Thursday, December 5, 2019

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Uber reveals thousands of sexual assault reports last year

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 04:22 PM PST

Uber just released its first-ever safety report that covers sexual assault. Let’s jump right in.

In 2017, Uber received 2,936 reports pertaining to sexual assault, and received 3,045 in 2018. Despite the increase in raw numbers, Uber saw a 16% decrease in the average incident rate, which it suggests may correlate with the company’s increased focus on safety as of late.

Uber categorizes sexual assaults into five subcategories: non-consensual kissing of a non-sexual body part, attempted non-consensual sexual penetration, non-consenual touching of a sexual body part, non-consensual kissing of a sexual body part, and non-consensual sexual penetration.

Regarding the last subcategory, which is rape, Uber received 229 reports of rape in 2017 and 235 reports of rape in 2018. Throughout 2017 and 2018, the reported incidents occurred on 0.00002% of trips, according to Uber.

“While these reports are rare, every report represents an individual who came forward to share an intensely painful experience,” Uber wrote in its report. “Even one report is one too many.”

To be clear, these reported assaults happened to both riders and drivers. Though, Uber found riders account for nearly half of the accused parties across those five most serious sexual assault categories.

“Voluntarily publishing a report that discusses these difficult safety issues is not easy,” Uber Chief Legal Officer Tony West wrote in a blog post. “Most companies don't talk about issues like sexual violence because doing so risks inviting negative headlines and public criticism. But we feel it's time for a new approach. As someone who has prosecuted sex crimes and worked on these issues for more than 25 years, I can tell you that a new approach is sorely needed.”

Uber has long been under scrutiny for its safety practices. In 2017, a woman who was raped by her Uber driver in India filed a lawsuit against the company for violating her privacy. In an independent investigation conducted by CNN, the publication found 103 Uber drivers who had been accused of sexual assault or abuse of passengers.

Over the years, Uber has implemented a number of safety measures designed to help prevent situations like those. In May 2018, Uber added an in-app 911 calling feature. Later that year, Uber added a feature called Ride Check, which will activate if the GPS sensor in the driver's phone notices there's an abnormally long or unexpected stop during the trip.

“Confronting sexual violence requires honesty, and it's only by shining a light on these issues that we can begin to provide clarity on something that touches every corner of society,” West wrote. “And, most importantly, by bringing hard data to bear, we can make every trip safer for drivers and riders alike.”

Why AWS is selling a MIDI keyboard to teach machine learning

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 04:00 PM PST

Earlier this week, AWS launched DeepComposer, a set of web-based tools for learning about AI to make music and a $99 MIDI keyboard for inputting melodies. That launch created a fair bit of confusion, though, so we sat down with Mike Miller, the director of AWS’s AI Devices group, to talk about where DeepComposer fits into the company’s lineup of AI devices, which includes the DeepLens camera and the DeepRacer AI car, both of which are meant to teach developers about specific AI concepts, too.

The first thing that’s important to remember here is that DeepComposer is a learning tool. It’s not meant for musicians — it’s meant for engineers who want to learn about generative AI. But AWS didn’t help itself by calling this “the world's first machine learning-enabled musical keyboard for developers.” The keyboard itself, after all, is just a standard, basic MIDI keyboard. There’s no intelligence in it. All of the AI work is happening in the cloud.

“The goal here is to teach generative AI as one of the most interesting trends in machine learning in the last 10 years,” Miller told us. “We specifically told GANs, generative adversarial networks, where there are two networks that are trained together. The reason that’s interesting from our perspective for developers is that it’s very complicated and a lot of the things that developers learn about training machine learning models get jumbled up when you’re training two together.”

With DeepComposer, the developer steps through a process of learning the basics. With the keyboard, you can input a basic melody — but if you don’t have it, you also can use an on-screen keyboard to get started or use a few default melodies (think Ode to Joy). From a practical perspective, the system then goes out and generates a background track for that melody based on a musical style you choose. To keep things simple, the system ignores some values from the keyboard, though, including velocity (just in case you needed more evidence that this is not a keyboard for musicians). But more importantly, developers can then also dig into the actual models the system generated — and even export them to a Jupyter notebook.

For the purpose of DeepComposer, the MIDI data is just another data source to teach developers about GANs and SageMaker, AWS’s machine learning platform that powers DeepComposer behind the scenes.

“The advantage of using MIDI files and basing out training on MIDI is that the representation of the data that goes into the training is in a format that is actually the same representation of data in an image, for example,” explained Miller. “And so it’s actually very applicable and analogous, so as a developer look at that SageMaker notebook and understands the data formatting and how we pass the data in, that’s applicable to other domains as well.”

That’s why the tools expose all of the raw data, too, including loss functions, analytics and the results of the various models as they try to get to an acceptable result, etc. Because this is obviously a tool for generating music, it’ll also expose some of the data about the music, like pitch and empty bars.

“We believe that as developers get into the SageMaker models, they’ll see that, hey, I can apply this to other domains and I can take this and make it my own and see what I can generate,” said Miller.

Having heard the results so far, I think it’s safe to say that DeepComposer won’t produce any hits soon. It seems pretty good at creating a drum track, but bass lines seem a bit erratic. Still, it’s a cool demo of this machine learning technique, even though my guess is that its success will be a bit more limited than DeepRacer, which is a concept that is a bit easier to understand for most since the majority of developers will look at it, think they need to be able to play an instrument to use it, and move on.

Additional reporting by Ron Miller.

Scammers peddling Islamophobic clickbait is business as usual at Facebook

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 03:32 PM PST

A network of scammers used a ring of established right-wing Facebook pages to stoke Islamophobia and make a quick buck in the process, a new report from the Guardian reveals. But it’s less a vast international conspiracy and more simply that Facebook is unable to police its platform to prevent even the most elementary scams — with serious consequences.

The Guardian’s multi-part report depicts the events like a scheme of grand proportions executed for the express purpose of harassing Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-MI), Rashida Tlaib (D-MN) and other prominent Muslims. But the facts it uncovered point towards this being a run-of-the-mill money-making operation that used tawdry, hateful clickbait and evaded Facebook’s apparently negligible protections against this kind of thing.

The scam basically went like this: an administrator of a popular right-wing Facebook page would get a message from a person claiming to share their values that asked if they could be made an editor. Once granted access, this person would publish clickbait stories — frequently targeting Muslims, and often Rep. Omar, since they reliably led to high engagement. The stories appeared on a handful of ad-saturated websites that were presumably owned by the scammers.

That appears to be the extent of the vast conspiracy, or at least its operations — duping credulous conservatives into clicking through to an ad farm.

Its human cost, however, whether incidental or deliberate, is something else entirely. Rep. Omar is already the target of many coordinated attacks, some from self-proclaimed patriots within this country; just last month, an Islamophobic Trump supporter pleaded guilty in federal court to making death threats against her.

Social media is asymmetric warfare in that a single person can be the focal point for the firepower — figurative but often with the threat of literal — of thousands or millions. That a Member of Congress can be the target of such continuous abuse makes one question the utility of the platform on which that abuse is enabled.

In a searing statement offered to the Guardian, Rep. Omar took Facebook to task:

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Facebook's complacency is a threat to our democracy. It has become clear that they do not take seriously the degree to which they provide a platform for white nationalist hate and dangerous misinformation in this country and around the world. And there is a clear reason for this: they profit off it. I believe their inaction is a grave threat to people's lives, to our democracy and to democracy around the world.

