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Main article: Google

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Anyone can now create maps and stories on Google Earth

19:02 | 20 November

Google Earth is making a significant change to its product, with the addition of content creation tools that allow anyone to create maps and stories for its platform. The feature is an expansion of the Voyager program, launched in 2017, which then introduced guided tours from top storytellers, scientists, and nonprofits, like BBC Earth, Jane Goodall, Sesame Street, and NASA.

Those tours combined text and imagery, including Street View and 360-degree videos, to immerse viewers in habitats around the world, where they could explore and learn.

The new content creation tools offer similar capabilities, including the ability to select from Street View photos and 3D views of the earth when telling your story. You can also add placemarks, lines, shapes, photos, and videos, and write the text in a rich text editor, create title screens for slides for fullscreen presentations, and more.

The resulting stories can be organized into narratives that will fly users from place to place as they watch the presentation. The tools also support collaboration and the final stories can be shared with others by way of a Google Drive integration. This could allow a group of educators, for example, to work together to build out tours that complemented their lesson plans.

Early adopters have used these creation tools to build maps that show a river under threat, an Antarctic expedition, or offer a 3D tour of Renaissance architecture in Italy, among other things. An educational nonprofit also used the feature to showcase the stops characters made in the Young Adult novel, Walk Two Moons.

There’s a clear use case here for education, as the tools let teachers to build stories to bring their lessons to life and give students a close-up look at the places they’re learning about. But some may choose to use the tools for things of a more personal nature, like travel inspiration or bucket list-making, for example.

When Google launched its Voyager platform in 2017, it also modernized Google Earth for modern web browsers, meaning it can now run as a web app in Google Chrome.

This all ties into Google’s larger push for Chromebooks in the classroom — an area where it also competes against Apple and Microsoft.

That battle is fairly heated, as well. Apple’s marketing SVP Phil Schiller even slammed Google’s Chromebooks this week says they’re “cheap” and won’t succeed. However, low-cost Chromebooks have been winning so far. According to estimates, 60% of all laptops and tablets purchased for U.S. K-12 classrooms were Chromebooks, and only 18% were Apple products, CNBC reported.

With Google Earth creation tools that tie into Google Drive, Google has added another competitive advantage for its own products. But whether teachers will actually adopt the tools at scale remains to be seen. Many professionally created tours are already available, after all, through Voyager. And while the creation is easy enough, it’s also time-consuming to find the right photos and videos, to add places and write text.

The creation tools are now available in the Google Earth web app, and the projects can be viewed on mobile and tablet devices using the Google Earth mobile app for iOS and Android, says Google.

 


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Samasource raises $14.8M for global AI data biz driven from Africa

16:27 | 20 November

AI training data provider Samasource has raised a $14.8 million Series A funding round led by Ridge Ventures.

The San Francisco headquartered company delivers Fortune 100 companies with the inputs they need for machine learning development in fields including autonomous transportation, e-commerce and robotics.

And it does so with a global work-force of data-specialists, a large number of whom are located in East Africa.

In addition to San Francisco, New York and the Hague, Samasource has offices and teams in Kenya and Uganda. The company has a global staff of 2900 and is the largest AI and data annotation employer in East Africa, according to CEO and founder Leila Janah.

As part of its Series A, Samasource opened an AI Development Center in Montreal, Canada and expanded its digital delivery center in Kampala, Uganda to serve its corporate client-base.

“Typically we’re working with very large companies for whom AI is a key part of their business strategy. So therefore they have to be really careful about…bias in the algorithms or bad data,” Janah explained on a call with TechCrunch.

Samasource works through a discovery phase with customers, to determine the problems their trying to solve, their sources of input data, and customizes an approach to providing what they need.

“In some cases we might refine elements of our software…then we go into deployment and…annotation work,” said Janah, referring to the company’s SamaHub training data platform.

Samasource clients include Google, Continental Tires, Walmart, and Ford. The company generates revenue primarily through its machine learning data annotation and validation services.

Samasource was originally founded by Janah as a non-profit in 2008. “I saw huge opportunity for tapping into the incredible depth of…talent in East Africa in the tech world,” she said of the firm’s origins.

She converted Samasource to for-profit status in 2019, making the previous non-profit organization a shareholder.

“As a CEO I need to make it clear to investors that this is an investible entity,” Jana said of the reason for Samasource becoming a private company.

