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Main article: European union

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Carbon dioxide emissions are set to hit a record high this year (it’s not fine, but not hopeless)

06:21 | 4 December

Carbon dioxide emissions, one of the main contributors to the climate changes bringing extreme weather, rising oceans, and more frequent fires that have killed hundreds of Americans and cost the U.S. billions of dollars, are set to reach another record high in 2019.

That’s the word from the Global Carbon Project, an initiative of researchers around the world led by Stanford University scientist Rob Jackson.

The new projections from the Global Carbon Project are set out in a trio of papers published in “Earth System Science Data“, “Environmental Research Letters“, and “Nature Climate Change“.

That’s the bad news. The good news (if you want to take a glass half-full view) is that the rate of growth has slowed dramatically from the previous two years. However, researchers are warning that emissions could keep increasing for another decade unless nations around the globe take dramatic action to change their approach to energy, transportation and industry, according to a statement from Jackson.

“When the good news is that emissions growth is slower than last year, we need help,” said Jackson, a professor of Earth system science in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth), in a statement. “When will emissions start to drop?”

Globally, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel sources (which are over 90 percent of all emissions) are expected to grow 0.6 percent over the 2018 emissions. In 2018 that figure was 2.1 percent above the 2017 figure, which was, itself, a 1.5 percent increase over 2016 emissions figures.

Even as the use of coal is in drastic decline around the world, natural gas and oil use is climbing, according to researchers, and stubbornly high per capita emissions in affluent countries mean that reductions won’t be enough to offset the emissions from developing countries as they turn to natural gas and gasoline for their energy and transportation needs.

“Emissions cuts in wealthier nations must outpace increases in poorer countries where access to energy is still needed,” said Pierre Friedlingstein, a mathematics professor at the University of Exeter and lead author of the Global Carbon Budget paper in Earth System Science Data, in a statement.

Some countries are making progress. Both the UK and Denmark have managed to achieve economic growth while simultaneously reducing their carbon emissions. In the third quarter of the year, renewable power supplied more energy to homes and businesses in the United Kingdom than fossil fuels for the first time in the nation’s history, according to a report cited by “The Economist”.

Costs of wind and solar power are declining so dramatically that they are cost competitive with natural gas in many parts of the wealthy world and cheaper than coal, according to a study earlier in the year from the International Monetary Fund.

Still, the U.S., the European Union and China account for more than half of all carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. did decrease year-on-year — projected to decline by 1.7 percent — but it’s not enough to counteract the rising demand from countries like China, where carbon dioxide emissions are expected to rise by 2.6 percent.

And the U.S. has yet to find a way to wean itself off of its addiction to cheap gasoline and big cars. It hasn’t helped that the country is throwing out emissions requirements for passenger vehicles that would have helped to reduce its contribution to climate change even further. Even so, at current ownership rates, there’s a need to radically reinvent transportation given what U.S. car ownership rates mean for the world.

U.S. oil consumption per person is 16 times greater than in India and six times greater than in China, according to the reports. And the United States has roughly one car per-person while those numbers are roughly one for every 40 people in India and one for every 6 in China. If ownership rates in either country were to rise to similar levels as the U.S. that would put 1 billion cars on the road in either country.

About 40 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions were attributable to coal use, 34 percent from oil, 20 percent from natural gas, and the remaining 6 percent from cement production and other sources, according to a Stanford University statement on the Global Carbon Project report.

“Declining coal use in the U.S. and Europe is reducing emissions, creating jobs and saving lives through cleaner air,” said Jackson, who is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy, in a statement. “More consumers are demanding cheaper alternatives such as solar and wind power.”

There’s hope that a combination of policy, technology and changing social habits can still work to reverse course. The adoption of new low-emission vehicles, the development of new energy storage technologies, continued advancements in energy efficiency, and renewable power generation in a variety of new applications holds some promise. As does the social adoption of alternatives to emissions intensive animal farming and crop cultivation.

“We need every arrow in our climate quiver,” Jackson said, in a statement. “That means stricter fuel efficiency standards, stronger policy incentives for renewables, even dietary changes and carbon capture and storage technologies.”

 

 


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Atomico Partner Tom Wehmeier reviews ‘The State of European Tech’ 2019 report

01:33 | 3 December

Atomico, the European venture capital firm founded by Skype’s Niklas Zennström, has released its latest annual The State of European Tech report, published in partnership with Slush and Orrick.

As part of the report, the authors surveyed 5,000 members of the ecosystem — including 1,000 founders — as well as pulling in robust data from other sources, such as Dealroom and the London Stock Exchange .

This year, the report reveals that the European tech ecosystem continues to mature and shows no sign of slowing — particularly highlighting the contrast from five years ago when the The State of European Tech report made its debut. Almost every key indicator is up and to the right, except, rather depressingly, diversity.

The data shows, for example, that competition for talent and access to the best founders has increased ferociously. And from a funding perspective, European founders have more choice than ever, especially with U.S. and Asian VC firms investing more and more in the region. Progress with gender diversity stalled, however, such as 92% of funding going to all-male teams.

I caught up with the report’s author Tom Wehmeier, Partner and Head of Insights at Atomico (also sometimes jokingly referred to as the “Mary Meeker of Europe”), where we discuss in more detail some of the key findings and why, it seems, that the rest of the world has finally woken up to Europe’s tech potential.

