London self-driving shuttle test aims to get people comfortable with the tech

A self-driving shuttle will ferry around 100 people in Greenwich, London along a short route on a public cycle and pedestrian path over the next three weeks, in a trial using Oxbotica’s driverless vehicle technology. The goal, according to Oxbotica, is to show average people that they can safely share space with autonomous cars, helping dissuade any perception of threat and generally improve comfort levels ahead of a planned wider launch with regular service available tot he public.

Oxbotica already kicked off self-driving car trials on UK streets in Milton Keynes late last year. The shuttle it’s using for this test is a very different vehicle, with room for four passengers and a much slower top speed, which suits its route along the Olympian Way path near O2 arena. Its design is focused on providing safe transport in an environment where it has to contend regularly with pedestrians crossing its path, and it’s 328 foot forward vision system is designed to help it come to a steady, comfortable stop whenever it sees something interrupting its path.

Part of Oxbotica’s goal with this limited trial is also to find out how passengers onboard the shuttle react to the experience of being transported by a computer-driver system. That could help inform design aspects of the rider experience, including driving practices and interior design. Ultimately, the goal is to begin a more comprehensive trial by 2019 in Greenwich, with the aim of rolling it out beyond to other locales further down the road.

 Shuttles are low-hanging fruit for autonomous vehicle tech: routes are regular and relatively predictable, and speed isn’t necessarily a high-value target. This trial has interesting implications in terms of how closely it shares space with passengers and cyclists, a key area of concern for autonomous tech overall.

Facebook addresses revenge porn with tech to prevent people from re-sharing intimate images

Facebook has implemented a new photo-matching technology to ensure people can’t re-share images previously reported and tagged as revenge porn — intimate photos of people shared without their consent. That means if someone tries to share a photo that Facebook has previously taken down, that person will see a pop-up saying the photo violates Facebook’s policies and that Facebook will not allow the person to share that particular photo on Facebook, Messenger or Instagram.

“We’ve focused in on this because of the unique harm that this kind of sharing has on its victims,” Facebook Global Head of Safety Antigone Davis told me. “In the newsroom post we refer to a specific piece of research around the unique harm this has for victims. I think that’s where the focus was for this moving forward.”

The figure Davis is referring to is that 93% of people affected by the sharing of non-consensual intimate images report “significant emotional distress” and 82% report significant difficulties in other aspects of their lives, according to the US Victims of Non-Consensual Intimate Images.

Although Facebook has enabled people to report images for a while now, the language around revenge porn is now more clear and “very specific to these types of intimate images,” Davis said. In “many” cases, Facebook will also deactivate the account of the person who posted the revenge porn.

Facebook has also partnered with a handful of organizations, like the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and the Revenge Porn Helpline, to offer support to people who are victims of revenge porn.

 Revenge porn is a widespread issue on the internet, with one in 25 people in the U.S. being victims of non-consensual image sharing, according to a 2016 report from the Data & Society Research Institute and the Center for Innovative Public Health Research. Facebook’s new tools around tackling revenge porn come shortly after a scandal involving people on both Facebook and Instagram targeting female Marines in private groups.

Last year, Facebook Director of Engineering for Applied Machine Learning Joaquin Candela told TechCrunch that the platform was using AI to report to detect and report offensive photos, but it seems that in instances of revenge porn, humans are still needed.

“At this moment, we’re not using AI to go through this particular content,” Davis said. “There is significant context that’s required for reviewing non-consensual sharing.”

Snapdeal Said to Be Seeking Funds, Fuelling Takeover Speculation

Indian online retailer Snapdeal is seeking investment to shore up its finances after unsuccessful talks with Chinese funds and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd as it battles to remain competitive, sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.

Faced with the prospect of falling cash reserves and little interest from existing investors such as Japan’s SoftBank and US hedge funds, Snapdeal is now increasingly being seen as an acquisition target, they said.

Snapdeal Said to Be Seeking Funds, Fuelling Takeover Speculation

“Snapdeal has been desperately looking to raise money in China for the last few months,” said a source with direct knowledge of Snapdeal’s plans.

