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Main article: Artificial intelligence

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The Markup, a tech-focused investigative news site, raises $20 million from Craigslist founder

06:04 | 24 September

Celebrated former ProPublica investigative journalists Julia Angwin and Jeff Larson are launching their newest venture, the investigative nonprofit news organization called The Markup, with help from some big donors including Craigslist founder, Craig Newmark.

The Markup co-founders Angwin, Larson and executive director Sue Gardner (the former head of the Wikimedia Foundation), are backed by a $20 million donation from Newmark, founder of craigslist and Craig Newmark Philanthropies; $2 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; and additional support from the Ford Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, according to a statement.

The project was incubated with an investment from the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Initiative and news of the new media venture was first reported in The New York Times.

“In a healthy society, there’s an ongoing conversation about what’s in the public interest—a debate that includes legislators, regulators, the institutions of civil society, the private sector, and the general public,” said Gardner, in a statement. “We aren’t having that debate right now about new technologies because the level of understanding of their effects is too low. That’s the problem that The Markup aims to fix, and I am delighted to have Craig Newmark, and some of the United States’ most prominent private foundations, join us to do this.”

Newmark has been engaged in many philanthropic projects. He’s put $500,000 of his money toward reducing harassment on Wikipedia and has pledged $1 million to Angwin and Larson’s old bosses at ProPublica.

“I’m proud to back The Markup and support people whose work I’ve followed and admired for a long time,” Newmark said. “As a news consumer, I look for journalism that I can trust, and by producing data-driven, rigorously fact-checked reporting on the effects of technology on society, The Markup is helping to fill a largely unmet need.”

Gardner previously ran the CBC.CA, the website of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; Angwin is a Pulitzer Prize winner who p worked at The Wall Street Journal and ProPublica; and Larson, a data journalist, has won the prestigious Peabody Award and the Livingston Award for Young Journalists. He used to work at The Nation.

At ProPublica the duo’s scoops included the revelation of discriminatory advertising practices at Facebook; algorithmic bias in criminal risk scores used in bail, sentencing and parole decisions; price discrimination toward minorities in car insurance rates; and cybersecurity holes in the President’s home-away-from-home, the Mar-A-Lago country club.

“I’m excited to build a team with deep expertise that can really scale up and advance the work Jeff and I began at ProPublica,” Angwin said, in a statement. “We see The Markup as a new kind of news organization, staffed with journalists who know how to investigate the uses of new technologies and make their effects understandable to non-experts.”

The Markup is looking to staff up with 24 journalists for its New York office and is hoping to launch in the early part of 2019.

 


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Seven reasons not to trust Facebook to play cupid

20:00 | 22 September

This week Facebook has launched a major new product play, slotting an algorithmic dating service inside its walled garden as if that’s perfectly normal behavior for an ageing social network.

Insert your [dad dancing GIF of choice] right here.

Facebook getting into dating looks very much like a mid-life crisis — as a veteran social network desperately seeks a new strategy to stay relevant in an age when app users have largely moved on from social network ‘lifecasting’ to more bounded forms of sharing, via private messaging and/or friend groups inside dedicated messaging and sharing apps.

The erstwhile Facebook status update has long been usurped by the Snapchat (and now Instagram) Story as the social currency of choice for younger app users. Of course Facebook owns the latter product too, and has mercilessly cloned Stories. But it hardly wants its flagship service to just fade away into the background like the old fart it actually is in Internet age terms.

Not if it can reinvigorate the product with a new purpose — and so we arrive at online dating.

Facebook — or should that be ‘Datebook’ now?! — is starting its dating experiment in Colombia, as its beta market. But the company clearly has ambitious designs on becoming a major global force in the increasingly popular online dating arena — to challenge dedicated longtime players like eHarmony and OkCupid, as well as the newer breed of more specialized dating startups, such as female-led app, Bumble.

Zuckerberg is not trying to compete with online dating behemoth Tinder, though. Which Facebook dismisses as a mere ‘hook up’ app — a sub category it claims it wants nothing to do with.

Rather it’s hoping to build something more along the lines of ‘get together with friends of your friends who’re also into soap carving/competitive dog grooming/extreme ironing’ than, for e.g., the raw spank in the face shock of ‘Bang with Friends‘. (The latter being the experimental startup which tried, some six years ago, to combine Facebook and sex — before eventually exiting to a Singapore-based dating app player, Paktor, never to be heard of again. Or, well, not until Facebook decided to get into the dating game and reminded us all how we lol’d about it.)

Mark Zuckerberg’s company doesn’t want to get into anything smutty, though. Oh no, no, NO! No sex please, we’re Facebook!

Facebook Dating has been carefully positioned to avoid sounding like a sex app. It’s being flogged as a tasteful take on the online dating game, with — for instance — the app explicitly architected not to push existing friends together via suggestive matching (though you’ll just have to hope you don’t end up being algorithmically paired with any exes, which judging by Facebook’s penchant for showing users ‘photo memories’ of past stuff with exes may not pan out so well… ). And no ability to swap photo messages with mutual matches in case, well, something pornographic were to pass through.

Facebook is famously no fan of nudes. Unsurprisingly, then, nor is its buttoned up dating app. Only ‘good, old-fashioned wholesome’ text-based chat-up lines (related to ‘good clean pieces of Facebook content’) here please.

If you feel moved to text an up-front marriage proposal — feeling 100% confident in Facebook’s data scientists’ prowess in reading the social media tea leaves and plucking your future life partner out of the mix — its algorithms will probably smile on that though.

The company’s line is that dating will help fulfil its new mission of encouraging ‘time well spent’ — by helping people forge more meaningful (new) relationships thanks to the power of its network (and the data it sucks out of it).

