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India’s FarEye raises $25M to grow its logistics SaaS startup in international markets

More than 150 e-commerce and delivery companies globally use an Indian logistics startup’s service to work out the optimum way before they ship items to their customers. That startup, Noida-based FarEye, has raised $25 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand its footprint in international markets.

M12, Microsoft’s venture fund, led the seven-year-old startup’s Series D financing round. Eight Roads Ventures, Honeywell Ventures, and existing investor SAIF Partners participated in the round, which pushes FarEye’s total raise-to-date to $40 million.

FarEye helps companies orchestrate, track, and optimize their logistics operations. Say you order a pizza from Domino’s, the eatery uses FarEye’s service, which integrates into the system it is using, to quickly inform the customer how long they need to wait for the food to reach them.

Behind the scenes, FarEye is helping Domino’s evaluate a plethora of moving pieces. How many delivery people are in the vicinity? Can it bundle a few orders? What’s the maximum number of items one can carry? How experienced is the delivery person? What’s the best route to reach the customer? And, would the restaurant need the same number of delivery people the following day?, explained Kushal Nahata, co-founder and chief executive of FarEye, in an interview with TechCrunch .

Gautam Kumar (left), Gaurav Srivastava (centre), and Kushal Nahata co-founded FarEye in 2013

“The level of digitization that logistics firms have made over the years remains minimal. The amount of visibility they have over their own delivery network is minimal. Forget what a customer should expect,” said Nahata, explaining the challenges the industry faces.

FarEye is addressing this by using AI to parse through more than a billion data points to identify the optimum solution. In the past one year, it has fine-tuned its algorithm to handle last-mile and long-haul deliveries to offer a full-suite of services to its clients.

The startup, which employs about 350 people, said it is already handling more than 10 million transactions a day. The more transactions it processes, the better its algorithm becomes, he said.

FarEye today has clients across several categories including transportation and logistics, retail (which includes grocery, furniture, and fashion), and FMCG in 20 nations. Some of these clients include Walmart, FedEx, DHL, Amway, Domino’s, Bluedart, Future Group, and J&J. Nahata said the startup will use the fresh capital to improve its predictive tech and grow its footprint in the United States, Europe, and Asia-Pacific region.

“We are solving certain problems for our customers today, but I feel we can solve much larger problems and help digitize the entire supply chain network,” he said.

As the coronavirus pandemic jeopardises grocery and e-commerce firms’ ability to timely deliver items to customers, FarEye said it is making Serve, one of its services that focuses on enabling movement of everyday essentials, free for any firm to use for more than a year.

“The global pandemic has accelerated the need for enterprises to scale their supply chain operations efficiently to meet the rising share of online deliveries. FarEye’s highly configurable last-mile and long-haul logistics platform has been validated by leading global enterprises across the 3PL, retail and manufacturing categories,” said Shweta Bhatia, a partner at Eight Roads Ventures, in a statement.

FarEye has been making money since day one, but Nahata said an IPO is not something on the table for the foreseeable future. “Our biggest focus right now is to grow,” he said.

Workers at America’s largest companies are not covered under coronavirus aid package

Workers at America’s largest companies are not covered under a bill passed by the House of Representatives on Friday that is supposed to support American workers impacted by the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The bill still has to be voted on by the Senate and approved before it can be signed into law, but its structure leaves a gaping hole in the prevention strategy the government has said is necessary to reduce the COVID-19 outbreak in the US.

“No American worker should worry about missing a paycheck if they’re feeling ill,” said Vice President Mike Pence at the Sunday press briefing from the Coronavirus Task Force. “If you’re sick with a respiratory illness stay home.”

However, millions of Americans potentially don’t have the ability to make that choice under the congressional aid package touted by both Democrats and Republicans. By excluding companies with more than 500 employees from the Congressional aid, the health and welfare of millions of Americans in industries providing goods, manufacturing, and vital services to most of the country is being left up to the discretion of their employers.

Details of the legislative compromise were first reported by The New York Times yesterday. And chart published by The New York Times illustrated just how many companies didn’t have paid sick leave policies in place as the coronavirus began to spread in the US (companies have changed policies to respond to the coronavirus).

Image courtesy of The New York Times

Big technology companies took the lead early this month in changing policies for their workers and by the end of last week many of the country’s largest employers had followed suit. But it looks like their work won’t be covered under the government’s current plan — and that any measures to extend sick leave and paid time off will be limited to a response to the current outbreak.

These large employers have already responded by closing stores or reducing hours in areas where most cases of the novel coronavirus have been diagnosed — and companies operating in most of those states are required by law to offer paid leave to their hourly employees and contractors.

Companies who have responded to the outbreak by changing their time-off and sick leave policies include Walmart, Target, Darden Restaurants (the owner of the Olive Garden restaurant chain), Starbucks, Lowes, and KFC, have joined tech companies and gig economy businesses like Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Instacart, Microsoft, Postmates, Salesforce, and Uber in offering extended leave benefits to employees affected by the coronavirus.

These kinds of guarantees can go a long way to ensuring that hourly workers in the country don’t have to choose between their health and their employment. The inability to pass a law that would cover all workers puts everyone at risk.

Without government stepping in, industries are crafting their own responses. Late Sunday, automakers including GM, Ford, and FiatChrysler joined the United Auto Workers union in announcing the creation of a coronavirus task force to coordinate an industrywide response for the automotive sector.

As the Pew Research Center noted last week, the bill proposed by House Democrats had initially proposed temporary federal sick leave covering workers with COVID-19 or caring for family members with two-thirds of their wages for up to three months; expiring in January 2021. The measure would have also guaranteed private employers give workers seven days of paid sick leave with another 14 days available immediately in the event of future public health emergencies.

Most workers have less than nine days of sick leave covered under current state legislation. There is no national mandate for paid sick leave. After one year on the job, 22 percent of workers have access to less than five days, while another 46 percent of employees can get five-to-nine days of paid sick leave. Only 38 percent of workers have between ten and fourteen days of leave.

The Pew Research Center also reported that the lack of access to paid sick leave increases as wages decline. Over 90 percent of workers receiving hourly rages over $32.21 have some form of paid sick leave. Only about 50 percent of workers who make $13.80 or less have access to some form of paid sick leave. For Americans who make under $10.80 an hour, only about 30 percent receive any sick leave.

How big tech is taking on COVID-19

Over the past week, one thing has become painfully clear for U.S. residents: COVID-19 is going to permeate every aspect of our lives for a long time to come. Those of us in and around tech have been noticing this for months now. First through the impact on our friends and colleagues in Asia, who have been facing fallout from the pandemic head-on for some time, and then through the domino effect on tech conferences.

First there was MWC, then Facebook’s F8, E3, WWDC. The list goes on and on. Yesterday, TechCrunch announced that we would be postponing a pair of our own events. It was the right thing to do, and increasingly not really a choice, to be honest, as more and more cities have banned large gatherings.

Tech has been keenly aware of COVID-19’s impact for a while now because being a tech company is being a global company almost by default. Now, however, the virus’s threat has come to nearly everyone’s back door. If you don’t yet know someone who has been infected with the virus, odds are good you will soon. This is our reality, for now, at least.

