Flipdish, the online ordering and loyalty platform for takeaways and restaurants, has closed a €4.8 million in Series A funding. The round is led by Rocket Internet’s Global Founders Capital, with participation by existing investor Elkstone.
Founded in 2015, Flipdish enables restaurants to directly accept online orders and manage their online presence and operations in a bid to help wean them off over-reliance (or order hijacking) by takeout marketplaces and aggregators, such as Just Eat or Deliveroo.
Specifically, the Irish startup enables individual restaurants and restaurant chains to compete with takeout aggregators by accepting online orders directly from customers with “lower costs and a higher control over the customer experience.” The proposition is similar to a crop of new startups that are helping hotels secure more direct bookings online rather than perpetually giving away a large part of their margins to the likes of Booking.com.
“In the last 10 years there’s been a sudden shift in the importance of technology: people who used to phone takeaways to place orders, now will only order online,” Flipdish CEO Conor McCarthy tells me.
“The largest food companies are able to facilitate this by putting huge resources into development, but small and medium businesses aren’t able to put millions of euro into developing their own software. We are levelling the playing field by making this technology available to all sized businesses and giving them the tools to compete and win online.”
Those tools include an online loyalty system and ordering platform, which comes with automated re-marketing and retention features. “Ensuring that this is all automated means the restaurants and takeaways can focus on creating great food and we will take care of their online presence,” adds McCarthy.
Noteworthy is that Flipdish isn’t generating revenue through a subscription-based offering. Instead, it charges a fee for each order placed through the platform. The idea is that the success of restaurants offering direct online ordering is tied to Flipdish’s own success
“If they don’t receive online orders, then we don’t make any money,” quips the Flipdish CEO. “I think this structure sets us apart from our competitors. Companies who charge a flat fee are incentivised to do as much as possible to sign up customers but have little incentive to help them receive orders. Like gyms are incentivised to sign up as many customers as possible but don’t actually want them use the gym.”
On that note, McCarthy argues that Flipdish’s biggest competitor is still the telephone line, as a significant portion of takeaways aren’t aware yet that there are affordable online ordering platforms out there and so rely on customers phoning them. In the software space, Olo and ChowNow are also well-funded direct competitors.
Meanwhile, Flipdish says the latest funding round comes on the back of “outstanding growth” this year with revenue up more than 3x compared to 2017, although without breaking out the numbers this is pretty meaningless. With that said, the company is disclosing that it currently powers over one thousand restaurants across Europe and has enabled more than €25 million in online orders to date.
To that end, Flipdish says the new funding will be used to help accelerate growth by building out its product line and delivering greater service to its expanding worldwide customer base.
Kitty Hawk, the company led by the ‘godfather of self-driving cars’ Sebastian Thrun and backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, has revealed its Cora aircraft, which is a hybrid vertical take-off and landing design that can take off like a helicopter but fly like a plane. The vehicle can travel at over 93 miles per hour, and has a range of around 62 miles on a single charge.… Read More
Zynga founder Mark Pincus is raising up to $700 million for a new investment fund that will focus on publicly traded tech companies in need of strategic restructuring, according to a new report in Axios. It says his new firm is called Reinvent Capital and that Pincus is founding the outfit with hedge fund manager Michael Thompson, who has been steering his own New York-based firm, BHR Capital, for the last nine years.
Reinvest’s plans, says Axios, involve investing in up to 15 internet, software and media companies, adding that the firm will be “size agnostic,” working with small, medium and large-cap companies.
Pincus has been a founder and operator since graduating from Harvard Business School in the early 1990s, co-founding an early internet company called FreeLoader, a web-based push technology service that sold a couple of years later to a now-defunct public company. Pincus went on to co-found SupportSoft, a pioneer in tech support and cloud services, then to create an early social network called Tribe.net, before founding the social gaming company Zynga in the spring of 2007.
The company went public in 2011 at a $7 billion valuation. Seen as vulnerable to competition and to the whims of Facebook, whose rules had already changed in ways that hurt Zynga leading into its IPO, its shares began slipping almost immediately. Today, the market cap of the company — where Pincus remains non-executive chairman after twice stepping into and out of top management roles — is $3.7 billion.
