Window Snyder’s new startup Thistle Technologies raises $2.5M seed to secure IoT devices

The Internet of Things has a security problem. The past decade has seen wave after wave of new internet-connected devices, from sensors through to webcams and smart home tech, often manufactured in bulk but with little — if any — consideration to security. Worse, many device manufacturers make no effort to fix security flaws, while others simply leave out the software update mechanisms needed to deliver patches altogether.

That sets up an entire swath of insecure and unpatchable devices to fail, and destined to be thrown out when they break down or are invariably hacked.

Security veteran Window Snyder thinks there is a better way. Her new startup, Thistle Technologies, is backed with $2.5 million in seed funding from True Ventures with the goal of helping IoT manufacturers reliably and securely deliver software updates to their devices.

Snyder founded Thistle last year, and named it after the flowering plant with sharp prickles designed to deter animals from eating them. “It’s a defense mechanism,” Snyder told TechCrunch, a name that’s fitting for a defensive technology company. The startup aims to help device manufacturers without the personnel or resources to integrate update mechanisms into their device’s software in order to receive security updates and better defend against security threats.

“We’re building the means so that they don’t have to do it themselves. They want to spend the time building customer-facing features anyway,” said Snyder. Prior to founding Thistle, Snyder worked in senior cybersecurity positions at Apple, Intel, and Microsoft, and also served as chief security officer at Mozilla, Square, and Fastly.

Thistle lands on the security scene at a time when IoT needs it most. Botnet operators are known to scan the internet for devices with weak default passwords and hijack their internet connections to pummel victims with floods of internet traffic, knocking entire websites and networks offline. In 2016, a record-breaking distributed denial-of-service attack launched by the Mirai botnet on internet infrastructure giant Dyn knocked some of the biggest websites — Shopify, SoundCloud, Spotify, Twitter — offline for hours. Mirai had ensnared thousands of IoT devices into its network at the time of the attack.

Other malicious hackers target IoT devices as a way to get a foot into a victim’s network, allowing them to launch attacks or plant malware from the inside.

Since device manufacturers have done little to solve their security problems among themselves, lawmakers are looking at legislating to curb some of the more egregious security mistakes made by default manufacturers, like using default — and often unchangeable — passwords and selling devices with no way to deliver security updates.

California paved the way after passing an IoT security law in 2018, with the U.K. following shortly after in 2019. The U.S. has no federal law governing basic IoT security standards.

Snyder said the push to introduce IoT cybersecurity laws could be “an easy way for folks to get into compliance” without having to hire fleets of security engineers. Having an update mechanism in place also helps to keeps the IoT devices around for longer — potentially for years longer — simply by being able to push fixes and new features.

“To build the infrastructure that’s going to allow you to continue to make those devices resilient and deliver new functionality through software, that’s an incredible opportunity for these device manufacturers. And so I’m building a security infrastructure company to support that security needs,” she said.

With the seed round in the bank, Snyder said the company is focused on hiring device and back-end engineers, product managers, and building new partnerships with device manufacturers.

Phil Black, co-founder of True Ventures — Thistle’s seed round investor — described the company as “an astute and natural next step in security technologies.” He added: “Window has so many of the qualities we look for in founders. She has deep domain expertise, is highly respected within the security community, and she’s driven by a deep passion to evolve her industry.”

#apple, #bank, #botnet, #california, #co-founder, #computer-security, #computing, #cybercrime, #cyberwarfare, #dyn, #fastly, #intel, #internet-of-things, #internet-traffic, #malware, #microsoft, #mirai, #science-and-technology, #security, #shopify, #soundcloud, #spotify, #startups, #technology, #true-ventures, #united-kingdom, #united-states

0

As ExxonMobil asks for handouts, startups get to work on carbon capture and sequestration

Earlier this week, ExxonMobil, a company among the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions and a longtime leader in the corporate fight against climate change regulations, called for a massive $100 billion project (backed in part by the government) to sequester hundreds of millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide in geologic formations off the Gulf of Mexico.

The gall of Exxon’s flag-planting request is matched only by the grit from startup companies that are already working on carbon capture and storage or carbon utilization projects and announced significant milestones along their own path to commercialization even as Exxon was asking for handouts.

These are companies like Charm Industrial, which just completed the first pilot test of its technology through a contract with Stripe. That pilot project saw the company remove 416 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere. That’s a small fraction of the hundred million tons Exxon thinks could be captured in its hypothetical sequestration project located off the Gulf Coast, but the difference between Exxon’s proposal and Charm’s sequestration project is that Charm has actually managed to already sequester the carbon.

The company’s technology, verified by outside observers like Shopify, Microsoft, CarbonPlan, CarbonDirect and others, converts biomass into an oil-like substance and then injects that goop underground — permanently sequestering the carbon dioxide, the company said.

Eventually, Charm would use its bio-based oil equivalent to produce “green hydrogen” and replace pumped or fracked hydrocarbons in industries that may still require combustible fuel for their operations.

While Charm is converting biomass into an oil-equivalent and pumping it back underground, other companies like CarbonCure, Blue Planet, Solidia, Forterra, CarbiCrete and Brimstone Energy are capturing carbon dioxide and fixing it in building materials. 

“The easy way to think about CarbonCure we have a mission to reduce 500 million tons per year by 2030. On the innovation side of things we really pioneered this area of science using CO2 in a value-added, hyper low-cost way in the value chain,” said CarbonCure founder and chief executive Rob Niven. “We look at CO2 as a value added input into making concrete production. It has to raise profits.”

Niven stresses that CarbonCure, which recently won one half of the $20 million carbon capture XPrize alongside CarbonBuilt, is not a hypothetical solution for carbon dioxide removal. The company already has 330 plants operating around the world capturing carbon dioxide emissions and sequestering them in building materials.

Applications for carbon utilization are important to reduce the emissions footprints of industry, but for nations to achieve their climate objectives, the world needs to move to dramatically reduce its reliance on emissions spewing energy sources and simultaneously permanently draw down massive amounts of greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere.

It’s why the ExxonMobil call for a massive project to explore the permanent sequestration of carbon dioxide isn’t wrong, necessarily, just questionable coming from the source.

The U.S. Department of Energy does think that the Gulf Coast has geological formations that can store 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (which the company says is more than 130 years of the country’s total industrial and power generation emissions). But in ExxonMobil’s calculation that’s a reason to continue with business-as-usual (actually with more government subsidies for its business).

Here’s how the company’s top executives explained it in the pages of The Wall Street Journal:

The Houston CCS Innovation Zone concept would require the “whole of government” approach to the climate challenge that President Biden has championed. Based on our experience with projects of this scale, we estimate the approach could generate tens of thousands of new jobs needed to make and install the equipment to capture the CO2 and transport it via a pipeline for storage. Such a project would also protect thousands of existing jobs in industries seeking to reduce emissions. In short, large-scale CCS would reduce emissions while protecting the economy.

These oil industry executives are playing into a false narrative that the switch to renewable energy and a greener economy will cost the U.S. jobs. It’s a fact that oil industry jobs will be erased, but those jobs will be replaced by other opportunities, according to research published in Scientific American.

“With the more aggressive $60 carbon tax, U.S. employment would still exceed the reference-case forecast, but the increase would be less than that of the $25 tax,” write authors Marilyn Brown and Majid Ahmadi. “The higher tax causes much larger supply-side job losses, but they are still smaller than the gains in energy-efficiency jobs motivated by higher energy prices. Overall, 35 million job years would be created between 2020 and 2050, with net job increases in almost all regions.”

ExxonMobil and the other oil majors definitely have a role to play in the new energy economy that’s being built worldwide, but the leading American oil companies are not going to be able to rest on their laurels or continue operating with a business-as-usual mindset. These companies run the risk of going the way of big coal — slowly sliding into obsolescence and potentially taking thousands of jobs and local economies down with them.

To avoid that, carbon sequestration is a part of the solution, but it’s one of many arrows in the quiver that oil companies need to deploy if they’re going to continue operating and adding value to shareholders. In other words, it’s not the last 130 years of emissions that ExxonMobil should be focused on, it’s the next 130 years that aim to be increasingly zero-emission.

#articles, #biden, #carbon-sequestration, #co2, #exxon, #exxonmobil, #greenhouse-gas-emissions, #gulf-coast, #gulf-of-mexico, #leader, #microsoft, #nature, #oil, #president, #renewable-energy, #shopify, #tc, #the-wall-street-journal, #u-s-department-of-energy, #united-states, #wall-street-journal

0

Report: Discord walked away from Microsoft talks, may pursue an IPO

A month after reports that Microsoft sought to buy the hot voice chat app Discord, those talks appear to be off. The Wall Street Journal and Reuters both report that Discord now plans to stay independent, possibly charting a path to its own IPO in the not-too-distant future.

Microsoft was reportedly in “advanced” talks to purchase the company for around $10 billion before Discord walked away. According to the WSJ, Microsoft was just one of three companies in acquisition talks. Neither publication cited named sources in their reports that any deal was off.

Discord’s valuation doubled in less than six months last year and its stock is only looking hotter in 2021. A well-loved voice chat app originally built for gamers, Discord was in the right place well ahead of the current voice chat trend that Clubhouse ignited. As companies from Facebook to Twitter scramble to build their own voice-based community tools, Discord rolled out its own support for curated audio events last month.

Discord’s decision to veer away from a sale makes sense for a company keen to keep its unique DNA rather than being rolled into an existing product at a bigger company. The choice could also keep the company distant from a protracted antitrust headache, as lawmakers mull legislation that could block big tech deals to prevent further consolidation in the industry.

