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Monday, March 23, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Monitoring is critical to successful AI

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 03:38 PM PDT

As the world becomes more deeply connected through IoT devices and networks, consumer and business needs and expectations will soon only be sustainable through automation.

Recognizing this, artificial intelligence and machine learning are being rapidly adopted by critical industries such as finance, retail, healthcare, transportation and manufacturing to help them compete in an always-on and on-demand global culture. However, even as AI and ML provide endless benefits — such as increasing productivity while decreasing costs, reducing waste, improving efficiency and fostering innovation in outdated business models — there is tremendous potential for errors that result in unintended, biased results and, worse, abuse by bad actors.

The market for advanced technologies including AI and ML will continue its exponential growth, with market research firm IDC projecting that spending on AI systems will reach $98 billion in 2023, more than two and one-half times the $37.5 billion that was projected to be spent in 2019. Additionally, IDC foresees that retail and banking will drive much of this spending, as the industries invested more than $5 billion in 2019.

These findings underscore the importance for companies that are leveraging or plan to deploy advanced technologies for business operations to understand how and why it's making certain decisions. Moreover, having a fundamental understanding of how AI and ML operate is even more crucial for conducting proper oversight in order to minimize the risk of undesired results.

Companies often realize AI and ML performance issues after the damage has been done, which in some cases has made headlines. Such instances of AI driving unintentional bias include the Apple Card allowing lower credit limits for women and Google's AI algorithm for monitoring hate speech on social media being racially biased against African Americans. And there have been far worse examples of AI and ML being used to spread misinformation online through deepfakes, bots and more.

Through real-time monitoring, companies will be given visibility into the "black box" to see exactly how their AI and ML models operate. In other words, explainability will enable data scientists and engineers to know what to look for (a.k.a. transparency) so they can make the right decisions (a.k.a. insight) to improve their models and reduce potential risks (a.k.a. building trust).

But there are complex operational challenges that must first be addressed in order to achieve risk-free and reliable, or trustworthy, outcomes.

5 key operational challenges in AI and ML models

NYC is offering gig workers delivery jobs during COVID-19 pandemic

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 03:15 PM PDT

To help gig workers make ends meet during these times of job insecurity amid COVID-19, New York City is offering gig workers who are licensed with the TLC to help with delivery work.

While the demand for drivers is currently small, NYC says it expects demand to increase for meal delivery to senior citizens and other residents who need to stay home. The jobs pay $15 per hour, and offer reimbursement for gas mileage and tolls — something gig economy companies don’t currently do.

“The World is changing around us and many of you are without work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the TLC wrote in an email to licensees today. “You are a top priority for the TLC and we recognize that you are among the hardest hit by this public health crisis. As we look at all possible ways to help you and as we assess needs citywide, we ask for your assistance and participation in the City's response.”

Those interested can head over to to learn more and sign up. Jobs will be offered on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“New York City’s for-hire vehicle drivers have seen their earnings plummet amid this pandemic. Drivers are ready to step up to help the city in this time of great need,” Independent Drivers Guild Executive Director Brendan Sexton said in a statement. “We are thankful that the city sees the value in this workforce and appreciate the Commissioner’s hard work to make DeliveryTLC a reality.”

Last week, both Uber and Lyft suspended their carpooling services in the U.S. in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus. And just three days ago, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all non-essential retailers and businesses to close.

Meanwhile, there have been reports that demand has generally been on the decline in light of growing concerns about the virus. Lyft, for example, says it has seen a decline in demand and has consequently expanded its services to include delivery and partnerships with nonprofit organizations, the healthcare industry and the government. Uber, on the other hand, has said demand for ride-hailing services has dropped as much as 70% in the cities most impacted by the coronavirus.

Earlier today, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi sent a letter to the White House, asking that gig workers get protection and financial support in the COVID-19 stimulus packages. In that same letter, Khosrowshahi argued that there needs to be a third employment classification for gig workers that “would update our labor laws to remove the forced choice between flexibility and protection for millions of American workers.”

Over in California, where gig worker protections bill AB 5 became law earlier this year, a group of gig workers are pushing for legislators to fully enforce the new law. That would help to ensure gig workers have access to paid sick leave, disability insurance, family leave and unemployment.

The best video chat apps to turn social distancing into distant socializing

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 02:47 PM PDT

The vicissitudes of social distancing have taken many people by surprise, making video calls a new necessity for distant socializing. But which of the two dozen apps out there should you and your (perhaps not as tech-savvy) friends and family use? Here are our recommendations, whether it’s for a coffee meeting, a family get-together, or a late night gaming hangout.

This list is for individuals looking for a free solution to easily connect with others, not for small businesses or enterprises. The focus here is on ease of use and features that make it attractive to ordinary people. Every app is free and cross-platform, meaning iOS and Android at least, with many supporting Macs and Windows machines as well.

For big groups

Skype (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux, web)

Pros: Many simultaneous callers

Cons: Tries too hard to do other things

Skype has been around for a long time, and while its desktop app is pretty weak, the mobile version is solid and it supports big groups with no real time limit (4 hours per call, 100 hours per month), for free. As long as you focus on just the video calls, it’s great, but Skype’s emoji reactions, status updates, and other cruft are best avoided.

Zoom (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows)

Pros: Many simultaneous callers, strong admin controls

Cons: Sketchy background data policies, 40 minute limit

Zoom is one of the most popular business video conference apps out there due to its reliability, solid web integration, and other features. It’s not really made for personal calls — there are way more bells and whistles than you need — but its free plan works just fine for them. Unfortunately, there’s a 40 minute limit for group calls, which you’ll hit faster than you think, and everyone will have to hang up and start again. Zoom has also been criticized for its considerable behind-the-scenes data collection. If you really want to just chill with your friends, there are better options.

For friends and family

FB Messenger (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows)

Pros: Easy to use, many people already on it, some handy group features

Cons: Facebook account required

Messenger is a popular app for good reason — it works well for pretty much every kind of digital communication you might want to do with your friends. It supports up to 8 people in free video calls with no duration limit, and when you are doing a two-person call it switches to a peer-to-peer structure, skipping servers and potentially avoiding congestion. Of course, it’s also a Facebook product, meaning you’ll need an account there — not something everyone is into. But Messenger use is considerably better protected from Facebook snooping than posts and images on the main site.