If there’s hope to be mustered from this event, it’s in the prospect of people helping people. Coming together, separately, at a safe social distance. The response of the current administration leaves much to be desired at the moment. As yesterday’s press conference involved praise of the “private sector” and a parade of high profile executives, the reality is that many of us may have to rely on corporates and execs to help fill in the gaps of gutted government departments.

There will be plenty of time to call out the inevitable opportunism of corporate America (and it looks like I’m going to have a lot more free time on my hands in the coming months to do exactly that), but for now, let’s note some of the folks who are pitching in by donating supplies or easing some of the burden on a strained and uncertain population.

Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma today released a statement noting plans to donate 500,000 test kits and one million face masks. The donation follows similar ones to Japan and Europe, following the devastating impact on his own country.

“Drawing from my own country’s experience, speedy and accurate testing and adequate personal protective equipment for medical professionals are most effective in preventing the spread of the virus,” Ma said in a statement. “We hope that our donation can help Americans fight against the pandemic!”

Yesterday, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan announced that his video conferencing platform would be available for free to K-12 schools in Japan, Italy and the U.S. The move comes as the service is seeing a massive spike in downloads as many businesses and schools are attempting to adapt to working and learning remotely.

Earlier this week, Bill Gates, who recently left his position on Microsoft’s board, announced the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was teaming up with Wellcome and Mastercard to fund treatments to the tune of $125 million. Yesterday, Facebook announced it was committing $20 million in donations to support relief efforts. Apple announced a similar $15 million in donations, along with letting customers skip the March payment on their Apple Cards without risking interest payments. IPS like AT&T, Charter, CenturyLink, Comcast, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and Cox, meanwhile, have promised not to overcharge, charge late fees or terminate service, in an attempt to keep people connected.

Likely we’ll continue to see more such announcements in the coming weeks and months as companies struggle with impact to their workforces and bottom lines. Some will no doubt be more crass that others, but there’s little doubt that such gestures will be a big part of our ability to emerge from one of the scariest and most surreal moments in recent memory.

Microsoft moves its 2020 Build developer conference online

May is traditionally a month of big developer conferences, with Facebook F8, Google I/O and Microsoft Build often happening within the same two-week period. But not this year. After F8 and I/O were already canceled in favor of online events, Microsoft is now unsurprisingly following suit, too, and canceling the in-person element of Build, which was scheduled to run from May 19 to 21, citing concerns over the current coronavirus outbreak.

microsoft build logo“The safety of our community is a top priority. In light of the health safety recommendations for Washington State, we will deliver our annual Microsoft Build event for developers as a digital event, in lieu of an in-person event,” the company said in a statement to The Verge. “We look forward to bringing together our ecosystem of developers in this new virtual format to learn, connect and code together. Stay tuned for more details to come.”

The announcement doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Indeed, it was really only a question of when Microsoft would make the call and the real surprise was how long it took Microsoft to make this call, especially given how hard Washington state has been hit by the coronavirus outbreak. Currently, a number of Washington state counties have banned events with more than 250 people. That ban was set to expire before Build.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft hasn’t actually updated the Build homepage yet and you can still buy a ticket. If I were you, I wouldn’t do that, though. You’ll get a refund, but it’s not worth the hassle.

Microsoft will pay hourly workers regular wages even if their hours are reduced because of COVID-19 concerns

As more COVID-19 cases are identified in the United States, some companies are asking employees to work from home if possible. But that impacts the jobs of people who work in on-site operations, including many who are paid by the hour. Today Microsoft said that it will continue paying all vendor hourly service providers in Puget Sound and Northern California their usual wage, even if their work hour are reduced.

The announcement specifically refers to Microsoft workers in the Puget Sound region and Northern California, but the company said it will “[explore] how to best move forward in a similar way in other parts of the country and the world that are impacted by COVID-19.”

In a blog post, Microsoft president Brad Smith wrote that employees in those regions who can work from home have been asked to do so.

“As a result, we have reduced need in those regions for the on-site presence of many of the hourly workers who are vital to our daily operations, such as individuals who work for our vendors and staff our cafes, drive our shuttles and support our on-site tech and audio-visual needs,” he said. “We recognize the hardship that lost work can mean for hourly employees. As a result, we’ve decided that Microsoft will continue to pay all our vendor hourly service providers their regular pay during this period of reduced service needs.”

Smith added, “While the work to protect public health needs to speed up, the economy can’t afford to slow down. We’re committed as a company to making pubic health our first priority and doing what we can to address the economic and social impact of COVID-19. We appreciate that what’s affordable for a large employer may not be affordable for a small business, but we believe that large employers who can afford to take this type of step should consider doing so.”

Microsoft is among several tech companies that have asked employees in places where COVID-19 cases have been identified to work from home, like Washington state and California, including Google, Lyft and Square. Concerns about the COVID-19 have also led to the cancellations of major events, like Mobile World Congress and Google’s I/O developer conference.

AWS partners with Kenya’s Safaricom on cloud and consulting services

Amazon Web Services has entered a partnership with Safaricom — Kenya’s largest telco, ISP and mobile payment provider — in a collaboration that could spell competition between American cloud providers in Africa.

In a statement to TechCrunch, the East African company framed the arrangement as a “strategic agreement” whereby Safaricom will sell AWS services (primarily cloud) to its East Africa customer network.

Safaricom — whose products include the famed M-Pesa mobile money product — will also become the first Advanced Consulting Partner for the AWS partner network in East Africa.

“The APN is…the program for technology…businesses who leverage AWS to build solutions and services for customers…and sell their AWS offerings by providing valuable business, technical, and marketing support,” Safaricom said.

“We chose to partner with AWS because it offers customers the broadest and deepest cloud platform…This agreement will allow us to accelerate our efforts to enable digital transformation in Kenya,” said Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph.

“Safaricom will be able to offer AWS services to East-African customers, allowing businesses of all sizes to quickly get started on AWS cloud,” the company statement continued.

For now, the information provided by Safaricom is a bit sparse on the why and how of the partnership between the American company and East African mobile, financial and ISP provider.

TechCrunch has an inquiry into Amazon and some additional questions posed to Safaricom, toward additional coverage.

An initial what-this-all-means take on the partnership points to an emerging competition between American cloud service providers to scale in Africa by leveraging networks of local partners.

The most obvious rival to the AWS-Safaricom strategic agreement is the Microsoft -Liquid Telecom collaboration. Since 2017, MS has partnered with the Southern African digital infrastructure company to grow Microsoft’s AWS competitor product — Azure — and offer cloud services to the continent’s startups and established businesses.

MS and Liquid Telecom have focused heavily on the continent’s young tech companies. “We believe startups will be key employers in Africa’s future economy. They’re also our future customers,” Liquid Telecom’s  Head of Innovation Partnerships Oswald Jumira told TechCrunch in 2018.

Amazon hasn’t gone fully live yet with e-commerce services in Africa, but it has aggressively positioned AWS and built a regional client list that includes startups — such as fintech venture Jumo — and large organizations, such Absa and Standard Bank.

Partnering with Safaricom plugs AWS into the network of one East Africa’s most prominent digital companies.

Safaricom, led primarily by its M-Pesa mobile money product, holds remarkable dominance in Kenya, Africa’s 6th largest economy. M-Pesa has 20.5 million customers across a network of 176,000 agents and generates around one-fourth ($531 million) of Safaricom’s ≈ $2.2 billion annual revenues (2018).

