inspired by the cultural phenomenon of Black Twitter” and live streamed from the Atlanta University Center, from Will Packer Media.
  • BuzzFeed News is renewing AM to DM until the end of 2018.
  • Vice News is launching a new series called The New Space Race.
  • Pattern, a new brand focused on weather- and science-related news.
  • #HereWeAre programming from the Huffington Post (which, like TechCrunch, is owned by Verizon/Oath), History, Vox and BuzzFeed News that highlights women around the world.
  • The Call of Duty World League will air highlights and Championship Sunday for the rest of the season.

CEO Jack Dorsey closed the event by thanking advertisers: “We want to continue to serve. We want to contineu to serve the public conversation, and we want to continue to serve you.”

Video: Larry Harvey and JP Barlow on Burning Man and tech culture

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 02:30 PM PDT

Larry Harvey, founder of the counterculture festival Burning Man, passed away this weekend. He was 70.

Harvey created a movement and contributed to the flowering both of counter-culture and, ultimately, of tech culture.

Both he and John Perry Barlow, who also passed in February this year after a long period of ill health, were huge advocates of free speech. Barlow wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead, and then became a digital rights activist in later life.

In 2013 I caught up with both of them and recorded a joint 24-minute interview, just a short walk from the venue for the Le Web London conference.

Amid the street noise and the traffic, they discussed some of the intellectual underpinnings of startup entrepreneurship and its parallels with Burning Man, in what might have been their first-ever joint interview.

We went over early computer culture, and how there was a “revolutionary zeal in the notion of intellectual empowerment” in Psychedelia, which found common cause in tech culture.

We present for you once again, this iconic interview, in memory of these great men.

WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum quits Facebook due to privacy intrusions

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 02:21 PM PDT

“It is time for me to move on . . . I’m taking some time off to do things I enjoy outside of technology, such as collecting rare air-cooled Porsches, working on my cars and playing ultimate frisbee,” WhatsApp co-founder, CEO and Facebook board member Jan Koum wrote today. The announcement followed shortly after The Washington Post reported that Koum would leave due to disagreements with Facebook management about WhatsApp user data privacy and weakened encryption. Koum obscured that motive in his note that says, “I’ll still be cheering WhatsApp on – just from the outside.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg quickly commented on Koum’s Facebook post about his departure, writing “Jan: I will miss working so closely with you. I’m grateful for everything you’ve done to help connect the world, and for everything you’ve taught me, including about encryption and its ability to take power from centralized systems and put it back in people’s hands. Those values will always be at the heart of WhatsApp.” That comment further tries to downplay the idea that Facebook pushed Koum away by trying to erode encryption.

The move comes 3.5 years after WhatsApp’s acquisition, meaning Koum may have vested much of his stock and have fewer financial incentives to stay. It’s currently unclear what will happen to Koum’s Facebook board seat that WashPo says he’ll vacate, or who will replace him as WhatsApp’s CEO.

One possible candidate for the CEO role would be WhatsApp business executive Neeraj Arora, a former Google corporate development manager who’s been with WhatsApp since 2011 — well before the Facebook acquisition. A source described him as the #4 at WhatsApp.

Values misaligned

Koum sold WhatsApp to Facebook in 2014 for a jaw-dropping $19 billion. But since then it’s more than tripled its user count to 1.5 billion, making the price to turn messaging into a one-horse race seem like a steal. But at the time, Koum and co-founder Brian Acton were assured that WhatsApp wouldn’t have to run ads or merge its data with Facebook’s. So were regulators in Europe, where WhatsApp is most popular.

A year and a half later, though, Facebook pressured WhatsApp to change its terms of service and give users’ phone numbers to its parent company. That let Facebook target those users with more precise advertising, such as by letting businesses upload lists of phone numbers to hit those people with promotions. Facebook was eventually fined $122 million by the European Union in 2017 — a paltry sum for a company earning more than $4 billion in profit per quarter.

But the perceived invasion of WhatsApp user privacy drove a wedge between Koum and the parent company well before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. A source confirms that Koum had been considering leaving for a year. Acton left Facebook in November, and has publicly supported the #DeleteFacebook movement since.

WashPo writes that Koum was also angered by Facebook executives pushing for a weakening of WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption in order to facilitate its new WhatsApp For Business program. It’s possible that letting multiple team members from a business all interact with its WhatsApp account could be incompatible with strong encryption. Facebook plans to finally make money off WhatsApp by offering bonus services to big companies like airlines, e-commerce sites and banks that want to conduct commerce over the chat app.

Jan Koum (Photo: TOBIAS HASE/AFP/Getty Images)

Koum was heavily critical of advertising in apps, once telling Forbes that “Dealing with ads is depressing . . . You don’t make anyone’s life better by making advertisements work better.” He vowed to keep them out of WhatsApp. But over the past year, Facebook has rolled out display ads in the Messenger inbox. Without Koum around, Facebook might push to expand those obtrusive ads to WhatsApp as well.