WhatsApp Messenger (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, web)

Pros: Secure, popular

Cons: Only 4 people per video call

Think of WhatsApp as FB Messenger’s nerdier, less good-looking sibling. With a focus on privacy, WhatsApp is popular around the world despite being super ugly, and while video calls aren’t its main feature, they are possible if you don’t mind a 4-person limit. To activate it, start a group chat and then hit the call button the top right and select the participants, then hit the camera.

Google Duo or Hangouts (iOS, Android, web)

Pros: Simple interface, uses existing Google account

Cons: Confusing platform issues, Duo may not be long for this world

Duo is one of Google’s later messaging products, started as a complement to Allo and meant to be sort of the consumer version of Hangouts, which is being split into Chat and Meet, but still exists on its own. Confused? So is Google. But the apps work pretty well for now, plugging into your existing Google contacts and accounts and letting you do straightforward, unlimited video calls. If your friends don’t want to sign up for a new account anywhere, this is a good option — just don’t get attached, as unpopular Google products don’t tend to live for long.

Marco Polo (iOS, Android)

Pros: Video messaging is a fun alternative to live chats

Cons: No live chat option

This isn’t a video chat app per se, but the fact is not everyone really wants to do a full-on live face-to-face video all the time. Marco Polo is like a streamlined Snapchat, sending short videos to friends or groups with the option to add doodles, filters and so on. If you and your friends are finding it hard to set aside half an hour to talk live, this can be a good alternative.

Honorable mentions: FaceTime, Instagram

FaceTime is great, but it’s not cross-platform, considerably limiting its usefulness. But if your friends do happen to have Apple products, it’s a great, simple option. Instagram has video calling built into direct messages, which is nice for quick calls with people you aren’t sure you want to bring into a smaller circle of connectivity.

For having fun together

Houseparty (iOS, Android, web)

Pros: Simple drop-in, drop-out group chat, built-in games

Cons: Basically a trojan horse for Heads Up

Houseparty established its brand as the app teens were using to chat with groups of friends without leaving the house. Pundits disapproved, but as usual, the kids get the last laugh. Houseparty is nice for a group of close friends, alerting you when someone’s available and letting people easily join in the chat with minimal fuss. The built in games are also fun, but you’ll have to pony up for Heads Up decks. The Pictionary clone is fun but desperately needs more words.

Discord (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux, web)

Pros: Great for voice chat while gaming or simple occasional video chat

Cons: Occasionally confusing interface, not video-focused

Discord is the de facto champion for gaming-related communications, taking the place of many in-game chat interfaces and even schooling industry heavyweights like Steam. While it’s mainly focused on audio and does that well, video is an option too. Less savvy users may also find its interface confusing, with multiple tabs, groups, and channels.

Honorable mention: Bunch, Squad

A newer app, Bunch, is focused on group games while in video chat. This can be hit or miss and you can expect in-app purchases, and startups like this don’t always live forever. But Bunch is probably getting a lot of engagement right now and can use that to extend its credit long enough to power through the summer at least. I can’t think of a better opportunity to give it a shot.

Squad is focused on sharing what you’re doing on your phone while chatting — so you can Tinder together, watch videos, etc. Like Bunch it’s still new so you’ll have to get your friends to sign up, but it’s a nice way to share what you’re scrolling (or swiping) through.

Fiat Chrysler to start producing 1 million face masks a month

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 02:39 PM PDT

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said Monday it will start manufacturing face masks in the coming weeks and donate the critical medical equipment to first responders and healthcare workers — the latest automaker to direct its manufacturing expertise toward the COVID-19 pandemic.

The automaker confirmed to TechCrunch that production capacity is being installed this week at one of its factories in China. Manufacturing will start in the coming weeks and distribution will be focused on the U.S., Canada and Mexico. FCA said it plans to produce 1 million face masks a month. All masks will be donated to police, EMTs and firefighters and workers in hospitals and healthcare clinics.

"Protecting our first responders and healthcare workers has never been more important,” FCA CEO Mike Manley said in a statement. “In addition to the support we are giving to increase the production of ventilators, we canvassed our contacts across the healthcare industry and it was very clear that there is an urgent and critical need for face masks. We've marshalled the resources of the FCA Group to focus immediately on installing production capacity for making masks and supporting those most in need on the front line of this pandemic."

The FCA announcement follows a plea last week from Vice President Mike Pence for construction companies to donate their stocks of N95 respirator masks to hospitals. Construction companies have responded, Pence said in a subsequent press conference. Other companies have started donating their caches of face masks as well, including Apple, Facebook, IBM and Tesla.

COVID-19, a disease caused by coronavirus, has led to a shortage of protective equipment such as N95 respirator masks, gloves and gowns.

Vice President Pence asked construction companies to donate to their local hospitals their stocks of N95 respirator masks and stop ordering more for the time being. This call comes in the middle of a major shortage of these kinds of masks, which get their name from being able to block at least 95% of 0.3 micron particles.

Other manufacturers such as GM, Ford, VW and Tesla have started to work on the complex task of producing ventilators, another critical piece of medical equipment for patients hospitalized with COVID-19. The disease attacks the lungs and can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia. And since there is no clinically proven treatment yet, ventilators are relied upon to help people breathe and fight the disease. There are about 160,000 ventilators in the United States and another 12,700 in the National Strategic Supply, the NYT reported.

GM said Friday that it is working with Ventec Life Systems to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said last week that he had a discussion with Medtronic about ventilators. Medtronic later confirmed those talks in a tweet. Musk had previously tweeted that SpaceX and Tesla will work on ventilators, without providing specifics.

Startups are helping cloud infrastructure customers avoid vendor lock-in

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 02:29 PM PDT

For much of the history of enterprise technology, companies tended to buy from a single vendor because it made managing the entire affair much easier while giving them a “single throat to choke” when something went wrong. On the flip side, it also put customers at the mercy of said vendor — and it wasn’t always pretty.