But first, a few headlines from the report:

  • European technology companies are on track to raise a record 30$B+ in funding in 2019, up from $25B the year before. (Source: Dealroom)
  • Despite failing to match the level of venture-backed exits of 2018, there was a record number of 40 $100M-plus deals as of September 2019, a size that many European tech sceptics did not believe was possible. (Source: Dealroom)
  • A number of multi-billion-dollar non-venture backed companies like Nexi and Trainline made their debut on the public markets.
  • European tech policymaking remains a mystery to many European founders.
  • When asked to describe the top priority of the European Commission in terms of tech policy, 40% of founders and startup employees say they don’t feel informed enough to comment. (Source: survey)
  • Despite this reported lack of awareness on policy issues, all respondents voted EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager as the person who had the most influence on European tech in 2019, good or bad. (Source: survey)
  • European parliamentarians aren’t talking about fintech and digital health, two sectors which investors poured a combined $12.7bn into last year (Source: Politico and Dealroom)
  • Europe’s diversity figures are still grim reading.
  • In 2019, 92% of funding went to all-male teams, a similar level to 2018. (Source: Dealroom)
  • There is still only one woman CTO in the 119 companies (<1%) based on a sample of executives in CxO positions at 251 European VC-backed tech companies that raised a Series A or B round between 1 October 2018 and 30 September 2019 with more than $10M funding, even though 7.5% of software engineers are women. (Source: Stack Overflow, Craft, Dealroom)
  • Looking beyond gender diversity, ethnic minorities in tech experienced discrimination at a much high rate than white peers. (Source: survey)
  • At least 80% of Black/African/Caribbean respondents who reported experiencing discrimination linked it to their ethnicity. (Source: survey)
  • 63% of women VCs reported increased focus on attending events with stronger participation from diverse founders. The corresponding number for men VCs was only 33% of female respondents suggested that their male counterparts are leaving female VCs to fix Europe’s diversity problem. (Source: survey)
  • European founders aren’t just aiming for commercial success — they are trying to solve some of the world’s largest problems.
  • One in five European founders states that their company is already measuring its societal and/or environmental impact. (Source: survey)
  • Only 14% of founders don’t believe it’s relevant for their company. Founders that are women are much more likely to be advanced in their approach to measuring impact. (Source: survey)
  • Employees are placing a greater emphasis on corporate social responsibility, with 57% citing its importance in the State of European Tech survey. (Source: survey)

Extra Crunch: It is 5 years since Atomico published the first The State of European Tech report, which really attempted to capture a data-driven snapshot of the entire ecosystem. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen within European tech in the intertwining years or in this year in particular?

Tom Wehmeier: If I think back to when we did the first report, people who believe that Europe could actually be an interesting player in global technology, were largely limited to people who were in the tech industry in Europe itself. If you then fast forward to today, what has clearly happened — and I think 2019 was the year where this really materialized and became part of the narrative — was that belief translating from people on the inside to a bunch of people that were on the outside.

Most obviously has been the strength of interest from from the U.S. and the number of top-tier U.S. funds that are not just increasing their level of investment activity but committing to spending more and more time here on the ground, hiring people, building teams, building a network, and getting to know companies. I think it probably surprises people to know that 19% of all rounds this year will involve at least one U.S. investor in Europe, which is more than double since since the first year we did the report.

I think the other thing, where I come back to this idea that now we have finally convinced a certain group of people about the role that Europe can play, is mainstream institutional investors. I know it is not going to be lost on you, [but] this is going to be another record year for VC fund raising from Europe. And whilst the headline numbers might not be a surprise, I think what should catch people’s attention is that the composition of the LP base here in Europe is now shifting. And finally, there’s an unlocking of institutional investors, [by which] I mean pension funds, funds of funds, insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds, who are committing to European VC at levels that are significantly increased and elevated from where they had been in the past. So, if you just take pension funds, we’re going to see close to a billion dollars invested which is up nearly three fold.

It’s a validation of what’s happening around European tech to see that now coming through and I think is ultimately something that helps to build a foundation for the next five years of success. As much as this is a report that’s looking back, it’s also about trying to understand where things go from here.

With regards to the pension funds, do you think that is driven by the general bullishness towards European tech, or do you think it’s more the macro economic reality that maybe other places where they could put their money aren’t very attractive at the moment?

I think it’s really a reflection that there’s a strong level of belief that European venture as an asset class is an attractive investment opportunity. And that is reflected by the numbers. One of the charts that we’ve got in the report is from Cambridge Associates who do the benchmarking for the VC indices… And when you look back over a 1, 3, 5, or even a 10 year horizon, the performance from European VC is demonstrating that this is a place where for anyone building a diversified portfolio, they should have some allocation. I think it’s fundamentally the strength of the investment opportunity. That is the single biggest driver for why you’re seeing this happen.

I think the biggest thing that Europe has been able to prove is that it can take a great idea and turn it into a great company and that company can scale to not just a billion dollar outcome but to a multi-billion dollar outcome and go all the way through into an IPO or into a large scale acquisition. What you’ve seen happen in 2019 is in part A reflection of what happened last year where it was obviously this record year with Spotify, Adyen, Farfetch, Elastic and others that really showed you can go full cycle from start all the way to finish. And that the magnitude of those outcomes can be at a scale that makes them globally relevant.

Are the pension funds shifting their allocation of VC away from other geographies or are they just doing more VC as a whole?

 


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As the new year beckons European investors start moving into new roles

17:57 | 30 November

As the Holiday Season approaches, new jobs for players in the tech ecosystem beckon. And this is no less true for investors. Two notable moves have recently happened that are worthy of note in the European scene.