Ridge Ventures Principal Ben Metcalfe confirmed the fund’s lead on Samasource’s $14.8 million Series A round and that he will take a board seat with the company. Other investors included, Social Impact Ventures, Bestseller Foundation, and Bluecrest Limited Capital.

Samasource’s founder believes that providing for-profit AI training data to global companies can be done while improving lives in East Africa.

“I strongly believe you can combine the highest quality of service with the core mission of altruism,” she said.

“A big part of our values is offering living wages and creating dignified technology work for people. We hire people from low-income backgrounds and offer them training in AI and machine learning. And our teams achieve above the industry standard.”

It’s not unusual for Samasource to hear comparisons to Andela, the well-funded tech talent accelerator that trains and connects African developers to global companies.

“We are very different in that our whole model is about delivering high-quality training data. I would call Samasource an AI company and Andela a software training company,” she said.

Janah does see some parallels, however, in both companies’ recognizing and building tech-talent in Africa, along with a number of blue-chip entrants.

“I think it’s telling that Facebook, IBM and Google have all opened tech hubs in Africa, some of them AI or machine-learning focused,” she said.

Some Samasource professionals are also taking their skills on to other endeavors in Africa’s innovation ecosystem.

“A lot of our alums go on to do entrepreneurial things [and] start businesses and I think you’re going to see a lot more of that as we grown,” said Janah.

For now she will be the one hiring and training new tech workers in East Africa.

As part of its Series A, Samasource increased employees in Kampala to 90 people and plans to grow that by 150 percent in 2020, its CEO said.

 


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NASA adds SpaceX, Blue Origin and more to list of companies set to make deliveries to the surface of the Moon

00:30 | 19 November

NASA has added five new companies to the list of vendors that are cleared to bid on contracts for the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. This list, which already includes nine companies from a previous selection process, now adds SpaceX, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. All of these companies can now place bids on NASA payload delivery to the lunar surface.

This basically means that these companies (which join Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper Laboratory, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and OrbitBeyond) can build and fly lunar landers in service of NASA missions. They’ll compete with one another for these contracts, which will involve lunar surface deliveries of resources and supplies to support NASA’s Artemis program missions, the first major goal of which is to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

These providers are specifically chosen to support delivery of heavier payloads, including “rovers, power sources, science experiments” and more, like the NASA VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) which is hunting water on the Moon. All of these will be used both to establish a permanent presence on the lunar surface for astronautics to live and work from, as well as key research that needs to be completed to make getting and staying there a viable reality.

Artist’s concept of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander.

NASA has chosen to contract out rides to the Moon instead of running its own as a way to gain cost and speed advantages, and it hopes that these providers will be able to also ferry commercial payloads on the same rides as its own equipment to further defray the overall price tag. The companies will bid on these contracts, worth up to $2.6 billion through November 2028 in total, and NASA will select a vendor for each based on cost, technical feasibility, and when they can make it happen.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced that it would be partnering with Draper, as well as Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman for an end-to-end lunar landing system at this year’s annual International Astronautical Congress. SpaceX, meanwhile, revealed that it will be targeting a lunar landing of its next spacecraft, the Starship, as early as 2022 in an effort to help set the stage for the 2024-targeted Artemis landing.

 


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Google finishes the install of its private Curie cable, announces Panama branch

20:30 | 14 November

Google today announced that it has finished the install and test of its private Curie cable. When it was announced, Curie, which connects the U.S. to Chile, was the company’s third private cable. Since then, it has announced two more, Dunant and Equiano, which will connect the U.S. to Europe and Portugal to South Africa. The 10,500 kilometers long cable will offer a total capacity of 72Tbps and will go online in Q2 of 2020. Right now, Google’s teams are working on connecting the cable to its own network.

In addition, Google also today announced that Curie will get a branch to Panama. “Once operational, this branch will enhance connectivity and bandwidth to Central America, and increase our ability to connect to other networks in the region, providing resiliency to our global cloud infrastructure,” the company says in today’s announcement.

For Curie’s Panama branch, Google will once again work with SubCom, the same engineering firm that helped it build the rest of the cable. SubCom is also working with Google on the Dunant, while Google opted to partner with Alcatel Submarine Networks for the Equiano cable to South Africa.