As we move deeper into the cloud model, many IT pros are looking for more flexibility than they had in the past, avoiding the vendor lock-in from the previous generation of enterprise tech, and what being beholden to a single vendor could mean for the bottom line and their own flexibility.

This is something that comes up frequently in discussions about moving workloads from one cloud to another, and is sometimes referred to as a multi-cloud approach. Customers are loath to leave their workloads in the hands of one vendor again and repeat the mistakes of the past. They are looking to have the same flexibility on the infrastructure side that they are getting in the SaaS world, where companies tend to purchase best-of-breed from multiple vendors.

That means, they want the freedom to move workloads between clouds, but that’s not always as easy a prospect as it might seem, and it’s an area where startups could help lead the way.

What’s the problem?

What’s stopping customers from just moving data and applications between clouds? It turns out that there is a complex interlinking of public cloud APIs that help the applications and data work in tandem. If you want to pull out of one public cloud, it’s not a simple matter of just migrating to the next one.

Kinsa’s fever map could show just how crucial it is to stay home to stop COVID-19 spread

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 02:16 PM PDT

Smart thermometer maker Kinsa has been working on building accurate, predictive models of how seasonal illnesses like the flu travel in and among communities — and its fever map is finding new utility as the novel coronavirus pandemic grows globally. While Kinsa’s US Health Weather Map has no way of tracking the spread of COVID-19 specifically, as it looks only at fevers tied to geographic data, it could provide easy-to-grasp early indicators of the positive effects of social distancing and isolation measures at the community level.

At the time that Kinsa’s health weather map was covered in the New York Times in February, the company had around a million thermometers in market in the U.S., but it had experienced a significant increase in order volume of as many as 10,000 units per day in the week prior to its publication. That means that the company’s analytics are based on a very large data set relative to the total U.S. population. Kinsa founder and CEO Inder Singh told me this allowed them to achieve an unprecedented level of accuracy and granularity in flu forecasting down to the community level, working in partnership with Oregon State University Assistant Professor Ben Dalziel.

“We showed that the core hypothesis for why I started the company is real — and the core hypothesis was you need real-time, medically accurate, geolocated data that’s taken from people who’ve just fallen ill to detect outbreaks and predict the spread of illness,” Singh said. “What we did with our data is we punched it into Ben’s existing, first-principle models on infectious disease spread. And we were able to show that on September 15, we could predict the entire rest of cold and flu season with hyper-accuracy in terms of the peaks and the valleys — all the way out to the rest of flu season, i.e. 20 weeks out on a hyperlocal basis.”

Prior to this, there have been efforts to track and predict flu transmission, but the “state-of-the-art” to date has been predictions at the national or multi-state level — even trends in individual states, let alone within communities, was out of reach. And in terms of lead time, the best achievable was essentially three weeks out, rather than multiple months, as is possible with Kinsa and Dalziel’s model.

Even without the extraordinary circumstances presented by the global COVID-19 pandemic, what Singh, Dalziel and Kinsa have been able to accomplish is a major step forward in tech-enabled seasonal illness tracking and mitigation. But Kinsa also turned on a feature of their health weather map called “atypical illness levels” a month ago, and that could prove an important leading indicator in shedding more light on the transmission of COVID-19 across the U.S. — and the impact of key mitigation strategies like social distancing.

“We’re taking our real-time illness signal, and we’re subtracting out the expectation,” Singh says, explaining how the new view works. “So what you’re left with is atypical illness. In other words, a cluster of fevers that you would not expect from normal cold and flu time. So, presumably, that is COVID-19; I cannot definitively say it’s COVID-19, but what I can say is that it’s an unusual outbreak. It could be an anomalous flu, a strain that’s totally unexpected. It could be something else, but at least a portion of that is almost certainly going to be COVID-19.”

The ‘atypical illness’ view of Kinsa’s US Health Weather Map. Red indicates much higher than expected levels of illness, as indicated by fever.

The graph represents the actual number of reported fevers, versus the expected number for the region (represented in blue) based on Kinsa’s accurate seasonal flu prediction model.

In the example above, Singh says that the spike in fevers coincides with reports of Miami residents and tourists ignoring guidance around recommended distancing. The steep drop-off, however, follows after more extreme measures, including beach closures and other isolation tactics were adopted in the area. Singh says that they’re regularly seeing that areas where residents are ignoring social distancing best practices are seeing spikes, and that as soon as those are implemented, via lock-downs and other measures, within five days of those aggressive actions, you begin to see downward dips in the curve.

Kinsa’s data has the advantage of being real-time and continually updated by its users. That provides it with a time advantage over other indicators, like the results of increased testing programs for COVID-19, in terms of providing some indication of the more immediate effects of social distancing and isolation strategies. One of the criticisms that has appeared relative to these tactics is that the numbers continue to grow for confirmed cases — but experts expect those cases to grow as we expand the availability of testing and identify new cases of community transmission, even though social distancing is having a positive impact.

As Singh pointed out, Kinsa’s data is strictly about fever-range temperatures, not confirmed COVID-19 cases. But fever is a key and early symptom of COVID-19 in those who are symptomatic, and Kinsa’s existing work on predicting the prevalence of fevers related to cold and flu strongly indicate that what we’re looking at is in fact, at least to a significant degree, COVID-19 spread.

While some have balked at other discussions around using location data to track the spread of the outbreak, Singh says that they’re only interested in two things: geographic coordinates and temperature. They don’t want any personal identification details that they can tie to either of those signals, so it truly an anonymous aggregation project.

“There is no possible way to reverse engineer a geographic signal to an individual — it’s not possible to do it,” he told me. “This is the right equation to both protect people’s privacy and expose the data that society and communities need.”