Compared to other players — such as Airtel  Money and Equitel Money — M-Pesa has 80% of Kenya’s mobile money agent network, 82% of the country’s active mobile-money subscribers and transfers 80% of Kenya’s mobile-money transactions, per the latest sector statistics.

A number of Safaricom’s clients (including those it provides payments and internet services to) are companies, SMEs and startups.

Extending AWS services to them will play out next to the building of Microsoft’s $100 million Africa Development Center, with an office in Nairobi, announced last year.

Fiddler Labs, SRI and Berkeley experts open up the black box of machine learning at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI

As AI permeates the home, work, and public life, it’s increasingly important to be able to understand why and how it makes its decisions. Explainable AI isn’t just a matter of hitting a switch, though; Experts from UC Berkeley, SRI, and Fiddler Labs will discuss how we should go about it on stage at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3.

What does explainability really mean? Do we need to start from scratch? How do we avoid exposing proprietary data and methods? Will there be a performance hit? Whose responsibility will it be, and who will ensure it is done properly?

On our panel addressing these questions and more will be two experts, one each from academia and private industry.

Trevor Darrell is a professor at Berkeley’s Computer Science department who helps lead many of the university’s AI-related labs and projects, especially those concerned with the next generation of smart transportation. His research group focuses on perception and human-AI interaction, and he previously led a computer vision group at MIT.

Krishna Gade has passed in his time through Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Microsoft, and has seen firsthand how AI is developed privately — and how biases and flawed processes can lead to troubling results. He co-founded Fiddler as an effort to address problems of fairness and transparency by providing an explainable AI framework for enterprise.

Moderating and taking part in the discussion will be SRI International’s Karen Myers, director of the research outfit’s Artificial Intelligence Center and an AI developer herself focused on collaboration, automation, and multi-agent systems.

Save $50 on tickets when you book today. Ticket prices go up at the door and are selling fast. We have two (yes two) Startup Demo Packages Left – book your package now and get your startup in front of 1000+ of today’s leading industry minds. Packages come with 4 tickets – book here.

Microsoft will now pay up to $20k for Xbox Live security exploits

Think you’ve found a glaring security hole in Xbox Live? Microsoft is interested.

The company announced a new bug bounty program today, focused specifically on its Xbox Live network and services. Depending on how serious the exploit is and how complete your report is, they’re paying up to $20,000.

Like most bug bounty programs, Microsoft is looking for pretty specific/serious security flaws here. Found a way to execute unauthorized code on Microsoft’s servers? They’ll pay for that. Keep getting disconnected from Live when you play as a certain legend in Apex? Not quite the kind of bug they’re looking for.

Microsoft also specifically rules out a few types of vulnerabilities as out-of-scope, including DDoS attacks, anything that involves phishing Microsoft employees or Xbox customers, or getting servers to cough up basic info like server name or internal IP. You can find the full breakdown here.

This is by no means Microsoft’s first foray into bounty programs; they’ve got similar programs for the Microsoft Edge browser, their “Windows Insider” preview builds, Office 365, and plenty of other categories. The biggest bounties they offer are on their cloud computing service, Azure, where the bounty for a super specific bug (gaining admin access to an Azure Security Lab account, which are closely controlled) can net up to $300,000.

InterviewBit secures $20M to grow its advanced online computer science program in India

InterviewBit, a Bangalore-based startup that runs an advanced online computer science program for college graduates and young professional engineers, has raised $20 million in one of the largest Series A financing rounds in the education sector.

The nine-month-old startup’s Series A round was led by Sequoia India, Tiger Global and Global Founders Capital among others, it said. The startup said it is also rebranding its online coding program, earlier called InterviewBit Academy, to Scaler Academy.

InterviewBit operates on an income-sharing model, where students have the option to pay after they have landed a job. The concept, also known as human capital contract, has been around for decades but is beginning to see some traction now.

The startup said more than 2,000 students have enrolled in its six-month program to date. It had received over 200,000 applications. And “several hundred” of those who enrolled in the program have landed jobs at tech companies such Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.

Students enrolled in Scaler Academy are mentored and taught by tech leaders and subject matter experts working with organisations including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix.

The startup, which is part of Sequoia India’s Surge accelerator program, will use the new fund to scale up its enrollment and launch in new markets. It also plans to invest in its curriculum and in live teaching product.

Indian newspaper Times of India first reported about the financing round last year, and said the round would value InterviewBit at over $100 million.

“Within a short period of time, Scaler Academy has made a huge impact on the capabilities of our students, who spend, on average 4-5 hours/day on our online and live learning platform,” said Abhimanyu Saxena, co-founder of InterviewBit. “We are very excited that our work results in a step function change in the careers of our students — and so we have rebranded it to Scaler Academy, a platform for pursuing excellence in software programming.”

A recent National Employability Report Engineers 2019 report highlighted that the employability of Indian engineers continues to be as low as 20%. “With that in mind, Scaler Academy’s meticulously structured 6-month online program effectively enhances the coding skills of professionals by creating a modern curriculum with exposure to the latest technologies,” the startup said.

Tech’s biggest companies are worth ~$5T as 2019’s epic stock market run wraps

Look, this is the last post I’m writing in 2019 and I’m tired. But I can’t let the year close without taking stock of how well tech stocks did this year. It was bonkers.

So let’s mark the year’s conclusion with some notes for our future selves. Yes, we know that the Nasdaq has been setting new records and SaaS had a good year. But we need to dig in and get the numbers out so that we can look back and remember.

Let’s cap off this year the way it deserves to be remembered, as a kick-ass trip ’round the sun for your local, public technology company.

Keeping score

We’ll start with the indices that we care about:

  • The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite rose 35% in 2019
  • The SaaS-heavy Bessemer Cloud Index rose 41% this year

Next, the highest-value U.S.-based technology companies:

  • Microsoft was up around 55% in 2019
  • Apple managed an 86% gain in the year
  • Not be left out, Facebook rose 57%
  • Amazon posted its own gain of 23% in 2019
  • Alphabet managed to grow by 29%, as well

Now let’s turn to some companies that we care about, even if they are smaller than the Big Five:

  • Salesforce? Up 19% this year
  • Adobe was up 46% in 2019, which was astounding
  • Intel picked up 28% in the year, making it no slouch
  • Even Oracle managed to gain 17% in 2019

And so on.

The technology industry’s epic run has been so strong that The Wall Street Journal noted this morning that, powered by tech companies, U.S. stocks “are poised for their best annual performance in six years.” The Journal highlighted the performance of Apple and Microsoft in particular for helping drive the boom. I wonder why.

How long will we live in the neighborhood of Nasdaq 9,000? How long can two tech companies be worth more than $1 trillion at the same time? How long can the biggest tech companies be worth a combined $4.93 trillion (I remember when $3 trillion for the Big Five was news, and I recall when the group reach a collective value of $4 trillion).1

But the worst trade in recent years has been the pessimists’ gambit. No matter what, stocks have kept going up, short-term hiccoughs and other missteps aside.

For nearly everyone, that is. While tech stocks in general did very well, some names that we all know did not. Let’s close on those reminders that a rising tide lifts only most boats.

2019 naughty list

Several of the most lackluster public tech companies were 2019 technology IPOs, interestingly enough. Who didn’t do well? Uber earns a spot on the naughty list for not only being underwater from its IPO price, but also from its final private valuations. And as you guessed, Lyft is down from its IPO price as well, which is not good.