The high-profile departure comes at a vulnerable time for Facebook, with its big F8 developer conference starting tomorrow despite Facebook simultaneously shutting down parts of its dev platform as penance for the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Meanwhile, Google is trying to fix its fragmented messaging strategy, ditching apps like Allo to focus on a mobile carrier-backed alternative to SMS it’s building into Android Messages.

While the News Feed made Facebook rich, it also made it the villain. Messaging has become its strongest suit thanks to the dual dominance of Messenger and WhatsApp. Considering many users surely don’t even realize WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, Koum’s departure over policy concerns isn’t likely to change that. But it’s one more point in what’s becoming a thick line connecting Facebook’s business ambitions to its cavalier approach to privacy.

You can read Koum’s full post below.

It's been almost a decade since Brian and I started WhatsApp, and it's been an amazing journey with some of the best…

Posted by Jan Koum on Monday, April 30, 2018

Covee uses blockchain to allow experts worldwide to collaborate

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 02:06 PM PDT

Solving complex data-driven problems requires a lot of teamwork. But, of course, teamwork is typically restricted to companies where everyone is working under the same roof. While distributed teams have become commonplace in tech startups, taking that to the next level by linking up disparate groups of people all working on the same problem (but not in the same company) has been all but impossible. However, in theory, you could use a blockchain to do such a thing, where the work generated was constantly accounted for on-chain.

That's in theory. In practice, there's now a startup that claims to have come up with this model. And it's raised funding.

Covee, a startup out of Berlin, has raised a modest €1.35 million in a round led by LocalGlobe in London, with Atlantic Labs in Berlin and a selection of angels. Prior to this, the company was bootstrapped by CEO Dr. Marcel Dietsch, who left his job at a London-based hedge fund, and his long-time friend, Dr. Raphael Schoettler, COO, who had previously worked for Deutsche Bank. They are joined by Dr. Jochen Krause, CTO, an early blockchain investor and bitcoin miner, and former quant developer and data scientist, respectively, at Scalable Capital and Valora.

What sort of things could this platform be used for? Well, it could be used to bring together people to use machine learning algorithms to improve cancer diagnosis through tumor detection, or perhaps develop a crypto trading algorithm.

There are obvious benefits to the work of scientists. They could work more flexibly, access a more diverse range of projects, choose their teammates and have their work reviewed by peers.

The platform also means you could be rewarded fairly for your contribution.

The upside for corporates is that they can use distributed workers where there is no middleman platform to pay and no management consultancy fees, and access a talent pool (data engineers, statisticians, domain experts), which is difficult to bring inside the firm.

Now, there are indeed others doing this, including Aragon (decentralized governance for everything), Colony (teamwork for everything) and Upwork (freelance jobs platform for individuals). All are different and have their limitations, of course.

Covee plans to make money by having users pay a transaction fee for using the network infrastructure. They plan to turn this into a fully open-source decentralized network, with this transaction fee attached. But Covee will also offer this as a service if clients prefer not to deal with blockchain tokens and the platform directly.

Dietsch says: “Covee was founded in the first half of 2017 in Berlin and relocated to Zurich, Switzerland late 2017 where we incorporated Covee Network. Moving to Switzerland was important for us because it has one of the oldest and strongest blockchain ecosystems in the world and an excellent pipeline of talent from institutions such as ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich. The crypto-friendly stance of the country means it has all the necessary infrastructure as well as clear regulations for token economies.”

Senate Democrats plan to push rollback of FCC’s new net neutrality rules in May

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 01:52 PM PDT

One of the several ways opponents of the FCC’s new net neutrality rules plan to push back is to use the Congressional Review Act to nix the Commission’s order before it has a chance to take effect. Although Democrats in the Senate are currently one vote short of success, they plan to force the vote soon anyway, perhaps as early as mid-May.

As explained in other posts about the steps that can be taken to combat the unpopular Restoring Internet Freedom order, the CRA allows for a quick vote on whether to roll back a recently established regulation. The current administration used it a great deal to undo later Obama-era rules, but now the shoe is on the other foot — partially, anyway.

So far Senate Democrats have a total of 50 votes, including that of Republican Susan Collins — much more than required to force a vote but one short of the 51 needed to pass the resolution. And even if it did pass, its chances of passing in the House are even smaller, and after that, it would be DOA on the president’s desk.

But as many have pointed out, the goal isn’t just to roll back the rules, but to get everyone in Congress to weigh in on the record whether they support the new rules or not. This will be critical to making net neutrality an issue in the 2018 midterms.