This mission is certainly an upgrade on Facebook’s earlier and baser interest in just trying to connect every human on planet Earth to every other human on planet Earth in some kind of mass data-swinging orgy — regardless of the ethical and/or moral consequences (as Boz memorably penned it), as if it was trying to channel the horror-loving spirit of Pasolini’s Salò. Or, well, a human centipede.

But that was then. These days, in its mid teens, Facebook wants to be seen as grown up and a bit worth. So its take on dating looks a lot more ‘marriage material’ than ‘casual encounters’. Though, well, products don’t always pan out how their makers intend. So it might need to screw its courage to the sticking place and hope things don’t go south.

From the user perspective, there’s a whole other side here too though. Because given how much baggage inevitably comes with Facebook nowadays, the really burning question is whether any sensible person should be letting Mark Zuckerberg fire cupid’s arrows on their behalf?

He famously couldn’t tell malicious Kremlin propaganda from business as usual social networking like latte photos and baby pics — so what makes you think he’s going to be attuned to the subtle nuances of human chemistry?!

Here are just a few reasons why we think you should stay as far away from Facebook’s dalliance with dating as you possibly can…

  1. It’s yet another cynical data grab
    Facebook’s ad-targeting business model relies on continuous people tracking to function — which means it needs your data to exist. Simply put: Your privacy is Facebook’s lifeblood. Dating is therefore just a convenient veneer to slap atop another major data grab as Facebook tries to find less icky ways to worm its way back and/or deeper into people’s lives. Connecting singles to nurture ‘meaningful relationships’ is the marketing gloss being slicked over its latest invitation to ask people to forget how much private information they’re handing it. Worse still, dating means Facebook is asking people to share even more intimate and personal information than they might otherwise willingly divulge — again with a company whose business model relies upon tracking everything everyone does, on or offline, within its walled garden or outside it on the wider web, and whether they’re Facebook a user or not.
    This also comes at a time when users of Facebook’s eponymous social network have been showing signs of Facebook fatigue, and even changing how they use the service after a string of major privacy scandals. So Facebook doing dating also looks intended to function as a fresh distraction — to try to draw attention away from its detractors and prevent any more scales falling away from users’ eyes. The company wants to paper over growing scepticism about ad-targeting business models with algorithmic heart-shaped promises.
    Yet the real underlying passion here is still Facebook’s burning desire to keep minting money off of your private bits and bytes.
  2. Facebook’s history of privacy hostility shows it simply can’t be trusted
    Facebook also has a very long history of being outright hostile to privacy — including deliberately switching settings to make previously private settings public by default (regulatory intervention has been required to push back against that ratchet) — so its claim, with Dating, to be siloing data in a totally separate bucket, and also that information shared for this service won’t be used to further flesh out user profiles or to target people with ads elsewhere across its empire should be treated with extreme scepticism.
    Facebook also said WhatsApp users’ data would not be mingled and conjoined with Facebook user data — and, er, look what ended up happening there…!!
    ————————————————————————————————–>

    And then there’s Facebook record of letting app developers liberally rip user data out of its platform — including (for years and years) ‘friend data’. Which almost sounded cosy. But Facebook’s friends data API meant that an individual Facebook user could have their data sucked out without even agreeing to a particular app’s ToS themselves. Which is part of the reason why users’ personal information has ended up all over the place — and in all sorts of unusual places. (Facebook not enforcing its own policies, and implementing features that could be systematically abused to suck out user data are among some of the many other reasons.)
    The long and short history of Facebook and privacy is that information given to it for one purpose has ended up being used for all sorts of other things — things we likely don’t even know the half of. Even Facebook itself doesn’t know which is why it’s engaged in a major historical app audit right now. Yet this very same company now wants you to tell it intimate details about your romantic and sexual preferences? Uhhhh, hold that thought, truly.
  3. Facebook already owns the majority of online attention — why pay the company any more mind? Especially as dating singles already have amazingly diverse app choice…
    In the West there’s pretty much no escape from Facebook Inc. Not if you want to be able to use the social sharing tools your friends are using. Network effects are hugely powerful for that reason, and Facebook owns not just one popular and dominant social network but a whole clutch of them — given it also bought Instagram and WhatsApp (plus some others it bought and just closed, shutting down those alternative options). But online dating, as it currently is, offers a welcome respite from Facebook.
    It’s arguably also no accident that the Facebook-less zone is so very richly served with startups and services catering to all sorts of types and tastes. There are dating apps for black singlesmatchmaking services for Muslims; several for Jewish people; plenty of Christian dating apps; at least one dating service to match ex-pat Asians; another for Chinese-Americansqueer dating apps for women; gay dating apps for men (and of course gay hook up apps too), to name just a few; there’s dating apps that offer games to generate matches; apps that rely on serendipity and location to rub strangers together via missed connections; apps that let you try live video chats with potential matches; and of course no shortage of algorithmic matching dating apps. No singles are lonely for dating apps to try, that’s for sure.
    So why on earth should humanity cede this very rich, fertile and creative ‘stranger interaction’ space, which caters to singles of all stripes and fancies, to a social network behemoth — just so Facebook can expand its existing monopoly on people’s attention?
    Why shrink the luxury of choice to give Facebook’s business extra uplift? If Facebook Dating became popular it would inexorably pull attention away from alternatives — perhaps driving consolidation among a myriad of smaller dating players, forcing some to band together to try to achieve greater scale and survive the arrival of the 800lb Facebook gorilla. Some services might feel they have to become a bit less specialized, pushed by market forces to go after a more generic (and thus larger) pool of singles. Others might find they just can’t get enough niche users anymore to self-sustain. The loss of the rich choice in dating apps singles currently enjoy would be a crying shame indeed. Which is as good a reason as any to snub Facebook’s overtures here.
  4. Algorithmic dating is both empty promise and cynical attempt to humanize Facebook surveillance
    Facebook typically counters the charge that because it tracks people to target them with ads its in the surveillance business by claiming people tracking benefits humanity because it can serve you “relevant ads”. Of course that’s a paper thin argument since all display advertising is something no one has chosen to see and therefore is necessarily a distraction from whatever a person was actually engaged with. It’s also an argument that’s come under increasing strain in recent times, given all the major scandals attached to Facebook’s ad platform, whether that’s to do with socially divisive Facebook ads, or malicious political propaganda spread via Facebook, or targeted Facebook ads that discriminate against protected groups, or Facebook ads that are actually just spreading scams. Safe to say, the list of problems attached to its ad targeting enterprise is long and keeps growing.
    But Facebook’s follow on claim now, with Dating and the data it intends to hold on people for this matchmaking purpose, is it has the algorithmic expertise to turn a creepy habit of tracking everything everyone does into a formula for locating love.
    So now it’s not just got “relevant” ads to sell you; it’s claiming Facebook surveillance is the special sauce to find your Significant Other!