While Google is also partnering with other technology firms to share bandwidth on other cables, these private cables give it full control over all of the resources. The company also argues that owning and operating its own cables adds another layer of security, on top of all the other benefits.

 


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Google Search now helps you pronounce ‘quokka’

20:00 | 14 November

Google is adding a nifty new feature to its search results when you look for the pronunciation of words. You’ll now be able to not just hear the correct pronunciation, but you can also now practice the right way of saying ‘quokka’ and get immediate feedback on the page. While you may not think you need a tool like this, it’s surely a great tool for language learners.

All of this, of course, is powered by machine learning. Google’s speech recognition tools process the recording, separates it into individual sounds, and then compares it to how experts pronounce it.

In addition to this new pronunciation feature, Google is also adding more images to its dictionary and translate features. For now, this is only available in English and only works for nouns. It’s quite a bit harder to find the right image (or GIF) to illustrate verbs, after all, let alone adverbs.

Advances in speech recognition and machine learning can improve the way we learn about languages,” Google says in today’s announcement. “We hope these new features give you a creative, more effective way to practice, visualize and remember new words. We plan to expand these features to more languages, accents and regions in the future.”

Bonus: here is a video with lots of quokkas.

 

 

 

 


0

Google brings RCS support in its Android Messages app to the U.S.

20:00 | 14 November

Google today announced that it is now rolling out support for Rich Communication Services messages (you can think of it as the next generation of SMS) in the Android Messages app to all of its users in the U.S., after already testing it with a small set of users in recent months. For Google, this push for RCS is also a way for the company to more effectively compete with Apple’s iMessages (though it doesn’t feature end-to-end encryption) and since Google has mostly taken control of this rollout away from carriers, it gets to call the shots on when users get access to this, not the telcos. It already did this in the UK and France earlier this year, so the company already has some experience in managing this service.

It’s also no secret that Google’s messaging strategy, at least for consumers, remains messy, with Hangouts still being a widely used tool. At least on mobile, Google hopes that Messages, which until now was essentially the company’s SMS client, can take over that role. Like other messaging services, RCS support in Messages will allow you to talk to your friends over WiFi or mobile data and send photos and videos. You will also get read receipts, typing notifications and all the usual messaging features you’d expect.

With Google taking control of the rollout, it’s also now responsible for keeping this network running and there are some legitimate concerns about the company owning this over the carriers. On the other hand, though, the carriers didn’t do them any favors by making their own RCS rollouts as messy as possible, up to the point where Google really didn’t have an option but to do this itself. For Android users, though, this is good news, even though they will still show up with a green bubble on iPhones — and will hence be judged by their iPhone-using friends.

 


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Brave launches version 1.0 of its privacy-focused browser

19:00 | 13 November

Brave, the company co-founded by ex-Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich after his ouster from the organization in 2014, today launched version 1.0 of its browser for Windows, macOS, Linux, Android and iOS. In a browser market where users are spoiled for choice, Brave is positioning itself as a fast option that preserves users’ privacy with strong default settings, as well as a crypto currency-centric private ads and payment platform that allows users to reward content creators.

As the company announced last month, it now has about 8 million daily users. Its Brave Rewards program, which requires opt-in from users and publishers, currently has about 300,000 publishers on board. Most of these are users with small followings on YouTube and Twitter, but large publishers like Wikipedia, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Slate and the LA Times are also part of the ecosystem. Using this system, which not every publisher is going to like, the browser replaces the ads on a publisher’s site with its own, based on the user’s browsing habits. Users then receive 70 percent of what the advertisers spend on ads, while Brave keeps 30 percent.

As users view these ads, they start earning Basic Attention Tokens (BAT), Brave’s cryptocurrency, which they can keep or give to publishers. In its early days, Brave actually started with Bitcoin as the currency for this, but as Eich noted, that quickly became too expensive (and since the price was going up, users wanted to hold on to the Bitcoin instead of donating it).

Brave also comes with a built-in ad blocker that is probably among the most effective in the industry, as well as extensive anti-tracking features. “Everybody’s bothered by the sense of being tracked and bothered by bad ads,” Eich told me. “But I think ad aesthetics are not the problem. It’s the tracking and the cost of tracking which is multifarious. There’s page load time, running the radio to load the tracking scripts that load the other scripts that load the scripts that load the ads, that drains your battery, too.” Eich argues that with Brave, the team found a way to tie this all together with anti-tracking technology and an approach to ad blocking that goes beyond the industry-standard blocklists and also uses machine learning to identify additional rules for blocking.