Despite the scale of its effect on Rep. Omar and other targets, it’s possible and even likely that this entire thing was carried out by a handful of people. The operation was based in Israel, the report repeatedly mentions, but it isn’t a room of state-sponsored hackers feverishly tapping their keyboards — the guy they tracked down is a jewelry retailer and amateur SEO hustler living in a suburb of Tel Aviv who answered the door in sweatpants and nonchalantly denied all involvement.

The funny thing is that, in a way, this does amount to a vast international conspiracy. On one hand, it’s a guy in sweatpants worming his way into some trashy Facebook pages and mass-posting links to his bunk news sites. But on the other, it’s a coordinated effort to promote Islamophobic, right-wing content that produced millions of interactions and doubtless further fanned the flames of hatred.

Why not both? After all, they represent different ways that Facebook fails as a platform to protect its users. “We don't allow people to misrepresent themselves on Facebook,” the company wrote in a statement to the Guardian. Obviously, that isn’t true. Or rather, perhaps it’s true in the way that running at the pool isn’t allowed. People just do it anyway, because the lifeguards and Facebook don’t do their job.

Review: Driving the track-ready, race-banned McLaren Senna GTR

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 02:38 PM PST

The McLaren Senna GTR shouldn’t exist.

This feat of engineering and design isn’t allowed on public roads. It’s built for the track, but prohibited from competing in motorsports. And yet, the GTR is no outlier at McLaren. It’s part of their Ultimate Series, a portfolio of extreme and distinct hypercars that now serve as the foundation of the company’s identity and an integral part of their business model.

The P1, introduced in 2012, was McLaren Automotive’s opening act on the hypercar stage and was an instant success for both the brand and its business. McLaren followed it up with the P1 GTR, then went on to chart a course toward the Ultimate Series of today and beyond.

Since 2017, the automaker has added the Senna, Speedtail, Senna GTR and now the open-cockpit Elva to the Ultimate Series portfolio. While the GTR is certainly the most extreme and limited in how and where it can be used, it follows a larger pattern of the Ultimate Series as being provocatively designed with obsessive intent.

Automotive takes the wheel

Purpose-built race cars that call on every modern tool of engineering and design have historically been produced for one purpose: winning. This objective, nourished by billions of dollars of investment from the motorsports industry, has led to technological and performance breakthroughs that have eventually trickled down to automotive.

The pipeline that has produced a century of motorsports-driven innovation is narrowing as racing regulations become more restrictive. Now, a new dynamic is taking shape. Automotive is taking the technological lead.


Take the McLaren Senna road car, the predecessor to the GTR. McLaren had to constrain the design of the Senna to make it road legal. But the automaker loaded it with active aerodynamics and chassis control systems that racing engineers could only dream about.

McLaren wasn’t finished. It pushed the bounds further and produced a strictly track-focused and unconstrained race car that expands upon the Senna’s lack of conformity. The Senna GTR might be too advanced and too fast for any racing championship, but McLaren said to hell with it and made the vehicle anyway.

The bet paid off. All 75 Senna GTR hypercars, which start at $1.65 million, sold before the first one was even produced.

The Senna GTR is the symbol of a new reality — a hypercar market that thrives on the ever-more-extreme, homologation standards be damned.

Two weeks ago, I had a chance to get behind the wheel of the Senna GTR at the Snetterton Circuit in the U.K. to find out how McLaren went about developing this wholly unconstrained machine.

Behind the wheel

Rr-rr-rr-kra-PAH! The deafening backfire of the GTR’s 814-horsepower 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 engine snapped me to attention and instantly transported me to the moment earlier in the day that provided the first hints of what my drive might be like.

Rob Bell, the McLaren factory driver who did track development for the GTR, was on hand to get the car warmed up. Shortly after he set out, the car ripped down the front-straight, climbing through RPMs with an ear-protection-worthy scream that reverberated off every nearby surface, an audible reminder of how unshackled it is.

As Bell approached Turn 1, the rear wing quickly dropped back to its standard setting from the straightaway DRS (drag reduction system) position, then to an even more aggressive airbrake as he went hard to the brakes from 6th gear down to 5th to 4th. The vehicle responded with the signature kra-PAH! kra-PAH! and then promptly discharged huge flames out the exhaust as the anti-lag settings keep a bit of fuel flowing off-throttle.

I thought to myself, ‘Holy sh*t! This thing is no joke!’

McLaren Senna GTR driver

Sliding into the driver’s seat, I feel at home. The cockpit is purposeful. The track was cold with some damp spots, and the GTR is a stiff, lightweight race car with immense power on giant slick tires. Conventional wisdom would suggest the driver — me in this case — should slowly work up to speed in these otherwise treacherous conditions. However, the best way to get the car to work is to get temperature in the tires by leaning on it a bit right away. Bell sent me out in full “Race” settings for both the engine and electronic traction and stability controls. Within a few corners — and before the end of the lap — I had a good feel for the tuning of the ABS, TC and ESC, which were all intuitive and minimally invasive.

As a racing driver, it’s rare to feel a tinge of excitement just to go for a drive. As professionals, driving is a clinical exercise. But the GTR triggered that feeling.

I started by pushing hard in slower corners and before long worked my way up the ladder to the fast, high-commitment sections. The car violently accelerated up through the gears, leaving streaks of rubber at the exit of every corner.

Once the car is straight, drivers can push the DRS button to reduce drag and increase speed for an extra haptic kick. The DRS button is now a manual function on the upper left of the steering wheel to give the driver more control over when it’s deployed. After hitting the DRS, the car dares you to keep your right foot planted on the throttle, then instantly hunkers down under braking with a stability I’ve rarely experienced.McLaren Senna GTR drive

The active rear wing adds angle while the active front flaps take it out to counterbalance the effect of the car’s weight shifting forward onto the front axle, letting you drive deeper and deeper into each corner. It’s sharply reactive; the GTR stuck to the road, but still required a bit of driving with my fingertips out at the limit on that cold day. I soon discovered that the faster I went, the more downforce the car generated, and the more speed I was able to extract from it.

Tip to tail

In almost any other environment, the Senna road car is the most shocking car you’ve ever seen. Its cockpit shape is reminiscent of a sci-fi spaceship capsule. The enormous swan neck-mounted rear wing is one highlight in a long list of standout features. The Senna road car looks downright pedestrian next to the GTR.

McLaren Senna GTR doors

The rear wing stretches off the back of the car with sculpted carbon fiber endplates and seamlessly connects to the rear fender bodywork. The diffuser that emerges from the car’s underbody — creating low pressure by accelerating the airflow under the car for added downforce — is massive. The giant 325/705-19 Pirelli slicks are slightly exposed from behind, giving you the full sense of just how much rubber is on the ground, and the sharp edges of the center exit exhaust tips are already a bluish-purple tint.

The cockpit shape and dihedral doors are instantly recognizable from the road car. But inside, the GTR is all business. The steering wheel is derived from McLaren’s 720S GT3 racing wheel, a butterfly shape with buttons and rotary switches aplenty. The dash is an electronic display straight out of a race car; six-point belts and proper racing seats complete the aesthetic.

McLaren Senna GTR cockpit

Arriving at the front of the car, the active front wing-flaps are as prominent as ever, while the splitter extends several inches farther out in front of the car and is profiled with a raised area in the center to reduce pitch sensitivity given the car’s much lower dynamic ride-height. In fact, nearly the entire front end of the car has been tweaked; there are additional dive-planes, the forward facing bodywork at the sides of the car have been squared-off and reshaped, and an array of vortex generators have been carved into the outer edge of the wider, bigger splitter surface.

All of these design choices in the front point to the primary area of development from the Senna road-car to the GTR: maximizing its l/d or ratio of lift (in this case the inverse of lift, downforce) to drag.