    Frankly, this is beyond insidious. (It is also literally a Black Mirror episode — and that’s supposed to be dysfunctional sci-fi.) Facebook is moving into dating because it needs a new way to package and sell its unpleasant practice of people surveillance. It’s hoping to move beyond its attempt at normalizing its business line (i.e. that surveillance is necessary to show ads that people might be marginally more likely to click on) — which has become increasingly problematic as its ad platform has been shown to be causing all sorts of knock-on societal problems — by implying that by letting Facebook creep on you 24/7 it could secure your future happiness because its algorithms are working to track down your perfect other half — among all those 1s and 0s it’s continuously manhandling.
    Of course this is total bunkum. There’s no algorithmic formula to determine what makes one person click with another (or not). If there was humans would have figured it out long, long ago — and monetized it mercilessly. (And run into all sorts of horrible ethical problems along the way.)
    Thing is, people aren’t math. Humans cannot be made to neatly sum to the total of their collective parts and interests. Which is why life is a lot more interesting than the stuff you see on Facebook. And also why there’s a near infinite number of dating apps out there, catering to all sorts of people and predilections.
    Sadly Facebook can’t see that. Or rather it can’t admit it. And so we get nonsense notions of ‘expert’ algorithmic matchmaking and ‘data science’ as the underpinning justification for yet another dating app launch. Sorry but that’s all just marketing.
    The idea that Facebook’s data scientists are going to turn out to be bullseye hitting cupids is as preposterous as it is ridiculous. Like any matchmaking service there will be combinations thrown up that work and plenty more than do not. But if the price of a random result is ceaseless surveillance the service has a disproportionate cost attached to it — making it both an unfair and an unattractive exchange for the user. And once again people are being encouraged to give up far more than they’re getting in return.
    If you believe that finding ‘the one’ will be easier if you focus on people with similar interests to you or who are in the same friend group there’s no shortage of existing ‘life avenues’ you can pursue without having to resort to Facebook Dating. (Try joining a club. Or going to your friends’ parties. Or indeed taking your pick from the scores of existing dating apps that already offer interest-based matching.)
    Equally you could just take a hike up a mountain and meet your future wife at the top (as one couple I know did). Safe to say, there’s no formula to love. And thankfully so. Don’t believe anyone trying to sell you a dating service with the claim their nerdtastic data scientists will hook you up good and proper.
    Facebook’s chance of working any ‘love magic’ will be as good/poor as the next app-based matchmaking service. Which is to say it will be random. There’s certainly no formula to be distilled beyond connecting ‘available to date’ singles — which dating apps and websites have been doing very well for years and years and years. No Facebook dates necessary.
    The company has little more to offer the world of online dating than, say, OkCupid, which has scale and already combines the location and stated interests of its users in an attempt to throw up possible clicks. The only extra bit is Facebook’s quasi-bundling of Events into dating, as a potential avenue to try and date in a marginally more informal setting than agreeing to go on an actual date. Though, really, it just sounds like it might be more awkward to organize and pull off.
    Facebook’s generic approach to dating is also going to offer much less for certain singles who benefit from a more specialized and tailored service (such as a female-focused player like Bumble which has created a service to cater to women’s needs; or, indeed, any of the aforementioned community focused offerings cited above which help people meet other likeminded singles).
    Facebook appears to believe that size matters in dating. And seems to want to be a generic giant in a market that’s already richly catering to all sorts of different communities. For many singles that catch-all approach is going to earn it a very hard left swipe.
  5. Dating takes resource and focus away from problems Facebook should actually be fixing
    Facebook’s founder made ‘fixing Facebook’ his personal priority this year. Which underlines quite how many issues the company has smashing through its plate. We’re not talking little bug fixes. Facebook has a huge bunch of existentially awful hellholes burning through its platform and punching various human rights in the process. This is not at all trivial. Some really terrible stuff has been going on with its platforms acting as the conduit.
    Earlier this year, for instance, the UN blasted Facebook saying its platform had became a “beast” in Myanmar — weaponized and used to accelerate ethnic violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
    Facebook has admitted it did not have enough local resource to stop its software being used to amplify ethnic hate and violence in the market. Massacres of Rohingya refuges have been described by human rights organizations as a genocide.
    And it’s not an isolated instance. In the Philippines the country has recently been plunged into a major human rights crisis — and the government there, which used Facebook to help get elected, has also been using Facebook to savage its critics at the same time as carrying out thousands of urban killings in a bloody so-called ‘war on drugs’.
    In India, Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging app has been identified as a contributing factor in multiple instances of mob violence and killings — as people have been whipped up by lies spread like lightning via the app.
    Set against such awful problems — where Facebook’s products are at very least not helping — we now see the company ploughing resource into expanding into a new business area, and expending engineering resource to build a whole new interface and messaging system (the latter to ensure Facebook Dating users can only swap texts, and can’t send photos or videos because that might be a dick pic risk).
    So it’s a genuine crying shame that Facebook did not pay so much close attention to goings on in Myanmar — where local organizations have long been calling for intelligent limits to be built in to its products to help stop abusive misuse.