Some 2019 IPOs did well in the middle of the year, but fell a little flat as the year came to a close. Pinterest, Beyond Meat and Zoom meet that criteria, for example. And some SaaS companies struggled, even if we think they will reach $1 billion in revenue in time.

But it was mostly a party. The public markets were good, and tech stocks were great. This helped create another 100+ unicorns in the year.

Such was 2019. On to 2020!

  1. In time, those numbers will look small. But sitting here on December 31, 2019, they appear huge and towering and, it must be said, somewhat perilously stacked.

Los Angeles-based BuildOps, subcontracting software for real estate, raises $5.8 million

Software development companies tackling services for niche industries, like commercial real estate subcontracting, continue to find Los Angeles to be fertile ground for development.

The latest company to raise funding from a clutch of investors is BuildOps, which raised $5.8 million in seed financing from some big names in the Los Angeles tech ecosystem.

Led by Fika Ventures, with additional investments from MetaProp VC, Global Founders Capital, CrossCut Ventures, TenOneTen, IGSB, 1984 Ventures, L2 Ventures, GroundUp, NBA all-star Metta World Peace, Oberndorf Enterprises, Wolfson Group and scouts from Sequoia Capital, the new financing will be used to support the company’s continued growth.

BuildOps sells software that integrates scheduling, dispatching, inventory management, contracts, workflow and accounting into a single software package for commercial real estate contractors with staff ranging from a few dozen to several hundred employees.

Software for the service industry is nothing new for Los Angeles entrepreneurs. The unicorn ServiceTitan hails from the greater Los Angeles area and a number of other software as a service businesses are calling the greater Los Angeles area home.

It’s hard to argue with the size of the commercial construction market. Over the past three years, commercial construction spending grew from $626 billion to $807 billion, according to data provided by the company. And while most large vendors — architects, general contractors and property management companies — have some project management software, the fragmented group of subcontractors that provide services to those customers has remained resistant to adopting new technologies, the company said.

The firm was co-founded by former ServiceTitan developer Neeraj Mittal; Microsoft, Nextag, Swurv and Fundly former executive Steve Chew; and Alok Chanani, who previously founded a commercial real estate company and was a former commander of a transportation unit of the Army in Iraq.

“At BuildOps, we are on a mission to bring a true all-in-one solution on the latest technology to the people who keep America’s hospitals, power plants and commercial real estate running. We are privileged to be working closely with some of the country’s top commercial contractors,” said Chanani.

That sentiment is echoed by Liquid 2 Ventures managing partner and former National Football League superstar, Joe Montana .

“Liquid 2 Ventures has an investment thesis in supporting America’s working class and I just love the idea of making their lives far easier and better. You have one solution that does it all and talks seamlessly to every single part of their business from parts to ordering to inventory and more,” said Montana in a statement. “There are very few world-class technology solutions for commercial subcontractors like this and we believe in the founders.”

The Knight Foundation launches $750,000 initiative for immersive technology for the arts

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is looking for pitches on how to enhance and augment traditional creative arts through immersive technologies.

Through a partnership with Microsoft the foundation is offering a share of a $750,00 pool of cash and the option of technical support from Microsoft, including mentoring in mixed-reality technologies and access to the company’s suite of mixed reality technologies.

“We’ve seen how immersive technologies can reach new audiences and engage existing audiences in new ways,” said Chris Barr, director for arts and technology innovation at Knight Foundation, in a statement. “But arts institutions need more knowledge to move beyond just experimenting with these technologies to becoming proficient in leveraging their full potential.”

Specifically, the foundation is looking for projects that will help engage new audiences; build new service models; expand access beyond the walls of arts institutions; and provide means to distribute immersive experiences to multiple locations, the foundation said in a statement.

“When done right, life-changing experiences can happen at the intersection of arts and technology,” said Victoria Rogers, Knight Foundation vice president for arts. “Our goal through this call is to help cultural institutions develop informed and refined practices for using new technologies, equipping them to better navigate and thrive in the digital age.”

Launched at the Gray Area Festival in San Francisco, the new initiative is part of the Foundation’s art and technology focus, which the organization said is designed to help arts institutions better meet changing audience expectations. Last year, the foundation invested $600,000 in twelve projects focused on using technology to help people engage with the arts.

“We’re incredibly excited to support this open call for ways in which technology can help art institutions engage new audiences,” says Mira Lane, Partner Director Ethics & Society at Microsoft. “We strongly believe that immersive technology can enhance the ability for richer experiences, deeper storytelling, and broader engagement.”

Here are the winners from the first $600,000 pool:

  • ArtsESP – Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts

Project lead: Nicole Keating | Miami | @ArshtCenter

Developing forecasting software that enables cultural institutions to make data-centered decisions in planning their seasons and events.

  • Exploring the Gallery Through Voice – Alley Interactive

Project lead: Tim Schwartz | New York | @alleyco@cooperhewitt@SinaBahram

Exploring how conversational interfaces, like Amazon Alexa, can provide remote audiences with access to an exhibition experience at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

  • The Bass in VR – The Bass

Project lead: T.J. Black | Miami Beach | @TheBassMoA

Using 360-degree photography technology to capture and share the exhibit experience in an engaging, virtual way for remote audiences.

  • AR Enhanced Audio Tour – Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Project lead: Shane Richey | Bentonville, Arkansas | @crystalbridges

Developing mobile software to deliver immersive audio-only stories that museum visitors would experience when walking up to art for a closer look.

  • Smart Label Initiative – Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

Project lead: Brian Kirschensteiner | East Lansing, Michigan | @msubroad

Creating a system of smart labels that combine ultra-thin touch displays and microcomputers to deliver interactive informational content about artwork to audiences.

  • Improving Arts Accessibility through Augmented Reality Technology – Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, in collaboration with People’s Light

Project lead: Lisa Sonnenborn | Philadelphia | @TempleUniv,@IODTempleU@peopleslight 

Making theater and performance art more accessible for the deaf, hard of hearing and non-English speaking communities by integrating augmented reality smart glasses with an open access smart captioning system to accompany live works.

  • ConcertCue – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology

Project lead: Eran Egozy | Cambridge, Massachusetts | @EEgozy,@MIT,@ArtsatMIT@MIT_SHASS

Developing a mobile app for classical music audiences that receives real-time program notes at precisely-timed moments of a live musical performance.

  • Civic Portal – Monument Lab

Project lead: Paul Farber and Ken Lum | Philadelphia | @monument_lab@PennDesign@SachsArtsPhilly@paul_farber

Encouraging public input on new forms of historical monuments through a digital tool that allows users to identify locations, topics and create designs for potential public art and monuments in our cities.

  • Who’s Coming? – The Museum of Art and History at the McPherson Center

Project lead: Nina Simon | Santa Cruz, California | @santacruzmah@OFBYFOR_ALL

Prototyping a tool in the form of a smartphone/tablet app for cultural institutions to capture visitor demographic data, increasing knowledge on who is and who is not participating in programs.

  • Feedback Loop – Newport Art Museum, in collaboration with Work-Shop Design Studio

Project lead: Norah Diedrich | Newport, Rhode Island | @NewportArtMuse

Enabling audiences to share immediate feedback and reflections on art by designing hardware and software to test recording and sharing of audience thoughts.