That Pincus would become a full-time investor is less surprising than the stage of companies he will reportedly be targeting. Pincus has long been an active investor, though typically (as far as we know) taking very early stakes in companies. Among his most recent seed-stage bets, for example, is Spatial, a roughly year-old, Emeryville, Calif.-based cross-reality collaboration platform that turns rooms into 3D workspaces and which raised $8 million in seed funding last fall, including from Pincus, along with numerous other individual investors and early-stage venture firms.
Another is Invisible, a New York-based company that says it can help customers outsource their work (professional and personal) to real humans via AI, and which raised $2.6 million in seed funding last fall.
A third recent and slightly later-stage bet centers on Cargo Systems, a 2.5-year-old, New York-based startup that helps ridesharing drivers earn money by bringing the convenience store into their vehicles and that raised $22 million in Series A funding led by Founders Fund back in September.
In fact, Pincus appears to have generated much of his wealth via one very early bet on Facebook. According to tech journalist David Kirkpatrick’s book, “The Facebook Effect,” Pincus, alongside his longtime friend Reid Hoffman, had written an early $40,000 check to the company. When Facebook went public, Pincus reportedly sold roughly one million shares, about a fifth of his stake at the time, for what was expected to be $35 million in pre-tax dollars.
Hoffman, who famously co-founded LinkedIn and is today a partner with the venture firm Greylock Partners, is reportedly advising Reinvent Capital. It’s just the latest effort on which the two are teaming up.
In the summer of 2017, Pincus and Hoffman announced an effort called Win the Future, or WTF, that aimed to be a “new movement and force within the Democratic Party,” Pincus told the outlet Recode at the time. Designed to be equal parts platform and movement, it began life by allowing site visitors to vote on topics like whether or not engineering degrees should be free to all Americans. The site no longer features much at all, other than a descriptor as a “non partisan project lab.”
Hoffman more recently landed in hot water after it was learned that he had indirectly contributed funding to a deceptive social media campaign aimed at helping Democratic candidate Doug Jones win Alabama’s state senate race in 2017. Jones won narrowly; Hoffman said he had no knowledge of the project, did not endorse its tactics, and that he “categorically” disavows the use of misinformation to sway a campaign.
We reached out to Pincus earlier today to learn more. We hope to have more information for you soon.
Brud, the company behind the virtual celebrity Lil Miquela, is now worth at least $125 million thanks to a new round of financing the company is currently closing. Meanwhile, new venture-backed companies like the superstealthy Shadows, SuperPlastic and Toonstar are all developing virtual characters that will launch via social media channels like Snap and Instagram, or on their own platforms.
It’s all an effort to test whether audiences are ready to embrace even more virtual avatars — including ones that don’t try to straddle the uncanny valley quite as blatantly as Miquela and her crew.
The investors backing these companies say it’s the rise of a new kind of studio system — one that’s independent of the personalities and scandals that have defined a generation of Vine, YouTube and Instagram stars — and it’s attracting serious venture dollars.
“The way I look at it… a lot of it is going to be like any kind of content studio,” says Peter Rojas, a partner at the New York investment firm Betaworks Ventures. “In 2019 and 2020 we’re going to see a lot of these… we’re going to see a lot of people putting out a lot of stuff.”
Los Angeles-based Brud is by far the most established of this new breed in the U.S. (at least in terms of the amount of money it has raised). Last year the company scored at least $6 million from investors, including Sequoia Capital, BoxGroup and other, undisclosed, investors.
The makers of the virtual influencer, Lil Miquela, snag real money from Silicon Valley
And the company has done it again, and is in the process of closing on somewhere between $20 million and $30 million at a pre-money valuation of at least $125 million led by Spark Capital, according to people with knowledge of the round. Miquela “herself” teased that “she” had something to “share” with her roughly 1.5 million followers. Brud declined to comment.
If Miquela is arguably the most successful U.S. version of this new breed of entertainer, the collective behind the account is far from the only one.
Experiments in avastardom have been percolating in popular culture since at least the rise of the Gorillaz — the Damon Albarn assembled musical supergroup that released their first EP “Tomorrow Comes Today” in late 2000. Or, depending on your definition, perhaps as early as Space Ghost Coast to Coast, the mid-1990s Cartoon Network series featuring an animated superhero interviewing real celebrities.
And that success spawned imitators like Hatsune Miku, who’ve capture the imagination and hearts of audiences globally. In November, a Japanese fan named Akihiko Kondo spent $18,000 to wed the avatar. And he’s not alone. Gatebox, the company that manufactures hardware to display holograms of various anime characters in homes, has issued at least 3,700 marriage licenses to fans like Kondo.