    Yet Facebook only added the option to report conversations in its Messenger app this May
    So the sight of the company expending major effort to launch a dating product at the same time as it stands accused of failing to do enough to prevent its products from being conduits for human rights abuses in multiple markets is ethically uncomfortable, to say the least.
    Prospective users of Facebook Dating might therefore feel a bit queasy to think that their passing fancies have been prioritized by Zuckerberg & co over and above adding stronger safeguards and guardrails to the various platforms they operate to try to safeguard humans from actual death in other corners of the globe.
  6. By getting involved with dating, Facebook is mixing separate social streams
    Talking of feeling queasy, with Facebook Dating the company is attempting to pull off a tricky balancing act of convincing existing users (many of whom will already be married and/or in a long term relationship) that it’s somehow totally normal to just bolt on a dating layer to something that’s supposed to be a generic social network.
    All of a sudden a space that’s always been sold — and traded — as a platonic place for people to forge ‘friendships’ is suddenly having sexual opportunity injected into it. Sure, the company is trying to keep these differently oriented desires entirely separate, by making the Dating component an opt-in feature that lurks within Facebook (and where (it says) any activity is siloed and kept off of mainstream Facebook (at least that’s the claim)). But the very existence of Facebook Dating means anyone in a relationship who is already on Facebook is now, on one level, involved with a dating app company.
    Facebook users may also feel they’re being dangled the opportunity to sign up to online dating on the sly — with the company then committed itself to being the secret-keeping go-between ferrying any flirtatious messages they care to send in a way that would be difficult for their spouse to know about, whether they’re on Facebook or not.
    How comfortable is Facebook going to be with being a potential aid to adultery? I guess we’ll have to wait and see how that pans out. As noted above, Facebook execs have — in the past — suggested the company is in the business of ‘connecting people, period’. So there’s perhaps a certain twisted logic working away as an undercurrent and driving its impulse to push for ever more human connections. But the company could be at risk of applying its famous “it’s complicated” relationship status to itself with the dating launch — and then raining complicated consequences down upon its users as a result. (As, well, it so often seems to do in the name of expanding its own business.)
    So instead of ‘don’t mix the streams’, with dating we’re seeing Facebook trying to get away with running entirely opposite types of social interactions in close parallel. What could possibly go wrong?! Or rather what’s to stop someone in the ‘separate’ Facebook dating pool trying to Facebook-stalk a single they come across there who doesn’t responded to their overtures? (Given Facebook dating users are badged with their real Facebook names there could easily be user attempts to ‘cross over’.)
    And if sentiments from one siloed service spill over into mainstream Facebook things could get very messy indeed — and users could end up being doubly repelled by its service rather than additionally compelled. The risk is Facebook ends up fouling not feathering its own nest by trying to combine dating and social networking. (This less polite phrase also springs to mind.)
  7. Who are you hoping to date anyway?!
    Outside emerging markets Facebook’s growth has stalled. Even social networking’s later stage middle age boom looks tapped out. At the same time today’s teens are not at all hot for Facebook. The youngest web users are more interested in visually engaging social apps. And the company will have its work cut out trying to lure this trend-sensitive youth crowd. Facebook dating will probably sound like a bad joke — or a dad joke — to these kids.
    Going up the age range a bit, the under ~35s are hardly enamoured with Facebook either. They may still have a profile but also hardly think Facebook is cool. Some will have reduced their usage or even taken a mini break. The days of this age-group using Facebook to flirt with old college classmates are as long gone as sending a joke Facebook poke. Some are deleting their Facebook account entirely — and not looking back. Is this prime dating age-group suddenly likely to fall en masse for Facebook’s love match experiment? It seems doubtful.
    And it certainly looks like no accident Facebook is debuting Dating outside the US. Emerging markets, which often have young, app-loving populations, probably represent its best chance at bagging the critical mass of singles absolutely required to make any dating product even vaguely interesting.
    But in its marketing shots for the service Facebook seems to be hoping to attract singles in the late twenties age-range — dating app users who are probably among the ficklest, trickiest people for Facebook to lure with a late-stage, catch-all and, er, cringey proposition.
    After that, who’s left? Those over 35s who are still actively on Facebook are either going to be married — and thus busy sharing their wedding/baby pics — and not in the market for dating anyway; or if they are single they may be less inclined towards getting involved with online dating vs younger users who are now well accustomed to dating apps. So again, for Facebook, it looks like diminishing returns up here.
    And of course a dating app is only as interesting and attractive as the people on it. Which might be the most challenging hurdle for Facebook to make a mark on this well-served playing field — given its eponymous network is now neither young nor cool, hip nor happening, and seems to be having more of an identity crisis with each passing year.
    Perhaps Facebook could carve out a dating niche for itself among middle-age divorcees — by offering to digitally hand-hold them and help get them back into the dating game. (Although there’s zero suggestion that’s what it’s hoping to do with the service it debuted this week.)
    If Zuckerberg really wants to bag the younger singles he seems most interested in — at least judging by Facebook Dating’s marketing — he might have been better off adding a dating stream to Instagram.
    I mean, InstaLovegram almost sounds like it could be a thing.