  • The Traveling Stanzas Listening Wall – Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University Foundation

Project lead: David Hassler | Kent, Ohio | @DavidWickPoetry,@WickPoetry,@KentState@travelingstanza

Producing touchscreen installations in public locations that allow users to create and share poetry by reflecting on and responding to historical documents, oral histories, and multimedia stories about current events and community issues.

  • Wiki Art Depiction Explorer – Wikimedia District of Columbia, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution

Project lead: Andrew Lih | Washington, District of Columbia | @wikimedia@fuzheado

Using crowdsourcing methods to improve Wikipedia descriptions of artworks in major collections so people can better access and understand art virtually.

SoftBank announces AI-focused second $108 billion Vision Fund with LPs including Microsoft, Apple and Foxconn

SoftBank Group announced today that it will launch its second Vision Fund with participation from Apple, Foxconn, Microsoft and other tech companies and investors. Called the Vision Fund 2, the fund will focus on AI-based technology. SoftBank said the fund’s capital has reached about $108 billion, based on memoranda of understandings. SoftBank Group’s own investment in the fund will be $38 billion.

It is worth noting that the second Vision Fund’s list of expected limited partners does not currently include any participants from the Saudi Arabia government (the first Vision Fund’s close ties to people, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who have been implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has understandably been a major source of concern for investors, companies and human rights observers).

But SoftBank Group also said is still in discussions with other participants and that the total amount of the fund is expected to increase. The full list of participants who have signed MOUs so far are: “Apple, Foxconn Technology Group, Microsoft Corporation, Mizuho Bank, Ltd., Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, MUFG Bank, Ltd., The Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, Limited, Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank, Limited, SMBC Nikko Securities Inc., Daiwa Securities Group Inc., National Investment Corporation of National Bank of Kazakhstan, Standard Chartered Bank, and major participants from Taiwan.”

SoftBank’s intention to launch Vision Fund 2 was first reported earlier this week by the Wall Street Journal. The new fund is expected to decrease SoftBank’s reliance on Saudi Arabian investment and also potentially change the relationship between startups, corporate giants like Microsoft and investors.

The second Vision Fund could help SoftBank extend its position as the most influential investor globally. Through its first $97 billion Vision Fund, the giant invested in dozens of high-profile growing companies, including ride hailing giants Didi Chuxing and Grab, and India-based grocery delivery startup Grofers, payments-firm Paytm, and budget lodging startup Oyo.

The maiden Vision Fund, which was announced in October 2016 and began investing in early 2017, has earned 62% returns to date, SoftBank said last month. SoftBank, known for consistently cutting checks of $100 million and of larger sizes, has invested in 24 of 377 unicorns globally (companies with valuation of $1 billion or more), according to research firm CB Insights.

Huawei launches AI-backed database to target enterprise customers

China’s Huawei is making a serious foray into the enterprise business market after it unveiled a new database management product on Wednesday, putting it in direct competition with entrenched vendors like IBM, Oracle and Microsoft.

The Shenzhen-based company, best known for making smartphones and telecom equipment, claims its newly minted database uses artificial intelligence capabilities to improve tuning performance, a process that traditionally involves human administrators, by over 60 percent.

Called the GaussDB, the database works both locally as well as on public and private clouds. When running on Huawei’s own cloud, GaussDB provides data warehouse services for customers across the board, from the financial, logistics, education to automotive industries.

The database launch was first reported by The Information on Tuesday citing sources saying it is designed by the company’s secretive database research group called Gauss and will initially focus on the Chinese market.

The announcement comes at a time when Huawei’s core telecom business is drawing scrutiny in the West over the company’s alleged ties to the Chinese government. That segment accounted for 40.8 percent of Huawei’s total revenues in 2018, according to financial details released by the privately-held firm.

Huawei’s consumer unit, which is driven by its fast-growing smartphone and device sales, made up almost a half of the company’s annual revenues. Enterprise businesses made up less than a quarter of earnings, but Huawei’s new push into database management is set to add new fuel to the segment.

Meanwhile, at Oracle, more than 900 employees, most of whom worked for its 1,600-staff research and development center in China, were recently let go amid a major company restructuring, multiple media outlets reported earlier this month.

Data provided to TechCrunch by Boss Zhipin offers clues to the layoff: The Chinese recruiting platform has recently seen a surge in newly registered users who work at Oracle China. But the door is still open for new candidates as the American giant is currently recruiting for more than 100 positions through Boss, including many related to cloud computing.

8 of the best laptops for business: See why the MacBook Pro and Lenovo ThinkPad top our list

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While laptops are wonderful for watching movies and TV shows, sometimes you just need a dedicated machine for getting the job done with no distractions. A great laptop for business needs to be versatile for an assortment of daily tasks, including word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and web research. 

In the business world, “the dog ate my homework” is not a good excuse. Business laptops need to be light enough to easily take to meetings and conferences across the country (or around the world), while also performing under pressure and maintaining battery life. The last thing you want is your laptop dying in the middle of an important presentation or meeting.  Read more…

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Hackers conquer Tesla’s in-car web browser and win a Model 3

A pair of security researchers dominated Pwn2Own, the annual high-profile hacking contest, taking home $375,000 in prizes including a Tesla Model 3 — their reward for successfully exposing a vulnerability in the electric vehicle’s infotainment system.

Tesla handed over its new Model 3 sedan to Pwn2Own this year, the first time a car has been included in the competition. Pwn2Own is in its 12th year and run by Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative. ZDI has awarded more than $4 million over the lifetime of the program.

The pair of hackers Richard Zhu and Amat Cam, known as team Fluoroacetate, “thrilled the assembled crowd” as they entered the vehicle, according to ZDI, which noted that after a few minutes of setup, they successfully demonstrated their research on the Model 3 internet browser.

The pair used a JIT bug in the renderer to display their message — and won the prize, which included the car itself. In the most simple terms, a JIT, or just-in-time bug, bypasses memory randomization data that normally would keep secrets protected.

Tesla told TechCrunch it will release a software update to fix the vulnerability discovered by the hackers.

“We entered Model 3 into the world-renowned Pwn2Own competition in order to engage with the most talented members of the security research community, with the goal of soliciting this exact type of feedback. During the competition, researchers demonstrated a vulnerability against the in-car web browser,” Tesla said in an emailed statement. “There are several layers of security within our cars which worked as designed and successfully contained the demonstration to just the browser, while protecting all other vehicle functionality. In the coming days, we will release a software update that addresses this research. We understand that this demonstration took an extraordinary amount of effort and skill, and we thank these researchers for their work to help us continue to ensure our cars are the most secure on the road today.”

That’s a wrap! Congrats to @fluoroacetate on winning Master of Pwn. There total was $375,000 (plus a vehicle) for the week. Superb work from this great duo. pic.twitter.com/Q7Fd7vuEoJ

— Zero Day Initiative (@thezdi) March 22, 2019

Pwn2Own’s spring vulnerability research competition, Pwn2Own Vancouver, was held March 20 to 22 and  featured five categories, including web browsers, virtualization software, enterprise applications, server-side software and the new automotive category.

Pwn2Own awarded a total of $545,000 for 19 unique bugs in Apple Safari, Microsoft Edge and Windows, VMware Workstation, Mozilla Firefox, and Tesla.