#clubhouse, #discord, #facebook, #ma, #mergers-and-acquisitions, #microsoft, #social-media, #software, #tc, #voice-chat

0

Microsoft Visual Studio 2022 will (finally) enter the 64-bit world

Earlier today, Microsoft offered us a peek at Visual Studio 2022, which will offer its first public preview builds later this summer. If you’re into the Visual Studio ecosystem, this looks like a killer upgrade.

Visual Studio enters the 64-bit world… finally

With Visual Studio 2022, you’ll finally be able to take advantage of all of your system RAM. Earlier versions of Visual Studio are 32-bit applications, thereby hobbling VS to a maximum of 2GiB RAM.

The new VS2022 is fully 64-bit—without which the first GIF in the gallery above wouldn’t be able to open a whopping 1,600 projects and roughly 300,000 files at once.

Read 7 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#app-development, #azure, #microsoft, #microsoft-azure, #net, #tech, #visual-studio, #visual-studio-2022

0

Xbox Cloud Gaming beta starts rolling out on iOS and PC this week

The era of cloud gaming hasn’t arrived with the intensity that may have seemed imminent a couple years ago when major tech platforms announced their plays. In 2021, the market is still pretty much non-existent despite established presences from nearly all of tech’s biggest players.

Microsoft has been slow to roll out its Xbox Cloud Gaming beta to its users widely across platforms, but that’s likely because they know that, unlike other upstart platforms, there’s not a huge advantage to them rushing out the gate first. This week, the company will begin rolling out the service on iOS and PC to Game Pass Ultimate users, sending out invited to a limited number of users and scaling it up over time.

“The limited beta is our time to test and learn; we’ll send out more invites on a continuous basis to players in all 22 supported countries, evaluate feedback, continue to improve the experience, and add support for more devices,” wrote Xbox’s Catherine Gluckstein in a blog post. “Our plan is to iterate quickly and open up to all Xbox Game Pass Ultimate members in the coming months so more people have the opportunity to play Xbox in all-new ways.”

The service has been available in beta for Android users since last year but it’s been a slow expansion to other platforms outside that world.

A big part of that slowdown has been the result of Apple playing hardball with cloud gaming platform providers, whose business models represent a major threat to App Store gaming revenues. Apple announced a carve-out provision for cloud-gaming platforms that would maintain dependency on the App Store and in-app purchase frameworks but none of the providers seemed very happy with Apple’s solution. As a result, Xbox Cloud Gaming will operate entirely through the web on iOS inside mobile Safari.

#android, #app-store, #apple, #cloud-computing, #cloud-gaming, #computing, #gaming, #microsoft, #xbox, #xbox-cloud-gaming, #xbox-game-pass-ultimate

0

Walmart helps push Cruise’s latest investment round to $2.75B

Cruise, the autonomous vehicle company aiming to deploy robotaxis in San Francisco and Dubai, has added Walmart as an investor in an extended fundraising round that has grown to $2.75 billion.

The company said it has a post-money valuation of more than $30 billion. Walmart and several unnamed institutional investors added capital to a $2 billion equity round announced back in January that was led by Microsoft. The companies didn’t disclose Walmart’s exact investment. Cruise, the autonomous vehicle subsidiary of GM, is also backed by Honda, Softbank Vision Fund and funds managed by T. Rowe Price.

Cruise has long been viewed — and described itself — as a company solely focused on launching a commercial scale robotaxi service. However, comments from Walmart CEO John Furner in a blog post published Thursday suggest that laser focus continues to widened beyond robotaxis and San Francisco.

“The investment will aid our work towards developing a last-mile delivery ecosystem that’s fast, low-cost and scalable,” Furner wrote in a blog post published Thursday morning. He later wrote “this investment is a marker for us.”

Cruise has experimented with delivery over the past several years even as its efforts around robotaxis took most of its attention and resources. For instance, Cruise and DoorDash completed in 2019 a delivery pilot in San Francisco. And when the COVID-19 pandemic swept into North America, prompting government lockdowns, Cruise paused its testing in San Francisco and started delivering prepared meals for two food banks.

Walmart and Cruise also already have a relationship. The companies announced in November 2020 plans to test grocery delivery in Scottsdale, Arizona. Under the pilot program, the companies said that customers will be able to place an order from their local Walmart store and have it delivered via one of Cruise’s autonomous, electric Chevy Bolt cars. While the vehicles will operate autonomously, a human safety operator will always be behind the wheel.

Cruise is not Walmart’s only autonomous dancing partner. The retail giant has partnered with a handful of autonomous vehicle developers, including Waymo, to test out how the technology might eventually be used at a commercial scale. The retailer signed a deal in 2019 with startup Udelv to test the use of autonomous vans to deliver online grocery orders to customers in Surprise, Arizona. Autonomous delivery startup Nuro launched a pilot program with Walmart in Houston in 2020.

The retail giant participated in a pilot with Postmates and Ford in the Miami-Dade area and last year the retailer tapped AV startup Gatik to deliver customer online grocery orders from Walmart’s main warehouse to its neighborhood stores in Bentonville, Arkansas.

#automotive, #autonomous-vehicles, #cruise, #microsoft, #tc, #transportation, #walmart

0

FBI launches operation to remotely remove Microsoft Exchange server backdoors

A Texas court has authorized an FBI operation to “copy and remove” backdoors from hundreds of Microsoft Exchange email servers in the United States, months after hackers used four previously undiscovered vulnerabilities to attack thousands of networks.

The Justice Department announced the operation on Tuesday, which it described as “successful.” It’s believed this is the first known case of the FBI effectively cleaning up private networks following a cyberattack.

In March, Microsoft discovered a new China state-sponsored hacking group — Hafnium — targeting Exchange servers run from company networks. The four vulnerabilities when chained together allowed the hackers to break into a vulnerable Exchange server and steal its contents. Microsoft fixed the vulnerabilities but the patches did not close the backdoors from the servers that had already been breached. Within days, other hacking groups began hitting vulnerable servers with the same flaws to deploy ransomware.

The number of infected servers dropped as patches were applied. But hundreds of Exchange servers remained vulnerable because the backdoors are difficult to find and eliminate, the Justice Department said in a statement.

“This operation removed one early hacking group’s remaining web shells which could have been used to maintain and escalate persistent, unauthorized access to U.S. networks,” the statement said. “The FBI conducted the removal by issuing a command through the web shell to the server, which was designed to cause the server to delete only the web shell (identified by its unique file path).”

The FBI said it’s attempting to contact owners of servers from which it removed the backdoors by email.

Assistant attorney general John C. Demers said the operation “demonstrates the Department’s commitment to disrupt hacking activity using all of our legal tools, not just prosecutions.”

The Justice Department also said the operation only removed the backdoors, but did not patch the vulnerabilities exploited by the hackers to begin with or remove any malware left behind.

Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department commented by press time.

#backdoor, #china, #computing, #cryptography, #cybercrime, #cyberwarfare, #department-of-justice, #federal-bureau-of-investigation, #hacking, #justice-department, #malware, #microsoft, #ransomware, #security, #security-breaches, #spyware, #technology, #texas, #united-states

0

Microsoft’s latest Surface Laptop goes on sale this week, starting at $999

Microsoft is understandably positioning the latest additions to its Surface line as productivity devices. Laptop sales, in particular, have jumped amid the pandemic, as many have scrambled to shift to a work from home setting. With that in mind, the latest version of the Surface Laptop is far and away the headline item amid a new batch of devices.

The Surface Laptop 4 doesn’t seem to mark a massive upgrade to the line, arriving about a year and half after the previous model. Of course, the product has been one of the better received among the company’s proprietary hardware offerings, swapping the more creator-focused convertible models for a more straightforward approach. Sometimes the classics are classics for a reason.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Available with either a 13.5- or 15-inch touchscreen, the new Laptop sports either an 11th Gen Intel Core or AMD Ryzen processor. The system’s lowest configuration will run $999, but Microsoft has yet to break down the pricing from there. The company is promising improved performance and increased battery life, over the 11.5 posted hours on the Laptop 3. The below video puts the new time at “up to 19 hours,” which big if true — and nice for when we all start traveling again.

The system builds on its predecessor’s HD webcam with the addition of improved low-light capabilities. That’s paired with a studio mic array. Again, nothing groundbreaking, but it’s nice to see companies paying attention to this stuff in the age of COVID-19, when a concerning percentage of our interpersonal communication occurs via webcam.

The design language is similar to earlier versions, though the company has swapped in a new Ice Blue color option. Microsoft is keeping that proprietary charging port around (fast charging will get you up to 80% in an hour). That’s coupled with USB A and C. There are a pair of Dolby Atmos speakers on board and the touchscreen works with the Surface Pen.

The Laptop is available for preorder today in the U.S., Canada and Japan, and starts shipping on April 15. The 13.5-inch AMD Ryzen with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage runs $999. On the high end, the 15-inch Intel Core i7 with 32GB of RAM and 1TB of storage is $2,399 (plus another $100 if you want to upgrade Windows 10 Home to Pro). The company is tossing in Surface Earbuds for early preorders.

#hardware, #microsoft, #surface, #surface-laptop

0

Microsoft is really pushing Teams with its latest accessories

The new Surface Laptop was the marquee arrival in today’s Microsoft announcement, but boy howdy, the company also dropped a whole bunch of new accessories. It’s a pretty broad range of new devices, including some small updates to existing products and entirely new entries. But there’s one clear through line across them all: Teams.