McLaren pulled two of its F1 aerodynamicists into the GTR project to take the car’s aero to a new level. The upshot: a 20% increase in the car’s total downforce compared to the Senna road car, while increasing aero efficiency — the ratio of downforce to drag — by an incredible 50%. The car is wider, lower and longer than its road-going counterpart, and somehow looks more properly proportioned with its road-legal restrictions stripped away to take full advantage of its design freedom.

McLaren Senna GTR back

This was the car the Senna always wanted to be.

The development process of the GTR was short and to the point. When you have F1 aerodynamicists and a GT3 motorsport program in-house attacking what is already the most high-performing production track car in the industry, it can be. There were areas they could instantly improve by freeing themselves of road-car constraints — the interior of the car could be more spartan; the overall vehicle dimensions and track width could increase; the car would no longer need electronically variable ride heights for different road surfaces so the suspension system could be more purposeful for track use; the car would have larger, slick tires.

All this provided a cohesive mechanical platform upon which to release the aerodynamic assault of guided simulation and CFD.

Senna GTR CFD1 aero side

The GTR benefits from the work of talented humans and amazing computer programs working together with a holistic design approach. What was once a sort of invisible magic, aerodynamics has become a well-understood means of generating performance. But you still have to know what you’re seeking to accomplish; the priorities for a car racing at Pikes Peak are much different than those of a streamliner at Bonneville.

The development team for the GTR sought to maximize the total level of downforce that the tires could sustain, then really kicked their efforts into gear to clean up airflow around the car as much as possible. Many of the aggressive-looking design elements that differentiate the GTR from the Senna are not just for additional downforce but to move air around the car with less turbulence — less turbulent air means less drag. You can’t see it or feel it, but it certainly shows up on the stopwatch, and is often the difference between a car that just looks fast and one that actually is.

I hadn’t asked how fast the car was relative to other GT race cars before I drove it. I think a part of me was fearful that despite its appearance and specs it might be wholly tuned down to be sure it was approachable for an amateur on a track day. And that would make sense, as that’s the likely use-case this car will have. After driving the GTR, I didn’t hesitate for a second to ask, to which they humbly said that it’s seconds faster than their own McLaren 720S GT3 car, and still had some headroom.The Senna GTR is another exercise in exploring the limits of technology, engineering and performance for McLaren, enabled by a market of enthusiasts with the means to support it. And this trend is likely to continue unless motorsports changes the rules to allow hypercars.

McLaren’s next move

The Automobile Club de l’Ouest, organizers of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans, has been working for years to develop regulations that could include them. While these discussions are gaining momentum, it remains to be seen whether motorsport can provide a legitimate platform for the hypercar in the modern era.

The last time this kind of exercise was embarked on was more than 20 years ago during the incredible but short-lived GT1-era at Le Mans that spanned from 1995 to 1998. It saw McLaren, Porsche, Mercedes and others pull out all the stops to create the original hypercars — in most cases comically unroadworthy homologation specials like the Porsche 911 GT1 Strassenversion (literally “street version”) and Mercedes CLK GTR — for the sole purpose of becoming the underpinnings of a winning race car on the world’s stage.

At that time, the race cars made sense to people; the streetcars were misfits of which only the necessary minimum of 25 units were produced in most cases, and the whole thing collapsed due to loopholes, cost, politics and the lack of any real endgame.

Today, the ACO benefits from a road-going hypercar market that McLaren played a key role in developing. Considering McLaren's success with hyper-specific specialized vehicles in recent years, I’d bet the automaker could produce a vehicle custom-tailored to a worthy set of hypercar regulations. Even if not, McLaren will continue to develop and sell vehicles under its Ultimate Series banner.

And there's already evidence that McLaren is doubling down. 

McLaren Elva

McLaren shows off the open cockpit Elva.

McLaren’s Track 25 business plan targets $1.6 billion in investment toward 18 new vehicles between 2018 and 2025. The company’s entire portfolio will use performance-focused hybrid powertrains by 2025.

The paint had barely dried on the Senna GTR before McLaren introduced another new vehicle, the Elva. And more are coming. McLaren is already promising a successor to the mighty P1. I, for one, am looking forward to what else they have in store.

Elizabeth Warren is reportedly drafting legislation to allow gig workers to unionize

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 02:25 PM PST

A key ask from gig workers this year has been the right to unionize. Now, Senator (and presidential candidate) Elizabeth Warren is reportedly drafting a bill that would enable gig workers to do just that, CNBC reports.

In collaboration with Congressperson David Cicilline, the legislation would also ban “mega mergers” between companies where one has more than $40 billion in annual revenue or both have at least $15 billion in annual revenue.

Leading up to the legalization of California Assembly Bill 5, gig workers demanded better pay, basic workplace protections and the right to organize through unions. Now that AB-5 has been signed into law, it will legally be harder for companies to classify gig workers as 1099 independent contractors if challenged in court. However, gig workers still want the right to form unions.

Following the passage of AB-5, rideshare driver and Gig Workers Rising member Edan Alva said unions are critical. AB-5, he said, is only the beginning. On top of that, AB-5 is only specific to California. What Warren is reportedly proposing would cover the entire nation.

TechCrunch has reached out to Warren and will update this story if we hear back.

Niantic is working with Qualcomm on augmented reality glasses

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 02:25 PM PST

We’ve known for a while that Pokémon GO creator Niantic feels a bit limited in what it can do with augmented reality today.

Between the latency limitations of 4G cellular networks and the need for players to wave a smartphone around to do anything in AR, the tech just isn’t where Niantic wants it to be. As I wrote in a profile of Niantic back in April, the company has been focusing a ton of its efforts on what’s possible as things like 5G and AR glasses become more readily available. Niantic CEO John Hanke is betting on AR glasses being the thing after smartphones.

It makes sense, then, that Niantic is working with Qualcomm to build 5G-ready AR glasses.

Early this morning, Qualcomm announced XR2, a new chipset platform built specifically to power augmented reality and virtual reality devices.

Shortly thereafter, Niantic CTO Phil Keslin took the stage to announce that they’ve joined Qualcomm in a “multi-year collaboration” on this project.

So what does that actually mean?

Immediately, not a ton. You’re not going to be booting up Pokémon GO on a pair of Qualcomm/Niantic AR glasses this Christmas.

Moving forward, though, it means that Niantic will be working with Qualcomm to flesh out the reference hardware for augmented reality glasses, helping them figure out exactly what it needs to do.

Meanwhile, Niantic will be tuning its Real World Platform (the architecture that powers all of its existing games, and which they’re slowly opening up to third parties) to make it play friendly with XR2. Niantic has quietly been designing any architecture it has built over the last few years to ultimately be compatible with AR glasses — now they’re committing to compatibility with a specific chip, making things a bit more real. Once the tech is ready, says Keslin, it’ll all be rolled into the Real World Platform and made available to anyone in the Niantic Creator Program (which the company says should launch sometime in 2020).

Qualcomm is a pretty solid company to partner with; they’re by no means strangers to the world of AR. They’ve been working on chips purpose-built for AR/VR for well over a year now, beginning with the introduction of the XR1 platform back in May of last year. They were amongst the first to really go deep on building a development platform for augmented reality with the launch of the Vuforia SDK… though they sold that project in 2015 to focus on chips like these.

NFL-AWS partnership hopes to reduce head injuries with machine learning

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 02:24 PM PST

Today at AWS re:Invent in Las Vegas, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell joined AWS CEO Andy Jassy onstage to announce a new partnership to use machine learning to help reduce head injuries in professional football.

“We’re excited to announce a new strategic partnership together, which is going to combine cloud computing, machine learning and data science to work on transforming player health and safety,” Jassy said today.