Tesla has had a public relationship with the hacker community since 2014 when the company launched its first bug bounty program. And it’s grown and evolved ever since.

Last year, the company increased the maximum reward payment from $10,000 to $15,000 and added its energy products as well. Today, Tesla’s vehicles and all directly hosted servers, services and applications are now in scope in its bounty program

Microsoft is dropping a lot of money to help improve affordable housing in Seattle

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Where the tech sector has boomed, affordable housing has suffered.

Now, Microsoft is following other tech giants in wanting to be part of the solution, announcing a $500 million fund targeting homelessness and affordable housing in Seattle on Wednesday.

It’s the biggest pledge in the company’s history, and one of the largest by a private corporation towards housing, according to the Seattle Times. 

Seattle, much like Northern California, is facing a lack of affordable housing, as the rapid growth of tech has led to people being priced out of the housing market. Read more…

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Microsoft wins $480M military contract to outfit soldiers with HoloLens AR tech

Microsoft is readying its HoloLens augmented reality tech for combat. The company just won a $480 million military contract with the U.S. government to bring AR headset tech into the weapon repertoires of American soldiers.

The two-year contract may result in follow-on orders of more than 100,000 headsets according to documentation describing the bidding process. One of the contract’s tag lines for the AR tech seems to be its ability to enable “25 bloodless battles before the 1st battle,” suggesting that actual combat training is going to be an essential aspect of the AR headset capabilities.

“Augmented reality technology will provide troops with more and better information to make decisions. This new work extends our longstanding, trusted relationship with the Department of Defense to this new area,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement sent to TechCrunch.

Magic Leap was also pursuing the contract according to the report in Bloomberg. The military contract bid was perhaps a bit more of a stretch for the company which has previously maintained that its company’s efforts are focused centrally on consumers. The startup has only recently released its first development kit, while Microsoft’s tech has been in developer hands for more than two years.

Some of the documentation (PDF download) surrounding this bid is intensely interesting and really showcases how extensively the military has researched how augmented reality tech can alter the training and combat environments of soldiers.

Obviously, Microsoft wouldn’t just be planning to take what it’s been selling to factory workers and put it onto a battlefield, but the system requirements outlined in the contract already seem to eclipse what the current generation HoloLens optics are capable of, including items like the device’s FoV which will have a requirement of between 55 and 110 degrees.

Other stipulations include the device being no heavier than 1.5 pounds and being compatible with existing military helmets. The head-worn device would specifically track weapons and allow soldiers to see simulated fire from their real weapons while offering offering training with weapons like Javelin missile systems in a completely simulated environment.

These are all just early frameworks, but Microsoft now will be developing technologies that keep the U.S. military at the forefront of augmented reality tech, something that will probably be a boon to their enterprise focused solutions as well.

Security flaw in ‘nearly all’ modern PCs and Macs exposes encrypted data

Most modern computers, even devices with disk encryption, are vulnerable to a new attack that can steal sensitive data in a matter of minutes, new research says.

In new findings published Wednesday, F-Secure said that none of the existing firmware security measures in every laptop it tested “does a good enough job” of preventing data theft.

F-Secure principal security consultant Olle Segerdahl told TechCrunch that the vulnerabilities put “nearly all” laptops and desktops — both Windows and Mac users — at risk.

The new exploit is built on the foundations of a traditional cold boot attack, which hackers have long used to steal data from a shut-down computer. Modern computers overwrite their memory when a device is powered down to scramble the data from being read. But Segerdahl and his colleague Pasi Saarinen found a way to disable the overwriting process, making a cold boot attack possible again.

“It takes some extra steps,” said Segerdahl, but the flaw is “easy to exploit.” So much so, he said, that it would “very much surprise” him if this technique isn’t already known by some hacker groups.

“We are convinced that anybody tasked with stealing data off laptops would have already come to the same conclusions as us,” he said.

It’s no secret that if you have physical access to a computer, the chances of someone stealing your data is usually greater. That’s why so many use disk encryption — like BitLocker for Windows and FileVault for Macs — to scramble and protect data when a device is turned off.

But the researchers found that in nearly all cases they can still steal data protected by BitLocker and FileVault regardless.

After the researchers figured out how the memory overwriting process works, they said it took just a few hours to build a proof-of-concept tool that prevented the firmware from clearing secrets from memory. From there, the researchers scanned for disk encryption keys, which, when obtained, could be used to mount the protected volume.

It’s not just disk encryption keys at risk, Segerdahl said. A successful attacker can steal “anything that happens to be in memory,” like passwords and corporate network credentials, which can lead to a deeper compromise.

Their findings were shared with Microsoft, Apple, and Intel prior to release. According to the researchers, only a smattering of devices aren’t affected by the attack. Microsoft said in a recently updated article on BitLocker countermeasures that using a startup PIN can mitigate cold boot attacks, but Windows users with “Home” licenses are out of luck. And, any Apple Mac equipped with a T2 chip are not affected, but a firmware password would still improve protection.

Both Microsoft and Apple downplayed the risk.

Acknowledging that an attacker needs physical access to a device, Microsoft said it encourages customers to “practice good security habits, including preventing unauthorized physical access to their device.” Apple said it was looking into measures to protect Macs that don’t come with the T2 chip.

When reached, Intel would not to comment on the record.

In any case, the researchers say, there’s not much hope that affected computer makers can fix their fleet of existing devices.

“Unfortunately, there is nothing Microsoft can do, since we are using flaws in PC hardware vendors’ firmware,” said Segerdahl. “Intel can only do so much, their position in the ecosystem is providing a reference platform for the vendors to extend and build their new models on.”

Companies, and users, are “on their own,” said Segerdahl.

“Planning for these events is a better practice than assuming devices cannot be physically compromised by hackers because that’s obviously not the case,” he said.

The Boring Company proves life can be a video game

The Boring Company just posted a video on Twitter showing its latest digging machine can be controlled by an Xbox One controller. Because, if you’re going to dig holes, why not make it a bit of fun?

Software makes it easy to map PC controls to an Xbox pad. Instead of developing and fabricating a custom controller, using an Xbox gamepad is a cost-effective alternative for a lot of organizations. The military services agree. In its latest subs the US Navy tapped the Xbox 360 controller to maneuver submarine periscopes and the Army’s anti-drone laser uses an Xbox controller. They’re used to control robots and drones, too.

The reasoning is simple: A lot of research goes into game controllers. Microsoft reportedly spent over $100 million on the Xbox One controller, which, is just an updated version of the Xbox 360 controller. More than that, these controllers, whether of the Microsoft or Sony variant, are already familiar to most users. Operators do not have to learn a new set of controls. They can pick up a controller and be familiar within seconds.

And if the Xbox or Playstation controller doesn’t offer enough buttons, companies could always look to repurposing Steel Battalion controllers.

Best video game ever pic.twitter.com/DlGFsji76l

— The Boring Company (@boringcompany) September 8, 2018

Microsoft no longer taking new enrollments for its Surface Plus financing program

Microsoft has quietly ended its Surface Plus financing program about a year after it launched. In a message on its site, the company said it stopped taking new enrollments on August 31 “after much thought and consideration.” The change does not affect existing customers, however, who will still be covered by their current financing plans.