For the purposes of tracking atypical illness, Kinsa isn’t currently able to get quite as granular as it is with its standard observed illness map, because it requires a higher degree of sophistication. But the company is eager to expand its data set with additional thermometers in the market. The Kinsa hardware is already out of stock everywhere, as are most health-related devices, but Singh says they’re pressing ahead with suppliers on sourcing more despite increased component costs across the board. Singh is also eager to work with other smart thermometer makers, either by inputting their data into his model, or by making the Kinsa app compatible with any Bluetooth thermometer that uses the standard connection interface for wireless thermometer hardware.

Currently, Kinsa is working on evolving the atypical illness view to include things like a visual indicator of how fast illness levels are dropping, and how fast they should be dropping in order to effectively break the chain of transmission, as a way to further help inform the public on the impact of their own choices and actions. Despite the widespread agreement by health agencies, researchers and medical professionals, advice to stay home and separated from others definitely presents a challenge for everyone — especially when the official numbers released daily are so dire. Kinsa’s tracker should provide a ray of hope, and a clear sign that each individual contribution matters.

Better know a CSO: Indiana University Health’s Mitch Parker

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 02:15 PM PDT

Mitch Parker has one of Indiana’s most critical jobs.

As chief information security officer for Indiana University Health, Parker oversees cybersecurity for more than 30,000 employees at 18 hospitals across the state, along with countless numbers of computers, workstations and medical devices, making it the largest health system in Indiana — and the United States.

Indiana University Health is tasked with helping patients recover and maintain their health, but Parker’s job is keeping their data safe. In our discussion, he discussed the state of medical devices, his security team’s priorities and why — when an organization is so big — communication is absolutely key.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We’re talking to chief security officers to learn more about their work, promote best practices that don’t hamper growth and share insights from some of the industry’s most experienced security professionals.

TechCrunch: You’ve been at IU Health for a little over three years. Multiple hospitals, thousands of staff, a range of threats and no two days are the same. What’s the secret sauce?

Mitch Parker: The organization is significantly more receptive to working together towards cybersecurity solutions than when I first got here. A lot of it I’ve found comes down to just taking the time to understand your customers’ needs. I align everything the security team does with our core mission and values and with purpose, excellence, team and compassion. We don’t talk about cybersecurity first. We talk about, how do we improve healthcare, and how do we provide a better patient experience? And we ask, how do we assist in fulfilling our customers’ needs?

So, in a few words, what’s your approach to cybersecurity across the various teams at IU Health?

Cybersecurity is constantly evolving. Healthcare threats change, too. Three years ago we were talking about Ebola [virus] and now we’re talking about new disease threats. Just as our organization has to adapt, cybersecurity has to adapt in the same way. When I first got here, the organization understood that they had a need but didn’t feel they had a valued business partner to work with. That partnership is more important than the threat of the week.

Stocks broadly fall as Nasdaq dips modestly, SaaS gains on the day

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 02:01 PM PDT

The technology industry’s central role in an American economy shaped by attempts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is being reflected in how investors are approaching markets in these turbulent times.

As the broader economy stumbles, technology companies and the major exchange they call home seem to be somewhat more of a safe-haven given the ways in which companies are relying on their services in the time of social distancing.

That means the Nasdaq doesn’t fall quite so far as other indexes and can better shake off news of a stalled economic stimulus package in Washington or the surge in COVID-19 infections in the US.

Indeed, in regular trading today the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) was down sharply. The S&P 500 dipped a little less, but was mostly in line. The tech-heavy Nasdaq, however, was not. And perhaps even more surprising, a key subset of the technology world wasn’t down at all — it was up.

Here’s how today’s trading left us:

  • DJIA: -582.05, -3.04% (-37.12% from 52 week highs)
  • S&P 500: -67.52, -2.93% (-34.07% from 52 week highs)
  • Nasdaq: -18.84, -0.27% (-30.27% from 52 week highs)
  • BVP Nasdaq Emerging Cloud Index: +21.43, +2.12% (-28.03% from 52 week highs)

The day’s declines did not stem from a single fundamental cause. Some financial publications highlighted congressional inaction as the reason. You could easily add rising COVID-19 infections to the list. (Notably while the public markets continue their dive, private investors are still putting nine-figure capital rounds together, which feels contrarian.)

Let’s narrow more. While the Cloud Index tracks SaaS companies — a key startup niche for the venture class — other industries are making interesting moves as well. Let’s take a peek at Uber and Lyft, which enjoyed a surge late last week on the back of Uber promising not to die, following market concerns about its health.

Uber saw shares rise 3.99% to close at $22.40. Lyft shares also rose 6.3% to $22.61 at market close. The two companies are still below their highs in 2020. Lyft and Uber hit year-to-date highs on February at $53.94 and $41.27 respectively.

Other mobility related companies such as automakers saw mixed results. Ford shares took a hit and fell 7.18% to close at $4 after Fitch Ratings downgraded the automaker to a skosh above non-investment grade with a negative outlook driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ford is now rate BBB-.

GM shares also fell 2.98% to $17.60. Meanwhile, Tesla shares rose 1.58% to $434.29 a share.


Musicians pulled in $4.3M after Bandcamp waived revenue shares for 24 hours

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 12:47 PM PDT

Last week, popular music platform Bandcamp announced that it would be waiving its revenue shares from all sales for 24 hours, starting Friday morning. The move was an effort to help boost income for the innumerable artists who have been struggling to make ends meet as live performances have been canceled for the foreseeable future for artists all over the world.

Things went well.

Friday turned out to be the biggest day for sales in the platform's 11-year history. Artists raised $4.3 million in music and merchandise sales over the 24-hour period. That comes out to more than 15x Bandcamp's normal numbers on a Friday — or, as the site puts, it 11 items per second over the course of the day. In all, some 800,000 items were sold, versus the standard 47,000.

In addition to Bandcamp waiving its fees, dozens of labels, including Anti-, Fat Possum, Merge, Polyvinyl, Saddle Creek and Sub Pop, gave up 100% of their revenues to artists on Friday.

It's a nice little bit of news for creatives, many of whom are already struggling to adapt to an ever-changing online economy. Still, it's hard to say what the future looks like with so many artists stuck at home indefinitely.