The first is that GR Capital, a pan-European VC, is opening an office in London and has lured Jason Ball, who, earlier this year, left Qualcomm Ventures where had been European Managing Director for over a decade. Bad spent ten years as a mentor at Seedcamp and individually invested in more than ten companies. He was understood to be looking for new challenges, either building a new fund or joining another – so now we have our answer as to what he decided.

Founded in 2016 by Roma Ivaniuk in Ukraine, GR Capital specializes in late-stage VC investments. It has over $70M under management and has invested in Lime, Azimo, WeFox, McMakler, Glovo and Meero among others. The fund has traditionally been known for investing in Eastern Europe, but with a London office and the extremely well-networked Ball under its belt, we should be hearing more from them on the wider European scene in future.

Ivaniuk said in a statement that the move “means we can now drive our pan-European business activities from the continent’s most important VC hub, London.”

Ball said “We see a huge opportunity here to connect the dots between West and East. The London ecosystem is an exciting offering for investors in Eastern Europe, which in turn presents unique R&D and growth opportunities for portfolio companies.”

Meanwhile, Jon Bradford was most recently a partner of Motive Partners and a UK investment pioneer — having founded the Springboard Accelerator that merged with Techstars to become Techstars London, as well as helping to co-found F6S and Tech.eu. But he is also on the move, now joining Dynamo Ventures as its newest partner.

Bradford will be joining Dynamo on a full-time basis having previously been an advisor who helped launch the debut fund. He has invested in over 100 startups over the last decade including Apiary, Hassle, Tray.io, Flitto (that recently IPO’ed in Korea), Sendbird and Chainalysis. Dynamo is a US-EU based seed fund focused on B2B startups in supply chain and mobility. It has invested in 20 startups across the US and overseas, investing in including Sennder (Berlin), Skupos, Stord, Gatik and LEAF Logistics.

 


0

European parliament’s NationBuilder contract under investigation by data regulator

19:28 | 28 November

Europe’s lead data regulator has issued its first ever sanction of an EU institution — taking enforcement action against the European parliament over its use of US-based digital campaign company, NationBuilder, to process citizens’ voter data ahead of the spring elections.

NationBuilder is a veteran of the digital campaign space — indeed, we first covered the company back in 2011— which has become nearly ubiquitous for digital campaigns in some markets.

But in recent years European privacy regulators have raised questions over whether all its data processing activities comply with regional data protection rules, responding to growing concern around election integrity and data-fuelled online manipulation of voters.

The European parliament had used NationBuilder as a data processor for a public engagement campaign to promote voting in the spring election, which was run via a website called thistimeimvoting.eu.

The website collected personal data from more than 329,000 people interested in the EU election campaign — data that was processed on behalf of the parliament by NationBuilder.

The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), which started an investigation in February 2019, acting on its own initiative — and “taking into account previous controversy surrounding this company” as its press release puts it — found the parliament had contravened regulations governing how EU institutions can use personal data related to the selection and approval of sub-processors used by NationBuilder.

The sub-processors in question are not named. (We’ve asked for more details.)

The parliament received a second reprimand from the EDPS after it failed to publish a compliant Privacy Policy for the thistimeimvoting website within the deadline set by the EDPS. Although the regulator says it acted in line with its recommendations in the case of both sanctions.

The EDPS also has an ongoing investigation into whether the Parliament’s use of the voter mobilization website, and related processing operations of personal data, were in accordance with rules applicable to EU institutions (as set out in Regulation (EU) 2018/1725).

The enforcement actions had not been made public until a hearing earlier this week — when assistant data protection supervisor, Wojciech Wiewiórowski, mentioned the matter during a Q&A session in front of MEPs.

He referred to the investigation as “one of the most important cases we did this year”, without naming the data processor. “Parliament was not able to create the real auditing actions at the processor,” he told MEPs. “Neither control the way the contract has been done.”

“Fortunately nothing bad happened with the data but we had to make this contract terminated the data being erased,” he added.

When TechCrunch asked the EDPS for more details about this case on Tuesday a spokesperson told us the matter is “still ongoing” and “being finalized” and that it would communicate about it soon.

Today’s press release looks to be the upshot.

Provided canned commentary in the release Wiewiórowski writes:

The EU parliamentary elections came in the wake of a series of electoral controversies, both within the EU Member States and abroad, which centred on the the threat posed by online manipulation. Strong data protection rules are essential for democracy, especially in the digital age. They help to foster trust in our institutions and the democratic process, through promoting the responsible use of personal data and respect for individual rights. With this in mind, starting in February 2019, the EDPS acted proactively and decisively in the interest of all individuals in the EU to ensure that the European Parliament upholds the highest of standards when collecting and using personal data. It has been encouraging to see a good level of cooperation developing between the EDPS and the European Parliament over the course of this investigation.

One question that arises is why no firmer sanction has been issued to the European parliament — beyond a (now public) reprimand, some nine months after the investigation began.

Another question is why the matter was not more transparently communicated to EU citizens.

The EDPS’ PR emphasizes that its actions “are not limited to reprimands”, without explaining why the two enforcements thus far didn’t merit tougher action. (At the time of writing the EDPS had not responded to questions about why no fines have so far been issued.)

There may be more to come, though.

The regulator says it will “continue to check the parliament’s data protection processes” — revealing that the European Parliament has finished informing individuals of a revised intention to retain personal data collected by the thistimeimvoting website until 2024.

“The outcome of these checks could lead to additional findings,” it warns, adding that it intends to finalise the investigation by the end of this year.

Asked about the case, a spokeswoman for the European parliament told us that the thistimeimvoting campaign had been intended to motivate EU citizens to participate in the democratic process, and that it used a mix of digital tools and traditional campaigning techniques in order to try to reach as many potential voters as possible. 

