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Main article: Artificial intelligence

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4 days left to save $150 on tickets to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020

18:30 | 27 January

The countdown to savings continues, and you have just four days left to score the best price on tickets to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020. Join 1,500 of the brightest minds and innovators in robotics and machine learning — technologists, founders, investors, engineers and researchers. Buy an early-bird ticket now before prices go up on January 31, and you’ll keep $150 in your pocket. Why spend more when you don’t have to?

Get ready for a full day focused on the future of two technologies with the potential to change everything about the way we live. We have an outstanding line up of speakers, interviews and panel discussions covering a range of topics. And of course, plenty of demos, too.

We won’t just parrot the hype, either. Our editors will ask the hard questions, and the conference agenda includes discussions about the ethics and ramifications inherent with these potent technologies.

Here’s a just sample of what’s on tap.

  • Saving Humanity from AI: Stuart Russell, a UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.
  • Bringing Robots to Life: This summer’s Tokyo Olympics will be a huge proving ground for TRI-AD (Toyota Research Institute – Advanced Development). TRI-AD’s CEO James Kuffner and its VP of Robotics, Max Bajracharya will join us to discuss the department’s plans for assistive robots and self-driving cars.

There’s plenty more waiting for you, including the finalists of our first Pitch Night. This group of intrepid robotics and AI startup founders made the cut (10 teams will pitch the night before the conference at a private event). The finalists will pitch again at the conference from the Main Stage. Think your startup has what it takes to throw down in a pitch-off? We’re accepting applications until February 1. Talk about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for focused exposure — apply right here today!

TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 draws the top people in the industry, which makes it prime networking territory. Whether you’re looking for funding, hunting for the perfect startup to add to your portfolio or searching for the next generation of engineers, this is where you need to be. Come work it to your advantage.

TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 takes place in Berkeley on March 3, and we’ve packed a lot of value and opportunity into one day. Make the most of it and remember, you’ll save $150 if you buy an early bird ticket before prices go up on January 31.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Robotics & AI 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

 

 


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A.I.-powered voice transcription app Otter raises $10M, including from new strategic investor NTT DOCOMO

18:18 | 27 January

Otter.ai, an A.I.-powered transcription app and note-takers’ best friend, has received a strategic investment from Japan’s leading mobile operator and new Otter partner, NTT DOCOMO Inc. The two companies are teaming up to support Otter’s expansion into the Japanese market where DOCOMO will be integrating Otter with its own A.I.-based translation service subsidiary, Mirai Translation, in order to provide accurate English transcripts which are then translated into Japanese.

The investment was made by DOCOMO’s wholly-owned subsidiary, NTT DOCOMO Ventures, Inc., but the size was undisclosed. However, the new round was $10 million in total, we’re told. To date, Otter has raised $23 million in funding from NTT DOCOMO Ventures, Fusion Fund, GGV, Draper Dragon, Duke University Innovation Fund, Harris Barton Asset Management, Slow Ventures, and others.

Otter launched its service in 2018, offering a way for users to search voice conversations as easily as they can today search their email or their text. Otter CEO and founder Sam Liang, along with a team hailing from Google, Facebook, Nuance, Yahoo as well as Stanford, Duke, M.I.T., and Cambridge, developed a technology specifically designed to capture conversations — like meetings, interviews, presentations, lectures, and more. This is a different sort of technology that what’s used in today’s voice assistants, like Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa, as it’s focused on transcribing longer, human-to-human conversations, which are spoken naturally.

The product itself creates automated transcriptions in real-time, as speakers are talking. The resulting transcript is searchable, and identifies the different speakers and key phrases. You can also upload photos alongside the recording.

Since launch, Otter has expanded its product to millions of users and now offers both an Otter for Teams and enterprise tier. 

With the new NTT DOCOMO partnership, the goal is to bring the Otter enterprise collaboration services to the Japanese market, explains Liang, the former Google architect who later sold his location startup Alohar Mobile to Alibaba.