Microsoft is, after all, a software company at heart. That’s always fueled the company’s hardware products. So it’s really not a major surprise that its productivity software is the driving force here. After all, this is the company that was pushing Office integration on its earbuds.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Matter of fact, the company’s actually debuting a slight upgrade to its Surface Headphone line. The Headphones 2+ for Business. The big distinction here is the addition on-ear Teams control. The other additions to the well-received over-ear headphones are fairly minor (hence the telling “2+” name), including improved remote calling. They also run a bit of a premium at $299 to the Headphone 2’s $250. They’re shipping later this month.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The remainder of the new products fall under the “Modern” line, which currently also includes the Modern Mouse. Joining the Headphones are the Microsoft Modern USB and Wireless Headsets. Here the products get a dedicated Teams button for joining calls on MS’ platform. They’ll ship in June for $50 and $100, respectively.

Microsoft is also adding a 1080p webcam to the mix. The Modern Webcam has a 78-degree field of view and can shoot in HDR. There’s a privacy shutter on board, as well as software settings for things like auto white balance and facial retouching, if you’re so inclined. And yes, Teams certification. Can’t help but think this would have been a big hit this time last year, but for many working from home will be the new normal, going forward. That will ship in June for a reasonable $70.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The oddest addition is probably the Microsoft Modern USB-C Speaker. With Cortana seemingly dead in the water, Teams is once again the driving force here. It’s a desktop speaker with dual microphones designed for Teams calls and some light music listening. That one is also arriving in June, priced at $100.

#hardware, #microsoft, #microsoft-surface, #microsoft-teams, #surface, #teams

0

Microsoft makes the Surface Laptop 4 official, offers choice of AMD or Intel

After recent leaks suggested an imminent arrival, Microsoft has officially launched the latest entry in its line of Surface PCs: the Surface Laptop 4.

The new laptop starts at $999 and will be available to purchase in the US, Canada, and Japan as of today, with shipping beginning on April 15. Microsoft says more markets will follow in the “coming weeks.” In the US, those who buy the Surface Laptop 4 through Microsoft or Best Buy before April 15 will get a pair of Surface Earbuds headphones bundled in at no extra cost.

Familiar hardware

As for the device itself, the Surface Laptop 4 is more of a refinement than a reinvention of the previous Surface Laptop 3, which launched in late 2019. That laptop’s build quality was generally well-regarded, and the design here is more or less identical to before.

Read 15 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#amd-ryzen, #intel, #laptops, #microsoft, #surface-laptop-4, #tech, #windows-pc

0

Daily Crunch: Microsoft acquires Nuance for $19.7B

Microsoft makes a big healthcare tech acquisition, Twitter is building a presence in Africa and Apple may be cooking up some new smart home products. This is your Daily Crunch for April 12, 2021.

The big story: Microsoft acquires Nuance for $19.7B

Microsoft announced this morning that it’s acquiring speech-to-text company Nuance Communications for $19.7 billion. It seems like the real focus here is on healthcare — Microsoft announced a Cloud for Healthcare last year, while Nuance’s industry products include Dragon Ambient eXperience, Dragon Medical One and PowerScribe One for radiology reporting.

“Today’s acquisition announcement represents the latest step in Microsoft’s industry-specific cloud strategy,” the company said in a blog post.

Analysts told us that this could help Microsoft fill in crucial gaps when it comes to both speech recognition and health data.

The tech giants

Apple and Google will both attend Senate hearing on app store competition — After it looked like Apple might no-show, the company has committed to sending a representative to a Senate antitrust hearing on app store competition later this month.

Twitter to set up its first African presence in Ghana — In a statement, Twitter said it is now actively building a team in Ghana “to be more immersed in the rich and vibrant communities that drive the conversations taking place every day across the continent.”

Apple said to be developing Apple TV/HomePod combo and iPad-like smart speaker display — Apple is reportedly working on a couple of new options for a renewed entry into the smart home, according to Bloomberg.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Austin’s newest unicorn: The Zebra raises $150M after doubling revenue in 2020 — The Zebra started out as a site for people looking for auto insurance via its real-time quote comparison tool, and has added homeowners insurance as well.

Hardware is still hard in the Motor City — Astrohaus co-founder Adam Leeb describes the ups and downs of launching a hardware startup in Detroit.

EcoCart raises $3M for a Honey-like browser extension to offset shoppers’ carbon emissions — Brands pay the company a commission to drive traffic to their websites under a standard affiliate marketing model and EcoCart uses a portion of the proceeds to offset a shopper’s carbon emissions.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How to choose and deploy industry-specific AI models — Organizations that seek the most accurate results from their AI projects will simply have to turn to industry-specific models.

UiPath’s first IPO pricing could be a warning to late-stage investors — The company’s first IPO price range failed to value the company where its final private backers expected it to.

Ride-hailing’s profitability promise is in its final countdown — The Exchange is back!

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Biden’s cybersecurity dream team takes shape — President Biden has named two former National Security Agency veterans to senior government cybersecurity positions, including the first national cyber director.

Tech and auto execs tackle global chip shortage at White House summit — A collection of tech and auto industry executives met with the White House to discuss solutions for the worldwide chip shortage today.

How one founder identified a huge healthcare gap and acquired the skills necessary to address it — We’ve already been telling you about TechCrunch’s new podcast Found, but now we’ve got the very first episode for your listening pleasure.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

#daily-crunch, #microsoft, #nuance, #tc

0

Microsoft acquires Nuance—makers of Dragon speech rec—for $16 billion

A man with his sleeves rolled up speaks into a headset while staring at a laptop.

Enlarge / In this 2011 photo, Dr. Michael A. Lee uses Dragon Medical voice-recognition software to enter his notes after seeing a patient. (credit: David Ryan via Getty Images)

Earlier today, Microsoft announced its plans to purchase Nuance for $56 per share—23 percent above Nuance’s closing price last Friday. The deal adds up to a $16 billion cash outlay and a total valuation for Nuance of about $19.7 billion, including that company’s assumed debt.

Who is Nuance?

Nuance is a well-known player in the field of natural language recognition. The company’s technology is the core of Apple’s Siri personal assistant. Nuance also sells well-known personal speech-recognition software Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which is invaluable to many people with a wide range of physical disabilities.

Dragon NaturallySpeaking, originally released in 1997, was one of the first commercially continuous dictation products—meaning software that did not require the user to pause briefly between words. In 2000, Dragon Systems was acquired by ScanSoft, which acquired Nuance Communications in 2005 and rebranded itself as Nuance.

Read 7 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#ai, #biz-it, #healthcare, #microsoft, #tech

0

Microsoft goes all in on healthcare with $19.7B Nuance acquisition

When Microsoft announced it was acquiring Nuance Communications this morning for $19.7 billion, you could be excused for doing a Monday morning double take at the hefty price tag.

That’s surely a lot of money for a company on a $1.4 billion run rate, but Microsoft, which has already partnered with the speech-to-text market leader on several products over the last couple of years, saw a company firmly embedded in healthcare and it decided to go all in.

And $20 billion is certainly all in, even for a company the size of Microsoft. But 2020 forced us to change the way we do business from restaurants to retailers to doctors. In fact, the pandemic in particular changed the way we interact with our medical providers. We learned very quickly that you don’t have to drive to an office, wait in waiting room, then in an exam room, all to see the doctor for a few minutes.

Instead, we can get on the line, have a quick chat and be on our way. It won’t work for every condition of course — there will always be times the physician needs to see you — but for many meetings such as reviewing test results or for talk therapy, telehealth could suffice.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says that Nuance is at the center of this shift, especially with its use of cloud and artificial intelligence, and that’s why the company was willing to pay the amount it did to get it.

“AI is technology’s most important priority, and healthcare is its most urgent application. Together, with our partner ecosystem, we will put advanced AI solutions into the hands of professionals everywhere to drive better decision-making and create more meaningful connections, as we accelerate growth of Microsoft Cloud in Healthcare and Nuance,” Nadella said in a post announcing the deal.

Microsoft sees this deal doubling what was already a considerable total addressable market to nearly $500 billion. While TAMs always tend to run high, that is still a substantial number.

It also fits with Gartner data, which found that by 2022, 75% of healthcare organizations will have a formal cloud strategy in place. The AI component only adds to that number and Nuance brings 10,000 existing customers to Microsoft including some of the biggest healthcare organizations in the world.

Brent Leary, founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials, says the deal could provide Microsoft with a ton of health data to help feed the underlying machine learning models and make them more accurate over time.

“There is going be a ton of health data being captured by the interactions coming through telemedicine interactions, and this could create a whole new level of health intelligence,” Leary told me.

That of course could drive a lot of privacy concerns where health data is involved, and it will be up to Microsoft, which just experienced a major breach on its Exchange email server products last month, to assure the public that their sensitive health data is being protected.

Leary says that ensuring data privacy is going to be absolutely key to the success of the deal. “The potential this move has is pretty powerful, but it will only be realized if the data and insights that could come from it are protected and secure — not only protected from hackers but also from unethical use. Either could derail what could be a game changing move,” he said.

Microsoft also seemed to recognize that when it wrote, “Nuance and Microsoft will deepen their existing commitments to the extended partner ecosystem, as well as the highest standards of data privacy, security and compliance.”

We are clearly on the edge of a sea change when it comes to how we interact with our medical providers in the future. COVID pushed medicine deeper into the digital realm in 2020 out of simple necessity. It wasn’t safe to go into the office unless absolutely necessary.

The Nuance acquisition, which is expected to close some time later this year, could help Microsoft shift deeper into the market. It could even bring Teams into it as a meeting tool, but it’s all going to depend on the trust level people have with this approach, and it will be up to the company to make sure that both healthcare providers and the people they serve have that.

#artificial-intelligence, #cloud, #enterprise, #ma, #mergers-and-acquisitions, #microsoft, #nuance-communications, #privacy, #tc, #telemedicine

0

Equity Monday: Microsoft buys Nuance, Uber isn’t dead, and Austin has a new unicorn

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here. It is good to be back!