She said NationBuilder had been used as a customer relations management platform to support staying in touch with potential voters — via an offer to interested citizens to sign up to receive information from the parliament about the elections (including events and general info).

Subscribers were also asked about their interests — which allowed the parliament to send personalized information to people who had signed up.

Some of the regulatory concerns around NationBuilder have centered on how it allows campaigns to match data held in their databases (from people who have signed up) with social media data that’s publicly available, such as an unlocked Twitter account or public Facebook profile.

In 2017 in France, after an intervention by the national data watchdog, NationBuilder suspended this data matching tool in the market.

The same feature has attracted attention from the UK’s Information Commissioner — which warned last year that political parties should be providing a privacy notice to individuals whose data is collected from public sources such as social media and matched. Yet aren’t.

“The ICO is concerned about political parties using this functionality without adequate information being provided to the people affected,” the ICO said in the report, while stopping short of ordering a ban on the use of the matching feature.

Its investigation confirmed that up to 200 political parties or campaign groups used NationBuilder during the 2017 UK general election.

 


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Twitter to add a way to ‘memorialize’ accounts for deceased users before removing inactive ones

23:11 | 27 November

Twitter has changed its tune regarding inactive accounts after receiving a lot of user feedback: It will now be developing a way to “memorialize” user accounts for those who have passed away, before proceeding with a plan it confirmed this week to deactivate accounts that are inactive in order to “present more accurate, credible information” on the service. To the company’s credit, it reacted swiftly after receiving a significant amount of negative feedback on this move, and it seems like the case of deceased users simply wasn’t considered in the decision to proceed with terminating dormant accounts.

After Twitter confirmed the inactive account (those that haven’t tweeted in more than six months) cleanup on Tuesday, a number of users noted that this would also have the effect of erasing the content of accounts whose owners have passed away. TechCrunch alum Drew Olanoff wrote about this impact from a personal perspective, asking Twitter to reconsider their move in light of the human impact and potential emotional cost.

In a thread today detailing their new thinking around inactive accounts, Twitter explained that its current inactive account policy has actually always been in place, but that they haven’t been diligent about enforcing it. They’re going to begin doin so in the European Union partly in accordance with local privacy laws, citing GDPR specifically. But the company also says it will now not be removing any inactive accounts before first implementing a way for inactive accounts belonging to deceased users to be “memorialized,” which presumably means preserving their content.

Twitter went on to day that it might expand or refine its inactive account policy to ensure it works with global privacy regulations, but will be sure to communicate these changes broadly before they go into effect.

It’s not yet clear what Twitter will do to offer this ‘memorialization’ of accounts, but there is some precedent they can look to for cues: Facebook has a ‘memorialized accounts’ feature that it introduced for similar reasons.

 


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Volkswagen’s new all-electric concept wagon could be coming to the U.S. by 2022

07:31 | 20 November

Volkswagen revealed Tuesday evening a new concept vehicle called the ID Space Vizzion, and despite the crazy Frank Zappaesque name, this one might actually make it into production in Europe and North America.

The ID Space Vizzion is the seventh concept that VW has introduced since 2016 that uses its MEB platform, a flexible modular system — really a matrix of common parts — for producing electric vehicles that VW says make it more efficient and cost-effective.

The first vehicles to use this MEB platform will be under the ID brand, although this platform can and will be used for electric vehicles under other VW Group brands such as Skoda and Seat. The ID.3, the first model in its new all-electric ID brand and the beginning of the automaker’s ambitious plan to sell 1 million EVs annually by 2025.

The ID Space Vizzion is equipped with a rear-mounted 275-horsepower motor and a 82 kilowatt-hour battery pack with a range of up to 300 miles under the EU’s WLTP cycle. A second motor can be added to give it all-wheel drive capability and a total output of 355 horsepower.

This concept will likely be described in a number of ways — and during the event at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles it was — but this is a wagon through and through.

 


0

Audi’s next all-electric vehicle, the e-tron Sportback, is a “coupé” SUV

05:34 | 20 November

Audi revealed Tuesday evening in Los Angeles the e-tron Sportback as the German automaker begins to chip away at its plan to launch more than 30 electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids by 2025.

The e-tron Sportback reveal ahead of the LA Auto Show follows the launch earlier this year of Audi’s first all-electric vehicle, the 2019 e-tron.

Audi has delivered 18,500 of its all-electric e-tron SUVs globally since March 2019 when the vehicle first came to market. And the company is hoping to grab more, and different, customers with the Sportback.

Audi plans to offer two variants of the vehicle, a Sportback 50 and Sportback 55. The Sportback will come to Europe first in spring 2020. The Sportback 55 will come to the U.S. in fall 2020.

Audi calls this e-tron Sportback a SUV coupé, the latest evidence that automakers are comfortable pushing the boundaries of traditional automotive terminology. This is not a two-door car with a fixed roof and a sloping rear, although there are “coupé” elements in the design.

This is in fact a SUV with a roof that extend flat over the body and then drops steeply to the rear — that’s where the coupé name comes in — and into the D pillar of the vehicle. Then there’s the classic “Sportback” feature in the body where the lower edge of the side window rises toward the rear.

There are design details repeated throughout the exterior, specifically the four-bar pattern in the headlamps, front grille and wheels. And of course there are special interior and exterior finishes – 13 paint colors in all — and a first edition version customers can buy. The base price of the Sportback is 71,350 ($79,000).