At Betaworks, the firm is exploring the popularity of these virtual characters — and the role that artificial intelligence and new content creation technologies will play in reshaping entertainment and social media platforms. The company’s Synthetic Camp, which launches in mid-February, is around what Rojas calls “synthetic reality,” including the rise of avatar-driven media like Miquela.
“We’re looking more broadly at the issues around manipulated or faked content and how do you address that,” says Rojas. “Algorithmically generated content and how things like generative adversarial networks are being used to create and synthesize new photo and video content.”
For Rojas, the development of powerful new tools that enable the creation of new characters in minutes that, in the past, would have taken humans hundreds of thousands of hours, can unlock all sorts of possibilities for entertainment.
“The celebrity part comes into play where we’re now at a point where you can create these photorealistic avatars and put them into videos and have them wearing clothes without having to spend millions of dollars on CGI,” he says.
Betaworks is betting on the content studio aspect through companies like SuperPlastic, a new startup launched by Paul Budnitz, the founder of the alternative social network ello and Budnitz Bicycles. Budnitz is perhaps best known for Kidrobot, a manufacturer of branded collectibles and toys for adults and kids everywhere. But the company also believes there are opportunities in backing the content creation toolkits that can power this new kind of media star, like its investment in the media creation tool, Facemoji.
“There’s no reason why you won’t see it across the board. Our appetite for fresh content and this stuff is kind of limitless,” says Rojas. “And I don’t see it as zero sum. YouTube didn’t kill television, it just became Netflix… Things can move in two different directions at the same time. More high brow and more complex and higher level and also more democratized and lowbrow and dumb. There’ll be avatar tools and apps and games and then we’ll see stuff that’s top of the pyramid stuff like Lil Miquela and Shudu.”
At Toonstar, co-founders John Attanasio and Luisa Huang went from developing a platform to developing a studio. The two met at the Digital Media Group within Warner Brothers and were tasked with trying to experiment with technologies at the intersection of media generation and distribution.
“Daily, snackable and interactive are the three things that you need to be successful in the world,” says Attanasio. “We saw the impact that the rise of mobile was having on linear. We sat through a lot of meetings where you looked at audience trends and you saw that going in the wrong direction in the wrong color.”
So the two founders began contemplating what a new, low-cost, high-touch media network might look like. “We looked at mobile and we saw the massive animation gap. Animation takes a long time and it’s expensive, the average season can cost $3 million to $5 million and bringing a new series to life can take three to four years.”
For Attanasio and Huang, those timelines were too slow to take advantage of the mobile content revolution. So the two built a platform that initially focused on letting user-generated content flourish — a kind of YouTube for animated, avatar-driven storytelling that could be distributed on any social media platform or on Toonstar’s own site and app.
Toonstar lets you bring cartoon characters to life thanks to facial recognition
Since that launch, the company has refined its business model to become more of a traditional animation studio. “We do daily pop culture cartoons… and partner with creators and influencers,” says Attanasio. “Our whole thing is driven by proprietary tech that allows us to do things really fast and at low cost… 50 times faster and 90 percent cheaper than typical animation.”
Attanasio also realized the importance of creative talent. “We had no shortage of content, but it was shitty content,” Attanasio says. “That’s when you realize… what we’re doing… there’s three ingredients… One is tech, one is process and the third is creative… if you have tech and process and you take away creative what you have is an ocean of shit.”
Now, they’re also experimenting with creating their own animated influencer. Leveraging the popularity of the Musical.ly app (now rebranded under its new owner, TikTok), Toonstar launched Poppy.tv.
“We launched a channel called Poppy.tv. It was a blue chicken [and] she became musically famous,” Attanasio said. “Within three months Poppy had 300,000 followers and had an avid fan base for Poppy and her cast of characters.”
The content was episodic and ranged from 15 seconds to 30 seconds — and it was based on cartoon music videos. “That validated the thesis of can you create a cartoon influencer and can you have a broad audience be super engaged?… and the answer was ‘Yes,'” said Attanasio.
Then, taking a page from the early Cartoon Network playbook, Attanasio and Huang made the show interactive in a callback to the “Space Ghost” phenomenon. “We started doing cartoon live streams and the founders of Musical.ly asked us to do a weekly show that they would feature,” Attanasio says. “It was Poppy the Blue Chicken and we would broadcast for an hour every week. Famous musers on Musical.ly come in with a FaceTime… And there were games and all of it was live, in real time.”