NFL football is a fast and violent sport involving large men. Injuries are a part of the game, but the NFL is hoping to reduce head injuries in particular, a huge problem for the sport. A 2017 study found that 110 out of 111 deceased NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The NFL has a head start in machine learning due to the sheer amount of data it collects on its players. The sport also has decades of video. That means they should be able to create meaningful simulations that can help improve helmet design and also lead to rule changes that could reduce the concussion risk that is endemic in the sport.

Goodell recognizes that the sport has all this data, but lacks the expertise to put it to work. That’s where the partnership comes in. “I think what’s most exciting to me is that there are very few relationships that we get involved with where the partner and the NFL can change the game,” he said.

Jeff Miller, executive VP for Health and safety innovation for the NFL, says this partnership is part of a broader initiative the NFL has taken over the last few years to find ways to reduce head injuries in the game. “About three and a half years ago the NFL started a project called ‘The Engineering Roadmap’, which was a multibillion-dollar effort supported by our owners to better understand the impact of concussions on the field, then design ways to mitigate those injuries and move the helmet industry forward,” Miller said today.

Jeff Crandall, chairman of the NFL engineering committee, says this involves three main pieces. The first is understanding what happens on the field, particularly who is getting injured and why. Secondly, it involves taking that data and sharing it with the helmet industry to help them build better helmets. The final piece is incentivizing the helmet industry to build better helmets, and to that end the league established the $3 million helmet challenge.

The way AWS helps is of course putting all this data to work with its machine learning toolset. AWS’s VP of artificial intelligence, Matt Wood, says that having all this data is a huge advantage and allows them to put it to work in a data lake, and then use the AWS SageMaker toolset to help make sense of it and produce safer outcomes.

The hope is to help understand, not only how head injuries occur, and to prevent them to the extent possible in a violent sport, but also design better equipment and rule changes to reduce the number of injuries overall. Putting data to work and combining it with machine learning tools could help.

Gift Guide: Gifts for the promising podcaster

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 01:05 PM PST

Welcome to TechCrunch's 2019 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We're here to help! We'll be rolling out gift guides from now through the end of December. You can find our other guides right here.

Spotify reportedly spent nearly $500 million on podcasts in 2019. The good news is that the rest of us can get into that world for considerably less. In fact, the low barrier of entry has always been one of podcasting's primary selling points.

Before we go any further, I'd recommend everyone check out our on-going series "How I Podcast," in which top podcasters give a peek behind the curtain at their podcasting rigs. The standard disclaimer applies here, as ever: there's no one size fits all solution to any of this. One's needs will vary greatly depending on how much you're willing to spend and what the recording setup is (remote vs. in-person, the number of guests you usually have, etc.)

If you’re just getting started, just start. You don’t need high end mics or mixing boards — even if you’re just recording into your iPhone, it’s better to get the ball rolling than to worry about perfect fidelity right off the bat.

But for you or anyone on your list who’s looking to get a bit more serious about podcasting in 2020, this should be a good place to start. It’s easier than ever to make a show sound professional, one upgrade at a time. What follows is a selection of software and gear for anyone looking to step up their game.

(Oh, and while we’re talking about podcasts… check out my weekly interview show, RiYL)

Zencastr Subscription $20/month

There are a ton of different compelling software choices for today's podcaster, including Spotify's Anchor for real beginners, up to Adobe's Premier for the pros. For remote recorders, I recommend Zencastr. Our own Original Content podcast uses the software, and I've had pretty good experiences with its real-time audio levels and cloud-based recording. Gone are the days of hacking something together out of Skype calls.

Rodecaster Pro $599

Introduced last year, the Rodecaster Pro is the most expensive item on the list, but it also just might be the most indispensable for anyone looking to set up an at-home studio. It's a brilliant little multitrack board, and quite frankly, I'm surprised there isn't more competition in this space yet. For the beginning podcaster up through everyone who's ready to sign a contract with NPR, the Rodecaster is a terrific, user-friendly solution for recording more than two people face-to-face.

Zoom H4N PRO Digital Multitrack Recorder $200

When my Tascam finally gave up the ghost earlier this year, I decided to try something new. I'm glad I did. While it's true that most of these multitrack records haven't changed much in the past decade, Zoom offers a couple of key advantages. Most notable is far better real-time level tracking. I produce my podcast on the fly as I'm recording, and the ability to quickly monitor volume at a glance is paramount. I take the H4N with me wherever I travel, along with a pair of external mics.

AKG Lyra $149

Logitech's Blue has had the USB market cornered for some time now, but Samsung-owned AKG offers compelling alternatives at an even more compelling price. The $149 Lyra is certainly the best looking of the bunch. It's got a USB-C input, real-time monitoring and far clearer settings for a variety of different recording methods. I've been playing around with the mic a bit and will offer a more thorough writeup soon, but in the meantime, I can attest that it's a great sounding mic for remote recordings.

Blue Raspberry $149

The Lyra's biggest drawback, however, is its size. Blue's Raspberry can't compete on the sound front, but it's far more portable. More than once I've found myself sticking it in a backpack and a suitcase. Blue also offers up a mini-version of the Yeti at a fraction of the price, but this older Blue mic simply sounds better.

Shure SM7B $399

At about twice the price, the Shure SM7B is a bigger commitment than the previous options. But as the choice of pro-level podcasters all over, Shure's mics are a studio gold standard. The more portable SM-57s are also a terrific (and lower cost) option for more portable rigs. You'll get a great sounding show either way.

Sennheiser Momentum $190

Whether it’s for editing or just minimizing echoes during interviews, you’ll want a good pair of headphones. There's no shortage of over/on-ear options, but I'm partial to these Sennheisers for their combination of sound, price and classic good looks.

New tweet generator mocks venture capitalists

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 12:50 PM PST

"Airbnb’s unit economics are quite legendary — the S-1 is going to be MOST disrupted FASTEST in the next 3 YEARS? Caps for effect."

Who tweeted that? Initialized Capital’s Garry Tan? Homebrew's Hunter Walk? Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham? Or perhaps one of the dozens of other venture capitalists active on Twitter .

No, it was Parrot.VC, a new Twitter account and website dedicated to making light of VC Twitter. Brother-sister duo Samantha and Nick Loui, the creators of the new tool, fed 65,000 tweets written by some 50 venture capitalists to a machine learning bot. The result is an automated tweet generator ready to spew somewhat nonsensical (or entirely nonsensical) <280-character statements.

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According to Hacker News, where co-creator Nick Loui shared information about their project, the bot uses predictive text to generate "amazing, new startup advice,” adding “Gavin Belson – hit me up, this is the perfect acquisition for Hooli,” referencing the popular satirical TV show, “Silicon Valley.” 

This isn’t the first time someone has leveraged artificial intelligence to make fun of the tech community. One of my personal favorites, BodegaBot, inspired by the Bodega fiasco of late 2017, satirizes Silicon Valley’s unhinged desire to replace domestic service with technology.

Google’s AI-powered voice recorder and transcription app comes to older Pixel phones

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 12:34 PM PST

Google’s AI-powered voice recorder app introduced at Google’s October hardware event was one of the company’s more impressive demos. The new app taps into advances in AI, speech processing and speech recognition in order to automatically transcribe a voice recording with few mistakes, in real time as the person is speaking. Unfortunately, Google’s Recorder app was locked to Pixel 4 devices at launch. That has now changed.