There was a lot to get through, so, in order that we discussed the topics on the show, here’s our rundown:

Don’t forget that Coinbase is listing this week, yeah? Chat soon!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 AM PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

#africa, #alibaba, #antitrust, #darktrace, #equity-podcast, #fundings-exits, #india, #microsoft, #nuance-communications, #startups, #the-zebra, #tiger-global, #uber

0

Microsoft is acquiring Nuance Communications for $19.7B

Microsoft agreed today to acquire Nuance Communications, a leader in speech to text software, for $19.7 billion. Bloomberg broke the story over the weekend that the two companies were in talks.

In a post announcing the deal, the company said this was about increasing its presence in the healthcare vertical, a place where Nuance has done well in recent years. In fact, the company announced the Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare last year, and this deal is about accelerating its presence there. Nuance’s products in this area include Dragon Ambient eXperience, Dragon Medical One and PowerScribe One for radiology reporting.

“Today’s acquisition announcement represents the latest step in Microsoft’s industry-specific cloud strategy,” the company wrote. The acquisition also builds on several integrations and partnerships the two companies have made in the last couple of years.

The company boasts 10,000 healthcare customers, according to information on the website. Those include AthenaHealth, Johns Hopkins, Mass General Brigham and Cleveland Clinic to name but a few, and it was that customer base that attracted Microsoft to pay the price it did to bring Nuance into the fold.

Nuance CEO Mark Benjamin will remain with the company and report to Scott Guthrie, Microsoft’s EVP in charge of the cloud and AI group.

Nuance has a complex history. It went public in 2000 and began buying speech recognition products including Dragon Dictate from Lernout Hauspie in 2001. It merged with a company called ScanSoft in 2005. That company began life as Visioneer, a scanning company in 1992.

Today, the company has a number of products including Dragon Dictate, a consumer and business text to speech product that dates back to the early 1990s. It’s also involved in speech recognition, chat bots and natural language processing particularly in healthcare and other verticals.

The company has 6,000 employees spread across 27 countries. In its most recent earnings report from November 2020, which was for Q42020, the company reported $352.9 million in revenue compared to $387.6 million in the same period a year prior. That’s not the direction a company wants to go in, but it is still a run rate of over $1.4 billion.

At the time of that earnings call, the company also announced it was selling its medical transcription and electronic health record (EHR) Go-Live services to Assured Healthcare Partners and Aeries Technology Group. Company CEO Benjamin said this was about helping the company concentrate on its core speech services.

“With this sale, we will reach an important milestone in our journey towards a more focused strategy of advancing our Conversational AI, natural language understanding and ambient clinical intelligence solutions,” Benjamin said in a statement at the time.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft already has a number speech recognition and chat bot products of its own including desktop speech to text services in Windows and on Azure, but it took a chance to buy a market leader and go deeper into the healthcare vertical.

The transaction has already been approved by both company boards and Microsoft reports it expects the deal to close by the end of this year, subject to standard regulatory oversight and approval by Nuance shareholders.

This would mark the second largest purchase by Microsoft ever, only surpassed by the $26.2 billion the company paid for LinkedIn in 2016.

#artificial-intelligence, #enterprise, #ma, #mergers-and-acquisitions, #microsoft, #nuance-communications, #tc

0

Immersion cooling to offset data centers’ massive power demands gains a big booster in Microsoft

LiquidStack does it. So does Submer. They’re both dropping servers carrying sensitive data into goop in an effort to save the planet. Now they’re joined by one of the biggest tech companies in the world in their efforts to improve the energy efficiency of data centers, because Microsoft is getting into the liquid-immersion cooling market.

Microsoft is using a liquid it developed in-house that’s engineered to boil at 122 degrees Fahrenheit (lower than the boiling point of water) to act as a heat sink, reducing the temperature inside the servers so they can operate at full power without any risks from overheating.

The vapor from the boiling fluid is converted back into a liquid through contact with a cooled condenser in the lid of the tank that stores the servers.

“We are the first cloud provider that is running two-phase immersion cooling in a production environment,” said Husam Alissa, a principal hardware engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development in Redmond, Washington, in a statement on the company’s internal blog. 

While that claim may be true, liquid cooling is a well-known approach to dealing with moving heat around to keep systems working. Cars use liquid cooling to keep their motors humming as they head out on the highway.

As technology companies confront the physical limits of Moore’s Law, the demand for faster, higher performance processors mean designing new architectures that can handle more power, the company wrote in a blog post. Power flowing through central processing units has increased from 150 watts to more than 300 watts per chip and the GPUs responsible for much of Bitcoin mining, artificial intelligence applications and high end graphics each consume more than 700 watts per chip.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft isn’t the first tech company to apply liquid cooling to data centers and the distinction that the company uses of being the first “cloud provider” is doing a lot of work. That’s because bitcoin mining operations have been using the tech for years. Indeed, LiquidStack was spun out from a bitcoin miner to commercialize its liquid immersion cooling tech and bring it to the masses.

“Air cooling is not enough”

More power flowing through the processors means hotter chips, which means the need for better cooling or the chips will malfunction.

“Air cooling is not enough,” said Christian Belady, vice president of Microsoft’s datacenter advanced development group in Redmond, in an interview for the company’s internal blog. “That’s what’s driving us to immersion cooling, where we can directly boil off the surfaces of the chip.”

For Belady, the use of liquid cooling technology brings the density and compression of Moore’s Law up to the datacenter level

The results, from an energy consumption perspective, are impressive. The company found that using two-phase immersion cooling reduced power consumption for a server by anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent (every little bit helps).

Microsoft investigated liquid immersion as a cooling solution for high performance computing applications such as AI. Among other things, the investigation revealed that two-phase immersion cooling reduced power consumption for any given server by 5% to 15%. 

Meanwhile, companies like Submer claim they reduce energy consumption by 50%, water use by 99%, and take up 85% less space.

For cloud computing companies, the ability to keep these servers up and running even during spikes in demand, when they’d consume even more power, adds flexibility and ensures uptime even when servers are overtaxed, according to Microsoft.

“[We] know that with Teams when you get to 1 o’clock or 2 o’clock, there is a huge spike because people are joining meetings at the same time,” Marcus Fontoura, a vice president on Microsoft’s Azure team, said on the company’s internal blog. “Immersion cooling gives us more flexibility to deal with these burst-y workloads.”

At this point, data centers are a critical component of the internet infrastructure that much of the world relies on for… well… pretty much every tech-enabled service. That reliance however has come at a significant environmental cost.

“Data centers power human advancement. Their role as a core infrastructure has become more apparent than ever and emerging technologies such as AI and IoT will continue to drive computing needs. However, the environmental footprint of the industry is growing at an alarming rate,” Alexander Danielsson, an investment manager at Norrsken VC noted last year when discussing that firm’s investment in Submer.

Solutions under the sea

If submerging servers in experimental liquids offers one potential solution to the problem — then sinking them in the ocean is another way that companies are trying to cool data centers without expending too much power.

Microsoft has already been operating an undersea data center for the past two years. The company actually trotted out the tech as part of a push from the tech company to aid in the search for a COVID-19 vaccine last year.

These pre-packed, shipping container-sized data centers can be spun up on demand and run deep under the ocean’s surface for sustainable, high-efficiency and powerful compute operations, the company said.

The liquid cooling project shares most similarity with Microsoft’s Project Natick, which is exploring the potential of underwater datacenters that are quick to deploy and can operate for years on the seabed sealed inside submarine-like tubes without any onsite maintenance by people. 

In those data centers nitrogen air replaces an engineered fluid and the servers are cooled with fans and a heat exchanger that pumps seawater through a sealed tube.

Startups are also staking claims to cool data centers out on the ocean (the seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake).

Nautilus Data Technologies, for instance, has raised over $100 million (according to Crunchbase) to develop data centers dotting the surface of Davey Jones’ Locker. The company is currently developing a data center project co-located with a sustainable energy project in a tributary near Stockton, Calif.

With the double-immersion cooling tech Microsoft is hoping to bring the benefits of ocean-cooling tech onto the shore. “We brought the sea to the servers rather than put the datacenter under the sea,” Microsoft’s Alissa said in a company statement.

Ioannis Manousakis, a principal software engineer with Azure (left), and Husam Alissa, a principal hardware engineer on Microsoft’s team for datacenter advanced development (right), walk past a container at a Microsoft datacenter where computer servers in a two-phase immersion cooling tank are processing workloads. Photo by Gene Twedt for Microsoft.

#artificial-intelligence, #bitcoin, #cloud, #computing, #data-center, #energy-consumption, #energy-efficiency, #enterprise, #liquid-cooling, #microsoft, #saas, #tc

0

Microsoft Surface leak: Looks like the Surface Laptop 4 is coming soon

We don't have any leaked images of the new Surface models, so you'll have to make do with this 2019 stock photo of Surface models at a Microsoft store in Guangzhou.

Enlarge / We don’t have any leaked images of the new Surface models, so you’ll have to make do with this 2019 stock photo of Surface models at a Microsoft store in Guangzhou. (credit: SOPA Images via Getty Images)

Earlier today, Microsoft support placeholders briefly appeared for two upcoming Surface Laptop 4 models—one AMD, and one Intel. The placeholders were spotted by @walkingcat:

The placeholders are already gone, but German news site WinFuture provided more details last month. The AMD models will feature last-gen models Ryzen 5 4680U and Ryzen 7 4980U, while the Intel models feature the brand-new Core i5-1145G7 and Core i7-1185G7.

According to that WinFuture report, the AMD models will once again only be offered at lower specifications. Intel models will go up to 32GiB RAM and 1TB storage; the AMD models will be capped at maximums of 16GiB and 512GB, respectively. On the plus side, the AMD models are rumored to be available with 13.5-inch screens for the first time this year.