Hopes that another Republican Senator will voluntarily cross the aisle seem to have petered out, and so Democrats are reportedly planning to press the button on May 9, after which procedural step it could be as little as a week before the vote actually takes place. Politico and Fight for the Future reported the date, which was not disputed by a Senator’s aide I contacted. The latter is organizing a bit of online activism around the CRA, which you can follow here.

As for the rules themselves, it’s not clear when they’ll actually take effect — they did not, as I erroneously wrote a week ago and as some regulations would have, come into play on April 23. They are under consideration by the Office of Budget and Management and won’t be official until it has provided its stamp of approval.

Discovering that deckhands make great waiters — and why this matters

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 01:00 PM PDT

Breakthroughs in HR tech are not only giving employers game-changing tools with which to enhance processes and attract the best talent, they're also solving longstanding labor gremlins, such as gender pay parity and blind hiring. At the same time, they're giving employees novel means by which to accrue and auto-tag prequalifying skill sets for job scenarios far beyond their current positions. But there are opportunities in matching current/future employee needs with what employers can offer.

In January, Gartner projected that HR tech would drive growth in worldwide IT spending in 2018. I've spent the last few months better understanding the landscape, so I'm better-positioned to gauge how the cards will fall. I interviewed 10 leaders in human resources — thanks to people like Jan Fiegel (SideWalk Labs), Parker Barille (former VP Product LinkedIn), Cindy Cordon (Policy Genius). Here's what I gleaned.

First, let's clarify misconceptions

HR tech is a huge space

Yes. It will be, but it is still not that big today. The global HR tech industry is estimated at $400 billion, but investments are sensitive to economic shifts. Deal activity in HR tech has increased steadily since 2012, or 175 percent from 2012 to 2016, as shown in the chart below. But investment dollars peaked at $2.4 billion in 2015. In 2016, there were 402 deals worth approximately $2.2 billion in funding, and 2017 closed out with about $1.1 billion in funding for HR tech companies.

Source: CB Insights

Diving in deeper, current spend on HR is small compared to most other functions within a company. For example, while the global HR software market is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.4 percent, reaching $9.2 billion by 2022, Gartner shows Customer Relationship Management (CRM) at a $36.5 billion worldwide market in 2017.

But, the venture opportunity with HR tech will grow over time, fueled by social pressures, by industry need for data and efficiency, and to rise above in a competition for top talent.

HR benefits platforms are the next big thing

A new workforce generation is driving exciting use cases for HR benefits platforms. Companies are hatching creative perks for employees, such as adopting progressive health plan "plus" platforms like Robin Care or LUCY, a service for employees with families, whose motto proclaims that it "helps employees love the family they grow and grow the career they love."

But platforms like these could potentially be on the chopping block if recessions strike. A change of mindset and a saturation threshold will need to be reached for employers to accept these as "indispensable" employee needs and not just exotic perks for the millennial crowd. That said, I'm cautiously bullish on these platforms and would love to see them succeed.

We have some ways to go before HR benefits platforms prove sticky in the post-recession era. According to a Bloomberg BNA report, HR department budgets grew ~4-7 percent annually before the Great Recession, just 2 percent in 2009 and have only semi recovered to a 4 percent annual growth rate. Sustained market growth will be key to ensuring that value-added platforms become the new normal.

What still rings true

Companies still want better candidate assessment tools

LinkedIn only works for mid to senior-level hires. For fresh college grads and junior white-collar workers, it is hard to go off a traditional resumé because experience can be unconventional at best. It's why companies like Portfolium and Strive Talent are finding creative ways to showcase skills and are boycotting traditional experience-based resumés. HireVue has a video-based assessment system that can literally read candidates’ faces and assess their honesty and the quality of their answers.

HR by VR (and AR) combines immersive experiences with efficiency, and there have already been significant investments in the space this year. Israeli startup ActiView, which has developed VR technology for assessing job applicants, raised $6.5 million in a Series A financing round from Teddy Sagi Group. AllyO, a provider of AI recruiting technology, raised a $14 million round.

Companies want to know what software to use

As the number of HR tech companies grows — just take a look at this HR tech landscape by Silicon & Salsa — companies at times struggle with the overabundance of choice. A platform to find your best tech solution, like the Salesforce AppExchange, is a gap in the market to help companies navigate options. TechnologyAdvice is a good start, but the UI is not friendly or intuitive.

Imagine an enviable world in which employees have all the support they need to achieve the pipe dream of work/life balance. 

Beyond just picking the best-in-class app, there needs to be a data sync across different platforms to improve predictors around candidate attributes and future churn. With companies targeting segments of HR tech, there's a clear need for an overarching data record system that can enable big data analysis across platforms.