It’s hard to overstate the importance of working with virtual characters, according to Attanasio. “We understand how much money you can make from the IP. When we’re working with creators or influencers they understand that you have this shelf life as an influencer, but as IP, that can go on in perpetuity. There is something to be said about building a character. We’re all children of Saturday morning cartoons.”
And Toonstar is building an audience. Its show, the Danogs, has 4.5 million weekly viewers, and the company recently launched Black Santa — a show developed in partnership with the former NBA All-Star and tech investor Baron Davis. The NBA star and studio analyst also committed capital to Toonstar’s recent seed funding, a round led by Founders Fund partner Cyan Banister. In all, Toonstar said it has about 45 million weekly viewers for all of its shows.
Lil Miquela and fellow brud avatar Blawko22
Those kinds of numbers are music to the ears, of Dylan Flinn, a former agent at the Los Angeles powerhouse Creative Artists Agency, who left to start his own company.
Flinn has partnered with the producers of BoJack Horseman on a new venture called Shadows, which has already launched two virtual avatars into the wild.
Flinn got exposure to the virtual media world while at Rothenberg Ventures, the now defunct fund that invested in virtual reality and augmented reality. “I still had that lens of looking at innovation and virtual worlds and I’ve always been fascinated by what social media is doing.”
For Flinn, the virtual element of what’s being created is vitally important to the success of these ventures. “We’re not trying to create humans,” he says. “We look up to the Mickey Mouses and Looney Tunes and the Bugs Bunnies of the world. When I look at these 3D, [computer generated] human-based characters, it’s so close to the uncanny valley. We want to develop characters and we want to tell fictional stories rooted in reality.”
Like Attanasio at Toonstar, Flinn sees the speed at which digital content can be created and brought to market as a critical component of its success. “When I was at CAA you see how much money is wasted on development every year. This was an approach which was like, ‘What if you can develop in public and the best content can win?'” Flinn says.
Shadows already has two virtual avatars out in the wild, but he declined to identify which ones they were. Ultimately, he said, the goal is to have 20 characters a year, because once a couple of characters come to market and get traction with an audience, new characters can be introduced to old ones and the universe becomes a discovery engine of its own. That’s a strategy that Miquela and her crew are also employing, with varying degrees of success.
Ultimately, these types of entertainments aren’t going to go away — at least according to the investors and entrepreneurs who are creating the companies that are building them.
“People are totally fine with things that are artificial,” says Rojas. “People totally connect with Mario from Super Mario Bros. We always tell stories and have characters in whatever medium are available to us [like] Instagram and Snapchat and YouTube and Twitter. Thirty to 40 years ago it was television and radio and movies. People are going to express themselves and avatars end up being a form expression.”
U.K. VCs were sent a message today by the EU: Continue to invest in European companies and we’ll invest in you. That at least seems to be the takeaway from the news that Dawn Capital, which has built up a reputation as an investor in early-stage SaaS and fintech businesses in the U.K. and Europe, has closed its third fund, Dawn III, at $232 million (£165 million), with the help of the European Investment Fund (EIF).
The EIF is committing £52 million after it previously said it would no longer invest in U.K. venture capital due to Brexit. But it’s clear the strong European ties helped Dawn. It has a 50/50 split of U.K. and European companies in its portfolio.
Claiming to now be the largest European VC fund focused entirely on B2B tech businesses (Notion Capital might contest that), Dawn says the fundraising was heavily over-subscribed despite the hard cap being twice increased. This, the firm said, was down to growing interest amongst investors in the European market, and Dawn’s track record.
That record included some of Europe’s fastest growing B2B software businesses, including Mimecast (currently valued at more than US$2 billion), iZettle, Collibra, Gelato Group, Sonovate, Neo Technology and Showpad.
On the back of these investments, Dawn Fund I has delivered exits such as Mimecast, Sticky, Ecommera and Bityota to name a few. It has also backed iZettle, which now dominates Europe’s SME retail sector.
As well as the European Investment Fund, Fund III investors included the British Business Bank — which is investing in Dawn III through its commercial arm, British Business Investments — alongside new institutional and strategic investors from the U.S. and Europe.
In an interview with TechCrunch, Haakon Overli, general partner at Dawn, said the EIF’s involvement was “because we are investing across Europe.”