Amazon Care to provide delivery and pick-up of at-home COVID-19 test sample kits in Seattle trial

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 12:38 PM PDT

Amazon is going to be working with a new research initiative backed in part by the Gates Foundation that will distribute at-home coronavirus assessment kits, and then deliver the collected samples to FDA-approved test facilities. Amazon Care, the health arm formed by Amazon initially for internal employee care, will be handling the delivery of the kits, as well as transportation of collected samples to the test labs, as first reported by CNBC.

While the FDA updated its guidance just a few days ago to specifically exclude at-home testing from the Emergency Use Authorization that is in place to enable broadened private lab testing of potential COVID-19 cases, the arrangement with the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network (SCAN) and Amazon Care bypasses use of the traditional mail or package delivery network. The Amazon Care drivers who are doing the test kit drop-offs and deliveries are specifically trained in proper handling of sensitive medical materials, and the SCAN project is for a limited research endeavor undertaken in order to help “understand how coronavirus is spreading in the Greater Seattle area.”

Availability of kits will be limited, but will include the kind of swab testing that is being conducted at drive-through testing facilities in the U.S. Should a sample test positive for COVID-19, the person who provided the sample to SCAN will be contacted by a healthcare worker for next steps, including advice on how to seek treatment and prevent transmission.

SCAN is the result of a partnership by Seattle & King County’s Public Health department, as well as a team of hospitals and health organizations that created the Seattle Flu Study, a similar project meant to study the spread of the traditional seasonal flu within the community. The research and data modeling work done for that study have been adapted to the study of COVID-19, and the flu study has been put on hold while researchers focus on the pandemic instead.

Instacart will bring on 300,000 new full-service shoppers due to coronavirus

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 12:06 PM PDT

San Francisco-based Instacart today announced it will bring on 300,000 shoppers for its grocery delivery platform over the next three months. The move is meant to manage an uptick in demand due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

The platform lets users shop from home from well-known grocery stores like Costco, Safeway, Kroger and more. Once an order is submitted, a designated grocery shopper will pick up the items and deliver it.

Once relying on the lazy shoppers among us, Instacart is now seeing an uptick in volume of orders as delivery becomes a safer option amid the novel coronavirus disease. All of a sudden, social distancing means fewer trips to the grocery stores, which means more reliance on delivery platforms like Instacart. 

In a release, Instacart noted that it operates in more than 5,500 cities and will bring on shoppers from across the country. In California, Instacart will bring on 54,000 new shoppers. In New York, the company will bring on 27,000 new shoppers. Other states like Illinois, Ohio, Georgia and New Jersey will also get thousands of new shoppers. 

The new shoppers will be offered sick pay, and it will distribute cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer to them, as well.

Grocery stores, for now, remain open across the country, even in states under lockdown. Grocers are deemed an essential business, and Instacart is helping goods get into the hands of people who can't take the chance to leave their home.

Update: Instacart reached out to clarify that it is hiring 300,000 full-service workers, not full-time workers. The article has been updated to reflect that change.

Carriers introduce plans to keep consumers connected during COVID-19 pandemic

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 11:43 AM PDT

Earlier this month, the FCC issued a new measure aimed at easing some of the burdens on consumers as COVID-19 continues to have an increasingly profound impact on nearly every aspect of life.

Most or all major internet and wireless providers in the U.S. signed up for the pledge, agreeing to take actions like waiving late fees and not terminating service. Now specific plans are starting to emerge from carriers, aimed at helping cash-strapped consumers until this pandemic blows over.

T-Mobile this morning announced the launch of a $15/month Metro plan — at half the cost of its current lowest-price plan. The pricing will be in place for the next 60 days, including unlimited talk and 2GB of data. The company is also tossing in a free eight-inch tablet (with rebate, plus fine print) and will be adjusting other data plans for the next two months.

At the same time, Verizon (TC's parent company) announced that it will be adding 15GB of 4G data to current consumer and small business plans, in an effort to help customers use their handsets as mobile hotspots as needed. The company will also be taking $20 off select FiOS plans and waving router rental fees for 60 days.

Like the other carriers, AT&T noted in a message to TechCrunch that it will not terminate service over inability to pay. It will also be waiving late fees, along with domestic overcharges for data, voice and text, retroactive to March 13.

Sprint, meanwhile, will provide for 60 days unlimited data to customers with metered plans, starting March 18, along with 20GB of free mobile hotspot data.

Streaming service fuboTV to merge with virtual entertainment technology company, FaceBank

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 11:37 AM PDT

Over-the-top live TV streaming service fuboTV announced today it plans to merge with the virtual entertainment technology company, FaceBank Group. The proposed merger would retain the name fuboTV for the combined company, consisting of fuboTV’s direct-to-consumer live TV streaming platform and FaceBank’s technology IP in sports, movies and live performances.

FaceBank is not a household name, but is a developer of hyper-realistic digital humans — including those of celebrities and consumers — for use in emerging technologies, like VR and AR, as well as in live entertainment, interactive, media, social networking and AI-driven applications.

You may remember the company from its creation of the hologram of Michael Jackson at The Billboard Music Awards in 2014, when it was then called Pulse Evolution. It also created a virtual Tupac in 2012, and owns the rights to develop digital representations of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and others. The company has also worked to create virtual creatures and characters in movies like “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith,” “Transformers,” “Benjamin Button” and more, per its website.

According to the proposed merger agreement, the plan is to create a leading digital entertainment company that combines fuboTV with FaceBank’s IP in order to create a content delivery platform for both traditional and “future-form IP.”

That is to say, you’ll be able to stream your live TV and these virtual/digital human performances on one platform, it seems.

FuboTV also says it plans to leverage FaceBank’s IP sharing relationships with leading celebrities and other digital technologies to enhance its sports and entertainment offerings.

“The business combination of FaceBank Group and fuboTV accelerates our ability to build a category-defining company and supports our goal to provide consumers with a technology-driven cable TV replacement service for the whole family,” said fuboTV CEO David Gandler, in a statement. “With our growing businesses in the U.S., and recent beta launches in Canada and Europe, fuboTV is well-positioned to achieve its goal of becoming a world-leading live TV streaming platform for premium sports, news and entertainment content. In the current COVID-19 environment, stay-at-home stocks make perfect sense – we plan to accelerate our timing to uplist to a major exchange as soon as practicable. We look forward to working with John and his team of creative visionaries,” he added.