But importantly, besides some styling and design changes, this vehicle boasts longer range and for everyone outside the U.S., futuristic looking side mirrors and new lighting tech.

The 2020 Audi e-tron Sportback has a 86.4 kilowatt-hour battery pack that has a range of up to 446 kilometers (277.1 miles) in the EU’s WLTP cycle. The EPA estimates aren’t out yet, but expect the range numbers to be slightly lower.

The company is targeting an EPA range of about 220 miles over the 204 miles of range that the regular e-tron gets.

Audi was able to improve the range by increasing the net battery capacity. It also decoupled the front motor and improved the thermal management.

Lighting and mirrors

Audi is known for its lighting and the company has made this a key feature in the Sportback. The vehicle has a new digital matrix headlights that breaks down light into tiny pixels. The result is precise lighting that has high resolution.

Inside the headlight is a digital micromirror device that acts like a video projector. Inside the DMD is a small chip from Texas Instruments that contains one million micromirrors. These micromirrors can be tilted up to 5,000 times per second.

The upshot: The headlights can project specific patterns on the road or illuminate certain areas more brightly. And for fun, animations like the e-tron or Audi logos can be projected on a wall when the vehicle is stopped.

Check out this video to see it in action.

The safety piece of this is the most interesting. For instance, on a freeway the light might creates a carpet of light that illuminates the driver’s own lane brightly and adjusts dynamically when he or she changes lane.

Then there are the virtual exterior mirrors. This wing-shaped side mirror doesn’t have an exterior mirror. Instead, it supports integrate small cameras. The captured images appear on high-contrast OLED displays inside the car between the instrument panel and the door.

If the driver moves their finger toward the surface of the touch display, symbols are activated with which the driver can reposition the image. The mirrors can be adjust automatically to three driving situations for highway driving, turning and parking.

Neither the mirrors of the digital matrix LED lighting is available in the U.S. and won’t be until the government changes its Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, or FMVSS, which are the regulations that dictate the design, construction, performance, and durability requirements for motor vehicles.

 


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A 10-point plan to reboot the data industrial complex for the common good

12:14 | 19 November

A posthumous manifesto by Giovanni Buttarelli, who until his death this summer was Europe’s chief data protection regulator, seeks to join the dots of surveillance capitalism’s rapacious colonization of human spaces, via increasingly pervasive and intrusive mapping and modelling of our data, with the existential threat posed to life on earth by manmade climate change.

In a dense document rich with insights and ideas around the notion that “data means power” — and therefore that the unequally distributed data-capture capabilities currently enjoyed by a handful of tech platforms sums to power asymmetries and drastic social inequalities — Buttarelli argues there is potential for AI and machine learning to “help monitor degradation and pollution, reduce waste and develop new low-carbon materials”. But only with the right regulatory steerage in place.

“Big data, AI and the internet of things should focus on enabling sustainable development, not on an endless quest to decode and recode the human mind,” he warns. “These technologies should — in a way that can be verified — pursue goals that have a democratic mandate. European champions can be supported to help the EU achieve digital strategic autonomy.”

“The EU’s core values are solidarity, democracy and freedom,” he goes on. “Its conception of data protection has always been the promotion of responsible technological development for the common good. With the growing realisation of the environmental and climatic emergency facing humanity, it is time to focus data processing on pressing social needs. Europe must be at the forefront of this endeavour, just as it has been with regard to individual rights.”

One of his key calls is for regulators to enforce transparency of dominant tech companies — so that “production processes and data flows are traceable and visible for independent scrutiny”.

“Use enforcement powers to prohibit harmful practices, including profiling and behavioural targeting of children and young people and for political purposes,” he also suggests.

Another point in the manifesto urges a moratorium on “dangerous technologies”, citing facial recognition and killer drones as examples, and calling generally for a pivot away from technologies designed for “human manipulation” and toward “European digital champions for sustainable development and the promotion of human rights”.

In an afterword penned by Shoshana Zuboff, the US author and scholar writes in support of the manifesto’s central tenet, warning pithily that: “Global warming is to the planet what surveillance capitalism is to society.”

There’s plenty of overlap between Buttarelli’s ideas and Zuboff’s — who has literally written the book on surveillance capitalism. Data concentration by powerful technology platforms is also resulting in algorithmic control structures that give rise to “a digital underclass… comprising low-wage workers, the unemployed, children, the sick, migrants and refugees who are required to follow the instructions of the machines”, he warns.

“This new instrumentarian power deprives us not only of the right to consent, but also of the right to combat, building a world of no exit in which ignorance is our only alternative to resigned helplessness, rebellion or madness,” she agrees.

There are no less than six afterwords attached to the manifesto — a testament to the store in which Buttarelli’s ideas are held among privacy, digital and human rights campaigners.

The manifesto “goes far beyond data protection”, says writer Maria Farrell in another contribution. “It connects the dots to show how data maximisation exploits power asymmetries to drive global inequality. It spells out how relentless data-processing actually drives climate change. Giovanni’s manifesto calls for us to connect the dots in how we respond, to start from the understanding that sociopathic data-extraction and mindless computation are the acts of a machine that needs to be radically reprogrammed.”

At the core of the document is a 10-point plan for what’s described as “sustainable privacy”, which includes the call for a dovetailing of the EU’s digital priorities with a Green New Deal — to “support a programme for green digital transformation, with explicit common objectives of reducing inequality and safeguarding human rights for all, especially displaced persons in an era of climate emergency”.

Buttarelli also suggests creating a forum for civil liberties advocates, environmental scientists and machine learning experts who can advise on EU funding for R&D to put the focus on technology that “empowers individuals and safeguards the environment”.