He also noted that “really clever U.S. investors are now very well-informed about Europe as they are seeing big companies come out of here. The bigger investors can’t get into the likes of Sequoia, so they see a similar opportunity as when funds moved out from the West U.S. coast to the East.”
He said existing investors had subscribed for nearly 80 percent of Dawn III, “which is nearly three times the size of Dawn II. We are also looking forward to working with our new LPs that will offer strategic benefits, including financial services expertise and closer links to the U.S. market.”
He added that the European tech investment market “has matured so quickly that to keep leading rounds in some of the world’s most exciting businesses has required a commensurate step up in our ability to write larger checks whilst still being confident of continuing to deliver strong returns to our LPs.”
Norman Fiore, general partner at Dawn, said in a statement that “today’s start-ups are eyeing first generation SaaS players as the new targets.” Josh Bell, general partner at Dawn, said “an easing of the financial regulatory environment” in the U.S. will mean “nimble home-grown players taking advantage of this disruption to build European champions.”
Asked if Dawn is seeing new trends in European investing, such as Blockchain, Overli said: “We invest in startups that are solving problems. So if they use blockchain, fine. But we haven’t found one yet. The main thing is that Europe has lots of excellent engineers in companies which are doing great stuff, and the best of those companies are doing very well in the U.S. on the back of really excellent engineering from Europe.”
Everyone’s favorite endless, serene snowboarding game just made the leap from mobile to the Mac App Store. Available now for $9.99, Alto’s Adventure for Mac is a desktop port of the side-scrolling snowscape game that’s won hearts and accolades since it first hit iOS in 2015.
Earlier this year, the team behind Alto’s Adventure introduced a second game, Alto’s Odyssey, which trades the first game’s snowy terrain for sand and sun while maintaining its charm. If you’ve already spent some time with Alto’s Odyssey, the Mac version of the classic is a good reason to circle back.
The game’s serene setting and blissed out music make Alto’s Adventure eminently replayable, even if you’ve already sunk tens of hours into lengthening your scarf in an infinite procedurally generated snowy world dotted with charming villages, dramatic slopes and many, many things to trip over.
‘Alto’s Adventure’ sequel ‘Alto’s Odyssey’ launches on iOS on February 22
If you’ve yet to dive into Alto’s Adventure, and we really recommend that you do, the Mac version is probably a good starting place. For everyone else, progress in the game syncs across devices through iCloud, so it’s a good excuse to push a little further into one of the most thoughtful, pleasant mobile game experiences to date.
And while you’re hanging out in the Mac App Store, don’t forget to update to Mojave — Apple’s latest desktop operating system is available now.
Back when Dennis Woodside joined Dropbox as its chief operating officer more than four years ago, the company was trying to justify the $10 billion valuation it had hit in its rapid rise as a Web 2.0 darling. Now, Dropbox is a public company with a nearly $14 billion valuation, and it once again showed Wall Street that it’s able to beat expectations with a now more robust enterprise business alongside its consumer roots.
Dropbox’s second quarter results came in ahead of Wall Street’s expectations on both the earnings and revenue front. The company also announced that Dennis Woodside, who has been the chief operating officer for more than four years, will be leaving the company. Woodside joined at a time at Dropbox when it was starting to figure out its enterprise business, which it was able to grow and transform into a strong case for Wall Street that it could finally be a successful publicly-traded company. The IPO was indeed successful, with the company’s shares soaring more than 40% in its debut, so it makes sense that Woodside has essentially accomplished his job by getting it into a business ready for Wall Street.
“I think as a team we accomplished a ton over the last four and a half years,” Woodside said in an interview. “When I joined they were a couple hundred million in revenue and a little under 500 people. [CEO] Drew [Houston] and Arash [Ferdowsi] have built a great business, since then we’ve scaled globally. Close to half our revenue is outside the U.S., we have well over 300,000 teams for our Dropbox business product, which was nascent there. These are accomplishments of the team, and I’m pretty proud.”
The stock exploded in extended trading by rising more than 7%, though even prior to the market close and the company reporting its earnings, the stock had risen as much as 10%. But following that spike, Dropbox shares are now down around 5%. Dropbox is one of a number of SaaS companies that have gone public in recent months, including DocuSign, that have seen considerable success. While Dropbox has managed to make its case with a strong enterprise business, the company was born with consumer roots and has tried to carry over that simplicity with the enterprise products it rolls out, like its collaboration tool Dropbox Paper.