For those users that really want to be anonymous on the web, Brave also features a private browsing mode, just like every other browser, but with the added twist that you can also open a private session through the Tor network, which will make it very hard for most companies to identify you.

At its core, Brave is simply a fast, extensible Chromium-based browser. That’s also what the company believes will sell it to users. “The way you get users, […] I think speed is the first one that works across the largest number of users. But you can’t just leave it at speed. You want to have all your benefits tied up in a pretty knot and that’s what we have done,” he said. For Brave, speed and ad/tracking protection are obviously interconnected, and all the other benefits accrue from that.

Looking beyond version 1.0, the Brave team plans to implement better sync, with support for tab and history syncing, for example. Brave also aims to make participating in Brave Rewards an experience with much lower friction for the user. In the early days, before it was on Android, the opt-in rate was around 40 percent, Eich told me, and the team wants to get it back to that.

If you want to give Brave a try, you can download it here.

 


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The AI stack that’s changing retail personalization

21:22 | 12 November

Sowmiya Chocka Narayanan Contributor
Sowmiya Chocka Narayanan is Co-founder and CTO at Lily AI, a leading AI platform helping brands & retailers understand individual customer’s emotional context. Prior to joining Lily AI, Sowmiya helped to build Box and worked on numerous projects at Yahoo! and Pocket Games.

Consumer expectations are higher than ever as a new generation of shoppers look to shop for experiences rather than commodities. They expect instant and highly-tailored (pun intended?) customer service and recommendations across any retail channel.

To be forward-looking, brands and retailers are turning to startups in image recognition and machine learning to know, at a very deep level, what each consumer’s current context and personal preferences are and how they evolve. But while brands and retailers are sitting on enormous amounts of data, only a handful are actually leveraging it to its full potential.

To provide hyper-personalization in real time, a brand needs a deep understanding of its products and customer data. Imagine a case where a shopper is browsing the website for an edgy dress and the brand can recognize the shopper’s context and preference in other features like style, fit, occasion, color etc., then use this information implicitly while fetching similar dresses for the user.

Another situation is where the shopper searches for clothes inspired by their favorite fashion bloggers or Instagram influencers using images in place of text search. This would shorten product discovery time and help the brand build a hyper-personalized experience which the customer then rewards with loyalty.

With the sheer amount of products being sold online, shoppers primarily discover products through category or search-based navigation. However, inconsistencies in product metadata created by vendors or merchandisers lead to poor recall of products and broken search experiences. This is where image recognition and machine learning can deeply analyze enormous data sets and a vast assortment of visual features that exist in a product to automatically extract labels from the product images and improve the accuracy of search results. 

Why is image recognition better than ever before?

retail and artificial intelligence

 

While computer vision has been around for decades, it has recently become more powerful, thanks to the rise of deep neural networks. Traditional vision techniques laid the foundation for learning edges, corners, colors and objects from input images but it required human engineering of the features to be looked at in the images. Also, the traditional algorithms found it difficult to cope up with the changes in illumination, viewpoint, scale, image quality, etc.

Deep learning, on the other hand, takes in massive training data and more computation power and delivers the horsepower to extract features from unstructured data sets and learn without human intervention. Inspired by the biological structure of the human brain, deep learning uses neural networks to analyze patterns and find correlations in unstructured data such as images, audio, video and text. DNNs are at the heart of today’s AI resurgence as they allow more complex problems to be tackled and solved with higher accuracy and less cumbersome fine-tuning.

How much training data do you need?

 


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Google’s CallJoy phone agent for small businesses gets smarter, more conversational

20:46 | 12 November

Earlier this year, Google’s in-house incubator launched CallJoy, a virtual customer service phone agent for small businesses that could block spammers, answer calls, provide callers with basic business information, and redirect other requests like appointment booking or to-go orders to SMS. Today, CallJoy is rolling out its first major update, which now enables the computer phone agent to have more of a conversation with the customer by asking questions and providing more information, among other improvements.

Originally, CallJoy could provide customers with information like the business hours or the address, or could ask the customer for permission to send them a link over text message to help them with their request. With the update, CallJoy’s phone agent can answer questions more intelligently. 