Financed by Klarna, a Stockholm-headquartered online financial services provider, the Surface Plus financing program launched in August 2017. It targeted students and other people who wanted an affordable way to own a Surface device, allowing them to spread payments over 24 months. The Surface Plus plan also enabled customers to upgrade to the latest device after 18 months, as long as they returned their previous device in good working condition.

In a FAQ, Microsoft said existing customers will still be able to upgrade their Surface under the plan’s terms. The program’s end also does not affect existing warranty plans.

Microsoft’s Surface Plus for Business payment plans launched around the same time as the Surface Plus program and it looks like it will continue. TechCrunch has contacted Microsoft for more information.

Epic Games just gave a perk for folks to turn on 2FA; every other big company should, too

Let’s talk a bit about security.

Most internet users around the world are pretty crap at it, but there are basic tools that companies have, and users can enable, to make their accounts, and lives, a little bit more hacker-proof.

One of these — two-factor authentication — just got a big boost from Epic Games, the maker of what is currently The Most Popular Game In The World: Fortnite.

Epic is already getting a ton of great press for what amounts to very little effort.

Son: Do you know what two-factor authentication is?
Me: Uh, yeah?
Son: I get a free dance on @Fortnitegame if I enable two factor. Can we do that?

Incentives matter.

— Dennis (@DennisF) August 23, 2018

The company is giving users a new emote (the victory dance you’ve seen emulated in airports, playgrounds and parks by kids and tweens around the world) to anyone who turns on two-factor authentication. It’s one small (dance) step for Epic, but one giant leap for securing their users’ accounts.

The thing is any big company could do this (looking at you Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet and any other company with a huge user base).

Apparently the perk of not getting hacked isn’t enough for most users, but if you give anyone the equivalent of a free dance, they’ll likely flock to turn on the feature.

It’s not that two-factor authentication is a panacea for all security woes, but it does make life harder for hackers. Two-factor authentication works on codes, basically tokens, that are either sent via text or through an over-the-air authenticator (OTA). Text messaging is a pretty crap way to secure things, because the codes can be intercepted, but OTAs — like Google Authenticator or Authy — are sent via https (pretty much bulletproof, but requiring an app to use).

So using SMS-based two-factor authentication is better than nothing, but it’s not Fort Knox (however, these days, even Fort Knox probably isn’t Fort Knox when it comes to security).

Still, anything that makes things harder for crimes of opportunity can help ease the security burden for companies large and small, and the consumers and customers that love them (or at least are forced to pay and use them).

I’m not sure what form the perk could or should take. Maybe it’s the promise of a free e-book or a free download or an opportunity to have a live chat with the celebrity, influencer or athlete of a user’s choice. Whatever it is, there’re clearly something that businesses could do to encourage greater adoption.

Self-preservation isn’t cutting it. Maybe an emote will do the trick.

Big tech companies are looking at Hollywood as the next stage in their play for the cloud

This week, both Microsoft and Google made moves to woo Hollywood to their cloud computing platforms in the latest act of the unfolding drama over who will win the multi-billion dollar business of the entertainment industry as it moves to the cloud.

Google raised the curtain with a splashy announcement that they’d be setting up their fifth cloud region in the U.S. in Los Angeles. Keeping the focus squarely on tools for artists and designers the company talked up its tools like Zync Render, which Google acquired back in 2014, and Anvato, a video streaming and monetization platform it acquired in 2016.

While Google just launched its LA hub, Microsoft has operated a cloud region in Southern California for a while, and started wooing Hollywood last year at the National Association of Broadcasters conference, according to Tad Brockway, a general manager for Azure’s storage and media business.

Now Microsoft has responded with a play of its own, partnering with the provider of a suite of hosted graphic design and animation software tools called Nimble Collective.

Founded by a former Pixar and DreamWorks animator, Rex Grignon, Nimble launched in 2014 and has raised just under $10 million from investors including the UCLA VC Fund and New Enterprise Associates, according to Crunchbase.

“Microsoft is committed to helping content creators achieve more using the cloud with a partner-focused approach to this industries transformation,” said Tad Brockway, General Manager, Azure Storage, Media and Edge at Microsoft, in a statement. “We’re excited to work with innovators like Nimble Collective to help them transform how animated content is produced, managed and delivered.”

There’s a lot at stake for Microsoft, Google and Amazon as entertainment companies look to migrate to managed computing services. Tech firms like IBM have been pitching the advantages of cloud computing for Hollywood since 2010, but it’s only recently that companies have begun courting the entertainment industry in earnest.

While leaders like Netflix migrated to cloud services in 2012 and 21st Century Fox worked with HP to get its infrastructure on cloud computing, other companies have lagged. Now companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are competing for their business as more companies wake up to the pressures and demands for more flexible technology architectures.

As broadcasters face more demanding consumers, fragmented audiences, and greater time pressures to produce and distribute more content more quickly, cloud architectures for technology infrastructure can provide a solution, tech vendors argue.

Stepping into the breach, cloud computing and technology service providers like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are trying to buy up startups servicing the entertainment market specifically, or lock in vendors like Nimble through exclusive partnerships that they can leverage to win new customers. For instance, Microsoft bought Avere Systems in January, and Google picked up Anvato in 2016 to woo entertainment companies.

The result should be lower cost tools for a broader swath of the market, and promote more cross-pollination across different geographies, according to Grignon, Nimble’s chief executive.

“That worldwide reach is very important,” Grignon said. “In media and entertainment there are lots of isolated studios around the world. We afford this pathway between the studio in LA and the studio in Bangalore. We open these doorways.”

There are other, more obvious advantages as well. Streaming — exemplified by the relationship between Amazon and Netflix is well understood — but the possibility to bring costs down by moving to cloud architectures holds several other distribution advantages as well as simplifying processes across pre- and post-production, insiders said.

 

Microsoft acquires conversational AI startup Semantic Machines to help bots sound more lifelike

Microsoft announced today that it has acquired Semantic Machines, a Berkeley-based startup that wants to solve one of the biggest challenges in conversational AI: making chatbots sound more human and less like, well, bots.

In a blog post, Microsoft AI & Research chief technology officer David Ku wrote that “with the acquisition of Semantic Machines, we will establish a conversational AI center of excellence in Berkeley to push forward the boundaries of what is possible in language interfaces.”

According to Crunchbase, Semantic Machines was founded in 2014 and raised about $20.9 million in funding from investors including General Catalyst and Bain Capital Ventures.

In a 2016 profile, co-founder and chief scientist Dan Klein told TechCrunch that “today’s dialog technology is mostly orthogonal. You want a conversational system to be contextual so when you interpret a sentence things don’t stand in isolation.” By focusing on memory, Semantic Machines’ AI can produce conversations that not only answer or predict questions more accurately, but also flow naturally.

Instead of building its own consumer products, Semantic Machines focused on enterprise customers. This means it will fit in well with Microsoft’s conversational AI-based products, including Microsoft Cognitive Services and Azure Bot Service, which are used by one million and 300,000 developers, respectively, and virtual assistants Cortana and Xiaolce.

Those huge CPU vulnerabilities, Meltdown and Spectre, explained

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By now you’ve probably heard. A large portion of the world’s computer processors are vulnerable to at least one of two exploits that render them susceptible to hackers. But what, exactly, is going on — and what can you do to protect yourself?