Read 2 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#laptop, #microsoft, #microsoft-surface, #surface, #tech

0

Aporia raises $5M for its AI observability platform

Machine learning (ML) models are only as good as the data you feed them. That’s true during training, but also once a model is put in production. In the real world, the data itself can change as new events occur and even small changes to how databases and APIs report and store data could have implications on how the models react. Since ML models will simply give you wrong predictions and not throw an error, it’s imperative that businesses monitor their data pipelines for these systems.

That’s where tools like Aporia come in. The Tel Aviv-based company today announced that it has raised a $5 million seed round for its monitoring platform for ML models. The investors are Vertex Ventures and TLV Partners.

Image Credits: Aporia

Aporia co-founder and CEO Liran Hason, after five years with the Israel Defense Forces, previously worked on the data science team at Adallom, a security company that was acquired by Microsoft in 2015. After the sale, he joined venture firm Vertex Ventures before starting Aporia in late 2019. But it was during his time at Adallom where he first encountered the problems that Aporio is now trying to solve.

“I was responsible for the production architecture of the machine learning models,” he said of his time at the company. “So that’s actually where, for the first time, I got to experience the challenges of getting models to production and all the surprises that you get there.”

The idea behind Aporia, Hason explained, is to make it easier for enterprises to implement machine learning models and leverage the power of AI in a responsible manner.

“AI is a super powerful technology,” he said. “But unlike traditional software, it highly relies on the data. Another unique characteristic of AI, which is very interesting, is that when it fails, it fails silently. You get no exceptions, no errors. That becomes really, really tricky, especially when getting to production, because in training, the data scientists have full control of the data.”

But as Hason noted, a production system may depend on data from a third-party vendor and that vendor may one day change the data schema without telling anybody about it. At that point, a model — say for predicting whether a bank’s customer may default on a loan — can’t be trusted anymore, but it may take weeks or months before anybody notices.

Aporia constantly tracks the statistical behavior of the incoming data and when that drifts too far away from the training set, it will alert its users.

One thing that makes Aporio unique is that it gives its users an almost IFTTT or Zapier-like graphical tool for setting up the logic of these monitors. It comes pre-configured with more than 50 combinations of monitors and provides full visibility in how they work behind the scenes. That, in turn, allows businesses to fine-tune the behavior of these monitors for their own specific business case and model.

Initially, the team thought it could build generic monitoring solutions. But the team realized that this wouldn’t only be a very complex undertaking, but that the data scientists who build the models also know exactly how those models should work and what they need from a monitoring solution.

“Monitoring production workloads is a well-established software engineering practice, and it’s past time for machine learning to be monitored at the same level,” said Rona Segev, founding partner at  TLV Partners. “Aporia‘s team has strong production-engineering experience, which makes their solution stand out as simple, secure and robust.”

 

#adallom, #aporia, #artificial-intelligence, #enterprise, #machine-learning, #microsoft, #ml, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #tel-aviv, #tlv-partners, #vertex-ventures

0

2021 Microsoft Build conference dates confirmed, May 25-27

A casually dressed man stands within a giant Microsoft Logo.

Enlarge / This year’s Build will be virtual—on the plus side, that means attendance is free and you don’t need to travel. On the minus side, nobody gets to walk inside an enormous, physical Windows logo for a photo opp, like this shot of me at Ignite 2019. (credit: Jim Salter)

Microsoft’s annual Build conference will be virtual again this year, running from May 25 to May 27. According to Microsoft, Build is “where developers, architects, start-ups, and students learn, connect, and code together, sharing knowledge and expanding their skill set, while exploring new ways of innovating for tomorrow.”

Thanks at least in part to COVID-19, this is the second year that Build is being held as a virtual event—which follows Microsoft’s statement last year that all its conferences would be virtual-only through July 2021. COVID-19 cases are still trending upward; we wouldn’t be surprised to see Microsoft’s in-person event ban not only upheld but extended.

Build vs. Inspire and Ignite

Build is one of three flagship Microsoft conferences, along with Inspire (scheduled for July) and Ignite (which concluded in March).

Read 2 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#conference, #microsoft, #microsoft-build, #technopaedia, #virtual-conference

0

After years on PlayStation, MLB The Show hits Xbox Game Pass at launch

It has been over a year now since Sony first announced it would be bringing the previously PlayStation-exclusive series MLB The Show to Xbox as early as 2021. Today, Microsoft announced even better news for Xbox-owning baseball fans: MLB The Show 21 will be included with an Xbox Game Pass subscription the day it launches on April 20.

The move means that over 18 million Game Pass subscribers will have free access to the game on Xbox One and the Xbox Series X/S, or on Android phones via xCloud streaming. That creates a bit of an awkward situation for PlayStation owners, who will have to pay individually for a Sony San Diego-developed and Sony-published game that many Xbox subscribers will get for free.

That’s especially notable because Sony has its own subscription service, PlayStation Now, which is not getting MLB The Show on launch day (as of now, at least). Then again, PlayStation Now has famously struggled to compare to Game Pass’ “day one” bluster for a while now, especially when it comes to first-party software. Sony’s recent “Play From Home” initiative and the PlayStation Plus Collection have opened up access to some Sony-published titles recently, but these, too, have revolved around dated software.

Read 5 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#game-pass, #gaming-culture, #microsoft, #sony, #sports, #xbox, #xlb

0

Microsoft outage knocks sites and services offline

Microsoft is experiencing a major outage, so that’s why you can’t get any work done.

Besides its homepage, Microsoft services are down, log-in pages aren’t loading, and even the company’s status pages were kaput. Worse, Microsoft’s cloud service Azure appeared to also be offline, causing outages to any sites and services that rely on it.

It’s looking like a networking issue, according to the status page — when it loaded. Microsoft also tweeted that it was related to DNS, the internet system that translates web addresses to computer-readable internet numbers. It’s an important function of how the internet works, so not ideal when it suddenly breaks.

We’ve reached out for comment, and we’ll follow up when we know more.

#cloud, #cloud-computing, #cloud-infrastructure, #computing, #microsoft, #microsoft-azure, #security, #technology

0

Microsoft’s Cortana meets an untimely end on iOS and Android

Extreme close-up photograph of smartphone against a white background.

Cortana on an iPhone. (credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft’s Cortana app for iOS and Android will soon shut down, the company has announced on a support page. This effectively puts a nail in Cortana’s coffin for consumer use cases, at least as far as competing directly with Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa goes.

Here’s what the announcement says:

We will soon be ending support for the Cortana app on Android and iOS, as Cortana continues its evolution as a productivity assistant.

As of March 31, 2021, the Cortana content you created—such as reminders and lists—will no longer function in the Cortana mobile app, but can still be accessed through Cortana in Windows. Also, Cortana reminders, lists, and tasks are automatically synced to the Microsoft To Do app, which you can download to your phone for free.

After March 31, 2021, the Cortana mobile app on your phone will no longer be supported.

This is no surprise. Microsoft had already begun deprecating Cortana on mobile in certain markets, and the writing seemed to be on the wall when the company announced that many of Cortana’s consumer-focused skills would be getting the axe about a year ago.

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#android, #cortana, #ios, #microsoft, #smart-assistant, #tech

0

Microsoft, US Army ink $21.9 billion deal to strap HoloLens onto personnel

A soldier raises a rifle from within a comically oversized headset.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson | Microsoft | Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the US Army formally moved forward with the largest ever government-related deal for headsets in the virtual and augmented reality sector: a 10-year agreement with Microsoft to provide 120,000 headsets “based” on the HoloLens line.

Reports by CNBC and Bloomberg point to a $21.9 billion value for this week’s updated arrangement, following its initial announcement in November 2018. Neither of those reports point to exact reasons for the deal’s jump from an initial contract value of $480 million, despite that earlier deal confirming similarly high headset numbers.

Official IVAS image as provided by Microsoft as part of Wednesday's announcements. Notice an array of sensors across the top, along with an apparent headset-strapping requirement for this model.

Official IVAS image as provided by Microsoft as part of Wednesday’s announcements. Notice an array of sensors across the top, along with an apparent headset-strapping requirement for this model. (credit: Microsoft)

The headset model in question, as revealed by Microsoft’s Alex Kipman in a Wednesday blog post, appears to deviate slightly from its originally announced intent. While it’s still known as the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) and includes an array of HoloLens-like sensors, the model seen in today’s announcement appears to attach to a helmet. Ars previously reported that Microsoft and the US Army intended for this headset to not require mounting on a helmet, arguably to increase its applicability.

Read 5 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#augmented-reality, #department-of-defense, #gaming-culture, #hololens, #microsoft, #pentagon, #policy, #virtual-reality

0

Microsoft gets contract worth up to $22 billion to outfit U.S. Army with 120,000 AR headsets

The killer use case for AR/VR might just be warfare.

Today, Microsoft announced that it’s won a contract to outfit the United States Army with tens of thousands of augmented reality headsets based on the company’s HoloLens tech. This contract could be worth as much as $21.88 billion over 10 years, the company says.

Microsoft will be fulfilling an order for 120,000 AR headsets for the Army based on their Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) design.

“The program delivers enhanced situational awareness, enabling information sharing and decision-making in a variety of scenarios,”  a blog post from Microsoft’s Alex Kipman reads.

The contract builds on the two-year $480 million contract that Microsoft won back in 2018 to outfit the U.S. army with augmented reality tech. At the time, the contract detailed that the deal could potentially result in follow-on orders of more than 100,000 headsets. “Augmented reality technology will provide troops with more and better information to make decisions. This new work extends our longstanding, trusted relationship with the Department of Defense to this new area,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement sent to TechCrunch at the time.