“DOCOMO and other large companies have a large international workforce who communicate in English for their international conference calls,” says Liang. “They will use Otter to take automatic meeting notes, and improve meeting and communication effectiveness…The goal is to further enhance communication and collaboration on top of Otter‘s automatic English meeting note services,” he adds.

Otter.ai has similar partnerships with U.S. businesses, including Zoom Video Communications and Dropbox.

As a result of the new partnership, Otter’s Voice Meeting Notes application is being used on a trial basis in Berlitz Corporation’s English language classes in Japan. Students are using Otter to transcribe and review their lessons, click on sections of text, and initiate voice playback. DOCOMO, Otter.ai and Berlitz are also expanding their collaboration in language education to verify Otter’s effectiveness in the study of English, the company says.

The Japanese market values high-quality detailed meeting notes, and Otter’s highly accurate A.I.-powered note-taker overcomes language barriers and improves the operating efficiency of Japanese companies with global operations,” said Tomoyoshi Oono, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Innovation Management Department in the R&D Innovation Division at DOCOMO, in a statement about the deal. “There is a large business market opportunity for Otter.ai and DOCOMO’s translation service.”

DOCOMO is also featuring Otter during demonstrations at DOCOMO Open House 2020 taking place in the Tokyo Big Sight exhibition complex January 23 and 24, 2020. Here, Otter will transcribe the English-language presentations in real-time which will then be translated into Japanese using DOCOMO’s machine translation technology. Both the English transcription and Japanese translation will be projected on a large screen for attendees to read.

While Otter’s transcriptions aren’t perfect in real-world scenarios, like where there’s background noise or muffled speaking, it does better when it can be connected directly to the audio source, like at big events. (TechCrunch, for example, used Otter’s service to transcribe audio at TechCrunch Disrupt in the past).

Otter’s new funding will also used to hire more engineers and further enhance its A.I. technologies in speech recognition, diarization, speaker identification, and automatic summarization, Liang tells TechCrunch. And the team will work to accelerate Otter’s adoption by enterprise customers in professional services, media, and education.

 


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Berlin venture studio Merantix raises $27M fund to concentrate on AI startups

17:51 | 27 January

Berlin-based Merantix, a venture studio which specifically concentrates on building ‘AI companies’, says it has raised a new €25M fund ($27M). Anchor investors include Trusted Insight, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, as well as further family offices from Europe.

Co-founder Adrian Locher said in a statement that the successful fundraising “underpins Europe’s competitive ability with regards to new transformative technologies and validates the innovative potential of Berlin. We are very excited to spearhead AI’s incredible value potential and are eager to build more disruptive companies with our amazing team.”

Locher is a Swiss serial entrepreneur and investor and has founded more than 10 companies both in Europe and the US. His co-founder, Rasmus Rothe, is a ‘deep learning’ researcher who has published over 15 academic papers with more than 1,000 citations while attending Oxford, Princeton, and ETH Zurich.

Merantix says that contrary to traditional investment funds, its studio model enables a steep in-house learning curve with close guidance for entrepreneurs and a shared operational infrastructure. Unusually, companies incubated within Meratix have full access to the code, data and insights of other Merantix companies. Overall, its team consists of more than 60 engineers and entrepreneurs.

Companies Merantix has incubated include Vara, an AI software for cancer screening which has obtained regulatory approval for a European-wide roll-out in 2019, and SiaSearch, a search engine for petabyte-scale ADAS and automated driving data which automatically indexes and structures raw sensor data and is working with Volkswagen, among others.

 


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German football league Bundesliga teams with AWS to improve fan experience

21:21 | 24 January

Germany’s top soccer (football) league, Bundesliga, announced today it is partnering with AWS to use artificial intelligence to enhance the fan experience during games.

Andreas Heyden, executive vice president for digital sports at the Deutsche Fußball Liga, the entity that runs The Bundesliga, says that this could take many forms, depending on whether the fan is watching a broadcast of the game or interacting online.