“As a tech-driven IP company, FaceBank was looking to find the perfect delivery platform for its celebrity and consumer-driven content, with a dynamic user interface that could support the global consumers' rapidly evolving practices of content consumption,” added FaceBank founders John Textor and Alex Bafer. “David and his team have a clear vision of the future and fuboTV's technology is second to none among the disruptor class of content delivery – a perfect match for FaceBank Group,” their statement read.

FaceBank is buying FuboTV — or merging, as the legal wording appears to indicate — for preferred stock, the SEC filing reveals. The new shares, dubbed “Series AA Convertible Preferred Stock,” will have 0.8 votes per share, and convert to two shares of common stock. The acquiring entity changed its articles of incorporation to get rid of all prior forms of preferred shares in favor of the new, Series AA shares. It isn’t clear yet how many shares FuboTV shareholders will receive in the deal, but as the total number of Series AA shares created was 35.8 million, we can note that there is a cap.

FaceBank also says it took out a secured revolving line of credit of $100 million, the first $10 million of which will be provided to fuboTV on April 1 or the closing date of the merger, whichever is later.

The merger will allow fuboTV to continue its international expansion, by way of FaceBank Group’s Nexway — an e-commerce and payment platform live in 180 countries, the company says.

FuboTV was founded in 2015, first as a soccer streaming service, then later expanded into more sports and entertainment. It competes with YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV, AT&T TV Now and, before its shutdown, PlayStation Vue.

The deal follows several other consolidations in online streaming and media, including Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox, Viacom’s purchase of and Fox Corp.’s acquisition of Tubi. For smaller streamers, it’s difficult to keep up with the rising costs of programming amid competition from larger competitors, like Disney (Hulu’s majority owner) and Google (which runs YouTube TV).

The boards of directors of both companies and the major stockholders of fuboTV have approved the transaction, which is anticipated to close during the first quarter of 2020, subject to the satisfaction of certain closing conditions, the companies said.

SouSmile raises $10M to grow its anti-braces aligner brand

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 11:32 AM PDT

Amid expectations that early-stage funding and valuations will decline due to an economic downturn caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak, young startups like the Brazilian dental company SouSmile, which raised in the time before COVID-19, are feeling grateful for secured runway.

SouSmile is a direct to consumer dental company based in São Paulo. SouSmile has raised $10 million in Series A funding from Global Founders Capital, Kaszek Ventures and Canary, bringing the company's total funding to $11.4 million. The two-year-old startup sells an invisible aligner and whitening gels through five retail stores in shopping malls across São Paulo and Rio. 

SouSmile is a new option for Brazilians hoping to get started on orthodontic work. The process consists of an evaluation by a licensed dentist that includes a panoramic X-ray, 3D scan and a clinical exam. Then, the company approves customers for treatment. SouSmile's follow-up process includes bimonthly appointments, and costs approximately $1,000, which co-founder Michael Ruah says is 60% cheaper than comparable treatments, and can be paid in installments. Treatment is fast, taking between three to nine months. 

SouSmile has a six-person co-founding team. The 100-person startup is made up of 50% licensed dentists.

Ruah anticipates that the coronavirus pandemic will have a negative short-term revenue impact for the company, as they anticipate less foot traffic in retail stores over the coming weeks, possibly months. He hopes that because the business is still young, macro indicators won't have a huge impact on the bottom line in the medium-to-long term. Ruah says that the most important thing is that SouSmile employees and customers are safe and healthy at this point. 

Why is Brazil a good market for a D2C dental startup?

With 2 million orthodontic cases per year, highly populous Brazil is one of the largest dental markets globally, yet the penetration of invisible aligners is less than 2% due to prohibitive prices. Ruah compares this to the 40% penetration in the U.S. for adults, citing Invisalign's numbers. There's still a dent to be made, as SouSmile says it saw more than 10,000 bookings last year. 

Ruah also cites a cultural reason as to why Brazil is a smart market for a product like this: Brazilians care a lot about both beauty and their oral health. "Brazilians brush their teeth three times a day. They’ll go out for lunch, they’ll come back to the office and brush their teeth. Everybody has their toothbrush and toothpaste with them all the time," he explains. 

SouSmile’s invisible aligner costs around $1,200. Treatment lasts between 3-9 months.

Branding: Cosmetic versus health

SmileDirectClub raised nearly $440 million at a $3.2 billion valuation before going public in 2019. The teeth-straightening company built its brand by leveraging the celebrity beauty angle with Instagram influencer campaigns that marketed the visual results of its product. While SouSmile hopes to see big numbers like its U.S.-based predecessor, it wants to take more of a healthcare-first approach to its branding, rather than cosmetic.

SouSmile is up against some big challenges. Physical retail costs are expensive. Manufacturing is hard, and the company doesn't appear to be particularly tech-enabled, relying mainly on physical retail presence for customer acquisition. 

SouSmile isn't the only Latin American startup working on an anti-braces dental solution, either. Moons, a Mexican invisible aligner startup that just launched out of Y Combinator, may have a head start. Moons delivers a similar product as SouSmile for around the same cost, and is also using 3D printing to manufacture its aligners. Moons is targeting the Latin America market with $5 million in funding and the Y Combinator stamp of approval. Moons has already opened 18 locations across Mexico and Colombia. 

But Brazilian tech can operate like a separate ecosystem apart from adjacent Spanish-speaking Latin America due to country regulations, language barriers and shipping complications. Consumer startups that can deliver products that improve the daily lives of Brazil’s massive middle class are the ones that succeed, and SouSmile now has the capital to shoot its shot. 

VidCon joins the list of events canceled by COVID-19

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 11:09 AM PDT

If you heard the collective grieving shriek of a thousand Instagram influencers, YouTubers and their followers, it’s because VidCon has been canceled.