 


0

Cluep, a Canadian startup that raised just $500k, acquired for $40M

21:45 | 20 September

Everyone loves a tale of a bootstrapped startup founder’s journey to an eight-figure exit.

The team at Toronto-based Cluep have a good one.

The founders of the adtech startup raised less than $500,000 from angel investors before selling their company to Impact Group for $40 million this week.

Founded in 2012, Karan Walia, Sobi Walia and Anton Mamonov were just 21, 17 and 16 years old, respectively, when they started the digital advertising platform, which uses artificial intelligence to help brands connect and engage with people based on what they are sharing, how they are feeling and the places they’ve been.

They, being teenagers, struggled initially to get the company off the ground. At one point, the trio hacked into computers at a university in Toronto to train the neural networks on large amounts of data sets because they didn’t have enough money to buy their own tech. On a shoe-string budget, they would split meals at Popeyes to get by.

“No one wanted to give us money at that time so we had to live off of my student loans,” Walia told TechCrunch . “We did pretty much everything, whether it was programming and building the product, or going out and selling. I was our first sales rep and I was pretty bad early on but I learned.”

Ultimately, Cluep was able to raise enough from angels to pay themselves a salary, hire a few engineers and sales representatives, and move into an actual office. From that point, their revenue began growing significantly YoY.

  • 2015: $2 million CAD in revenue
  • 2016: $6 million CAD in revenue
  • 2017: $14.5 million CAD in revenue
  • 2018: On track to bring in ~$30 million CAD

They fielded offers from VCs toward the end of 2015 and considered raising a proper Series A round of capital, but ultimately decided staying independent would lead to the best exit.

“This way allowed us to basically maintain control and exit on our terms,” Walia said.

Impact Group, a Boise, Idaho-based grocery sales and marketing agency, will operate Cluep independently.

 


0

Amazon’s Alexa can now act on ‘hunches’ about your behavior

21:37 | 20 September

Amazon’s big hardware event isn’t all about hardware —although there are plenty of those too. Amazon also talked about how it’s making its virtual assistant Alexa smarter and more intuitive about human behavior, particularly when there are lots of connected smart home devices to tap into.

Amazon announced at the event Thursday a feature called Alexa Hunches, a new feature that allows the virtual assistant to follow cues about a user’s behavior and make suggestions. This all starts with a deep neural network, a form of AI that mimics the way a brain is wired and functions, that allows Amazon to understand behavior.

For now, “Hunches” is focused on the smart home because connected devices like smart lights or seciurity cameras give Alexa the data it needs to make the kind of judgment calls the human brain is capable of. For instance, a user might say “Good night, Alexa” or “Alexa, set an alarm.” And Alexa, which has heard these commands daily, will tap into all that behavioral data and follow a hunch. Alexa might respond with something like “Hey, I think that you left the porch light on, would you like me to turn it off?”

Amazon has been testing hunches in the lab and expects to roll out the feature later this year. The hunches feature will learn and improve over time.

 


0

Meet the startups in the latest Alchemist class

20:30 | 20 September

Alchemist is the Valley’s premiere enterprise accelerator and every season they feature a group of promising startups. They are also trying something new this year: they’re putting a reserve button next to each company, allowing angels to express their interest in investing immediately. It’s a clever addition to the demo day model.

You can watch the livestream at 3pm PST here.

Videoflow – Videoflow allows broadcasters to personalize live TV. The founding team is a duo of brothers — one from the creative side of TV as a designer, the other a computer scientist. Their SaaS product delivers personalized and targeted content on top of live video streams to viewers. Completely bootstrapped to date, they’ve landed NBC, ABC, and CBS Sports as paying customers and appear to be growing fast, having booked over $300k in revenue this year.

Redbird Health Tech – Redbird is a lab-in-a-box for convenient health monitoring in emerging market pharmacies, starting with Africa. Africa has the fastest growing middle class in the world — but also the fastest growing rate of diabetes (double North America’s). Redbird supplies local pharmacies with software and rapid tests to transform them into health monitoring points – for anything from blood sugar to malaria to cholesterol. The founding team includes a Princeton Chemical Engineer, 2 Peace Corps alums, and a Pharmacist from Ghana’s top engineering school. They have 20 customers, and are growing 36% week over week.

Shuttle Shuttle is getting a head start on the future of space travel by building a commercial spaceflight booking platform. Space tourism may be coming sooner than you think. Shuttle wants to democratize access to the heavens above. Founded by a Stanford Computer Science alum active in Stanford’s Student Space Society, Shuttle has partnerships with the leading spaceflight operators, including Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures, and Zero-G. Tickets to space today will set you back a cool $250K, but Shuttle believes that prices will drop exponentially as reusable rockets and landing pads become pervasive. They have $1.6m in reservations and growing.

Birdnest – Threading the needle between communal and private, Birdnest is the Goldilocks of office space for startups. Communal coworking spaces are accessible but have too many distractions. Traditional office spaces are private but inflexible on their terms. Birdnest brings the best of each without the drawbacks: finding, leasing, and operating a network of underutilized spaces inside of private offices. The cofounders, a duo of Duke and Kellogg MBA grads, are at $300K ARR with a fast-growing 50+ client waitlist.

Tag.bio – Tag.bio wants to make data science actionable in healthtech. The founding team is comprised of a former Ayasdi bioinformatician and a former Honda Racing engineer with a Stanford MBA. They’ve developed a next-generation data science platform that makes it easy and fast to build data apps for end users, or as they say, “WordPress for data science.” The result they claim is lightning-fast analysis apps that can be run by end users, dramatically accelerating insight discovery. They count the UCSF Medical Center and a “large Swiss pharma company” as early customers.

nCorium – They’ve built a new server architecture to handle the onslaught of AI to come with what they claim is the world’s first AI accelerator on memory to deliver 30x greater performance than the status quo. The quad founding team is intimidatingly technical — including a UCSD Professor, and former engineers from Qualcomm and Intel with 40 patents among them. They have $300K in pilots.