Microsoft says this announcement marks the transition from prototyping these designs to producing and rolling them out in the field.

This is a massive scale-up for augmented reality tech that has seen few large-scale rollouts and gives Microsoft a government contractor budget to tackle base technology problems that could scale down to consumer and enterprise-level devices in the future. Many of the industry’s biggest players in augmented reality have been reluctant or outspoken in their avoidance of military contracts but Microsoft has remained undeterred in competing for these contracts.

#army, #augmented-reality, #augmented-reality-technology, #computing, #contractor, #department-of-defense, #microsoft, #microsoft-hololens, #mixed-reality, #spokesperson, #tc, #technology, #united-states, #windows-10

0

Facebook gets a C – Startup rates the ‘ethics’ of social media platforms, targets asset managers

By now you’ve probably heard of ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) ratings for companies, or ratings for their carbon footprint. Well, now a UK company has come up with a way of rating the ‘ethics’ social media companies. 
  
EthicsGrade is an ESG ratings agency, focusing on AI governance. Headed up Charles Radclyffe, the former head of AI at Fidelity, it uses AI-driven models to create a more complete picture of the ESG of organizations, harnessing Natural Language Processing to automate the analysis of huge data sets. This includes tracking controversial topics, and public statements.

Frustrated with the green-washing of some ‘environmental’ stocks, Radclyffe realized that the AI governance of social media companies was not being properly considered, despite presenting an enormous risk to investors in the wake of such scandals as the manipulation of Facebook by companies such as Cambridge Analytica during the US Election and the UK’s Brexit referendum.

EthicsGrade Industry Summary Scorecard – Social Media

The idea is that these ratings are used by companies to better see where they should improve. But the twist is that asset managers can also see where the risks of AI might lie.

Speaking to TechCrunch he said: “While at Fidelity I got a reputation within the firm for being the go-to person, for my colleagues in the investment team, who wanted to understand the risks within the technology firms that we were investing in. After being asked a number of times about some dodgy facial recognition company or a social media platform, I realized there was actually a massive absence of data around this stuff as opposed to anecdotal evidence.”

He says that when he left Fidelity he decided EthicsGrade would out to cover not just ESGs but also AI ethics for platforms that are driven by algorithms.

He told me: “We’ve built a model to analyze technology governance. We’ve covered 20 industries. So most of what we’ve published so far has been non-tech companies because these are risks that are inherent in many other industries, other than simply social media or big tech. But over the next couple of weeks, we’re going live with our data on things which are directly related to tech, starting with social media.”

Essentially, what they are doing is a big parallel with what is being done in the ESG space.

“The question we want to be able to answer is how does Tik Tok compare against Twitter or Wechat as against WhatsApp. And what we’ve essentially found is that things like GDPR have done a lot of good in terms of raising the bar on questions like data privacy and data governance. But in a lot of the other areas that we cover, such as ethical risk or a firm’s approach to public policy, are indeed technical questions about risk management,” says Radclyffe.

But, of course, they are effectively rating algorithms. Are the ratings they are giving the social platforms themselves derived from algorithms? EthicsGrade says they are training their own AI through NLP as they go so that they can automate what is currently very human analysts centric, just as ‘sustainalytics’ et al did years ago in the environmental arena.

So how are they coming up with these ratings? EthicsGrade says are evaluating “the extent to which organizations implement transparent and democratic values, ensure informed consent and risk management protocols, and establish a positive environment for error and improvement.” And this is all achieved, they say, all through publicly available data – policy, website, lobbying etc. In simple terms, they rate the governance of the AI not necessarily the algorithms themselves but what checks and balances are in place to ensure that the outcomes and inputs are ethical and managed.

“Our goal really is to target asset owners and asset managers,” says Radclyffe. “So if you look at any of these firms like, let’s say Twitter, 29% of Twitter is owned by five organizations: it’s Vanguard, Morgan Stanley, Blackrock, State Street and ClearBridge. If you look at the ownership structure of Facebook or Microsoft, it’s the same firms: Fidelity, Vanguard and BlackRock. And so really we only need to win a couple of hearts and minds, we just need to convince the asset owners and the asset managers that questions like the ones journalists have been asking for years are pertinent and relevant to their portfolios and that’s really how we’re planning to make our impact.”

Asked if they look at content of things like Tweets, he said no: “We don’t look at content. What we concern ourselves is how they govern their technology, and where we can find evidence of that. So what we do is we write to each firm with our rating, with our assessment of them. We make it very clear that it’s based on publicly available data. And then we invite them to complete a survey. Essentially, that survey helps us validate data of these firms. Microsoft is the only one that’s completed the survey.”

Ideally, firms will “verify the information, that they’ve got a particular process in place to make sure that things are well-managed and their algorithms don’t become discriminatory.”

In an age increasingly driven by algorithms, it will be interesting to see if this idea of rating them for risk takes off, especially amongst asset managers.

#articles, #artificial-intelligence, #asset-management, #blackrock, #environmentalism, #esg, #europe, #facebook, #facial-recognition, #fidelity, #finance, #governance, #microsoft, #morgan-stanley, #natural-language-processing, #social-media, #tc, #technology, #twitter, #united-kingdom, #united-states

0

LinkedIn confirms it’s working on a Clubhouse rival, too

Clubhouse’s list of competitors is growing. LinkedIn has now confirmed it’s also testing a social audio experience in its app which would allow creators on its network to connect with their community. Unlike the Clubhouse rivals being built by Facebook and Twitter, LinkedIn believes its audio networking feature will be differentiated because it will be connected with users’ professional identity, not just a social profile. In addition, the company has already built out a platform that serves the creator community, which today has access to tools like Stories, LinkedIn Live video broadcasting, newsletters and more.

And just today, LinkedIn formalized some of its efforts in this area with the launch a new “Creator” mode that lets anyone set their profile as one that can be followed for updates, like Stories and LinkedIn Live videos, for example.

This focus on creators puts LinkedIn on competitive footing in terms of expanding its own Clubhouse rival, compared with other efforts by Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, or Discord — all of which have their own audio-based networking features in various stages development at this time.

Though Twitter’s Clubhouse rival, Twitter Spaces, is already live in beta testing, its full set of creator tools have yet to arrive. In fact, it was only last month that Twitter announced its plans for a larger creator subscription platform via a new “Super Follow” feature, for instance. And it only this year entered the newsletter space via an acquisition. Facebook, meanwhile, has historically offered a number of creator-focused features, but has just recently gotten invested in tools like newsletters.

LinkedIn says its development of an audio-based networking feature came about because its members and creatives have been asking for more ways to communicate on its platform.

“We’re seeing nearly 50% growth in conversations on LinkedIn reflected in stories, video shares, and posts on the platform,” a LinkedIn spokesperson said, when confirming its audio feature’s development. “We’re doing some early tests to create a unique audio experience connected to your professional identity. And, we’re looking at how we can bring audio to other parts of LinkedIn such as events and groups, to give our members even more ways to connect to their community,” they said.

As a result of creators’ interest in this space, the company moved quickly to develop its own Clubhouse-like feature, where there’s a stage showcasing the room’s speakers and a set of listeners below. There are also tools to join and leave the room, react to comments, and request to speak, according to screenshots of the interface first discovered in the LinkedIn Android app by reverse engineer Alessandro Paluzzi.

Note that Paluzzi populated the user interface with his own profile icon, shown in the image he tweeted. That is not part of the LinkedIn mockup. Instead, LinkedIn shared its own conceptual UX mockup of its in-room experiences with TechCrunch, which shows a more fleshed out example of how the feature may look at launch.

Image Credits: LinkedIn

LinkedIn believes that because the audio experience will be connected with users’ professional identities, they’ll feel comfortable speaking, commenting and otherwise engaging with the content, the company told TechCrunch. It will also be able to leverage its existing investment in moderation tools built for other features — like LinkedIn Live — to help to address any concerns over inappropriate or harmful discussions, like those that have already plagued Clubhouse.

“Our priority is to build a trusted community where people feel safe and can be productive,” a spokesperson noted. “Our members come to LinkedIn to have respectful and constructive conversations with real people and we’re focused on ensuring they have a safe environment to do just that,” they said.

Plus, LinkedIn says that audio networking makes for a natural extension of other areas, like Groups and Events — areas for networking that have continued to grow, and particularly during the pandemic.

In 2020, some 21 million people attended an event on LinkedIn, and overall LinkedIn sessions increased by 30% year-over-year. The company’s 740 million global members also last year built community, had conversations, and shared knowledge, with 4.8 billion connections made.

Like many companies which saw a pandemic boost, LinkedIn believes the pandemic only accelerated the natural progression towards online networking, remote work, and virtual events, which were already in place before lockdowns. For example, LinkedIn says that more than 60% of its members were working remotely by the end of 2020, versus 8% before the pandemic. LinkedIn believes the shift will stick, as more than half the world’s workforce is expected to continue working from home at least some of the time, even after the pandemic comes to an end.

That leaves room for new forms of online networking to grow, as well, including audio experiences.

LinkedIn doesn’t yet have an exact timeframe for its launch of the audio networking feature, but says it will begin beta testing soon.

#audio, #audio-networking, #clubhouse, #linkedin, #microsoft, #tc

0

How startups can go passwordless, thanks to zero trust

“There is no doubt that over time, people are going to rely less and less on passwords… they just don’t meet the challenge for anything you really want to secure,” said Bill Gates.

That was seventeen years ago. Although passwords have lost some of their charm, they have so far survived many attempts to kill them for good.

The perception of high cost and tricky implementations has stalled some smaller businesses from ditching passwords. But alternatives to passwords are affordable, easy to implement, and safer, show industry insights gathered by Extra Crunch. The move to zero trust systems is acting as a catalyst.