Another call is to build a “European digital commons” to support “open-source tools and interoperability between platforms, a right to one’s own identity or identities, unlimited use of digital infrastructure in the EU, encrypted communications, and prohibition of behaviour tracking and censorship by dominant platforms”.

“Digital technology and privacy regulation must become part of a coherent solution for both combating and adapting to climate change,” he suggests in a section dedicated to a digital Green New Deal — even while warning that current applications of powerful AI technologies appear to be contributing to the problem.

“AI’s carbon footprint is growing,” he points out, underlining the environmental wastage of surveillance capitalism. “Industry is investing based on the (flawed) assumption that AI models must be based on mass computation.

“Carbon released into the atmosphere by the accelerating increase in data processing and fossil fuel burning makes climatic events more likely. This will lead to further displacement of peoples and intensification of calls for ‘technological solutions’ of surveillance and border controls, through biometrics and AI systems, thus generating yet more data. Instead, we need to ‘greenjacket’ digital technologies and integrate them into the circular economy.”

Another key call — and one Buttarelli had been making presciently in recent years — is for more joint working between EU regulators towards common sustainable goals.

“All regulators will need to converge in their policy goals — for instance, collusion in safeguarding the environment should be viewed more as an ethical necessity than as a technical breach of cartel rules. In a crisis, we need to double down on our values, not compromise on them,” he argues, going on to voice support for antitrust and privacy regulators to co-operate to effectively tackle data-based power asymmetries.

“Antitrust, democracies’ tool for restraining excessive market power, therefore is becoming again critical. Competition and data protection authorities are realising the need to share information about their investigations and even cooperate in anticipating harmful behaviour and addressing ‘imbalances of power rather than efficiency and consent’.”

On the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) specifically — Europe’s current framework for data protection — Buttarelli gives a measured assessment, saying “first impressions indicate big investments in legal compliance but little visible change to data practices”.

He says Europe’s data protection authorities will need to use all the tools at their disposal — and find the necessary courage — to take on the dominant tracking and targeting digital business models fuelling so much exploitation and inequality.

He also warns that GDPR alone “will not change the structure of concentrated markets or in itself provide market incentives that will disrupt or overhaul the standard business model”.

“True privacy by design will not happen spontaneously without incentives in the market,” he adds. “The EU still has the chance to entrench the right to confidentiality of communications in the ePrivacy Regulation under negotiation, but more action will be necessary to prevent further concentration of control of the infrastructure of manipulation.”

Looking ahead, the manifesto paints a bleak picture of where market forces could be headed without regulatory intervention focused on defending human rights. “The next frontier is biometric data, DNA and brainwaves — our thoughts,” he suggests. “Data is routinely gathered in excess of what is needed to provide the service; standard tropes, like ‘improving our service’ and ‘enhancing your user  experience’ serve as decoys for the extraction of monopoly rents.”

There is optimism too, though — that technology in service of society can be part of the solution to existential crises like climate change; and that data, lawfully collected, can support public good and individual self-realization.

“Interference with the right to privacy and personal data can be lawful if it serves ‘pressing social needs’,” he suggests. “These objectives should have a clear basis in law, not in the marketing literature of large companies. There is no more pressing social need than combating environmental degradation” — adding that: “The EU should promote existing and future trusted institutions, professional bodies and ethical codes to govern this exercise.”

In instances where platforms are found to have systematically gathered personal data unlawfully Buttarelli trails the interesting idea of an amnesty for those responsible “to hand over their optimisation assets”– as a means of not only resetting power asymmetries and rebalancing the competitive playing field but enabling societies to reclaim these stolen assets and reapply them for a common good.

While his hope for Europe’s Data Protection Board — the body which offers guidance and coordinates interactions between EU Member States’ data watchdogs — is to be “the driving force supporting the Global Privacy Assembly in developing a common vision and agenda for sustainable privacy”.

The manifesto also calls for European regulators to better reflect the diversity of people whose rights they’re being tasked with safeguarding.

The document, which is entitled Privacy 2030: A vision for Europe, has been published on the website of the International Association of Privacy Professionals ahead of its annual conference this week.

Buttarelli had intended — but was finally unable — to publish his thoughts on the future of privacy this year, hoping to inspire discussion in Europe and beyond. In the event, the manifesto has been compiled posthumously by Christian D’Cunha, head of his private office, who writes that he has drawn on discussions with the data protection supervisor in his final months — with the aim of plotting “a plausible trajectory of his most passionate convictions”.

 


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Microsoft announces changes to cloud contract terms following EU privacy probe

16:27 | 18 November

Chalk up another win for European data protection: Microsoft has announced changes to commercial cloud contracts following privacy concerns raised by European Union data protection authorities.

The changes to contactual terms will apply globally and to all its commercial customers — whether public or private sector entity, or large or small business, it said today.

The new contractual provisions will be offered to all public sector and enterprise customers at the beginning of 2020, it adds.

In October Europe’s data protection supervisor warned that preliminary results of an investigation into contractual terms for Microsoft’s cloud services had raised serious concerns about compliance with EU data protection rules and the role of the tech giant as a data processor for EU institutions.

Writing on its EU Policy blog, Julie Brill, Microsoft’s corporate VP for global privacy and regulatory affairs and chief privacy officer, announces the update to privacy provisions in the Online Services Terms (OST) of its commercial cloud contracts — saying it’s making the changes as a result of “feedback we’ve heard from our customers”.

“The changes we are making will provide more transparency for our customers over data processing in the Microsoft cloud,” she writes.