Spiio – Software eats landscaping with Spiio, which combines cloud-driven AI with physical sensors to monitor watering and landscaping for big companies. Their smart system knows when to water and when not to. This reduces water consumption by 50%, which means their system pays for itself in less than 30 days for big companies. They want to connect every plant to the internet, and look like they are off to a good start — $100K in orders from brand name Valley tech firms, and they are doubling monthly.

Element42 – Fraud is a major problem — For example, if you buy a Rolex on eBay, you run the risk of winding up with a counterfeit. Started by ex-VPs from Citibank, the founders are using risk models and technologies that banks use to help brands combat fraud and counterfeiting. Designed with token economics, they also incentivize customers to buy genuine products by serving exclusive content and promotions only to genuine product holders. Built on blockchain at the core, they claim to be the world’s first peer-to-peer authentication platform for physical assets. They have 45 customers across two industry verticals, 800K in ARR and are a member of World Economic Forum’s global initiatives against corruption.

My90 – Distrust between the public and the police has rarely been more strained than it is today. My90 wants to solve that by collecting data about interactions between the police and the public—think traffic stops, service calls, etc.—and turn these into actionable intelligence via an online analytics dashboard. Users text My90 anonymously about their interactions, and My90’s dashboard analyzes the results using natural language processing. Customers include major city police departments like the San Jose Police Department and the world’s largest community policing program. They have booked $150K in pilots and are expanding aggressively across the US.

Nunetz – A Stanford Computer Science grad and UCSF Neurosurgeon have come together to try to build a single unifying interface to replace the deluge of monitors and data sources in today’s clinical health environment. The goal is to prepare a daily “battle map” for physicians, nurses, and other providers, with an initial focus on the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). They have closed 3 paid pilots with hospitals through grants.

When Labs – If you hate managing people, When Labs wants to unburden you. Using an AI-powered assistant that texts with employees to negotiate assignments for hourly work, WhenLabs is trying to free customers like Hilton from spending money on managers who would normally do this manually. As the system gets smarter, they claim employees will prefer interfacing with their AI bot more than a human. AI and HR is a crowded space, but this might be the team to separate from the pack: the founding team’s previous company had a 9 figure exit to IBM.

FirstCut – FirstCut helps businesses put video content out at scale. Video dominates social media — it creates 10x more comments than text — and is emerging as a necessity for B2B media. But putting video out if you are a B2B marketer normally requires using agencies that charge hefty fees. FirstCut wants to disrupt the agencies with software and marketplaces. They use software automation and an on-demand talent marketplace to offer a fixed price product for video content. They are at $180k revenue, and most of it is moving to recurring subscriptions.

LynxCare – LynxCare claims that 90% of healthcare data goes untapped when doctors make critical decisions about your life. Further, they claim the average person’s life could be extended by 4 years if that data can be converted into insights. Their team of clinicians and data scientists aims to do just that — building a data platform that aggregates disparate data sets and drive insight for better clinical outcomes. And it looks like their platform has fans: they are active in 9 hospitals, count Pharma companies like Pfizer as Partners, and grew 4x over the past year and now are at $800K ARR.

ADIAN – Adian is a B2B SaaS product that digitizes the complex agrochemical supply chain in order to improve the sales process between manufacturers and distributors. The company claims manufacturers reduce costs by 20% and increase sales by 4% by using their online framework. $1.5 Billion and 70,000 orders have gone through the platform to date.

Hardin Scientific – Hardin is building IoT-enabled, Smart Lab Equipment. The hardware becomes a gateway to become the hub for monitoring, controlling, and sharing scientific data across teams. They’ve closed over $1.5m in revenue, and raised $15m in equity and debt financing. One of their smart devices is being used to 3D print bio-tissues and human organs in space.

ZaiNar – This team of 5 Stanford grads — 3 PhD’s and 2 MBAs — joined up with the Co-Founder of BlueKai to build the world’s best time synchronization technology. ZaiNar claims their ability to wirelessly synchronize and distribute time between networked devices is a thousand times better than existing technologies. This enables them to locate RF-emitting devices (i.e. phones, cars, drones, & RFID) at long distances with sub-meter accuracy. Beyond location, this technology has applications across data transmission, 5G communications, and energy grids. ZaiNar has raised a $1.7M seed from AME Cloud and Softbank, and has built an extensive patent portfolio.

SMART Brain Aging – This startup claims to reduce the onset of dementia by 2.25 years with software. They are the only company approved by Medicare to get reimbursed on a preventative basis for the treatment of dementia. In conjunction with Harvard University, they have developed 20,000 exercises that are clinically proven to reduce the onset of dementia and, they claim, help build neurotransmitters. The company works with 300 patients per week ($2.2m annual revenue) and is building to a goal of helping 22,000 people in 24 months.

Phoneic – Phoneic believes the data trapped in voice calls from cellphones is a gold mine waiting to be unleashed. Their app records and transcribes cell phones conversations, and the company has built an integration layer to enterprise AI and CRM systems that traditionally didn’t have access to voice data. The team is led by the co-founder of 3jam, one of the first group SMS and virtual number companies, which was acquired by Skype in 2011. He is keenly aware of the power of virality — and like Skype, the use of Phoneic spreads its adoption. The company has already raised $800,000 in seed funding.

Arkose Labs – Whether or not you think Russia interfered with the 2016 election, it’s no secret that bots are having significant impact on society. Arkose Labs wants to fight fraud, without adding friction to legit users. Most fraud prevention platforms today focus on gathering info from the user and providing a probability score that the traffic is good or bad. This leaves companies with a difficult decision where they may be blocking revenue generating users. Arkose has a different approach, and uses a bilateral approach that doesn’t force this tradeoff. They claim to be the only solution to offer a 100% SLA on fraud prevention. Big companies like Singapore Airlines and Electronic Arts are customers. USVP led a $6m investment into the company.