As first spotted by Android Police, the Recorder app is available to Android users with older Pixel devices, including Pixel 2, Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a. The updated support was added to the app today, Sensor Tower also confirmed. But the lack of publicity around the launch has led it to see fewer than 1,000 downloads so far.

voice recorder

Google had previously announced its intention to make the app more widely available. In a recent Reddit thread, a company representative said the app would become available to more Pixel users in the future via a software update. They didn’t say when that update would arrive, though.

While there are many voice recorder apps on today’s market, there are few that offer real-time transcriptions. And of those that do — like, for example — the resulting text is often half-garbled. While these services can still be useful as a way to quickly find a section of a recording to then play back and manually transcribe, the lack of accuracy can limit adoption.

Google’s Recorder app was demonstrated at Google’s fall event as capable of taking a far more accurate transcription. Of course, the app was being not put to real-world use at the time — with different types of voices, accents  and background noise, it may not be as accurate. In addition, the app lacks the ability to identify and label different speakers, which could make it more difficult to use in situations like meetings or interviews.

That being said, the app held up well in initial tests in a review by The Wall St. Journal’s Joanna Stern, though it stumbled with accents. Other reviewers found the app to be fairly powerful, too, if a little basic in its overall design. TechCrunch’s review said the transcription was pretty good, but noted also it lacked some features other apps have.

pixel voice recorder

However, Recorder does have an advantage over some of its rivals: it doesn’t require an internet connection to work. Instead, all the recording and transcription capabilities take place directly on the device. That means you could even use the app while in airplane mode.

In addition, a built-in advanced search feature lets you search for sounds, words and phrases and then see a visual depiction of where the search term was spoken in the playback bar so you can go to the recording you need.

Google has put its real-time speech transcription technology to work in a number of ways, besides Recorder. It also introduced live caption technology for Android devices, for example, which brings transcriptions to things like video or audio saved on your device, or video playback outside of YouTube.

The Recorder app is a free download on Google Play.

We’ve reached out to Google for any update on its plans to make Recorder more broadly available across Android . The company hasn’t responded to our questions at this time.

A look at Latin America’s emerging fintech trends

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 12:28 PM PST

Although the 2008 global financial crisis sparked the fintech movement, in Latin America, the rise of ecommerce was responsible for the first wave of fintech startups.

Because digital payments were key to enabling the growth of ecommerce, investors funded companies like Braspag, PagSeguro, PayU, Mercado Pago and Moip in the early 2000s to take advantage of this opportunity.

Payment is still the most relevant segment, with successful cases like Stone and PagSeguro, but after the financial crisis, we started to see the rise of financial technology in lending and neobanking, generating impressive cases like Nubank, Neon, Creditas, Credijusto and Ualá.

As the ecosystem evolves and expands, let’s take a closer look at emerging trends in Latin America that might give us a hint about where to expect its next fintech unicorns.

Financial services for the gig economy

Latin America has seen explosive growth in ride-hailing and food delivery platforms such as Uber, Didi, Rappi and iFood, creating a totally new market opportunity — many gig economy workers can’t access basic financial services such as bank accounts, personal loans and insurance. Even those who have access often struggle with financial products that that don’t suit their needs because they were designed for full-time workers.

Spotting this opportunity, Uber Money launched at Money 2020, focusing on providing drivers with financial services. As 50% of the population in Latin America is unbanked where Uber has more than 1 million drivers, the region is definitely a ripe market. Cabify is going even farther by spinning off Lana, its company that provides financial services, so it can expand its market beyond Cabify drivers to include other gig economy professionals.

Although established players in this sector have a clear advantage, they aren’t the only ones looking to explore this opportunity; Brazilian YC alumni Zippi is offering personal loans to ride-hailing drivers based on their driving earnings. As the gig economy tends to keep growing in the region, I believe we will start to see more solutions for those professionals.

Rethinking insurance

As the banking world has been shaken by fintechs, insurance companies are growing aware that high regulatory barriers won’t protect their industry from disruption.

Insurance penetration in Latin America has been historically low compared to developed markets — 3.1%, compared to 8% — but the insurance market is growing well and tends to close this gap. Adding this to bad services and complex products that insurances provide, insurtech has an immense opportunity to grow.

Because purchasing insurance is historically a complicated and painful experience, the first insurtechs in the region focused on providing a better experience by digitizing the process and using online channels to acquire customers. Those insurtechs worked together with the insurance companies and operating as online broker, but now, we’re starting to see startups providing new insurance products, as well as traditional insurances in different models.

Some are partnering with insurance companies while others are competing directly with them; Think Seg and Miituo partnered with larger players to provide a pay-as-you-go model for car insurance, while Mango Life and Kakau are offering a better purchasing experience. On the other end, Crabi and Pier are rethinking the insurance model from the ground up.

As insurtechs emerge as a potential threat, incumbents are more willing to work with startups that can improve their services to enable them to compete on better grounds, which is exactly what companies such as Bdeo, Lisa, and HelloZum are doing.

Although penetrating the insurance industry is more complicated than other financial services due to high regulatory demands and steep initial operating costs, insurtechs fueled by VC investment will without any doubt try to do it. And, if we’ve learned anything from other fintech segments, it’s that entrepreneurs will find ways to overcome initial challenges.

Daily Crunch: Imgur launches an app for gaming memes

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 11:38 AM PST

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. 300M-user Imgur launches Melee, a gaming meme app

Melee, the company's first app beyond its flagship product, lets users subscribe to the games from which they love to get memes and gameplay clips. You also can scroll through a popular post’s feed if you're curious about unfamiliar games.

If you’re worried about the risk that gaming communities might turn toxic, Imgur says Melee has multiple layers of community and staff moderation, will remove obscene content and won't tolerate bullying.

2. SpaceX nears milestone on key crew launch system test

SpaceX is keeping relatively close to schedule on one of the bold timelines pronounced by its CEO Elon Musk. Specifically, the company notes that it has now completed seven system tests of the latest, upgraded version of the parachutes it plans to use with its Crew Dragon capsule when it launches with astronauts on-board.

3. Flipkart leads $60M investment in logistics startup Shadowfax

Shadowfax operates a business-to-business logistics network in more than 300 cities in India. The startup works with neighborhood stores to use their real estate to store inventory, and with a large network of freelancers for delivery.

4. A Sprint contractor left thousands of US cell phone bills on the internet by mistake

A contractor working for cell giant Sprint stored hundreds of thousands of cell phone bills for AT&T, Verizon (which owns TechCrunch) and T-Mobile subscribers on an unprotected cloud server.

5. How to build or invest in a startup without paying capital gains tax

Qualified Small Business Stock (QSBS) presents a significant tax savings opportunity for people who create and invest in small businesses. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Volvo invests in autonomous vehicle operating system startup Apex.AI though its VC arm

Apex.AI is working on developing a robotic operating system qualified for use in production automobiles. Its offerings include a set of simple-to-integrate APIs that can give automakers and others access to fully certified autonomous mobility technology.

7. Check out the prizes for TC Hackathon at Disrupt Berlin

One team gets $5,000, but we’ve got additional prizes from a range of sponsors. Also: This is next week!

Qualcomm launches the XR2 platform for 5G-connected AR and VR devices

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 11:00 AM PST

At its Snapdragon Boondoggle Summit in sunny Maui, Hawaii, Qualcomm today announced the launch of its XR2 platform, which it describes as the “world's first 5G-supported extended reality (XR) platform.” The company’s older XR1 platform, which already powers a number of VR and AR devices, will remain in the market and is now branded as Qualcomm’s XR platform for mainstream users, while XR2 is meant to show off “next-level features for never before experiences.”

XR2 brings together the company’s 5G modem and AI advances to, for example, support up to seven cameras for pass-through HoloLens-style mixed reality and smoother standalone VR experiences. Using this setup, the XR2 features 26-point skeletal hand tracking and, of course, accurate environmental mapping.