“It had multiple rounds of talks with some Chinese funds and was also hoping to get some fresh money from Alibaba. But those talks were not going anywhere and Alibaba made it clear to them they would not write a new cheque for them given the dim outlook for making money any time soon.”

Both Alibaba, which already has a small stake in Snapdeal, and SoftBank declined to comment.
Its unsuccessful negotiations in China and sliding valuations may force loss-making Snapdeal to consider an outright sale, sources said.

Founded in 2010, Snapdeal was valued at $6.5 billion after a fund-raising last year. But valuations of Indian e-commerce firms are believed to have softened since then.

“The industry is up for consolidation and Snapdeal maybe the first one to witness it,” said another source who is aware of the discussions.

“Till what time will Snapdeal continue to survive from savings? … Snapdeal is not pushing for any consolidation but it’s for the investors to take that call. They have an independent way of looking at this.”

Bruised by intensifying competition with bigger rivals Flipkart and Amazon, Snapdeal laid off 600 employees and its founders are foregoing salaries as it cuts costs to try to turn a profit.
Snapdeal, however, stressed that it has no intention of selling the company.

A Snapdeal executive said the board about two weeks ago had approved a plan to turn profitable and identified a “small gap in funding.” Any fundraising would be intended to strengthen its finances ahead of a planned listing, which sources say the company was trying to achieve within two years.

A Snapdeal spokeswoman said the company’s efforts were “focused on driving profitability,” and that it was “well capitalised.”

One of the sources who spoke to Reuters said Alibaba was already in early talks with Softbank, the biggest shareholder in Snapdeal, but was only interested in increasing its investment as long as management control goes to Paytm.

Alibaba is the biggest shareholder in Paytm’s parent One97. It picked up a 36.31 percent stake in Paytm’s e-commerce unit for $177 million earlier this year.

“Alibaba is very keen to invest more in Snapdeal as an entity if the management control goes to Paytm. The proposal has the backing of SoftBank as well, which is also looking to consolidate its investments in one or two large e-commerce companies,” the first person said.

A deal with Alibaba would make Snapdeal more competitive at a time when India’s top e-commerce company Flipkart is seeking to raise up to $1 billion and as Amazon last year pledged to invest more than $5 billion.

Thanks to rapid uptake of wireless high-speed internet, India’s burgeoning middle class is increasingly shopping online, but steep competition among e-tailers has lead to losses across the sector.

Snapdeal has been seen as particularly vulnerable to increasing competition. The company reported a loss of 29.6 billion rupees in the financial year to March 31, 2016, according to regulatory filings.

Father of Xbox Ed Fries Discovers the First Arcade Game Easter Egg

Ed Fries is known to many a video game buff as the one of the main creators of the original Xbox that marked Microsoft’s entry into console gaming. And while he’s been away from the spotlight for some time now, his blog plays host to his findings in an attempt to catalogue and preserve arcade classics from an era that’s forgotten by most.

Father of Xbox Ed Fries Discovers the First Arcade Game Easter Egg

In doing so he has, inadvertently, stumbled upon one of the first Easter eggs in video game history. Easter eggs refer to an unexpected or undocumented feature in a piece of software such as a game, included as a joke or a bonus. And according to Fries, the first one ever from an arcade game called Starship 1.

Fries interviewed Ron Milner — co-inventor of the Atari 2600 who also worked on Starship 1.

“That was the first and only game that I ever programmed and I think it was maybe one of the first games with a backdoor in it. I didn’t tell people about this, even within Atari, for at least 30 years, but I had some code in there that if you did a certain sequence of controls it would say ‘Hi Ron!’ and give you 10 free games,” said Milner to Fries.

What followed next was a painstakingly documented account of Fries trying to prove that this was indeed the case. From examining Star I’s code to obtaining and repairing a Star I arcade cabinet, the outcome was successful. And the process is well worth checking out on Fries’ blog.