 


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AI could help push Neo4j graph database growth

17:10 | 20 September

Graph databases have always been useful to help find connections across a vast data set, and it turns out that capability is quite handy in artificial intelligence and machine learning too. Today, Neo4j, the makers of the open source and commercial graph database platform, announced the release of Neo4j 3.5, which has a number of new features aimed specifically at AI and machine learning.

Neo4j founder and CEO Emil Eifrem says he had recognized the connection between AI and machine learning and graph databases for awhile, but he says that it has taken some time for the market to catch up to the idea.

“There has been a lot momentum around AI and graphs…Graphs are very fundamental to AI. At the same time we were seeing some early use cases, but not really broad adoption, and that’s what we’re seeing right now,” he explained.

AI graph uses cases. Graphic: Neo4j

To help advance AI uses cases, today’s release includes a new full text search capability, which Eifrem says has been one of the most requested features. This is important because when you are making connections between entities, you have to be able to find all of the examples regardless of how it’s worded — for example, human versus humans versus people.

Part of that was building their own indexing engine to increase indexing speed, which becomes essential with ever more data to process. “Another really important piece of functionality is that we have improved our data ingestion very significantly. We have 5x end-to-end performance improvements when it comes to importing data. And this is really important for connected feature extraction, where obviously, you need a lot of data to be able to train the machine learning,” he said. That also means faster sorting of data too.

Other features in the new release include improvements to the company’s own Cypher database query language and better visualization of the graphs to give more visibility, which is useful for visualizing how machine learning algorithms work, which is known as AI explainability. They also announced support for the Go language and increased security.

Graph databases are growing increasingly important as we look to find connections between data. The most common use case is the knowledge graph, which is what lets us see connections in a huge data sets. Common examples include who we are connected to on a social network like Facebook, or if we bought one item, we might like similar items on an ecommerce site.

Other use cases include connected feature extraction, a common machine learning training techniques that can look at a lot of data and extract the connections, the context and the relationships for a particular piece of data, such as suspects in a criminal case and the people connected to them.

Neo4j has over 300 large enterprise customers including Adobe, Microsoft, Walmart, UBS and NASA. The company launched in 2007 and has raised $80 million. The last round was $36 million in November 2016.

 


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Jamie Burke to explain why you should still bet on the blockchain at Disrupt Berlin

10:27 | 20 September

Now that your cousin doesn’t ask you questions about bitcoin anymore, is it the end of all things blockchain? Maybe it just means that it’s time to think about innovating at the protocol level and come up with new use cases. That’s why I’m excited to announce that Outlier Ventures CEO and founder Jamie Burke will join us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

Burke bet on the blockchain industry quite early as he set up Outlier Ventures back in 2013. The firm’s investment strategy is much more interesting than your average investment thesis.

According to Burke, blockchain is key when it comes to decentralization. At some point, the web and the internet became too centralized. Most people now spend their time on social networks and other walled gardens.

This isn’t the first centralization wave. Web portals and AOL’s navigator have more or less disappeared. But the same thing seems to be happening with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms — they can’t moderate everything even though they algorithmically promote the wrong things.

And it all comes down to trust. Tech CEOs have attracted so much power that they can control your mood or your opinion by tweaking a couple of settings. By building deep tech projects on top of some sort of blockchain, those projects become decentralized. A small group of tech CEOs can’t decide for everyone.

And this applies to IoT, AI and robotics startups. These startups will need a strong set of moral rules. And the best way to build this language is by building a decentralized infrastructure layer.

If you think those are fascinating questions that we should talk about today (and not in ten years), then you should come to Disrupt Berlin to listen to Jamie Burke .

Buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion and many others. The conference will take place on November 29-30.

In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.


Jamie Burke

CEO and Founder, Outlier Ventures

Jamie is CEO of Outlier Ventures, Europe's first blockchain venture capital firm, set up in 2013. Since then he has pioneered the convergence thesis that views blockchain as foundational to Deep Tech like AI, AR / VR, IoT and 3D printing scaling securely and eventually converging. As a global thought leader, he assists startups and corporations on the space with an emphasis on AI, Industry 4.0, Smart Cities & Mobility.

 


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‘Jackrabbot 2’ takes to the sidewalks to learn how humans navigate politely

02:36 | 20 September

Autonomous vehicles and robots have to know how to get from A to B without hitting obstacles or pedestrians — but how can they do so politely and without disturbing nearby humans? That’s what Stanford’s Jackrabbot project aims to learn, and now a redesigned robot will be cruising campus learning the subtleties of humans negotiating one another’s personal space.

“There are many behaviors that we humans subconsciously follow – when I’m walking through crowds, I maintain personal distance or, if I’m talking with you, someone wouldn’t go between us and interrupt,” said grad student Ashwini Pokle in a Stanford News release. “We’re working on these deep learning algorithms so that the robot can adapt these behaviors and be more polite to people.”

Of course there are practical applications pertaining to last mile problems and robotic delivery as well. What do you do if someone stops in front of you? What if there’s a group running up behind? Experience is the best teacher, as usual.

The first robot was put to work in 2016, and has been hard at work building a model of how humans (well, mostly undergrads) walk around safely, avoiding one another while taking efficient paths, and signal what they’re doing the whole time. But technology has advanced so quickly that a new iteration was called for.

The JackRabbot project team with JackRabbot 2 (from left to right): Patrick Goebel, Noriaki Hirose, Tin Tin Wisniewski, Amir Sadeghian, Alan Federman, Silivo Savarese, Roberto Martín-Martín, Pin Pin Tea-mangkornpan and Ashwini Pokle

The new robot has a vastly improved sensor suite compared to its predecessor: two Velodyne lidar units giving 360 degree coverage, plus a set of stereo cameras making up its neck that give it another depth-sensing 360 degree view. The cameras and sensors on its head can also be pointed wherever needed, of course, just like ours. All this imagery is collated by a pair of new GPUs in its base/body.