HR staff spend too much time recruiting new employees

On average, the interview process spans 24 days in the U.S. Automation is key to decreasing the amount of time existing employees spend courting a candidate and interviewing, and there are platforms addressing these time-intensive tasks, as well as others.

The recruiting landscape is crowded, but ripe for experimentation with feature/benefit creep. Companies like LearnUp are not only helping companies schedule interviews and prep for them, they're also adding to their platform skills-building lessons and job-coaching resources. Taking it one step further, companies like madeBOS are creating economic mobility for entry-level workers in retail and adjacent sectors by empowering employees to drive their own development, saving valuable HR staff time.

Matching skills to jobs for blue-collar workers enables high performance

When a restaurant recruits wait staff, they typically look for people who have worked at other restaurants. The same is true in retail. In finance, we always caveat previous performance or experience by indicating that it is not indicative of future performance. And this reliance on the past couldn't be more misguided in hiring hourly employees, because it is the skills that matter — speed, good interpersonal skills, memory (for orders), etc.

If you were able to match skill sets only, a deckhand makes a great waiter. LA-based Talytica boasts an ability to assess cognitive ability, personality, strong career interests and specific job skills in the hourly talent management space, theoretically resolving this critical disconnect.

Imagine an enviable world in which employees have all the support they need to achieve the pipe dream of work/life balance. Or one in which candidates are sifted by skill and not the biases associated with background, gender or ethnicity. These are just two of the tectonic benefits HR tech can deliver across the board, connecting dots and leaving bare why certain deckhands could make exquisite waiters. Having explored this vertical, it's clear to me that HR tech platforms are the surest way to yield the unquestioned must-haves the market now demands on both sides. It now remains to be seen which companies can deliver on engagement and codify this season's visionary investment choice into the industry's "new normal."

Are you an entrepreneur with a fresh take on HR tech? Reach out and tell me more.

Spam filters and AI help figure out what animals do all day

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 12:59 PM PDT

The pond-dwelling Hydra is not a very complex little animal but it does have a complex repertoire of moves that aren’t clear until after extensive human observation. Examining these moves took a long time and scientists were never sure that they had seen all of them. Now, thanks to an algorithm used to catch spam, researchers have been able to catalog all of the Hydra’s various moves, allowing them to map those moves to the neurons firing in its weird little head.

“People have used machine learning algorithms to partly analyze how a fruit fly flies, and how a worm crawls, but this is the first systematic description of an animal’s behavior,” said Rafael Yuste, a neuroscientist at Columbia University . “Now that we can measure the entirety of Hydra’s behavior in real-time, we can see if it can learn, and if so, how its neurons respond.”

Luckily, the little Hydra was pretty predictable. From the report:

In the current study, the team went a step further by attempting to catalog Hydra’s complete set of behaviors. To do so, they applied the popular “bag of words” classification algorithm to hours of footage tracking Hydra’s every move. Just as the algorithm analyzes how often words appear in a body of text to pick out topics (and flag, for example, patterns resembling spam), it cycled through the Hydra video and identified repetitive movements.

Their algorithm recognized 10 previously described behaviors, and measured how six of those behaviors responded to varying environmental conditions. To the researchers’ surprise, Hydra’s behavior barely changed. “Whether you fed it or not, turned the light on or off, it did the same thing over and over again like an Energizer bunny,” said Yuste.

The system used to map the Hydra’s reactions can be used to map more complicated systems. The researchers essentially “reverse-engineered” the Hydra and may be able to use the technique to “maintain stability and precise control in machines, from ships to planes, navigating in highly variable conditions.”

“Reverse engineering Hydra has the potential to teach us so many things,” said Shuting Han, a graduate student at Columbia.

DNC launches tech marketplace for Democratic candidates

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 12:56 PM PDT

The Democratic National Committee is trying to help Democrats regain the pole position as the tech-savviest political party in the U.S.

After getting Trumped in the 2016 election (pwned on security, data analysis and at the polls), the DNC is launching I Will Run, a marketplace for software, services and training to upgrade the campaigns of Democratic candidates.

Announced today by Sally Marx, the tech program manager for the DNC, the new marketplace will have a host of tech tools that campaigns can use to get off the ground, manage their progress and ensure easy outreach to voters.

A profusion of political services have sprung up in the months since Donald Trump took the presidency. Energized technology developers (on the whole a pretty left-leaning bunch) tuned in to politics, turned on new services and (in some cases) dropped out of their careers at high-profile shops like Google, Facebook and other Bay Are behemoths to join the political circus — or at least build tools for it.

“[We've] heard repeatedly from candidates and campaign staff that they are unsure what tools are out there, and simultaneously feel as if they are being fed too much information by vendors,” says Marx. “On the other hand, many of these innovators are not always reaching campaigns effectively  –  some state parties and campaigns, therefore, are in the dark about some of the innovative new technology that they should know about. And, finally, we've been in touch with funders and supporters who want to boost the progressive tech ecosystem, but aren't clear on where those opportunities are.”