First, a primer. Zero trust focuses on who you are, not where you are. Zero trust models require companies to never trust any attempt to access its network, and must verify every single time — even from logins from inside the network. Passwordless tech is a key part of zero trust models.

There are several alternatives for passwords, including:

  • Biometric authentication: widely used as fingerprint readers in smartphones and physical verification points at buildings;
  • Social media authentication: where you use your Google or Facebook IDs to authenticate you with a third-party service;
  • Multi-factor authentication: where more layers of authentication are added using devices or services, such as token authentication using a trusted device.
  • Grid authentication cards: which provides access while using a combination PIN number.
  • Push notifications: which are usually sent to the user’s smartphones or encrypted devices.
  • Digital certificates: cryptographic files stored locally on the machine or device.

Wolt, a Finnish food-delivery site is just one example of going passwordless.

“The user registers by entering their email address or a phone number. Login to the app takes place by clicking the temporary link in the user’s inbox. The app on the user’s mobile phone places an authentication cookie, which enables the user to continue from that device without having to go through any further authentication,” said Erka Koivunen, CISO at F-Secure.

In this case, the service provider is in full control of the authentication, allowing it to set expiration time, revoke service, and detect fraud. The service provider does not need to count on the user’s commitment to keep track of their passwords.

Passwordless tech is not inherently costly but may take some adjustment, explained Ryan Weeks, CISO at managed service provider Datto.

“It is not necessarily costly in terms of monetary investment, because there are a lot of easily accessible open-source alternatives for multi factor authentication that don’t require any sort of investment,” said Weeks. But some companies believe passwordless tech may cause friction to their employees’ productivity.

Koivunen also dismissed that zero trust models are unaffordable for startups.

“Zero trust recognises the futility of forcing users to authenticate themselves by presenting something they should keep as secret. Instead, it prefers to establish the user’s identity using some context-aware method,” he said.

Zero trust goes further than authenticating users; it also includes the device and the user.

“From a zero trust perspective, there is an idea that there is a continuous authentication or revalidation of trust occurring. Therefore, passwordless in a zero trust model is potentially easier for the user and more secure as the combination of the ‘something you have’ and ‘something you are’ factors are more difficult to attack,” said Datto’s Weeks.

Larger companies, like Microsoft and Google, already offer zero trust technologies. But investors are also eyeing smaller companies that offer zero trust for growing companies.

Axis Security, a zero trust provider that allows remote employees to access their company’s network, raised $32 million last year. Beyond Identity raised $75 million in funding in December. And, Israel identity validation startup Identiq raised $47 million in Series A funding in March.

#access-control, #authentication, #bill-gates, #computer-security, #cryptography, #f-secure, #facebook, #google, #identiq, #israel, #microsoft, #multi-factor-authentication, #password, #security, #smartphones, #startups

0

You can only invest if you promise not to read the fine print, ok?

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

Natasha and Danny and Alex and Grace were all here to chat through the week’s biggest tech happenings. News was right back up to a dull roar this week, so we did our best to trim and hone and just bring you the most important things.

Here’s the rundown:

Let’s all get some rest!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 AM PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

#bevy, #demo-day, #discord, #dispo, #dobrik, #equity, #equity-podcast, #finrise, #fundings-exits, #microsoft, #plaid, #ro, #robinhood, #startups, #tc, #y-combinator

0

Microsoft begins removing paid Xbox Live requirement for free-to-play games

Xbox Live gamers will soon have a new reason to rejoice.

Xbox Live gamers will soon have a new reason to rejoice. (credit: Xbox)

Xbox owners soon won’t need to pay for an Xbox Live Gold subscription to enjoy otherwise free-to-play games on their consoles. Wednesday’s update to the Xbox Alpha Insiders Update Preview program (version 2104.210323-0000) notes that “Multiplayer in Free-to-play games, Looking 4 Groups and Party Chat on Xbox no longer requires an Xbox Live Gold membership.” These features are being tested with Insiders “ahead of general availability,” according to the update.

Microsoft first announced this move back in January as the company was busy rolling back a controversial planned increase in Xbox Live Gold prices. Back then, Microsoft said the free-to-play change was coming “as soon as possible in the coming months,” but the rollout to Insiders suggests it will be reaching all Xbox players imminently.

Microsoft’s decision here brings the service in line with its major console competitors. When Sony started charging for multiplayer gameplay on PlayStation Network in 2014, it included a specific carve-out for “a selection of free-to-play multiplayer titles [that] will be available without a PS Plus membership.” Nintendo included a similar carve-out for free-to-play titles like Fortnite when it started charging for its Switch Online service in 2018.

Read 3 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#gaming-culture, #microsoft, #xbox, #xbox-live

0

Eat Just (the alt-protein company formerly known as Hampton Creek) has raised another $200 million

Eat Just, the purveyor of eggless eggs and mayonnaise and the first government-approved vendor of lab-grown chicken, has raised $200 million in a new round of funding, the company said.

The funding was led by the Qatar Investment Authority, the sovereign wealth fund of the state of Qatar, with additional participation from Charlesbank Capital Partners and Vulcan Capital, the investment arm of the estate of Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen.

Since its launch in 2011 as Hampton Creek, the company has raised more than $650 million all to build out capacity for its egg replacement products and its new line of lab-grown meat.

“We are very excited to work with our investors to build a healthier, safer and more sustainable food system. Their knowledge and experience partnering with companies that are transforming numerous industries were fundamental in our decision to partner with them,” said Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, in a statement.

Eat Just’s evolution hasn’t been without controversy. In 2017, the company and its chief executive withstood a failed coup, which forced the firing of several executives. The company also saw its entire board resign in the aftermath of those firings, only to replace them with a new slate of directors months later.

In the aftermath, Hampton Creek rebranded and refocused. These days the company’s products fall into two somewhat related categories. There’re the plant-based egg replacement products and eggless mayonnaise and the lab grown chicken products that are meant to replace poultry farmed chicken meat.

Since the egg side of Eat Just’s chicken and egg business definitely came first, it’s worth noting that the company’s products are sold in more than 20,000 retail outlets and 1,000 foodservice locations. since it began selling the product, the company has moved more than 100 million eggs to roughly one million U.S. households.

The company’s eggs are also on offer in Dicos, a fast food chain in China, and it’s got a deal to put out a sous vide egg replacement product with Cuisine Solutions. The eggs are also available in Peet’s Coffee locations around the country and Eat Just has expanded its eggless distribution platform into Canada.

Then there’s the company’s GOOD Meat product. That was available for a short time in Singapore. The company expects to slash production costs and expand its commercial operations while working on other kinds of meats as well, according to a statement.

It’s a long way from where the Eat Just started, when it raised its first millions from Khosla Ventures and Founders Fund.

#articles, #canada, #cellular-agriculture, #china, #co-founder, #cultured-meat, #eat-just, #egg, #food-and-drink, #hampton-creek, #josh-tetrick, #meat, #microsoft, #qatar, #qatar-investment-authority, #singapore, #tc, #united-states, #vulcan-capital

0

Report: Microsoft in talks for $10 billion acquisition of Discord

Report: Microsoft in talks for $10 billion acquisition of Discord

Enlarge

Microsoft is reportedly in the late stages of $10 billion acquisition talks with Discord, a gaming-focused community chat platform, according to unnamed “people familiar with the matter” who spoke to Bloomberg.

Epic Games and Amazon were also involved in acquisition talks previously, according to Bloomberg’s sources. VentureBeat also reported this week that Discord is exploring sale options with “multiple parties.”

First launched in 2015, Discord lets individual users create public or private servers that allow members to chat with others in that server via text, images, voice, and video livestreaming. The service now reportedly has 6.7 million such servers, which serve as centralized communication hubs for everything from official news and discussion from game publishers and multiplayer match organization among small groups of friends to a chaotic gathering place for people betting on the stock market—and everything in between.

Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#discord, #gaming, #gaming-culture, #microsoft, #social-media

0

Uber under pressure over facial recognition checks for drivers

Uber’s use of facial recognition technology for a driver identity system is being challenged in the UK where the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) and Worker Info Exchange (WIE) have called for Microsoft to suspend the ride-hailing giant’s use of B2B facial recognition after finding multiple cases where drivers were mis-identified and went on to have their licence to operate revoked by Transport for London (TfL).

The union said it has identified seven cases of “failed facial recognition and other identity checks” leading to drivers losing their jobs and license revocation action by TfL.

When Uber launched the “Real Time ID Check” system in the UK, in April 2020, it said it would “verify that driver accounts aren’t being used by anyone other than the licensed individuals who have undergone an Enhanced DBS check”. It said then that drivers could “choose whether their selfie is verified by photo-comparison software or by our human reviewers”.

In one misidentification case the ADCU said the driver was dismissed from employment by Uber and his license was revoked by TfL. The union adds that it was able to assist the member to establish his identity correctly forcing Uber and TfL to reverse their decisions. But it highlights concerns over the accuracy of the Microsoft facial recognition technology — pointing out that the company suspended the sale of the system to US police forces in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer.

Research has shown that facial recognition systems can have an especially high error rate when used to identify people of color — and the ADCU cites a 2018 MIT study which found Microsoft’s system can have an error rate as high as 20% (accuracy was lowest for dark skinned women).

The union said it’s written to the Mayor of London to demand that all TfL private hire driver license revocations based on Uber reports using evidence from its Hybrid Real Time Identification systems are immediately reviewed.

Microsoft has been contacted for comment on the call for it to suspend Uber’s licence for its facial recognition tech.

The ADCU said Uber rushed to implement a workforce electronic surveillance and identification system as part of a package of measures implemented to regain its license to operate in the UK capital.