“We try to use technology in a way to excite a fan more, to engage a fan more, to really take the fan experience to the next level, to show relevant stats at the relevant time through broadcasting, in apps and on the web to personalize the customer experience,” Heyden said.

This could involve delivering personalized content. “In times like this when attention spans are shrinking, when a user when a user opens up the app the first message should be the most relevant message in that context in that time for the specific user,” he said.

It can also help provide advanced statistics to fans in real time, even going so far as to predict the probability of a goal being scored at any particular moment in a game that would have an impact on your team. Heyden thinks of it as telling a story with numbers, rather than reporting what happened after the fact.

“We want to, with the help of technology, tell stories that could not have been told without the technology. There’s no chance that a reporter could come up with a number of what the probability of a shot [scoring in a given moment]. AWS can,” he said.

Werner Vogels, CTO at Amazon, says this about using machine learning and other technologies on the AWS platform to add to the experience of watching the game, which should help attract younger fans, regardless of the sport. “All of these kind of augmented customer fan experiences are crucial in engaging a whole new generation of fans,” Vogels told TechCrunch.

He adds that this kind of experience simply wasn’t possible until recently because the technology didn’t exist. “These things were impossible five or 10 years ago, mostly because now with all the machine learning software, as well as how the [pace of technology] has accelerated at such a [rate] at AWS, we’re now able to do these things in real time for sports fans.”

Bundesliga is not just any football league. It is the second biggest in the world in terms of revenue and boasts the highest stadium attendance of all football teams worldwide. Today’s announcement is an extension of an ongoing relationship between DFL and AWS, which started in 2015 when Heyden helped move the league’s operations to the cloud on AWS.

Heyden says that it’s not a coincidence he ended up using AWS instead of another cloud company. He has known Vogels (who also happens to be a huge soccer fan) for many years, and has been using AWS for more than a decade, even well before he joined the DFL. Today’s announcement is an extension of that long-term relationship.

 


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Early bird savings end next Friday on tickets to Robotics+AI 2020

19:30 | 24 January

TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics+AI 2020 is gearing up to be one amazing show. This annual day-long event draws the brightest minds and makers from these two industries — 1,500 attendees last year alone. And if you really want to make 2020 a game-changing year, grab yourself an early-bird ticket and save $150 on tickets before prices go up after January 31.

Not convinced yet? Check out some agenda highlights featuring some of today’s leading robotics and AI leaders.

Saving Humanity from AI with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)
The UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.

Automating Amazon with Tye Brady (Amazon Robotics)
Amazon Robotics’ chief technology officer will discuss how the company is using the latest in robotics and AI to optimize its massive logistics. He’ll also discuss the future of warehouse automation and how humans and robots share a work space. 

Engineering for the Red Planet with Lucy Condakchian (Maxar Technologies)
Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades, and is about to send its sixth (!) robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian is general manager of robotics at Maxar and will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.

Toward a Driverless Future with Anca Dragan (Waymo/UC Berkeley) and Jur van den Berg (Ike)
Autonomous driving is set to be one of the biggest categories for robotics and AI. But there are plenty of roadblocks standing in its way. Experts will discuss how we get there from here. 

See the full agenda here

If you’re a startup, nab one of the 5 demo tables left and showcase your company to new customers, press, and potential investors. Demo tables run $2200 and come with 4 attendee tickets so you can divide and conquer the networking scene at the conference.

Students, get your super-reduced $50 ticket here and learn from some of the biggest names in the biz and meet your future employer or internship opportunity.

Don’t forget, the early bird ticket sale ends on Jan 31. After that, prices go up by $150. Purchase your tickets here and save an additional 18% when you book a group of 4 or more.