While the answer to the first question is complicated, thankfully the answer to the second isn’t. It turns out that companies like Google and Microsoft have been working behind the scenes to create patches for what the security community has named Meltdown and Spectre. 

But we’re not out of the woods yet, and, depending on your operating system, you still need to take some proactive measures to make sure your data is safe.  Read more…

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Africa Roundup: MEST, Airbus and Microsoft expand in Africa, while Afrostream shutters

 MEST appointed Aaron Fu as its new Managing Director, as the Accra based incubator scales up its presence across Sub-Saharan Africa. Founded in 2008, MEST operates as a training program and seed fund for African innovators to build successful commercial tech companies. Fu told TechCrunch he plans to focus on the incubator’s continued expansion. The organization currently has offices or… Read More

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Microsoft's Bing wants you to chat with search results

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Microsoft is testing developer tools that allow chatbots directly in Bing’s search resultsReports of the tests in Seattle and surrounding areas have been around for at least a month. The bots are powered by Skype.

Image: microsoft

The bots are currently limited to a handful of locations. Searching for a participating location reveals an option to ask the bot for help directly in the browser, as with El Gaucho (pictured above). The bots can answer basic queries about the location’s parking info, hours, and more via both buttons as well as natural language input. 

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Microsoft’s killer feature for its Chromebook competitor is Office

 Microsoft just unveiled a new operating system at a press event this morning. Windows 10 S is a streamlined and more secure version of Windows 10. But it still looks and feels like a normal PC. And it runs essential apps like Word, Excel and PowerPoint. While I haven’t used Office apps for years, I spent most of my days using them back when I was in a student. I used Word to write… Read More

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Microsoft HoloLens delivers first ever augmented reality Easter Egg hunt

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Easter Sunday is just hours away, and since it’s 2017, and we’re apparently living in the future, Microsoft has unveiled the first ever augmented reality Easter Egg hunt. 

The game was unveiled this weekend in Los Angeles at the VRLA conference where Microsoft and a team of AR developers allowed me to enter a surrealist forest construct where holographic eggs could be found using the HoloLens headset. 

While the rest of the world can only see the physical environment of the forest room space, using the HoloLens I was immediately presented with a living landscape, filled with the sounds of birds, animated flowers and rabbits furtively scurrying around the space. And when I discovered my first Easter Egg, the egg responded to my gaze by exploding open into a Disney-like flourish of color and sound.  Read more…

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Microsoft is closing the social network you forgot it ever launched

 So.cl, the little-known and probably much-forgotten social network project from Microsoft Research’s FUSE Labs division, is closing down. The service was launched in late 2011 as a social community where the objective was “collaborative consumption, not communication.” Initially for students, So.cl opened up to anyone once it had gotten going and subsequently added support… Read More

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HP embraces 'lapability' with new Pro x2 detachable PC

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It’s been four years since Microsoft introduced its first Surface tablet and at least two since they coined the term “lapability,” which is another way of saying, “This device is really comfortable on your lap.”

In that time, Windows system manufacturers have slowly but surely adopted Microsoft’s strategy of stuffing full-blown Windows PCs into tablets that can marry with keyboards and turn into lap-friendly ultra-portable devices. In general, Microsoft’s designs for the Surface Pro 3 and 4 have been the range’s apex, and most partners have offered only pale imitations. Read more…

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Microsoft launches Skype Lite Android app for India and other emerging markets

screenshot-2017-02-22-14-08-23 Microsoft has retooled Skype, the messaging service synonymous with business users, for people living in emerging markets. Today, at its Future Decoded event in India, Microsoft took the wraps off Skype Lite. The service is an Android app that mains the core video and voice calling functionalities, but is optimized for those on limited internet connections such as 2G data. It… Read More

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Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and other tech firms donated cash and services to Trump inauguration

Technology companies including Amazon, Google and Microsoft donated considerable amounts of both cash and technical services for the ceremonies and events around the inauguration and swearing in of President Donald Trump, according to reports making the internet rounds on Tuesday night.

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Google Cloud takes aim at Microsoft customers with new Windows VMs

disrupt_sf16_diane_greene-3758 Google announced several new products today aimed at luring IT pros who are using Windows in their data centers to the Google Cloud Platform. With that in mind, Google introduced support for Microsoft SQL Server Enterprise and Windows Server Core on the Cloud Platform. In addition, the company announced support for SQL Server Always-On Availability Group for customers who are concerned about… Read More

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Google Cloud takes aim at Microsoft customers with new Windows VMs

disrupt_sf16_diane_greene-3758 Google announced several new products today aimed at luring IT pros who are using Windows in their data centers to the Google Cloud Platform. With that in mind, Google introduced support for Microsoft SQL Server Enterprise and Windows Server Core on the Cloud Platform. In addition, the company announced support for SQL Server Always-On Availability Group for customers who are concerned about… Read More

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With Windows 10, Microsoft doubles down on forced updates and reboots (save your work!)

Windows 10 takes one of the most hated aspects of Microsoft operating systems — forced, sudden software updates and reboots — and elevates them to a sadistic art, with Win 10 machines suddenly announcing that it’s update time and rendering themselves inoperable for up to an hour, wiping out unsaved work and locking users out of their computers while they’re onstage, or in the middle of large file uploads, or livecasting, or completing a live test for college admission, taking notes during an interview, etc.
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Top Microsoft execs weigh in on Trump’s immigration ban

satya-nadella Slowly but surely, the tech world is reacting to a sweeping executive order signed by Trump on Friday that closes the United States’ borders to refugees and citizens from a number of countries. Some have shared personal stories or reflected on the ways in which such policy will negatively impact the Silicon Valley, where so much of the work force has immigrated from around the… Read More

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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is joining the Starbucks board

satya nadella Satya Nadella is set to join the board of Starbucks. The Microsoft CEO was announced as one of a trio of nominees who, if approved by shareholders, will increase the size of the coffee brand’s board to 14 people. Starbucks said Nadella was put forward for his “invaluable insight in international operations and distribution” and, of course, his potential to strengthen… Read More

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Microsoft partners with Trimble, University of Cambridge to make HoloLens a better tool for the construction industry

2017-01-24_2120 Microsoft has long positioned its HoloLens augmented reality (AR) helmet as a tool for the enterprise. One of the verticals the company has been especially interested in is construction and late last year, Trimble’s $1,499 SketchUp Viewer became the first commercial HoloLens application for the construction industry in the Windows Store. Since then, Microsoft has partnered with Trimble… Read More

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Crunch Report | Nintendo Switch Hits the Market on March 3

Nintendo Switch to hit the market on March 3, San Francisco District Attorney brings lawsuit against Lily, Moon Express is going to the Moon and Microsoft buys AI startup Maluuba. All this on Crunch Report. Read More

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Nokia finally returns to the smartphone market

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After years of anticipation, Nokia is finally back in the smartphone game. 

To little fanfare, the Finnish technology company HMD Global (HMD) Sunday unveiled the Nokia 6, a mid-range Android smartphone for the Chinese market. HMD owns the rights to use Nokia’s brand on mobile phones. 

The Nokia 6, which runs the newest version of Google’s mobile operating system, Android Nougat, sports a 5.5-inch full HD (1920×1080 pixels) display. With metal on the sides and a rounded rectangular fingerprint scanner housed on the front, the Nokia 6 seems reminiscent of the Samsung Galaxy S7Read more…

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