The marketplace, which Marx writes is explicitly for Democratic campaigns, is a curated compilation of tools used by campaigns and tools tested by DNC-funded case studies.

[gallery ids="1630973,1630974,1630975,1630976,1630977,1630979"]

One of the companies already on the platform is the secure messaging service, Wickr, which has been working with campaigns from both parties to secure their communications. Wickr’s one of around 56 companies and nonprofits that are listed on the site in one of six categories: digital (which is crazy general), finance, research, security, training organizations and voter outreach.

The DNC tech team will also use the site to coordinate training, volunteers and pricing for Democratic campaigns. They’re piloting the program in states like Nevada, Arizona, Washington, Texas, Florida, Massachusetts and Iowa.

For campaigns interested in seeing what wares I Will Run has on offer, the DNC tech team is taking its show on the road with a whistle-stop tour at DNC events so state parties and campaigns can demo the tech.

There’s something called Bacoin now

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 12:30 PM PDT

To paraphrase a saying popularized by countless dorm room stoners: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you use the hype around decentralized crypto economies to sell bacon.” The latest example of this age-old adage comes to us from Oscar Meyer and involves their exciting new cryp-faux-currency, Bacoin.

The currency can be redeemed for bacon and you “mine” it by sharing the good news of bacoin with your friends. Instead of taking up massive amounts of electricity, the production of the final store of value – pig parts – requires only a massive agricultural system dedicated to the wholesale destruction of mammals that are as smart as dogs and, in the right context, quite cute. The end product, bacon, is considered by many to be far more interesting than anything Vitalik created. In short, it’s a win-win.

How does it work? It’s basically a sweepstakes. From the rules and regulations:

The value of the Bacoin is tied to overall sharing meaning that the more people who share via the Website (as outlined above), the higher the value of the Bacoin. If overall sharing is slow, the value of the Bacoin will decrease. If sharing is slow and the value of the Bacoin is low, Sponsor may increase value of Bacoin in its sole discretion. The current value of the Bacoin will be displayed on the Website. Once the Bacoin is at a value you want, follow the instructions to "cash out" and you will receive a coupon with the corresponding value (all possible values of the Bacoin coupon are outlined in Section 4 below).

The current value of a single mined bacoin is about 28 slices of bacon and the more you share the more you mine. Given that it is in no way a decentralized cryptocurrency and has nothing to do with anything technical at all I’m hard pressed to find a reason to post this here except to admire the sheer chutzpah of a company who knows exactly what breed of Reddit-loving bacon eater will jump at a chance to Tweet about pork products. To paraphrase another saying by my friend Nicholas Deleon: I hope the asteroid they promised comes for us all soon.

Bacoin. Yeah.

Chinese government admits collection of deleted WeChat messages

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 12:17 PM PDT

Chinese authorities revealed over the weekend that they have the capability of retrieving deleted messages from the almost universally used WeChat app. The admission doesn’t come as a surprise to many, but it’s rare for this type of questionable data collection tactic to be acknowledged publicly.

As noted by the South China Morning Post, an anti-corruption commission in Hefei province posted Saturday to social media that it has “retrieved a series of deleted WeChat conversations from a subject” as part of an investigation.

The post was deleted Sunday, but not before many had seen it and understood the ramifications. Tencent, which operates the WeChat service used by nearly a billion people (including myself), explained in a statement that “WeChat does not store any chat histories — they are only stored on users’ phones and computers.”

The technical details of this storage were not disclosed, but it seems clear from the commission’s post that they are accessible in some way to interested authorities, as many have suspected for years. The app does, of course, comply with other government requirements, such as censoring certain topics.

There are still plenty of questions, the answers to which would help explain user vulnerability: Are messages effectively encrypted at rest? Does retrieval require the user’s password and login, or can it be forced with a “master key” or backdoor? Can users permanently and totally delete messages on the WeChat platform at all?

Fears over Chinese government access to data held or handled by Chinese companies has led to a global backlash against those companies, including some countries (including the U.S.) banning Chinese-made devices and services from sensitive applications or official use altogether.

Majority of U.S. adults still think the internet is ‘mostly’ good for society – but that number is falling

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 11:28 AM PDT

A growing number of U.S. adults no longer view the internet as a largely “good thing” for society, according to a new report from Pew Research Center out today. To be clear, a sizable majority –  70 percent – continue to believe the internet’s development has been mostly good. But that number has dropped by 6 percentage points since 2014, the study finds. Meanwhile, more adults now perceive the internet – perhaps more accurately – as something of a mixed bag. That number has climbed from 8 percent in 2014 to now 14 percent, Pew says.