 


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London’s Met Police switches on live facial recognition, flying in face of human rights concerns

16:07 | 24 January

While EU lawmakers are mulling a temporary ban on the use of facial recognition to safeguard individuals’ rights, as part of risk-focused plan to regulate AI, London’s Met Police has today forged ahead with deploying the privacy hostile technology — flipping the switch on operational use of live facial recognition in the UK capital.

The deployment comes after a multi-year period of trials by the Met and police in South Wales.

The Met says its use of the controversial technology will be targeted to “specific locations… where intelligence suggests we are most likely to locate serious offenders”.

“Each deployment will have a bespoke ‘watch list’, made up of images of wanted individuals, predominantly those wanted for serious and violent offences,” it adds.

It also claims cameras will be “clearly signposted”, adding that officers will be “deployed to the operation will hand out leaflets about the activity”.

“At a deployment, cameras will be focused on a small, targeted area to scan passers-by,” it writes. “The technology, which is a standalone system, is not linked to any other imaging system, such as CCTV, body worn video or ANPR.”

The biometric system is being provided to the Met by Japanese IT and electronics giant, NEC.

In a press statement, assistant commissioner Nick Ephgrave claimed the force is taking a balanced approach to using the controversial tech.

“We all want to live and work in a city which is safe: the public rightly expect us to use widely available technology to stop criminals. Equally I have to be sure that we have the right safeguards and transparency in place to ensure that we protect people’s privacy and human rights. I believe our careful and considered deployment of live facial recognition strikes that balance,” he said.

London has seen a rise in violent crime in recent years, with murder rates hitting a ten-year peak last year.

The surge in violent crime has been linked to cuts to policing services — although the new Conservative government has pledged to reverse cuts enacted by earlier Tory administrations.

The Met says its hope for the AI-powered tech is will help it tackle serious crime, including serious violence, gun and knife crime, child sexual exploitation and “help protect the vulnerable”.

However its phrasing is not a little ironic, given that facial recognition systems can be prone to racial bias, for example, owing to factors such as bias in data-sets used to train AI algorithms.

So in fact there’s a risk that police-use of facial recognition could further harm vulnerable groups who already face a disproportionate risk of inequality and discrimination.

Yet the Met’s PR doesn’t mention the risk of the AI tech automating bias.

Instead it makes pains to couch the technology as “additional tool” to assist its officers.

“This is not a case of technology taking over from traditional policing; this is a system which simply gives police officers a ‘prompt’, suggesting “that person over there may be the person you’re looking for”, it is always the decision of an officer whether or not to engage with someone,” it adds.

While the use of a new tech tool may start with small deployments, as is being touting here, the history of software development underlines how potential to scale is readily baked in.

A ‘targeted’ small-scale launch also prepares the ground for London’s police force to push for wider public acceptance of a highly controversial and rights-hostile technology via a gradual building out process. Aka surveillance creep.

On the flip side, the text of the draft of an EU proposal for regulating AI which leaked last week — floating the idea of a temporary ban on facial recognition in public places — noted that a ban would “safeguard the rights of individuals”. Although it’s not yet clear whether the Commission will favor such a blanket measure, even temporarily.

UK rights groups have reacted with alarm to the Met’s decision to ignore concerns about facial recognition.

Liberty accused the force of ignoring the conclusion of a report it commissioned during an earlier trial of the tech — which it says concluded the Met had failed to consider human rights impacts.

It also suggested such use would not meet key legal requirements.

“Human rights law requires that any interference with individuals’ rights be in accordance with the law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be ‘necessary in a democratic society’,” the report notes, suggesting the Met earlier trials of facial recognition tech “would be held unlawful if challenged before the courts”.

A petition set up by Liberty to demand a stop to facial recognition in public places has passed 21,000 signatures.

Discussing the legal framework around facial recognition and law enforcement last week, Dr Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights and regulation at UCL, told us that in his view the EU’s data protection framework, GDPR, forbids facial recognition by private companies “in a surveillance context without member states actively legislating an exemption into the law using their powers to derogate”.