The XR2 supports display panels with a 3K by 3K resolution at 90 frames per second and supports up to 8K 360-degree videos at 60 frames per second, all using custom silicon to keep the latency of these panels very low.

While I think the value of AR/VR still remains somewhat debatable, Qualcomm believes that AR and VR had a good 2019 and started breaking out of the consumer gaming space. “I think when the hype started back in 2014/15, it was a lot about these consumer gaming experiences, but we see more and more enterprise applications coming to market. […] I think 2019 was a key year where we saw this transformation take place, with many, many proof points in both consumer and in enterprise,” said Hugo Swart, the company’s VP and Head of XR.

For the longest time now, we’ve heard how important 5G will be for this market, because it will allow you to stream high-quality video at the kind of low latencies that make AR/VR immersive. “5G is going to be crucial for XR. We’ve spoken about this in the past, that XRS video is the killer use case for 5G,” said Hiren Bhinde, director of product Management at Qualcomm. “Next year […], given that this is the world’s first 5G access platform, we are excited to see how different content developers, as well as different video streaming services with high-resolution videos, may be able to provide their high-bandwidth content on devices built on XR2.”

Einride to launch commercial pilot of driverless electric pods with Coca-Cola European Partners

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 10:39 AM PST

Autonomous robotic road-riding cargo pod startup Einride has signed a new partner for a commercial pilot on Sweden’s roads, which should be a great test of the company’s electric driverless transportation pods. Einride will be providing service for Coca-Cola European Partners, which is the official authorized bottler, distributor, sales and marketing company for Coca-Cola branded products in Sweden.

The partnership will see Einride commercially operating its transportation system between Coca-Cola European Partners’ warehouse in Jordbro outside Stockholm, and retailer Axfood’s own distribution hub, transporting Coca-Cola brand products to the retailer ahead of sending them off to local retail locations in Sweden.

Coca-Cola European Partners is looking to this partnership as part of its goal to continue to reduce emissions, since Einride’s system could potentially cut CO2 output by as much as 90% compared to current in-use solutions. This pilot is set to take place over the next few years, according to the two companies, and Einride says it hopes that it’ll be able to be on the road as early as some time next year, pending approval from the authorities since it’s a trial that will take place on public roads.

Einride announced $25 million in new funding in October, and has been running trials of the Einride Pod electric transport vehicle it created on public roads since May.

Airbnb officially bans all open-invite parties and events

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 10:35 AM PST

One month after Airbnb confirmed plans to verify all of its listings, the home-sharing giant has announced additional efforts to protect its hosts and guests.

Airbnb will provide a "clear and actionable enforcement framework" for scenarios, including excessive noise, major cleanliness concerns, as well as unauthorized guests, parking and smoking. The company, expected to go public next year, is also banning all "open-invite" parties and events from locations booked on its platform.

Unauthorized parties have long been banned from Airbnb homes. The new policy seeks to halt certain guests from hosting events not approved by hosts, such as a recent Halloween party hosted at a California Airbnb rental in which five people were killed.

Finally, Airbnb is launching a new hotline for mayors and city officials to discuss Airbnb's new policies with the company.

"While home sharing is a time-honored tradition in many cultures around the world, the rise of digital platforms like Airbnb has brought it within reach of more people than ever before," Airbnb's vice president of trust Margaret Richardson writes in today's announcement. "In turn, Airbnb has worked to collaborate with cities around the world and with our host and guest communities to ensure we are creating a framework that allows millions of people to trust one another."

Airbnb, founded in 2008, has long avoided verifying listings and incorporating stricter guest standards, instead looking to its thousands of hosts to devise individual house rules. As the company matures and crafts its pitch to Wall Street, we can expect to see additional updates to its policy to protect hosts, guests and communities.

Early last month, Airbnb said all properties would soon be verified for accuracy of photos, addresses, listing details, cleanliness, safety and basic home amenities. All rentals that meet the company's new standards will be "clearly labeled" by December 15, 2020, Airbnb chief executive Brian Chesky noted in a company-wide email last month. Beginning this month, Airbnb will rebook or refund guests who check into rentals that do not meet the new accuracy standards.

The company last month also outlined plans to launch a 24/7 Neighbor Hotline to give guests access to a real Airbnb employee from any location at any time. The company will fully roll-out the service next year.

Airbnb’s Richardson developed the above changes alongside Charles Ramsey, a retired police commissioner and co-chair of President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and Ronald Davis, the former director of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing's Services.

Future iPhones could drop charging ports altogether

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 10:33 AM PST

Here's a little early Christmas present for you. Apple analyst extraordinaire Ming-Chi Kuo is out with his latest Apple opus. Per usual, it's got a lot of fascinating nuggets, this time projecting as far as 2021 in its look at iPhones to come.

Let's skip right to that bit, shall we? It seems that 2021 may be the year Apple finally drops the Lightning cable. That would, of course, be good news, given that the port is…how to put this nicely…pretty objectively terrible. Apple, of course, already swapped it out on the iPad Pro for the far-more-ubiquitous-and-generally-better-in-every-way USB C.

What's even more interesting here, however, is the suggestion that it won't be USB C there to pick up the pace. 9to5Mac notes that the report suggests a 2021 iPhone would "provide the completely wireless experience." The implication here being that the charging port drops altogether on the high-end device (like the iPad, it would be more of a gradual sunsetting across the line, starting with the premium model). 

Meizu, notably, tried something similar this year with the very gimmicky (and pricey) Zero. The handset completely dropped ports, speakers and buttons from the equation, as a sort of logical conclusion of broader smartphone trends. For a majority of users, however, I suspect wireless charging is going to have to get some serious speed gains before they're ready to ditch wired charging altogether.

Interesting tidbits for 2020 include the arrival of several iPhones, arriving in 5.4, 6.1 (x2) and 6.7-inch varieties. All of the above will reportedly sport 5G, with cameras and size being the primary differentiation. The OLED devices will reportedly adopt a similar form factor as the now-ancient iPhone 4, per the report.

Chirp debuts a faster, feature-filled Twitter app for Apple Watch

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 10:33 AM PST

Chirp, a Twitter client preferred by hundreds of thousands of Apple Watch users, is getting its biggest upgrade since its arrival last year. Now redesigned for watchOS 6, the new version of Chirp includes a rebuilt timeline feature that allows you to endlessly scroll through tweets much more quickly than before, along with other enhancements, like support for iOS 13’s dark mode and a way to add colors to your Twitter username.

The app was first introduced to fill the void created when Twitter pulled its own Apple Watch app back in 2017 in favor of using Apple Watch’s notifications platform instead.

Chirp, meanwhile, lets users access a real Twitter client from their Watch’s small screen, which included a way to view your Home Timeline, Twitter Trends, @ Mentions, Direct Messages and more. Some features — like the ability to Direct Message or compose tweets from your Apple Watch — are only available to Chirp Pro paying users, though.

Chirp Pro is a user-friendly “pay what you want” feature that lets you chip in at either $4.99, $5.99 or $7.99 to upgrade the app and doesn’t require a subscription. To date, Chirp has around 200,000 installs, according to data from Sensor Tower. Conversions are much smaller.

The new version, Chirp 2.0, hopes to encourage more upgrades as it enhances the Twitter-on-your-wrist experience with a redesigned timeline that endlessly scrolls faster and more reliably than before, and includes an improved video player, image grids and more.