However, the group of those who believe the internet is mostly a “bad thing” for society hasn’t changed much over the years. Those who can’t see the upside to global connectivity, has gone from 15 percent in 2014 down to 14 percent in 2018, which isn’t a notable difference, statistically.

Pew attributes the decline in the positive sentiment to the reactions from older Americans, and particularly seniors who have come online in growing numbers in recent years. According to data released by Pew last May, for example, Americans 65 and older now account for 15 percent of the overall U.S. population. And by 2050, 22 percent of those 65 and older will be online.

Like most Americans, the large majority of the senior group still feels the internet is mostly a good thing – but that number has dropped 14 points from 78 percent in 2014 to 64 percent today.

In addition to seniors, a smaller number of younger U.S. adults today believe that the internet is “mostly good.” While again, that sentiment is still held by the large majority by far – 74 percent say this is their opinion – that number has fallen from 79 percent in 2014.


Pew’s report didn’t detail why more U.S. adults are increasingly ambivalent about the internet. Instead, it focused on the reasons cited by the group who claims it’s “mostly bad.” (Presumably, these sentiments are shared by those who now believe the internet isn’t mostly good.)

The adults who think the internet is “mostly bad” had a large list of grievances, as it turned out. And their top concerns are somewhat surprising.

A quarter of the internet’s naysayers cited its paradoxical ability to isolate people even as it connects them – saying it leads to people spending more time with devices instead of with other people.

16 percent mentioned the problems related to the spread of misinformation and fake news, and 14 percent were concerned about the effect the internet has on children. Another 13 percent said it encourages illegal activity.

Only a small share – 5 percent – were worried about their privacy and their personal information being shared online.

That small percentage focused data privacy concerns is interesting – especially in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal, where the personal data of some 87 million Facebook users was hijacked without their knowledge or consent. Instead, Pew’s data seems to imply that people are generally more upset about the cultural and emotional impacts attributed to the internet, rather than having their personal data stolen or misused.

Maybe that’s because personal data has already been stolen time and time again, through security breaches at places like Yahoo, Equifax, Target, Home Depot, JP Morgan Chase, Anthem, and others. Or maybe it’s because users have a hard time identifying or understanding the real-world impacts of personal data breaches, unless it leads to some concrete changes – like identity theft or targeted harassment. Or maybe people already assume the days of personal privacy online are long dead, and just shrug their shoulders at new reports of yet another breach of trust with a fatalistic, “oh, who was it this time?”

In any event, it’s already been observed that the fallout from the Facebook scandal has been minimal, in terms of user behavior. There have been no sizable changes on that front, including user-initiated changes to privacy settings and sharing, The Wall Street Journal recently reported. In addition, Facebook just surprised investors by reporting continued user growth and beating earnings expectations.

Pew’s data supports the idea that more users seem to think – despite everything that’s happened – the internet is still mostly a good thing. And if there are concerns, they’re around its ability to lessen our connections to others – because we’re spending too much time online, fighting about information because we read different sources, or because we’re worried how it’s impacting our kids.

Meanwhile, those with a more positive take on the internet cited reasons like how it makes information much easier and faster to access (62% said this). 23 percent saw its networking benefits as a largely good thing – including connecting with others, and keeping up with friends and family.

Unrelated to perceptions about the internet, Pew also reported today that one-in-five Americans (20%) are now "smartphone only" internet users at home – meaning, they don’t subscribe to broadband. This is up 7 percent from 2015.

The figure is associated with those living in low-income (<$30K/year) households and those who are less likely to have attended college – it’s not some sort of reaction to concerns about the internet’s impact.

The Pentagon is working on a radio wave weapon that stops a speeding car in its tracks

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 11:13 AM PDT

Vehicular terrorism is on the rise, but technology under development by the U.S. Department of Defense could save lives by disabling a weaponized car before it ever reaches its target. The Pentagon’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Program (JNLWD) is working on a device called a Radio Frequency Vehicle Stopper to address the prevalence of vehicle-based attacks targeting civilians, Defense One reports.

To prevent this kind of violence and other kinds of vehicular attacks (an unauthorized car rushing behind a military security gate, for instance), the Pentagon’s Radio Frequency Vehicle Stopper points high-powered microwaves at a vehicle, disabling its electrical components via the engine control unit and making the engine stall out. You can watch the technology in action in the Department of Defense video below.

As Defense One reports, the group is developing two versions of its technology, one with a 50-meter range small enough to fit in a truck bed and another larger version with a range of more than 100 meters designed to remain in place. The latter would particularly be useful in the kind of open public spaces that lend themselves to violent vehicular attacks in popular urban areas like markets and shopping hubs. This kind of technology is only becoming possible now due to breakthroughs in powering the concentrated beams emitted in these kind of notoriously energy-hungry weapons.