A UK man who challenged a Welsh police force’s trial of facial recognition has a pending appeal after losing the first round of a human rights challenge. Although in that case the challenge pertains to police use of the tech — rather than, as in the Met’s case, a private company (NEC) providing the service to the police.

 


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Uber’s self-driving unit starts mapping Washington D.C. ahead of testing

23:53 | 23 January

Uber Advanced Technologies Group will start mapping Washington D.C., ahead of plans to begin testing its self-driving vehicles in the city this year.

Initially, there will be three Uber vehicles mapping the area, a company spokesperson said. These vehicles, which will be manually driven and have two trained employees inside, will collect sensor data using a top-mounted sensor wing equipped with cameras and a spinning lidar. The data will be used to build high-definition maps. The data will also be used for Uber’s virtual simulation and test track testing scenarios.

Uber intends to launch autonomous vehicles in Washington D.C. before the end of 2020.

At least one other company is already testing self-driving cars in Washington D.C. Ford announced in October 2018 plans to test its autonomous vehicles in Washington, D.C. Argo AI is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles.

Argo, which is backed by Ford and Volkswagen, started mapping the city in 2018. Testing was expected to begin in the first quarter of 2019.

Uber ATG has kept a low profile ever since one of its human-supervised test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona in March 2018. The company halted its entire autonomous vehicle operation immediately following the incident.

Nine months later, Uber ATG resumed on-road testing of its self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, following a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation decision to authorize the company to put its autonomous vehicles on public roads. The company hasn’t resumed testing in other markets such as San Francisco.

Uber is collecting data and mapping in three other cities in Dallas, San Francisco and Toronto. In those cities, just like in Washington D.C., Uber manually drives its test vehicles.

Uber spun out the self-driving car business in April 2019 after closing $1 billion in funding from Toyota, auto-parts maker Denso and SoftBank’s Vision Fund. The deal valued Uber ATG at $7.25 billion, at the time of the announcement. Under the deal, Toyota and Denso are providing $667 million, with the Vision Fund throwing in the remaining $333 million.

 


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Cortex Labs helps data scientists deploy machine learning models in the cloud

21:32 | 23 January

It’s one thing to develop a working machine learning model, it’s another to put it to work in an application. Cortex Labs is an early stage startup with some open source tooling designed to help data scientists take that last step.

The company’s founders were students at Berkeley when they observed that one of the problems around creating machine learning models was finding a way to deploy them. While there was a lot of open source tooling available, data scientists are not experts in infrastructure.

CEO Omer Spillinger says that infrastructure was something the four members of the founding team — himself, CTO David Eliahu, head of engineering Vishal Bollu and head of growth Caleb Kaiser — understood well.

What the four founders did was take a set of open source tools and combine them with AWS services to provide a way to deploy models more easily. “We take open source tools like TensorFlow, Kubernetes and Docker and we combine them with AWS services like CloudWatch, EKS (Amazon’s flavor of Kubernetes) and S3 to basically give one API for developers to deploy their models,” Spillinger explained.

He says that a data scientist starts by uploading an exported model file to S3 cloud storage. “Then we pull it, containerize it and deploy it on Kubernetes behind the scenes. We automatically scale the workload and automatically switch you to GPUs if it’s compute intensive. We stream logs and expose [the model] to the web. We help you manage security around that, stuff like that,” he said

While he acknowledges this not unlike Amazon SageMaker, the company’s long-term goal is to support all of the major cloud platforms. SageMaker of course only works on the Amazon cloud, while Cortex will eventually work on any cloud. In fact, Spillinger says that the biggest feature request they’ve gotten to this point, is to support Google Cloud. He says that and support for Microsoft Azure are on the road map.

The Cortex founders have been keeping their head above water while they wait for a commercial product with the help of an $888,888 seed round from Engineering Capital in 2018. If you’re wondering about that oddly specific number, it’s partly an inside joke — Spillinger’s birthday is August 8th — and partly a number arrived at to make the valuation work, he said.