“In my opinion, Starship 1 is the earliest arcade game yet known that clearly meets the definition of an Easter egg and the clever young programmer who put it there, Ron Milner, deserves our recognition and respect. Still, there were more than one hundred arcade video games released before Starship 1. Maybe somewhere deep inside one of them lies another even older Easter egg just waiting to be discovered,” a post from Fries reads.

Permira’s Brian Ruder on private equity’s attraction to tech — and where he’s shopping now

For the last couple of years, private equity firms have been buying up public software companies that had fallen out of favor with investors. In fact, many of the top software deals in the U.S. last year were take-private transactions. Just three of them included the visual analytics company Qlik Technologies, which sold to Thomas Bravo; the marketing software company Marketo, acquired by Vista Equity Partners, and the event management company Cvent, also acquired by Vista.

Public tech companies have largely seen their valuations rebound, however. For that reason, a separate opportunity that Brian Ruder, co-head of technology at the global PE firm Permira, expects to see more centers on maturing tech companies that haven’t yet gone public. We talked with Ruder recently to learn more about Permira, and why venture-backed outfits are more interesting than ever to him.

TC: Obviously, it’s not brand new, this trend of PE shops gravitating toward software companies, even if it did seem to become more of a “thing” beginning last year.

BR: Permira has been at it for 30 years. We grew out of being a venture capital firm that backed disruptive, late-stage companies. But we evolved [over the last decade] beyond just buying classically undervalued and under-managed companies and into buying great growth businesses that just need larger and larger pools of capitals. What we’re looking for are companies that have good growth opportunities and to back them aggressively.

I think what’s more new is using operating expertise and a [PE size] capital base to back companies that have been in the VC ecosystem and are looking for an alternative to going public, where you can solve historical shareholder alignment problems without tapping the public market to do that.

TC: You’ve done that with several companies, including LegalZoom, where in 2014 you invested $200 million in the company just before it went public, providing some liquidity to its earlier shareholders. 

BR: LegalZoom had filed to go public and was out on road in the wake of Facebook’s IPO and it pulled [its offering]. But it had great shareholders and an alignment problem, where some investors had already made a great return [on paper] but newer VCs had bought in at a much higher valuation. We were able to come in and invest a lot in the company and [reduce] ownership of its earlier investors down for [a return that made them happy] and get everyone aligned. And the company has grown a lot since then. If it does go public, it will be a much bigger, healthier company.

TC: Could that be this year?

BR: LegalZoom could go public at some point. We’ve grown both its revenue and its profitability significantly. It was a heavily a transaction business, and we saw the opportunity to grow its subscription business as well, and now half its profitability is driven by subscriptions, which we think makes it much more attractive as an IPO candidate in any [type of] market.

TC: How long do you intend to hold on to companies, once you’ve invested?

BR: Five to seven years. The longest ones we’ll hold for a decade or so. If shorter than five years, it’s a good thing.

TC: And you’re looking for . . .

BR: Companies that have market leadership positions in really good growth markets. Companies that have a [developed] product set, whether an enterprise business or consumer business. Companies where we see opportunities to accelerate growth, either via a new model or new geographic market or because we can invest at a different capacity than the company’s previous shareholders could handle.

TC: You reportedly just closed your last fund with $7.5 billion euros; that’s huge considering you’ve raised $30 billion ever in the history of Permira. Has your investor base changed much? Where did all that capital come from?

BR: Our investor base is very global, because we’re very global, with 13 offices — four in Asia, two in the U.S. and seven in Western Europe. More than half of our tech team is based in California.

TC: What size checks are you writing, and how many companies are you looking to acquire each year?

BR: I’d say $200 million at the low end and up to a billion dollars or more on the high end. We will use financial leverage — some degree of debt, somewhere around 2x the amount in buying power. And our target would be to invest in and acquire two to three companies a year.

TC: You have 100 employees across 13 offices looking at deals around the world. How do you winnow down all that feedback so you can make decisions about so few companies?

BR: we organize into three core areas: enterprise software, which is a lot of what we’ve done, including Genesys, a big contact center business that we pulled out of Alcatel; consumer internet and internet subscription, which includes LegalZoom; and niche infrastructure. For example, we think that carrier-neutral data centers is an area that’s defensible and poised for exciting growth.