While vehicle-based attacks were once rarely observed outside of war-zones, they’ve occurred with increasing frequency in high-density urban areas and tourist destinations in recent years. As the attack in Toronto last week proved, the results are effortlessly deadly to unsuspecting pedestrians. It’s unfortunate that such a device is necessary at all, but if they were to become readily available, these Radio Frequency Vehicle Stoppers could discourage the rising trend of vehicular attacks, protect victims when they do occur and help law enforcement obtain additional intelligence by apprehending suspects without resorting to lethal violence.

Amazon exec Charlie Kindel says he’s leaving to take a serious break from ‘work’

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 11:02 AM PDT

Amazon is famous for its hard-charging work culture, and Charlie Kindel, an Amazon executive who helped shape the rise of Alexa, is ready to hit the pause button after a five-year stint with the company and three years with the team at work on the company’s smart home division.

Writing on his personal blog earlier today, Kindel shared the memo that his colleagues received last week to explain his decision. In a nutshell, Kindel told them, he’s burnt:

The pace of the past 5 years has finally gotten to me and I simply need to catch my breath. I've recently been joking with folks that "I used to get my adrenaline rush going heli-skiing. Now I just go into work." I have a car restoration project that is two years behind schedule. My home automation system needs a complete revamp (it's gotten a bit crusty since it was installed in 2001).

I was originally just going to take a temporary leave, but I like the idea of having total freedom of thought to decide what's next in my life. By making a clean break from Amazon all options (including coming back to Amazon) are still on the table.

Kindel, who held a director level role at Amazon, said on his blog that his last day with the e-commerce juggernaut was Friday.

Before joining Amazon, Kindel had held the role Microsoft Windows Phone general manager. He has also dabbled in the world of startups, including starting a company called FreeBusy whose tool used artificial intelligence to generate mileage logs using users’ cloud-based calendars. That outfit has more recently evolved to center around an AI scheduling assistant.

Check out the latest featurette for Star Wars: A Solo Story

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 10:37 AM PDT

On May 25, the latest installment of the Star Wars theatrical franchise will drop in theaters.

Shooting Star Wars: A Solo Story hasn’t been all roses, with Ron Howard stepping in to take over for directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller and reshooting many scenes. But the show must go on!

Yesterday, Lucasfilm released a featurette with interviews from the cast and crew talking about the making of the film and Han Solo as a character.

The featurette also includes some new footage beyond what we’ve seen in the trailers, such as Han fighting alongside Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton), alongside previously teased scenes like the train heist on Vandor and the scene where Han Solo wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando (Donald Glover).

Central to the featurette, and the film in general, is that the story takes place in a type of world we haven’t seen yet on Star Wars, where the galaxy is completely under the control of the Empire, Howard reminds us. These circumstances push Han Solo, already a free spirit, to become the character we’ve come to know and love.

Check out the featurette below:

SoFi founder Mike Cagney is back with a new startup and $50 million in funding

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 10:31 AM PDT

Mike Cagney, who was ousted last summer from the lending company he founded, is back with a new startup and a whole lot of funding from at least one of his previous investors.

According to a new report in Bloomberg, Cagney, who earlier this year formed a new lending startup called Figure, has raised $50 million to grow the company, which plans to use the blockchain to facilitate loan approvals in minutes instead of days.

According to the company's site, its lending products will include home equity lines of credit, home improvement loans and home buy-lease back offerings for retirement.

The round was led by DCM Ventures and Ribbit Capital and included participation from Mithril Capital Management, Cagney confirmed to Bloomberg.

Ribbit Capital in Palo Alto, Calif., has been leading investments in the world of fintech and digital currencies since its founding nearly six years ago. Others of its many bets include the online consumer lending company Affirm, and Point, a startup that buys equity in U.S. homes.

Mithril, co-founded by Peter Thiel, prides itself on funding companies that take time to build, with funds that have longer investing timelines than do most traditional venture vehicles.

The cross-border firm DCM Ventures, meanwhile, is perhaps the most interesting participant in this round. The reason: Back in 2012, DCM began investing in Social Finance, or SoFi, the company that Cagney founded previously.

It isn't uncommon for VCs to invest in founders with whom they've worked before, of course. And SoFi has grown by leaps and bounds since its August 2011 launch. Though it initially focused on refinancing student loans, today it provides personal and mortgage loans and wealth management services, and it appears to be pushing further into other bank-like services.

But Cagney was forced out of the company last summer, not long after a sexual harassment lawsuit was filed by a former employee who claimed he'd witnessed female employees being harassed by managers and was fired after he reported it.