Back in 2017, TfL made the shock decision not to grant Uber a licence renewal — ratcheting up regulatory pressure on its processes and maintaining this hold in 2019 when it again deemed Uber ‘not fit and proper’ to hold a private hire vehicle licence.

Safety and security failures were a key reason cited by TfL for withholding Uber’s licence renewal.

Uber has challenged TfL’s decision in court and it won another appeal against the licence suspension last year — but the renewal granted was for only 18 months (not the full five years). It also came with a laundry list of conditions — so Uber remains under acute pressure to meet TfL’s quality bar.

Now, though, Labor activists are piling pressure on Uber from the other direction too — pointing out that no regulatory standard has been set around the workplace surveillance technology that the ADCU says TfL encouraged Uber to implement. No equalities impact assessment has even been carried out by TfL, it adds.

WIE confirmed to TechCrunch that it’s filing a discrimination claim in the case of one driver, called Imran Raja, who was dismissed after Uber’s Real ID check — and had his license revoked by TfL.

His licence was subsequently restored — but only after the union challenged the action.

A number of other Uber drivers who were also misidentified by Uber’s facial recognition checks will be appealing TfL’s revocation of their licences via the UK courts, per WIE.

A spokeswoman for TfL told us it is not a condition of Uber’s licence renewal that it must implement facial recognition technology — only that Uber must have adequate safety systems in place.

The relevant condition of its provisional licence on ‘driver identity’ states:

ULL shall maintain appropriate systems, processes and procedures to confirm that a driver using the app is an individual licensed by TfL and permitted by ULL to use the app.

We’ve also asked TfL and the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office for a copy of the data protection impact assessment Uber says was carried before the Real-Time ID Check was launched — and will update this report if we get it.

Uber, meanwhile, disputes the union’s assertion that its use of facial recognition technology for driver identity checks risks automating discrimination because it says it has a system of manual (human) review in place that’s intended to prevent failures.

Albeit it accepts that that system clearly failed in the case of Raja — who only got his Uber account back (and an apology) after the union’s intervention.

Uber said its Real Time ID system involves an automated ‘picture matching’ check on a selfie that the driver must provide at the point of log in, with the system comparing that selfie with a (single) photo of them held on file. 

If there’s no machine match, the system sends the query to a three-person human review panel to conduct a manual check. Uber said checks will be sent to a second human panel if the first can’t agree. 

In a statement the tech giant told us:

“Our Real-Time ID Check is designed to protect the safety and security of everyone who uses the app by ensuring the correct driver or courier is using their account. The two situations raised do not reflect flawed technology — in fact one of the situations was a confirmed violation of our anti-fraud policies and the other was a human error.

“While no tech or process is perfect and there is always room for improvement, we believe the technology, combined with the thorough process in place to ensure a minimum of two manual human reviews prior to any decision to remove a driver, is fair and important for the safety of our platform.”

In two of the cases referred to by the ADCU, Uber said that in one instance a driver had shown a photo during the Real-Time ID Check instead of taking a selfie as required to carry out the live ID check — hence it argues it was not wrong for the ID check to have failed as the driver was not following the correct protocol.

In the other instance Uber blamed human error on the part of its manual review team(s) who (twice) made an erroneous decision. It said the driver’s appearance had changed and its staff were unable to recognize the face of the (now bearded) man who sent the selfie as the same person in the clean-shaven photo Uber held on file.

Uber was unable to provide details of what happened in the other five identity check failures referred to by the union.

It also declined to specify the ethnicities of the seven drivers the union says were misidentified by its checks.

Asked what measures it’s taking to prevent human errors leading to more misidentifications in future Uber declined to provide a response.

Uber said it has a duty to notify TfL when a driver fails an ID check — a step which can lead to the regulator suspending the license, as happened in Raja’s case. So any biases in its identity check process clearly risk having disproportionate impacts on affected individuals’ ability to work.

WIE told us it knows of three TfL licence revocations that relate solely to facial recognition checks.

“We know of more [UberEats] couriers who have been deactivated but no further action since they are not licensed by TfL,” it noted.

TechCrunch also asked Uber how many driver deactivations have been carried out and reported to TfL in which it cited facial recognition in its testimony to the regulator — but again the tech giant declined to answer our questions.

WIE told us it has evidence that facial recognition checks are incorporated into geo-location-based deactivations Uber carries out.

It said that in one case a driver who had their account revoked was given an explanation by Uber relating solely to location but TfL accidentally sent WIE Uber’s witness statement — which it said “included facial recognition evidence”.

That suggests a wider role for facial recognition technology in Uber’s identity checks vs the one the ride-hailing giant gave us when explaining how its Real Time ID system works. (Again, Uber declined to answer follow up questions about this or provide any other information beyond its on-the-record statement and related background points.)

But even just focusing on Uber’s Real Time ID system there’s the question of much say Uber’s human review staff actually have in the face of machine suggestions combined with the weight of wider business imperatives (like an acute need to demonstrate regulatory compliance on the issue of safety).

James Farrer, the founder of WIE, queries the quality of the human checks Uber has put in place as a backstop for facial recognition technology which has a known discrimination problem.

“Is Uber just confecting legal plausible deniability of automated decision making or is there meaningful human intervention,” he told TechCrunch. “In all of these cases, the drivers were suspended and told the specialist team would be in touch with them. A week or so typically would go by and they would be permanently deactivated without ever speaking to anyone.”

“There is research out there to show when facial recognition systems flag a mismatch humans have bias to confirm the machine. It takes a brave human being to override the machine. To do so would mean they would need to understand the machine, how it works, its limitations and have the confidence and management support to over rule the machine,” Farrer added. “Uber employees have the risk of Uber’s license to operate in London to consider on one hand and what… on the other? Drivers have no rights and there are in excess so expendable.”

He also pointed out that Uber has previously said in court that it errs on the side of customer complaints rather than give the driver benefit of the doubt. “With that in mind can we really trust Uber to make a balanced decision with facial recognition?” he asked.

Farrer further questioned why Uber and TfL don’t show drivers the evidence that’s being relied upon to deactivate their accounts — to given them a chance to challenge it via an appeal on the actual substance of the decision.

“IMHO this all comes down to tech governance,” he added. “I don’t doubt that Microsoft facial recognition is a powerful and mostly accurate tool. But the governance of this tech must be intelligent and responsible. Microsoft are smart enough themselves to acknowledge this as a limitation.

“The prospect of Uber pressured into surveillance tech as a price of keeping their licence… and a 94% BAME workforce with no worker rights protection from unfair dismissal is a recipe for disaster!”

The latest pressure on Uber’s business processes follows hard on the heels of a major win for Farrer and other former Uber drivers and labor rights activists after years of litigation over the company’s bogus claim that drivers are ‘self employed’, rather than workers under UK law.

On Tuesday Uber responded to last month’s Supreme Court quashing of its appeal saying it would now treat drivers as workers in the market — expanding the benefits it provides.

However the litigants immediately pointed out that Uber’s ‘deal’ ignored the Supreme Court’s assertion that working time should be calculated when a driver logs onto the Uber app. Instead Uber said it would calculate working time entitlements when a driver accepts a job — meaning it’s still trying to avoid paying drivers for time spent waiting for a fare.

The ADCU therefore estimates that Uber’s ‘offer’ underpays drivers by between 40%-50% of what they are legally entitled to — and has said it will continue its legal fight to get a fair deal for Uber drivers.

At an EU level, where regional lawmakers are looking at how to improve conditions for gig workers, the tech giant is now pushing for an employment law carve out for platform work — and has been accused of trying to lower legal standards for workers.

In additional Uber-related news this month, a court in the Netherlands ordered the company to hand over more of the data it holds on drivers, following another ADCU+WIE challenge. Although the court rejected the majority of the drivers’ requests for more data. But notably it did not object to drivers seeking to use data rights established under EU law to obtain information collectively to further their ability to collectively bargain against a platform — paving the way for more (and more carefully worded) challenges as Farrer spins up his data trust for workers.

The applicants also sought to probe Uber’s use of algorithms for fraud-based driver terminations under an article of EU data protection law that provides for a right not to be subject to solely automated decisions in instances where there is a legal or significant effect. In that case the court accepted Uber’s explanation at face value that fraud-related terminations had been investigated by a human team — and that the decisions to terminate involved meaningful human decisions.

But the issue of meaningful human invention/oversight of platforms’ algorithmic suggestions/decisions is shaping up to be a key battleground in the fight to regulate the human impacts of and societal imbalances flowing from powerful platforms which have both god-like view of users’ data and an allergy to complete transparency.

The latest challenge to Uber’s use of facial recognition-linked terminations shows that interrogation of the limits and legality of its automated decisions is far from over — really, this work is just getting started.

Uber’s use of geolocation for driver suspensions is also facing legal challenge.

While pan-EU legislation now being negotiated by the bloc’s institutions also aims to increase platform transparency requirements — with the prospect of added layers of regulatory oversight and even algorithmic audits coming down the pipe for platforms in the near future.

Last week the same Amsterdam court that ruled on the Uber cases also ordered India-based ride-hailing company Ola to disclose data about its facial-recognition-based ‘Guardian’ system — aka its equivalent to Uber’s Real Time ID system. The court said Ola must provided applicants with a wider range of data than it currently does — including disclosing a ‘fraud probability profile’ it maintains on drivers and data within a ‘Guardian’ surveillance system it operates.

Farrer says he’s thus confident that workers will get transparency — “one way or another”. And after years fighting Uber through UK courts over its treatment of workers his tenacity in pursuit of rebalancing platform power cannot be in doubt.

 

#app-drivers-couriers-union, #artificial-intelligence, #europe, #facial-recognition, #james-farrer, #lawsuit, #microsoft, #policy, #tfl, #uber, #worker-info-exchange

0