We’re different from a lot of [PE] firms in that our folks are spending time on what they love as opposed to what happens in the market. Most [competitors] feel like they have to participate in these IB-run sale-side processes, but we’re not interested if it doesn’t fit one of the themes we’re pursuing.

TC: Is it wholly acceptable in the world of PE to switch out management teams? Is it expected?

BR: We’re always backing a management team to pursue a plan that we work out with them. We customize the team jointly with the company up front. Sometimes it’s backing the founder to continue running the tables; sometimes it’s backing a founder who’s ready to make a transition. We typically [buy] a controlling interest in a company, and it’s such a large change in the shareholder base that it usually catalyzes a discussion of what is the right structure of management team over next five years, versus incrementally figuring out what you have and what you need.

TC: Interest rates are rising. What does that mean for your business?

BR: It’s a mixed blessing that could create a pretty interesting environment for PE. With rates going up, the valuations we’ve seen that have been on the rise for the last couple of year could settle down, which would be good for us. Of course, debt will be more expensive, too. For ‘growthier’ folks like us, higher interest rates don’t impact us as much as [firms that rely more heavily] on debt.

TC: Thoughts on our new president?

BR: It’s too early. I keep reminding everyone it’s only been 50 days or so since he took office.

TC: In 2017, do you see Permira taking companies out of the public market or investing in still-private companies or both?

BR: We’ve been very successful taking companies out of the public market, but I don’t think in 2017 that take-privates will take off with a vengeance. Companies are expensive right now compared with historical norms. More likely, late-stage companies will get more interesting. Once a company is in that IPO pipeline and evaluating its options — it’s in those kinds of scenarios that we play really well, and I think that’s an even more exciting opportunity right now.

Kaspersky Lab paid former national security adviser more than $10,000

The plot thickens, but doesn’t it always?

New documents have emerged detailing former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn’s financial ties to Russian companies, including the U.S. subsidiary of Russian cybersecurity group Kaspersky Lab.

One invoice form dating back to 2015 shows payments to Flynn made by three Russian entities: $33,750 from state-sponsored news source RT TV, $11,250 from Volga-Dnepr Airlines and $11,250 from Kaspersky Government Security Solutions, Inc.

According to its website, the U.S. arm of Kaspersky Lab “designs, implements and delivers holistic cybersecurity services and solutions for the U.S. government, U.S. government contractors and the U.S. National Critical Infrastructure sector.”

In response to the revelation, Kaspersky Lab stated that it paid Flynn the amount as a speaker fee for his appearance at the Government Cybersecurity Forum in 2015. As Business Insider reports, the event’s other keynote speaker, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul did not receive a payment to speak at the event.

Kaspersky is one of the most prominent names in cybersecurity, but the firm has faced scrutiny in the past over founder Eugene Kaspersky’s speculated ties to Russian intelligence agencies. According to the company, Kaspersky Lab “has no ties to any government, but the company is proud to collaborate with the authorities of many countries, as well as international law enforcement agencies in the fight against cybercrime.”

The documents were published today by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, accompanied by a letter from ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings.

“I cannot recall any time in our nation’s history when the President selected as his National Security Advisor someone who violated the Constitution by accepting tens of thousands of dollars from an agent of a global adversary that attacked our democracy,” he wrote.

As a result of his involvement with Russia, Flynn’s remarkably brief 24 days in Trump’s cabinet have already come to a close, but Flynn could still face consequences from rules designed to prevent retired officers from receiving payments from foreign governments.

Atom Bank raises $102M at $320M valuation for a mobile-only bank for millennials

Atom Bank, a startup out of the U.K. that has built a mobile-only bank targeting consumers between the ages of 18 and 34, has raised another £83 million ($102 million) in funding led by BBVA, the Spanish bank and owner of Simple in the U.S. The funding gives Atom a post-money valuation of £261 million ($320 million), TechCrunch has confirmed with the company. BBVA also led Atom’s previous $128 million round in November 2015.