This begins by CallJoy asking the customer, “can I help you?,” which the customer then responds to, as they would usually. Their answer allows CallJoy to offer more information than before, based on what the caller had said.

For example, if a caller asked a restaurant if they had any vegetarian options, the phone agent might respond: “Yes! Our menu has vegetarian and vegan-friendly choices. Can I text you the link to our online menu?”

This isn’t all done through some magical A.I., however. Instead, the business owner has to program in the sort of customer inquiries it wants CallJoy to be able to respond to and handle. While some, like vegetarian options, may be common inquiries, it can be hard to remember everything that customers ask. That where CallJoy’s analytics could help.

The service already gathers call data — like phone numbers, audio and call transcripts– into an online dashboard for further analysis. Business owners can tag calls and run reports to get a better understanding of their call volume, peak call times, and what people wanted to know. This information can be used to better staff their phone lines during busy times or to update their website or business listings, for example. And now, it can help the business owner to understand what sort of inquiries it should train the CallJoy phone agent on, too.

Once trained, the agent can speak an answer, send a link to the customer’s phone with the information, or offer to connect the caller to the business’s phone number to reach a real person. (CallJoy offers a virtual phone number, like Google Voice, but it can ring a “real” phone line as needed to get a person on the line.)

Another feature launching today will allow business owners to implement CallJoy as they see fit.

Some business owners may prefer to answer the phone themselves and speak to their customers directly, for example. But they could still take advantage of a service like this at other times — like after hours or when they’re too busy to answer. The updated version now allows them to program when CallJoy will answer, including by times of day, or after the phone rings a certain number of times, for example.

The business owner will also receive a daily email recap of everything CallJoy did, so they know how and when it was put to use.

The product to date has been aimed at small business owners, who can’t afford the more expensive customer service phone agent systems. Instead, it’s priced at a flat $39 per month.

A spokesperson for CallJoy says the service has signed up “thousands” of small businesses since its initially invite-only launch in May 2019. 

Google’s Area 120 incubator is a place for Google employees to try out new ideas, while still operating inside Google instead of leaving for a startup. It’s considered a separate entity — some the apps produced by Area 120 don’t even mention their Google affiliation in their App Store descriptions, for instance. CallJoy, however, has received more of a spotlight than some. It’s even being featured on Google’s main corporate blog, The Keyword, today. However, if CallJoy makes the leap to Google — something that hasn’t been decided yet — it wouldn’t be the first Area 120 project to do so.

Area 120’s Touring Bird recently landed inside Google as did learn-to-code app Grasshopper and others.

We understand that joining Google is something that’s still on the table for CallJoy, but it’s not at the point of making that switch just yet.

 


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Google launches OpenTitan, an open-source secure chip design project

17:00 | 5 November

Google has partnered with several tech companies to develop and build OpenTitan, a new, collaborative open-source secure chip design project.

The aim of the new coalition is to build trustworthy chip designs for use in datacenters, storage, and computer peripherals, which are both open and transparent, allowing anyone to inspect the hardware for security vulnerabilities and backdoors.

It comes at a time where tech giants and governments alike are increasingly aware that hostile nation states are trying to infiltrate and compromise supply chains in an effort to carry out long-term surveillance or espionage.

OpenTitan builds off the success of Google’s own custom-built chip, Titan, which it uses in its multi-factor security keys and its own-brand Android phones. Critical to the chip’s success is its root-of-trust technology, which cryptographically ensures that the chip hasn’t been tampered with. Root-of-trust provides a solid foundation for the operating system and applications running on the chip.

Google said OpenTitan will be run by LowRisc, a non-profit community, and will rely on partnerships with ETH Zurich, G+D Mobile Security, Nuvoton Technology, and Western Digital to support the project.

OpenTitan will also be platform agnostic and can be adapted to almost any device or software, Google said.

It’s not the first project dedicated to building secure chip designs. The Open Compute Project, supported by Facebook, Intel and Google, was created to open-source designs for its core infrastructure servers as part of an effort to gain better efficiencies from datacenter operations.

Apple also has its own secure — albeit proprietary — custom silicon, the Apple T2, found in its latest MacBooks, which it uses to control a device’s security functions and store the user’s passwords and encryption keys.

 


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