It’s the latest mega-event to fall prey to the social distancing measures put in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

In a statement, the conference organizers said:

VidCon is dedicated to delivering premium entertainment experiences across the globe. Our first priority is the safety and health of our attendees, sponsors, speakers, creators, and staff. Due to the continued uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and the precautions being taken by authorities worldwide to manage this pandemic, we have come to the difficult decision to cancel the 11th annual VidCon in Anaheim this June. All tickets and pre-ordered merch that have been purchased for the June 17 – 20, 2020 event will be refunded in full by April 15, 2020. This will include all fees for previously canceled tickets.

VidCon is one of the most important events for the massive entertainment industry that’s grown up around the streaming platforms. Those platforms — specifically YouTube and Instagram — raked in a bit over $35 billion in spending in 2019, or roughly half of the ad haul that television advertising pulled in for the same year.

More than just a chance for entertainers to promote themselves and their products, the event is a critical window into where social media is heading.

In its own way, the event is as important to the streaming community as upfronts are to traditional media, or newfronts are to online media.

The (entirely appropriate) response to the COVID-19 outbreak is one that’s been echoed in industries as disparate as entertainment, technology and auto manufacturing. Most of the big auto shows have been canceled this year, along with the major developer events from Alphabet subsidiary Google and Facebook. Other events are going remote or turning to virtual only — like Apple’s big developer and product event later this year.

A look inside one startup’s work-from-home playbook

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 11:06 AM PDT

Working from home is having a moment amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but some startups are having an easier time of it than others.

Collage, an e-commerce site for custom gifts, has been all-remote since its inception; co-founders and co-CEOs Joe Golden and Kevin Borders started the company while Golden lived in Seattle and Borders was in Washington, D.C.

“Our team was remote from the start and we quickly realized we could make remote work work and turn it into an advantage for us,” Golden tells TechCrunch.

Those advantages touch many aspects of the business, from hiring the best people — no matter where they’re located — to saving money on office space. As with all things, there are disadvantages and challenges along the way. But Collage has found a way to make it work for them.

“You have to be more deliberate with your communication than you do in an office setting,” Golden says. “But over time we've realized that this makes us a stronger company regardless. Lots of the processes we've developed to make remote work work, such as clearly explaining our thinking and assumptions in writing, and clearly documenting all of our business practices, would likely improve many companies, but they are critical for remote organizations.”

Microsoft says hackers are attacking Windows users with a new unpatched bug

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 11:06 AM PDT

Microsoft says attackers are exploiting a previously undisclosed security vulnerability found in all supported versions of Windows, including Windows 10.

But the software giant said there is currently no patch for the vulnerability.

The security flaw, which Microsoft deems “critical” — its highest severity rating — is found in how Windows handles and renders fonts, according to the advisory posted Monday. The bug can be exploited by tricking a victim into opening a malicious document. Once the document is opened — or viewed in Windows Preview — an attacker can remotely run malware, such as ransomware, on a vulnerable device.

The advisory said that Microsoft was aware of hackers launching “limited, targeted attacks,” but did not say who was launching the attacks or at what scale.

Microsoft said it was working on a fix but that the advisory should serve as a warning until a patch is released. Although Windows 7 is also affected, only enterprise users with extended security support will receive patches. In the meantime, the advisory offered a temporary workaround for affected Windows users to mitigate the flaw until a fix is available.

The software giant typically releases its security fixes on the second Tuesday of each month, but occasionally issues out-of-band patches in severe cases.

When reached, a spokesperson for Microsoft reiterated the contents of the post and suggested the patch would land on the next Patch Tuesday, slated for April 14.

IOC’s Dick Pound confirms plans to delay Tokyo Olympics

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 11:03 AM PDT

In an interview with USA Today, International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound confirmed suggestions that the 2020 Summer Olympic Games will be delayed. The IOC committee veteran didn't lay out specifics, but suggested that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could delay the games until 2021.

"We will postpone this and begin to deal with all the ramifications of moving this, which are immense," Pound told the paper, adding that specific decisions would "come in stages." Details on the decision (along with official confirmation) are likely to emerge at some point in the next month. "The parameters going forward have not been determined," he added, "but the games are not going to start on July 24, that much I know."

The news comes after both Canada and Australia noted over the weekend that they would not be sending athletes to the games this year. Earlier today, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested that the events could be delayed, while adding that canceling them outright was "not an option." In addition to prestige, the games are a source of major economic windfall for the host country.

A spokesperson for the IOC only went so far as re-confirming its earlier statement that it will be exploring all options. While it's impossible to know precisely what the COVID-19 situation will look like come summer, the impact of the virus has had such a profound impact on every aspect of life, it has seemed increasingly unlikely that the Olympics would be able to proceed as scheduled.

Moderna could make experimental COVID-19 vaccine available to healthcare workers by fall

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 10:48 AM PDT

There are some hard limits to the vaccine development process that mean we are not going to see any preventative immune therapies to fight the new coronavirus for at least a year to 18 months. But Moderna, which is behind the first potential vaccine to enter human clinical trials in the U.S., provided new info on Monday that indicates it will seek to provide access to the vaccine to a limited group, likely consisting of healthcare workers, by as early as this fall.

The company will look at possibly doing so under an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, which is similar to how certain testing procedures are being granted approval for use now, bypassing the typical process under which such diagnostic tools are given the go-ahead. Moderna’s solution, which was developed in partnership with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is already the fastest potential vaccine to enter the human clinical trial phase.

Their proposed vaccine makes use of messenger RNA, rather than relying on either a small or inactive sample of the COVID-19 virus itself — the source of most existing effective vaccines. The mRNA method means there is no actual virus introduced to subjects who receive it, which in turn means that they are not at risk of actually contracting the virus from the vaccine itself, which can be an issue in the testing and development phase of any traditional virus-based immune therapy.

Last Monday, Moderna began providing the vaccine to volunteer participants in the first phase of its human clinical trial in Washington state. Despite the speed with which it entered human testing, and the unconventional bypass of the animal testing phase, commercial availability is still at least a year away. But select, limited use for healthcare professionals at an accelerated timetable could help provide additional protection for frontline workers who are risking greater exposure — provided Moderna’s vaccine is effective, and proves safe in its current human testing.