She also says the changes reflect those Microsoft developed in consultation with the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security — which comprised both amended contractual terms and technical safeguards and settings — after the latter carried out risk assessments of Microsoft’s OST earlier this year and also raised concerns.

Specifically, Microsoft is accepting greater data protection responsibilities for additional processing involved in providing enterprise services, such as account management and financial reporting, per Brill:

Through the OST update we are announcing today we will increase our data protection responsibilities for a subset of processing that Microsoft engages in when we provide enterprise services. In the OST update, we will clarify that Microsoft assumes the role of data controller when we process data for specified administrative and operational purposes incident to providing the cloud services covered by this contractual framework, such as Azure, Office 365, Dynamics and Intune. This subset of data processing serves administrative or operational purposes such as account management; financial reporting; combatting cyberattacks on any Microsoft product or service; and complying with our legal obligations.

Microsoft currently designates itself as a data processor, rather than data controller for these administrative and operations functions that can be linked to provision of commercial cloud services, such as its Azure platform.

But under Europe’s General Data Protection framework a data controller has the widest obligations around handling personal data — with responsibility under Article 5 of the GDPR for the lawfulness, fairness and security of the data being processed — and therefore also greater legal risk should it fail to meet the standard.

So, from a regulatory point of view, Microsoft’s current commercial contract structure poses a risk for EU institutions of user data ending up being processed under a lower standard of legal protection than is merited.

The announced switch from data processor to controller should raise the bar around associated purposes that Microsoft may also provide to commercial customers of its cloud services.

For the latter purpose itself, Microsoft says it will remain the data processor, as well as for improving and addressing bugs or other issues related to the service, ensuring security of the services, and keeping the services up to date.

In August a conference organized jointly by the EU’s data protection supervisor and and the Dutch Ministry brought together EU customers of cloud giants to work on a joint response to regulatory risks related to cloud software provision.

Earlier this year the Dutch Ministry obtained contractual changes and technical safeguards and settings in the amended contracts it agreed with Microsoft.

“The only substantive differences in the updated terms [that will roll out globally for all commercial cloud customers] relate to customer-specific changes requested by the Dutch MOJ, which had to be adapted for the broader global customer base,” Brill writes now.

Microsoft’s blog post also points to other global privacy-related changes it says were made following feedback from the Dutch MOJ and others — including a roll out of new privacy tools across major services; specific changes to Office 365 ProPlus; and increased transparency regarding use of diagnostic data.

 


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Fertility startup Mojo wants to take the trial and error out of IVF

14:00 | 18 November

Fertility tech startup Mojo is coming out of stealth to announce a €1.7 million (~$1.8M) seed round of funding led by Nordic seed fund Inventure. Also participating are Doberman and Privilege Ventures (an investor in Ava), plus a number of angel investors including Josefin Landgard (founder and ex-CEO of Kry) and Hampus Jakobsson (partner at BlueYard, BA in Clue & Kind.app).

Mojo’s mission, says co-founder and CEO Mohamed Taha, is to make access to fertility treatment more affordable and accessible by using AI and robotics technology to assist in sperm and egg quality analysis, selection and fertilization to reduce costs for clinics. Only by reducing clinics’ costs will the price fall for couples, he suggests.

“What the AI does in our technology stack from now until our roadmap is completed, product wise, is to look at sperm, look at eggs, look at data and ensure that the woman or the couple get precise treatment or the precise embryo that yields healthy baby,” he tells TechCrunch. “The role of robotics is to ensure that the manipulations/procedures are done precisely and at reduced time compared to nowadays, and also accurately.”

The idea for the business came to Taha after he was misdiagnosed with a kidney condition while still a student. His doctor suggested freezing his sperm as a precaution against deterioration in case he wanted to father a child in the future, so he started having regular sperm tests. “I was super annoyed with one particular fact,” he says of this. “Every time I do a sperm test I get a different result.”

After speaking to doctors the consensus view of male fertility he heard was “I shouldn’t care about my fertility — worst case scenario all that they need from me is one sperm”. He was told it would be his future partner who would be put on IVF to “take the treatment for me”. Doctors also told him there was little research into male fertility, and therefore into sperm quality — such as which sperm might yield a healthy baby or could result in a miscarriage. And after learning about what IVF entailed, Taha says it struck him as a “tough” deal for the woman.

“It’s completely blackbox,” he says of male fertility. “I also learned that in terms of IVF or ART [assisted reproductive technologies] everything, pretty much, is done manually. And everything, pretty much, also is done at random — you select a random sperm, they fertilize it with a random egg. Hopefully the technician who’s doing it manually knows his or her job. And in the end there’s going to be an embryo that will be implanted.”

He says he was also struck by the fact the ‘trial and error’ process only works 25% of the time in high end laboratories, yet can prospective parents between €40,000-€100,000 for each round of treatment. “This is where the idea of the company came from,” he adds. Mojo’s expectation for their technology is that it will be able to increase IVF success rates to 75% by 2030.

The team started work in 2016 as a weekend project during their PhDs. Taha initially trained as an electrical engineer before going on to do a PhD in nanotechnology, investigating new and affordable materials for use as biosensors. It was the microscopes and robotic arms that he and his co-founders, Fanny Chesa, Tobias Boecker, Daniel Thomas, were using in the labs to examine nanoparticles and select specific particles for insertion into other media that led them to think why not adapt this type of technology for use in fertility clinics — as an alternative to purely manual selection and fertilization.

“We just completely automate everything to ensure that the procedure is done faster, better and at the same time more reliably,” Taha says of the concept for Mojo. “No randomness. Understand the good from the bad.”