“The inspiration for rewriting the timeline came from when I was fortunate enough to attend WWDC 2019 as a scholar,” explains Chirp developer Will Bishop. “During the keynote, Apple announced SwiftUI, a new framework that allowed developers to develop their user interfaces much faster than ever before. However, not only did it increase the speed, it opened up a whole new way to create apps for the Apple Watch,” he explains.

“Prior to SwiftUI, all user interface on Apple Watch was drag-and-drop, which, while convenient, has some major drawbacks. So feeling inspired from this announcement, I left the keynote hall and immediately began working on reimplementing the timeline with SwiftUI,” he says.

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Direct messages were updated, too, and now include images and tweets that were shared through the private messaging feature.

Chirp 2.0 also introduces support for live complications on Apple Watch. That means you can see recent tweets right on the watch face, and tap on them to be redirected back to the Chirp app to reply, like or retweet. This feature is also available only to Pro users.

Another enhancement lets you add a little flair to your Twitter username by making it colorful — a feature that was inspired by a user’s request. Included as a one-off in-app purchase, it’s $1 for Pro users or $2 for non-Pro users to take advantage of this option. Bishop attributes the pricing decision to the backend work required to implement the feature on his part. It also makes for an additional revenue stream, by being available to those who don’t want to pay for the Pro version of the app.

However, Bishop notes that the option will be available for free during Pride month (June) so everyone can make their username rainbow-colored, if they choose.

In addition, Chirp 2.0 is now available in a number of languages, besides English, including Chinese (simplified), Danish, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish (Latin America).

The app itself is a free download from the iOS or Apple Watch App Store. 

AI-enabled assistant robot returning to the Space Station with improved emotional intelligence

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 10:32 AM PST

The Crew Interactive Mobile Companion (or CIMON, for short) recorded a number of firsts on its initial mission to the International Space Station, which took place last November, including becoming the first-ever autonomous free-floating robot to operate aboard the station, and the first-ever smart astronaut assistant. But CIMON is much more than an Alexa for space, and CIMON-2, which launched aboard today’s SpaceX ISS resupply mission, will demonstrate a number of ways the astronaut support robot can help those working in space — from both a practical and an emotional angle.

CIMON is the product of a collaboration between IBM, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and Airbus, and its aim is to design and develop a robotic assistant for use in space that can serve a number of functions, including things as mundane as helping to retrieve information and keep track of tasks astronauts are doing on board the station, and as wild as potentially helping to alleviate or curb the effects of social issues that might arise from settings in which a small team works in close quarters over a long period.

“The goal of mission one was really to commission CIMON and to really understand if he can actually work with the astronauts — if there are experiments that he can support,” explained IBM’s Matthias Biniok, project manager on the Watson AI aspects of the mission. “So that was very successful — the astronauts really liked working with CIMON.”

“Now, we are looking at the next version: CIMON-2,” Biniok continued. “That has more capability. For example, it has better software and better hardware that has been improved based on the outcomes that we had with mission one — and we have also some new features. So for example, on the artificial intelligence side, we have something called emotional intelligence, based on our IBM Watson Tone Analyzer, with we’re trying to understand and analyze the emotions during a conversation between CIMON and the astronauts to see how they’re feeling — if they’re feeling joyful, if something makes them angry, and so on.”

That, Biniok says, could help evolve CIMON into a robotic countermeasure for something called “groupthink,” a phenomenon wherein a group of people who work closely together gradually have all their opinions migrate toward consensus or similarity. A CIMON with proper emotional intelligence could detect when this might be occurring, and react by either providing an objective, neutral view — or even potentially taking on a contrarian or “Devil’s advocate” perspective, Biniok says.

That’s a future aim, but in the near-term CIMON can have a lot of practical benefit simply by freeing up time spent on certain tasks by astronauts themselves.

“Time is super expensive on the International Space Station,” Biniok said. “And it’s very limited, so if we could save some crew time with planning, that would be super helpful to the astronauts. CIMON can also support experiments — imagine that you’re an astronaut up there, you have complex research experiments going on, and there’s a huge amount of documentation for that. And if you are missing some information, or you have a question about it, then you have to look up in this documentation, and that takes time. Instead of doing that, you could actually just ask CIMON — so for example, ‘what’s the next step CIMON?,’ or ‘why am I using Teflon and not any other materials?’ ”

CIMON can also act as a mobile documentarian, using its onboard video camera to record experiments and other activities on the Space Station. It’s able to do so autonomously, too, Biniok notes, so that an astronaut can theoretically ask it to navigate to a specific location, take a photo, then return and show that photo to the astronaut.

This time around, CIMON will be looking to stay on the ISS for a much longer span than version one; up to three years, in fact. Biniok had nothing specific to share on plans beyond that, but did say that long-term, the plan is absolutely to extend CIMON’s mission to include the Moon, Mars and beyond.

Inside VSCO, a Gen Z-approved photo-sharing app, with CEO Joel Flory

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 10:29 AM PST

Long before Instagram toyed with removing “likes,” VSCO, an Oakland-based photo-sharing and editing app, built a community devoid of likes, comments and follower counts. Perhaps known to many only because of this year’s “VSCO girl” meme explosion, the company has long been coaxing the creative community to its freemium platform. Turns out, if you can provide the disillusioned teens of Gen Z respite from the horrors of social media — they’ll pay for it.

VSCO is on pace to surpass 4 million paying users in 2020, up from 2 million paying users in late 2018, the company said. Approaching $80 million in annual revenue, VSCO charges an annual subscription fee of $19.99 for access to a full-suite of mobile photo-editing tools, exclusive photo filters, tutorials and more. For no cost, users can access a handful of basic VSCO filters, standard editing tools and loads of content published by other users in VSCO’s photo feed.

In recent months, the company’s Oakland headquarters has swelled to 150 employees, an increase of 50% from 2018, with a new office in Chicago expected to fit several dozen more. The company, which counts 100 million registered users to date, has also recently inked a partnership with Snap. Together, they’ve launched Analog, VSCO's first-ever Snapchat lens, in a deal that hints at a future acquisition. Needless to say, VSCO co-founder and chief executive officer Joel Flory is feeling pretty optimistic ahead of his company’s eighth birthday.

“When you walk into a museum, you don’t see the net worth of the artist,” Flory tells TechCrunch. “You don’t see how many people have walked through the museum. There’s not a space for people to write comments and leave stickers. It’s a moment. It’s for you. You get to sit in front of a piece of work, a piece of art. And does it move you? Does it speak to you? Are you able to learn something from it? Does it inspire you to go do something? How can we create a space in which you could do that online? That was our initial insight.”

Flory, a 40-year-old former wedding photographer, wears a grey Oakland Roots sweatshirt and a black Oakland Athletics hat when I meet him at VSCO’s offices on Oakland’s Broadway Avenue in November. He doesn’t look like the Gen Z whisperer I expected to meet, and his responses to my questions about the “VSCO girl” meme paint a picture of a CEO who’s inadvertently connected with a generation 20 years his junior. “It’s a sense of caring about the environment and kind of caring about causes that have a meaning and impact,” Flory said of “VSCO girls,” who have more-oft been described as 21st century valley girls or “annoying, white hopeless romantics.”

On one hand, we were ahead of the curve. But I think we were just being true to who we are. VSCO CEO Joel Flory

Regardless of Flory’s ability to decode Gen Z, VSCO continues to be beloved by millions of teenagers and young adults worldwide. Without selling ads or customer data, VSCO has developed a sustainable subscription-based business and written a new playbook for social media businesses in a world where Facebook’s advertising-based model is king. For those fed up with platforms that have facilitated bullying and failed to prioritize privacy, VSCO may be a protective corner of the internet.