The plan is to use the funding to continue building out its customer base and services, as well as provide capital for lending: Atom officially launched in April 2016 and customers access the services via iPhone and Android apps. Today it offers mortgages, Fixed Saver accounts and secured loans for small and medium-sized businesses.

The announcement of this £83 million comes a couple of weeks after it was reported that musician Will.i.am — a tech enthusiast who has dabbled in his own startups and using newer innovations to build his audience — was inking a deal to act as a consultant and board advisor to the company in exchange for shares. That same report, from Sky News, noted that Atom was raising close to £100 million.

A spokesperson for the company would not confirm if Will.i.am is involved with the company, but the company does say that it is due to announce more funding soon, so it may be that Will.i.am will be named along with that second wave of funds.

BBVA led the round with a £29.4 million investment, and it says that this investment will help it maintain a 29.5 percent share of the startup post-money. In its last round, Atom was valued at £152.5 million (just over $200 million), so this is a significant up-round. The startup has now raised £219 million to date ($268 million).

The fact that BBVA’s stake is just under 30 percent is notable: Under U.K. law, if a company takes a 30 percent or higher share, it triggers a regulatory requirement for that shareholder to make a mandatory takeover offer.

It remains an interesting time in British banking, and BBVA remaining in the picture and close to a tipping point in its share underscores the fact that we may see more changes ahead.

Fintech has been one of the strongest tech verticals in this country, and a number of startups have tapped into that wave and its popularity to provide products that use new channels like mobile and the internet to cut down the costs of offering service. Atom even courts early users by calling them “founders” in its promotional materials.

 Atom is not alone: Others in the banking sector include Monzo (which the other week raised its own large round of funding), Starling and Tandem.

But they all feasibly have an opportunity: The U.K. public has long been a receptive market for savings and other financial products, and that’s given rise to a number of competitors like Metro Bank to challenge incumbents (Atom’s CEO, Mark Mullen, was the CEO of another “challenger,” online-only banking effort, First Direct).

Atom is not disclosing any metrics about its usage, but it appears to be still on the early and small side. The company tells us that it now has 14,000 but is growing fast. For some context, there are 66 million people living in the U.K. today, and although Atom targets a particular demographic, it doesn’t restrict its services to that age group.

In any case, the focus today seems more on laying the foundations for its capitalization so that it can push more to build its customer base in the future.

“We are very pleased with the response we have had from investors,” said Anthony Thomson, the founder and chairman of Atom who previously founded another disruptive player in U.K. banking, Metro Bank. “Our customers benefit from the backing of highly reputable investors who are supportive of what we are doing. This is a great vote of confidence in our growth prospects and plans for the future. With the work we have done so far we are just beginning to see how transformational our new approach to banking can be. There is so much more to come from Atom in the coming months and years.”

Others participating in this round include previous backers Woodford Investment Management, Toscafund Asset Management and other unnamed investors.

Former Uber software engineer alleges sexism from female manager

Another day, another allegation against Uber. Keala Lusk, a former Uber software engineer, just posted to Medium her story of sexism, disrespect and condescending behavior at the hands of a female manager at Uber.

In her post, Lusk summarizes an email she sent to Uber’s HR department about her manager. The TL;DR was that Lusk’s manager allegedly refused to accept any feedback, and implied that the reason Lusk was not progressing in her career was because she wore tank tops.

“I was shocked and suddenly painfully aware of my body and appearance in a way that I’ve never been at work,” Lusk wrote. “It made me feel humiliated, as if I shouldn’t be wearing anything to show my arms or skin. How could she say this? I have never faced discrimination because of what I was wearing (which was a black tank top from DefCon) and was at a complete loss for words. I didn’t know what to say. She kept going with, “Maybe he doesn’t want that around his team. Try wearing longer sleeve shirts for a few months and see how that goes. It might help you transfer to their team.”

In response to this specific allegation, an Uber spokesperson told TechCrunch, “We take any and all allegations of this nature very seriously and have forwarded this to Attorney General Eric Holder and Tammy Albarran to include in their investigation.”