Another former employer who'd been stationed at SoFi’s office in Healdsburg, Calif., told The New York Times that her work environment had been akin to a "frat house," with employees "having sex in their cars and in the parking lot.” That same story, based on conversations with 30 then-current and former employees, also reported that Cagney himself had raised questions with staff because of his own behavior, including bragging about his sexual conquests.

Evidently, DCM and Figure's other backers were able to brush aside concerns about anything of the sort happening again at Figure. (We’ve reached out to Cagney and Figure’s investors for more information.)

Employees are also flocking for Figure with the belief, ostensibly, that Cagney is well-positioned to create another financial services juggernaut. According to Bloomberg, the company has already quietly assembled a team of 56 people. Among its new hires is the former chief risk officer of LendingHome, Cynthia Chen, and the former chief legal counsel of PeerStreet, Sara Priola.

Google teams with NBC to build VR content for its TV shows

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 10:15 AM PDT

Virtual reality has yet to hit the big time with the vast majority of consumers — headset sales are still in the single-digit millions — but today Google and NBC announced a deal to make programming that could help the medium pick up some more mainstream appeal. The two said that they will be working together to produce at least 10 multi-episode VR productions that will run as extra content alongside core programming on NBC itself and its network of other channels.

Users can watch in VR on Google Cardboard or Daydream View, and it will also be hosted on YouTube for those not immersively inclined. Google said that it will also down the line make some of the content available on the VR180 format for 4K, three-dimensional video.

Initial programs that will get the VR treatment include NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” (which has already produced a selection of VR productions here, here, and here); reality show “Vanderpump Rules” from Bravo; and content from SYFY WIRE, the website for the Syfy TV channel.

With VR still a relatively young industry, and Google is continuing to develop its own internal capabilities, there are a number of routes that can be taken to capture the experience. In this case, it looks like Google will be using the deal with NBC to promote and use Jump, its own platform for VR video capture that it first launched back in 2015.

We’ve asked Google if it can give more details regarding the business relationship with NBC, and we will update this post as we learn more. For now, it’s another opportunity for Google to develop more premium content — creating a new set of videos against which to sell advertising — and working alongside NBC Universal to help it also update its content for new and different audiences.

This is not the first time that NBC Universal has tried out content on VR: as one example it also worked with Intel and Oculus to bring Olympic content to headsets.

It’s also become a very standard part of TV programming to develop additional content that can be watched by fans alongside the core TV show, to help extend touch-points with an audience who may otherwise only be seen for 22 minutes each week, at best. VR presents another opportunity for that, too.

"We are constantly looking for opportunities to bring consumers new ways to experience content from across the NBCUniversal portfolio," said Ron Lamprecht, Executive Vice President, NBCUniversal Digital Enterprises, in a statement. "This partnership combines the creative expertise of NBCUniversal with Google's VR capabilities to create these engaging experiences. We look forward to working with Google and YouTube on more collaborations like this in the future."

Google has also been looking for more ways to cosy up to premium content companies to develop content for its platforms, partly to secure those relationships for a future where it might find itself competing for a content-hungry VR audience, and partly to help try to create that audience today. Other partnerships have included deals with HBO and Netflix, as well as NFL, NBA, Discovery, Vogue and Nat Geo.

“NBCUniversal's networks and shows have a proven track record of high-quality storytelling that audiences can't get enough of. Bringing them to VR lets fans connect with that content in a whole new way," said Amit Singh, VP of business and operations for VR and AR at Google, in a statement. "NBCU’s teams were able to easily capture engaging VR content using the latest VR Jump cameras. And with YouTube, audiences can experience it on any device, bringing them closer to their favorite series.”

Want to talk about the future? Join me on Technotopia

Posted: 30 Apr 2018 09:49 AM PDT

Technotopia is a podcast about the future. It assumes the world won’t fall into a dystopia and therefore is optimistic about our chances for human success. I’m looking for cool people to talk to and I’d like for you to join me.

I love guests who are excited about the future and technology but I do not require a technology background. I want artists, writers, programmers, makers, and thinkers. I want to ask smart people why we shouldn’t despair.

Want to join in? Fill this out to schedule a time. PR people fill it out as if you were your client so I can contact them directly. I usually record a few episodes a week so I have a nice buffer during the month.

Before you come on:
1. Listen to at least one episode. You can check it out here.
2. Understand you are not pitching your company or project. This is a discussion about the future. No CMOs or PR people unless you also play a mean theremin.
3. The only question I really ask is “What will the world look like in 20 years?” Everything else stems from that. Be prepared for a conversation.
4. I prefer doers to marketers.
5. Please be energetic. I feed off of your energy. The worst podcasts are the ones where I get your in-booth pitch from whatever conference you just attended. The best ones are when you are ready and excited to talk about the future.

If you have any questions email me at john@techcrunch.com. Otherwise I’m looking forward to chatting with you.