“The creator always wins, the community always wins, who’s paying us wins and VSCO wins,” Flory said. “It sounds simple, but this creates a business model in which our business is not extracting value from any one group to give to someone else. It’s this direct relationship with who’s paying us.”

VSCO CEO Joel Flory speaks to attendees while teaching phone photography class during The Wall Street Journal Tech Live conference in Laguna Beach, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. Photographer: Martina Albertazzi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A sense of belonging

Hot off the heels of a rare moment in the spotlight, VSCO, reportedly valued at $550 million, is ripe for a new round of funding. Flory, naturally, remained mum on any plans to sell the company or raise additional capital. But he was ready and willing to speak to the company’s untraditional path and the unique connection it has fostered with its users.

Flory tells me 75% of VSCO’s registered users and 55% of its paying subscribers are younger than 25, giving the company a small foothold into the most coveted demographic. On top of that, the hashtag #VSCO has been viewed 4 billion times on the immensely popular video sharing app Tik Tok, again according to the company’s own statistics, and another 450 million times on Instagram. With 40 million monthly active users Facebook had 2.45 billion monthly active users as of September, for context VSCO is by no means a competitor to Facebook, Facebook-owned Instagram, Snap or Twitter. What it is, however, is a leader in the new era of social media, in which users demand more transparent, equitable relationships with social platforms.

“[Gen Z] knows what each platform is good for and what the downfalls of each are,” Flory said. “They are actively making investments in creativity and in their mental health, and they are seeking out a space where they can be who they are. And the fact that they’re even talking about mental health, anxiety, depression and compare culture — it took me so long in life to be able to articulate what I was feeling … They’re putting their money and time in brands and causes that they care about. And so for us, that’s why I think we’ve seen a lot of our growth.”

Flory and VSCO co-founder Greg Lutze, a long-time creative director-turned-chief experience officer, began building VSCO, an acronym for Visual Supply Co., in 2011. Facebook was more than six years old and mere months from hitting the 1 billion monthly active user milestone when VSCO launched its first product, a photo-editing plug-in for Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Instagram, for its part, was a burgeoning photo-based social network that had launched the year before to “ignite communication through images.” Unlike Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who famously created Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, or Instagram’s founding CEO Kevin Systrom, a former Google employee, Flory and Lutze had absolutely no experience in the tech or startup world. The pair banded together to build something focused around the creative community — not to construct a venture-backed startup.

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“We wanted to provide the tools for you to express yourself and then a space for you to do that, one that was void of the pressures around likes and comments that create this compare culture, which wasn’t even prevalent yet,” Flory said. “Now we’re seeing this played out on a large scale. So on one hand, we were ahead of the curve. But I think we were just being true to who we are.”

The business is growing in a way that we’ve never seen before. VSCO CEO Joel Flory

After launching VSCO as an Adobe plug-in, improved camera capabilities on smartphones motivated the business to change course. In the spring of 2013, the business launched its mobile app, a free photo-editing tool with in-app purchases and an affiliated community. The app reached 1 million downloads one week later and would eventually adopt a freemium model to earn money from its power users. Since its app launch, VSCO has remained a top-five grossing photo app on Apple’s App Store.

VSCO’s Oakland offices.

New opportunities

Though seldom mentioned on the venture capital and startup blogs, VSCO is indeed supported by VC dollars. Before its subscription revenue could sustain the business, the company brought in $90 million in VC funding from Accel, Glynn Capital Management, Obvious Ventures and Goldcrest Investments, closing its most recent round in 2015.

Flory and Lutze never sought venture funding. The former photographer and creative director didn’t have connections to venture capitalists or an in at a particular firm. Instead, Accel partners Vas Natarajan and Ryan Sweeney approached VSCO with “a thesis around the importance of design and creativity in the future,” Flory said, and quickly formed an alliance. Today, VSCO isn’t profitable, though it has been in the past, Flory said. It did, however, operate at “near break-even” last year — an accomplishment today as startups often lose hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis. With a valuation of $550 million, which Flory would neither confirm or deny, VSCO plans to invest heavily in growth next year.

As for the “VSCO girl” meme explosion, largely a mockery of white middle-class, social-media-savvy teenagers, it provided a jolt of publicity for a nearly decade-old company lost in the shadow of the giants. Though the meme entered the internet’s zeitgeist many months ago, the company is still riding a wave of press (and likely downloads) tied to its popularity. For many, the VSCO girl was their first encounter with VSCO, while for others, the photo-editing and sharing tool has been a fixture of their home screen for years.

As Instagram explores hiding likes in a bid to promote user health and other social media companies realize the importance of safety, security and mental wellness, VSCO may see its unique identity fade. Regardless, Flory says he wants other platforms to realize the impact of likes: “I honestly hope everyone thinks about what’s good for people’s mental health and builds more products that have a positive impact than a negative impact.”

Instagram’s experiments aside, VSCO is gearing up for another banner year, packed with plans for new features and products entirely. In our chat last month, Flory mentioned video design, publishing and editing, as well as illustration, as areas of interest for the now established photo-editing tool.

“The business is growing in a way that we’ve never seen before,” Flory said. “And what it’s doing is opening all of these new areas of opportunity. We’re focused on not only how you create content and how you edit content, but ultimately, how you tell a story with that content.”

After criticism, Homeland Security drops plans to expand airport face recognition scans to US citizens

Posted: 05 Dec 2019 10:27 AM PST

Homeland Security has confirmed it will not expand face recognition scans to U.S. citizens arriving and departing the country, days after it emerged the agency proposed making the scans for citizens mandatory.

The department, whose responsibility is border protection and immigration checks, said in a government filing that it wanted to “amend the regulations to provide that all travelers, including U.S. citizens, may be required to be photographed upon entry and/or departure.”

The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the move, saying it had “profound privacy concerns” despite promises from the government that it had no plans to expand the face recognition checks to Americans.

Currently, U.S. citizens are allowed to opt-out of face recognition scans at the airport, but foreign nationals and visitors are required to have their faces scanned when arriving or leaving the U.S., where the systems are installed.

Homeland Security says the scans are to help crack down on illegal immigration and visa overstays.

A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection, which filed the proposal, said the agency has “no current plans to require U.S. citizens to provide photographs upon entry and exit from the United States,” and that it “intends to have the planned regulatory action regarding U.S. citizens removed from the unified agenda next time it is published."

The agency spokesperson said CBP “initially considered” including U.S. citizens in its face recognition checks at airports and other ports of entry “because having separate processes for foreign nationals and U.S. citizens at ports of entry creates logistical and operational challenges that impact security, wait times and the traveler experience.”

“Upon consultation with Congress and privacy experts, however, CBP determined that the best course of action is to continue to allow U.S. citizens to voluntarily participate in the biometric entry-exit program,” the spokesperson noted.

Just yesterday, CBP said it met with privacy experts and that it was “committed to keeping the public informed about our use of facial comparison technology,” said CBP’s John Wagner.

A source with knowledge of the meeting said privacy advocates warned the government against expanding face recognition scans for U.S. citizens, citing privacy risks.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "This proposal never should have been issued, and it is positive that government is withdrawing it after growing opposition from the public and lawmakers.”

“But the fact remains that the agency attempted to renege on what was already an insufficient promise, and has not yet committed to ensuring that immigrants will not be forced to submit to this surveillance. Homeland Security's plans to spread face recognition surveillance nationwide remain alarming, especially given the lack of congressional authorization and sufficient safeguards, the government’s past security failures, and unanswered questions about the technology’s effectiveness, bias, and broader societal implications,” he said.

“The government cannot be trusted with this surveillance technology, and Congress should put the brakes on its use,” said Stanley.