Amir Sadeghian, one of the researchers, said this makes Jackrabbot 2 “one of the most powerful robots of its size that has ever been built.”

This will allow the robot to sense human motion with a much greater degree of precision than before, and also operate more safely. It will also give the researchers a chance to see how the movement models created by the previous robot integrate with this new imagery.

The other major addition is a totally normal-looking arm that Jackrabbot 2 can use to gesture to others. After all, we do it, right? When it’s unclear who should enter a door first or what side of a path they should take, a wave of the hand is all it takes to clear things up. Usually. Hopefully this kinked little gripper accomplishes the same thing.

Jackrabbot 2 can zoom around for several hours at a time, Sadeghian said. “At this stage of the project for safety we have a human with a safety switch accompanying the robot, but the robot is able to navigate in a fully autonomous way.”

Having working knowledge of how people use the space around them and how to predict their movements will be useful to startups like Kiwi, Starship, and Marble. The first time a delivery robot smacks into someone’s legs is the last time they consider ordering something via one.

 


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Einstein Voice gives Salesforce users gift of gab

18:47 | 19 September

Salespeople usually spend their days talking. They are on the phone and in meetings, but when it comes to updating Salesforce, they are back at the keyboard again typing notes and milestones, or searching for metrics about their performance. Today, Salesforce decided to change that by introducing Einstein Voice, a bit of AI magic that allows salespeople to talk to the program instead of typing.

In a world where Amazon Alexa and Siri make talking to our devices more commonplace in our non-work lives, it makes sense that companies are trying to bring that same kind of interaction to work.

In this case, you can conversationally enter information about a meeting, get daily briefings about key information on your day’s meetings (particularly nice for salespeople who spend their day in the car) and interact with Salesforce data dashboards by asking questions instead of typing queries.

All of these tools are designed to make life easier for busy salespeople. Most hate doing the administrative part of their jobs because if they are entering information, even if it will benefit them having a record in the long run, they are not doing their primary job, which is selling stuff.

For the meetings notes part, instead of typing on a smartphone, which can be a challenge anyway, you simply touch Meeting Debrief in the Einstein Voice mobile tool and start talking to enter your notes. The tool interprets what you’re saying. As with most transcription services, this is probably not perfect and will require some correcting, but should get you most of the way there.

It can also pick out key data like dates and deal amounts and let you set action items to follow up on.

Gif: Salesforce

Brent Leary, who is the founder and principal analyst at CRM Essentials says this is a natural progression for Salesforce as people get more comfortable using voice interfaces. “I think this will make voice-first devices and assistants as important pieces to the CRM puzzle from both a customer experience and an employee productivity perspective,” he told TechCrunch.

It’s worth pointing out that Tact.AI has been doing this for some time on top of Salesforce giving this type of voice interaction for Salesforce users. It’s likely ahead of Salesforce at this point, but Leary believes having Salesforce enter the voice arena will probably benefit the startup more than hurt it.

“The Salesforce tide will lift all boats, and companies like Tact will see their profile increased significantly because while Salesforce is the leader in the category, it’s share of the market is still less than 20% of the market,” he pointed out.

Einstein is Salesforce’s catch-all brand for its artificial intelligence layer. In this case it’s using natural language processing, voice recognition technology and other artificial intelligence pieces to interpret the person’s voice and transcribe what they are saying or understand their request better.

Typically, Salesforce starts with a small set of functionality and the builds on that over time. That’s very likely what they are doing here, coming out with a product announcement in time for Dreamforce, their massive customer conference next week,

 


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Fresh out of Y Combinator, Leena AI scores $2M seed round

17:40 | 19 September

Leena AI, a recent Y Combinator graduate focusing on HR chatbots to help employees answer questions like how much vacation time they have left, announced a $2 million seed round today from a variety of investors.

Company co-founder and CEO Adit Jain says the seed money is about scaling the company and gaining customers. They hope to have 50 enterprise customers within the next 12-18 months. They currently have 16.

We wrote about the company in June when it was part of the Y Combinator Summer 2018 class. At the time Jain explained that they began in 2015 in India as a company called Chatteron. The original idea was to help others build chatbots, but like many startups, they realized there was a need not being addressed, in this case around HR, and they started Leena AI last year to focus specifically on that.

As they delved deeper into the HR problem, they found most employees had trouble getting answers to basic questions like how much vacation time they had or how to get a new baby on their health insurance. This forced a call to a help desk when the information was available online, but not always easy to find.

Jain pointed out that most HR policies are defined in policy documents, but employees don’t always know where they are. They felt a chatbot would be a good way to solve this problem and save a lot of time searching or calling for answers that should be easily found. What’s more, they learned that the vast majority of questions are fairly common and therefore easier for a system to learn.

Employees can access the Leena chatbot in Slack, Workplace by Facebook, Outlook, Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Spark. They also offer Web and mobile access to their service independent of these other tools.

Photo: Leena AI

What’s more, since most companies use a common set of backend HR systems like those from Oracle, SAP and NetSuite (also owned by Oracle), they have been able to build a set of standard integrators that are available out of the box with their solution.

The customer provides Leena with a handbook or a set of policy documents and they put their machine learning to work on that. Jain says, armed with this information, they can convert these documents into a structured set of questions and answers and feed that to the chatbot. They apply Natural Language Processing (NLP) to understand the question being asked and provide the correct answer.

They see room to move beyond HR and expand into other departments such as sales or customer service that could also take advantage of bots to answer a set of common questions. For now, as a recent YC graduate, they have their first bit of significant funding and they will concentrate on building HR chatbots and see where that takes them.

 


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