Moderna’s solution works by convincing the body to generate proteins that resemble the virus but that are harmless, and provoke antibodies that are effective both in fighting off the protein and the actual virus itself. There are other RNA-based vaccines in development, as well as other types of immune treatments, but only Moderna’s has reached the clinical trial phase thus far. The Boston-based company has been working on mRNA-based treatments for cancer cells, and went public in December 2018.

EU parliament moves to email voting during COVID-19 pandemic

Posted: 23 Mar 2020 10:38 AM PDT

The European Parliament will temporarily allow electronic voting by email as MEPs are forced to work remotely during the coronavirus crisis.

A spokeswoman for the parliament confirmed today that an “alternative electronic voting procedure” has been agree for the plenary session that will take place on March 26.

“This voting procedure is temporary and valid until 31 July,” she added.

Earlier this month the parliament moved the majority of its staff to teleworking. MEPs have since switch to full remote work as confirmed cases of COVID-19 have continued to step up across Europe. Though how to handle voting remotely has generated some debate in and of itself.

“Based on public health grounds, the President decided to have a temporary derogation to enable the vote to take place by an alternative electronic voting procedure, with adequate safeguards to ensure that Members' votes are individual, personal and free, in line with the provisions of the Electoral act and the Members' Statute,” the EU parliament spokeswoman said today, when we asked for the latest on its process for voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The current precautionary measures adopted by the European Parliament to contain the spread of COVID-19 don't affect legislative priorities. Core activities are reduced, but maintained precisely to ensure legislative, budgetary, scrutiny functions,” she added.

The spokeswoman confirmed votes will take place via email — explaining the process as follows: “Members would receive electronically, via email to their official email address, a ballot form, which would be returned, completed, from their email address to the relevant Parliament's functional mailbox.”

“The results of all votes conducted under this temporary derogation would be recorded in the minutes of the sitting concerned,” she further noted.

Last week, ahead of the parliament confirming the alternative voting process, German Pirate Party MEP, Patrick Breyer, raised concerns about the security of e-voting — arguing that what was then just a proposal for MEPs to fill and sign a voting list, scan it and send it via email to the administration risked votes being vulnerable to manipulation and hacking.

“Such a manipulation-prone procedure risks undermining public trust in the integrity of Parliament votes that can have serious consequences,” he wrote. “The procedure comes with a risk of manipulation by hackers. Usually MEPs can send emails using several devices, and their staff can access their mailbox, too. Also it is easy to come by a MEP’s signature and scan it… This procedure also comes with the risk that personally elected and highly paid MEPs could knowingly allow others to vote on their behalf.”

“eVoting via the public Internet is inherently unsafe and prone to hacking, thus risks to erode public trust in European democracy,” he added. “I am sure powerful groups such as the Russian intelligence agency have a great interest in manipulating tight votes. eVoting makes manipulation at a large scale possible.”

Breyer suggested a number of alternatives — such as parallel postal voting, to have a paper back-up of MEPs’ e-votes; presence voting in EP offices in Member States (though clearly that would require parliamentarians to risk exposing themselves and others to the virus by traveling to offices in person); and a system such as “Video Ident”, which he noted is already used in Germany, where the MEP face identify in front of a webcam in a live video stream and then show their voting sheets to the camera.

He also suggested MEPs might not notice manipulations even if voting results were published — as looks to be the case with the parliament’s agreed procedure.

It’s not clear whether the parliament is applying a further back-up step — such as requiring a paper ballot to be mailed in parallel to an email vote. The parliament spokeswoman declined to comment in any detail when we asked. “All measures have been put in place to ensure the vote runs smoothly,” she said, adding: “We never comment on security measures.”

Reached for his response, Breyer told us: “My concerns definitely stand.”

However security expert J. Alex Halderman, a professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan — who testified before the US Senate hearing into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. Election — said e-voting where the results are public is relatively low risk provided MEPs check their votes have been recorded properly.

“Voting isn’t such a hard problem when it’s not a secret ballot, and I take it that how each MEP votes is normally public. As long as that’s the case, I don’t think this is a major security issue,” he told TechCrunch. “MEPs should be encouraged to check that their votes are correctly recorded in the minutes and to raise alarms if there’s any discrepancy, but that’s probably enough of a safeguard during these challenging times.”  

“All of this is in stark contrast to election for public office, which are conducted with a secret ballot and in which there’s normally no possibility for voters to verify that their votes are correctly recorded,” he added. 

NationBuilder probe closed

In further news related to the EU parliament the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) announced today that it’s closed an investigation into the former’s user of the US-based political campaign group, NationBuilder last year.

Back in November the EU’s lead data regulator revealed it had issued its first ever sanction of an EU institution by taking enforcement action over the parliament’s contract with NationBuilder for a public engagement campaign to promote voting in the spring election.

During the campaign the website collected personal data from more than 329,000 people, which was processed on behalf of the Parliament by NationBuilder. The EDPS found the parliament had contravened regulations governing how EU institutions can use personal data related to the selection and approval of sub-processors used by NationBuilder.

The contract has been described as coming to “a natural end” in July 2019, and the EDPS said today that all data collected has been transferred to the European Parliament's servers’.

No further sanctions have been implemented, though the regulator said it will continue to monitor the parliament’s activities closely.

"Data protection plays a fundamental role in ensuring electoral integrity and must therefore be treated as a priority in the planning of any election campaign,” said EDPS, Wojciech Wiewiórowski, in a statement today. “With this in mind, the EDPS will continue to monitor the Parliament's activities closely, in particular those relating to the 2024 EU parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, I am confident that the improved cooperation and understanding that now exists between the EDPS and the Parliament will help the Parliament to learn from its mistakes and make more informed decisions on data protection in the future, ensuring that the interests of all those living in the EU are adequately protected when their personal data is processed."

At the time of writing the parliament had not responded to a request for comment.

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