For now, the company is offering the open source tools, and building a community of developers and data scientists. Eventually, it wants to monetize by building a cloud service for companies who don’t want to manage clusters — but that is down the road, Spillinger said.

 


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Unearth the future of agriculture at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI with the CEOs of Traptic, Farmwise and Pyka

19:30 | 22 January

Farming is one of the oldest professions, but today those amber waves of grain (and soy) are a test bed for sophisticated robotic solutions to problems farmers have had for millennia. Learn about the cutting edge (sometimes literally) of agricultural robots at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3 with the founders of Traptic, Pyka, and Farmwise.

Traptic, and its co-founder and CEO Lewis Anderson, you may remember from Disrupt SF 2019, where it was a finalist in the Startup Battlefield. The company has developed a robotic berry picker that identifies ripe strawberries and plucks them off the plants with a gentle grip. It could be the beginning of a new automated era for the fruit industry, which is decades behind grains and other crops when it comes to machine-based harvesting.

Farmwise has a job that’s equally delicate yet involves rough treatment of the plants — weeding. Its towering machine trundles along rows of crops, using computer vision to locate and remove invasive plants, working 24/7, 365 days a year. CEO Sebastian Boyer will speak to the difficulty of this task and how he plans to evolve the machines to become “doctors” for crops, monitoring health and spontaneously removing pests like aphids.

Pyka’s robot is considerably less earthbound than those: an autonomous, all-electric crop-spraying aircraft — with wings! This is a much different challenge from the more stable farming and spraying drones like those of DroneSeed and SkyX, but the choice gives the craft more power and range, hugely important for today’s vast fields. Co-founder Michael Norcia can speak to that scale and his company’s methods of meeting it.

These three companies and founders are at the very frontier of what’s possible at the intersection of agriculture and technology, so expect a fruitful conversation.

$150 Early Bird savings end on Feb. 14! Book your $275 Early Bird Ticket today and put that extra money in your pocket.

Students, grab your super discounted $50 tickets right here. You might just meet your future employer/internship opportunity at this event.

Startups, we only have 5 demo tables left for the event. Book your $2200 demo table here and get in front of some of today’s leading names in the biz. Each table comes with 4 tickets to attend the show.

 


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ServiceNow acquires Loom Systems to expand AIOps coverage

16:30 | 22 January

ServiceNow announced today that it has acquired Loom Systems, an Israeli startup that specializes in AIOps. The companies did not reveal the purchase price.

IT operations collects tons of data across a number of monitoring and logging tools, way too much for any team of humans to keep up with. That’s why there are startups like Loom turning to AI to help sort through it. It can find issues and patterns in the data that would be challenging or impossible for humans to find. Applying AI to operations data in this manner has become known as AIOps in industry parlance.

ServiceNow is first and foremost a company trying to digitize the service process, however that manifests itself. IT service operations is a big part of that. Companies can monitor their systems, wait until a problem happens and then try and track down the cause and fix it, or they can use the power of artificial intelligence to find potential dangers to the system health and neutralize them before they become major problems. That’s what an AIOps product like Loom’s can bring to the table.

Jeff Hausman, vice president and general manager of IT Operations Management at ServiceNow sees Loom’s strengths merging with ServiceNow’s existing tooling to help keep IT systems running. “We will leverage Loom Systems’ log analytics capabilities to help customers analyze data, automate remediation and reduce L1 incidents,” he told TechCrunch.

Loom co-founder and CEO Gabby Menachem not surprisingly sees a similar value proposition. “By joining forces, we have the unique opportunity to bring together our AI innovations and ServiceNow’s AIOps capabilities to help customers prevent and fix IT issues before they become problems,” he said in a statement.

Loom raised $16 million since it launched in 2015, according to PitchBook data. Its most recent round for $10 million was in November 2019. Today’s deal is expected to close by the end of this quarter.

 


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