That — at least — is the theory. To be clear, they don’t yet have their proposition robustly proved out nor productized at this stage. Their intended first product, called Mojo Pro, is still pending certification as a medical device in the EU, for example. But the plan, should everything go to plan, is to get it to market next summer, starting in the UK.

This product, a combination of microscopy hardware and AI software, will be sold to fertility clinics (under a subscription model) to offer an analysis service consisting of a sperm count and quality check — as a first service for couples to determine whether or not the man has a fertility problem.

Initially, Mojo’s computer vision analysis system is focused on sperm counts, automating what Taha says is currently a manual process, as well as assessing some basic quality signals — such as the speed and morphology of the sperm. For example, a sperm with two heads or two tails would be an easy initial judgement call to weed out as “bad”, he suggests.

“The first product is to look at the sperm and say if this man experiences infertility or not. So we have a smart microscopy — built custom in-house. And this is where the element of the robotics comes in,” he explains. “At the same time we put on it an AI that looks at a moving sperm sample. Then, through looking at this, the system on Mojo Pro will tell us what is the sperm count, what is the sperm mobility (how fast they move) and what is the predominant shape of the sperm.

“The second part is the selection of the sperm [i.e. if the sample is needed for IVF]. Now we ensure that good sperm is being selected. This microscopy will look at the same and visually will guide the embryologist to pick the good sperm — that’s highlighted around, for example, by a green box. Good sperm have green boxes around them, bad sperm have red boxes around them so they can pick up through their current techniques the sperm that are highlighted green.”

Mojo

Based on internal testing of Mojo Pro the system has achieved 97% of the accuracy of a manual sperm count so far, per Taha, who says further optimization is planned.

Though he admits there’s no standardization of sperm counts in the fertility industry — which means such comparative metrics offer limited utility, given the lack of robust benchmarks.

“The way we are going with this is we’re really choosing the best of the best practitioners and we are just comparing our work against them for now,” is the claim. (Mojo’s lab partner for developing the product is TDL.)

“We will try to introduce new standards for ourselves,” he adds.

The current research focus is: “What are the visuals to make sure the sperm is good or bad; how to actually measure the sperm sample, the sperm count; in terms of morphology… how we can incorporate a protocol that can be the gold standard of computer vision or AI looking at sperm?”

The wider goal for the business is to understand much more about the role that individual sperm and eggs play in yielding a healthy (or otherwise) embryo and baby.

Taha says the team’s ultimate goal is “automating the fertilization process”, again with the help of applied AI and robotics (and likely also incorporating genetic testing to screen for diseases).

He points out that in many markets couples are choosing to conceive later in life. The big vision, therefore, is to develop new assisted reproductive technologies that can support older couples to conceive healthy babies.

“Generally speaking we leave our fertility to chance — which is sex… So there’s a little bit of randomness in the process. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad — it’s how the body functions. But when you hit later ages, 30 or 40, we face biological deficiencies which means the quality of the eggs are not good any more, the quality of the sperm might not be good any more, if fertilization happens with old gametes… you are not sure there is a healthy baby. So we need technology to play a role here.

“Imagine a couple at the age of 40 who want to conceive a baby ten, twelve years from now. What happens if this couple have the possibility of the sperm of the man to be shipped somewhere, the egg of the woman to be shipped somewhere and they get fertilized using high end technology, and they get informed once the embryo is ready to be implanted. This is where we believe the consumer game will be in the future,” he says.

“We envisage ourselves going from just working with clinics in the coming ten years… making our AI and our robotics really flawless at manipulation, and then we are envisaging of having as consumer-facing way where we ensure people have healthy babies. Not necessarily this will be a clinic but it will be somehow where fertilization will happen in our facilities.”

“I’m not speaking about super humans or designer babies,” he adds. “I’m speaking about ensuring at a later stage of the conception journey to have a healthy baby. And this is where we see ART can actually be the way to procreate at later stages in order to ensure that the baby is healthy then there should be new technologies that just give you a healthy baby — and not mess up with your body.”

Of course this is pure concept right now. And Taja concedes that Mojo doesn’t even have data to determine “good” sperm from “bad” — beyond some basic signifiers.

But once samples start flowing via customers of the first product they expect to be able to start gathering data (with permission) to support further research into the role played by individual sperm and eggs in reproduction — looking at the whole journey from sperm and egg selection through to embryo and baby.

Though getting permission for all elements of the research they hope to do may be one potential barrier.

“Once the first module is in the market we will be collecting data,” he says. “And this data that we’ll be collecting will go and be associated with the live births or the treatment outcome. And with that we’ll understand more and more what is a good sperm, what is a bad sperm.

“But we need to start from somewhere. And this somewhere right now what we’re relying on is the knowledge that good practitioners have in the field.”

Taha says he and his co-founders actively started building the company in January 2018, taking in some angel investment, along with government grants from France and the EU’s Horizon 2020 research pot.

They’ve been building the startup out of Lyon, France but the commercial team will shortly be moving to the UK ahead of launching Mojo Pro.

In the short term the hope is to attract clinics to adopt the Mojo Pro subscription service as a way for them to serve more customers, while potentially helping couples reduce the number of IVF cycles they have to go. Longer term the bet is that changing lifestyles will only see demand for data-fuelled technology-assisted reproduction grow.

“Now we help streamline laboratory processes in order to help the 180M people who have fertility problems have access to fertility at an affordable price and reliable manner but also we have an eye on the future — what happens when genetic testing… [plays] an important role in the procreation and people will opt for this,” he adds.

 


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