This comes shortly after Susan Fowler alleged sexual harassment at Uber, which Lusk said is not uncommon at Uber.

“In my time there, I saw malicious fights for power, interns repeatedly putting in over 100 hours a week but only getting paid for 40, discrimination against women, and prejudice against the transgender community,” she wrote.

A difference in Lusk’s story is that, instead of the sexism coming from a man, she says it came from a female engineering manager. Lusk says she reported it to Uber’s human resources department to no avail, which is similar to what Fowler described in her post.

Like other stories Lusk has heard, she wrote that nothing changed, even “after multiple meetings with my manager and HR” and that “it was simply brushed aside and swept under the carpet of collective Uber suffering.”

Xiaomi’s In-House Pinecone Processor Teased in Another Video Ahead of Tuesday Launch

Xiaomi is set to unveil its Pinecone processors at an event on Tuesday. The company is expected to unveil two high-end processors, and running up to the launch, Xiaomi is doling out multiple teasers. The first one featured two-time World Memory Championships winner Wang Feng, and now the latest teaser shows how a Rubik’s Cube champion finishes solving one in just 18 seconds.

Xiaomi's In-House Pinecone Processor Teased in Another Video Ahead of Tuesday Launch

The latest teaser (via Xiaomi Today) shows a boy solving a Rubik’s Cube underwater in just 18 seconds, a monumental feat that indirectly boasts of the upcoming chips’ capabilities. The company’s earlier teaser also tried to hint at the processor’s memory power with Feng doing an impossible memory challenge.

Xiaomi is heavily rumoured to announce two high-end chipsets at the event – the Pinecone V970 and V670 chipsets – with the former being the more premium one. The V970 is made with high-end 10nm process and its GPU comes with 12 cores. The GPU is Mali-G71, and the processor is a two-cluster setup with 4x Cortex-A73 and 4x Cortex-A53 cores. The Chinese company is reportedly working very closely with Samsung for the V970.

The first smartphone to integrate the Pinecone processor is expected to be the Mi 5c smartphone that has been making rounds on the Internet. Xiaomi with its in-house processor will be all set to take on the likes Apple, Samsung, and Huawei – all of which use their in-house processors on devices.

Xiaomi is expected to release another teaser on Monday before the official launch. The official invite has revealed that Pinecone processor announcement event will kick off at 2pm China time (11:30am IST) on Tuesday, and will be held at Beijing National Convention Center.

Google Assistant to Be Made Available for Android 6.0 Marshmallow Devices

 Google, after weeks of speculation, has finally confirmed that its Google Assistant voice-based virtual assistant will be arriving on all devices running Android 6.0 Marshmallow or above.

Google Assistant to Be Made Available for Android 6.0 Marshmallow DevicesGoogle Assistant, the company’s voice-based virtual assistant, that made its debut on the Google Allo app, and then was available on the company’s Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones, marketed as the biggest highlight of the new hardware. Apart from Pixel devices, the Google Assistant has now made its way to LG’s new G6 flagship as well.

The company revealed that the rollout will start this week to devices that are running Android Marshmallow or above. Google Assistant will be available for all English users in the US followed by Australia, Canada, and the UK.

“The Google Assistant will automatically come to eligible Android phones running Nougat and Marshmallow with Google Play Services. You’ll also see the Google Assistant on some newly announced partner devices, including the LG G6,” said Gummi Hafsteinsson, Product Lead, Google Assistant.

The  Google Assistant will be coming to Germany as well for German speaking users. The new Google Assistant feature on Marshmallow devices will replace Google Search, and can be launched by long-pressing the home button or can be activated via voice by saying “Ok Google” voice command.

The Google Assistant availability was first teased earlier this month with an alpha release of version 6.13 of the Google Search app.

Google Assistant was one of the biggest things to come out of 2016 from Google in the field of artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, the feature so far wasn’t available to any third-party devices or developers, and was limited to Allo app, Pixel and Pixel XL devices, the Google Home speaker, and Android TV devices. Unofficially though, anyone can avail the service through Open GApps builds, the popular Google Apps package provider.