Here’s a quick rundown of the numbers:
Q2 Revenue: Up 27% year-over-year to $339.2 million, compared to estimates of $331 million in revenue.
Q2 GAAP Gross Margin: 73.6%, as compared to 65.4% in the same period last year.
Q2 adjusted earnings: 11 cents per share compared, compared to estimates of 7 cents per share.
Paid users: 11.9 million paying users, up from 9.9 million in the same quarter last year.
ARPU: $116.66, compared to $111.19 same quarter last year.
So, not only is Dropbox able to show that it can continue to grow that revenue, the actual value of its users is also going up. That’s important, because Dropbox has to show that it can continue to acquire higher-value customers — meaning it’s gradually moving up the Fortune 100 chain and getting larger and more established companies on board that can offer it bigger and bigger contracts. It also gives it the room to make larger strategic moves, like migrating onto its own architecture late last year, which in the long run could turn out to drastically improve the margins on its business.
“We did talk earlier in the quarter about our investment over the last couple years in SMR technology, an innovative storage technology that allows us to optimize cost and performance,” Woodside said. “We continue to innovate ways that allow us to drive better performance, and that drives better economics.”
The company is still looking to make significant moves in the form of new hires, including recently announcing that it has a new VP of product and VP of product marketing, Adam Nash and Naman Khan. Dropbox’s new team under CEO Drew Houston are tasked with continuing the company’s path to cracking into larger enterprises, which can give it a much more predictable and robust business alongside the average consumers that pay to host their files online and access them from pretty much anywhere.
Dropbox had its first quarterly earnings check-in and slid past the expectations that Wall Street had, though its GAAP gross margin slipped a little bit and may have offered a slight negative signal for the company. But since then, Dropbox’s stock hasn’t had any major missteps, giving it more credibility on the public markets — and more resources to attract and retain talent with compensation packages linked to that stock.
“Our retention has been quite strong,” Woodside said. “We see strong retention characteristics across the customer set we have, whether it’s large or small. Obviously larger companies have more opportunity to expand over time, so our expansion metrics are quite strong in customers of over several hundred employees. But even among small businesses, Dropbox is the kind of product that has gravity. Once you start using it and start sharing it, it becomes a place where your business is small or large is managing all its content, it tends to be a sticky experience.”
Since Amazon opened its first cashier-less Amazon Go store in late 2016, other retailers have been forced to grapple with how they’ll compete with the convenience store of the future.
Amazon has since opened several additional Amazon Go locations, including in Seattle and San Francisco, and, last week, Sam’s Club said it would open a “Sam’s Club Now” store in Dallas, Texas. Now, one of the oldest international chains is announcing a similar new system of cashier-less payments.
7-Eleven is piloting a new mobile check-out process called Scan & Pay. 7-Eleven shoppers can track their items by scanning a product’s QR code with their phone and pay using the 7-Eleven rewards mobile app. The company, which operates more than 65,000 stores in 17 countries, is currently piloting Scan & Pay in 14 Dallas stores. It plans to expand the service to additional cities in 2019.
Customers can pay using Apple Pay, Google Pay or a traditional debit or credit card. The only products banned from cashier-less check-out are hot foods, lottery tickets, alcohol and tobacco.
“For us, it was important to figure out how to continue to drive convenience in the digital age,” said Gurmeet Singh, 7-Eleven’s chief digital officer and chief information officer. “We are ready to adapt to the changing consumer patterns and changing demands of the consumer.”
Headquartered in Dallas, 7-Eleven says 50 percent of the U.S. population lives within one mile of one of its stores.
Like other big brick-and-mortar retailers, it’s doing its best to keep up with tech’s big advancements. Earlier this year, the company partnered with the “Deadpool” series to present an augmented reality experience in its stores, among other experiments.
Apple CEO Tim Cook is expected to endorse the idea of a “comprehensive federal privacy law” for the U.S. in a keynote speech tomorrow.
He will also back Europe’s approach to data protection and privacy — recently cemented in place via the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — essentially saying technology does not have to be creepy to be innovative. Nor should the tech itself be a cause of harm.
Cook will be addressing the 40th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners (ICDPPC), which is being held in Brussels this year to coincide with the introduction of GDPR.
Europe’s updated privacy framework came into timely force, this May, weeks after the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal had erupted into a major global scandal — further raising the profile of data protection as a consumer need, and convincing governments to prioritize an oft overlooked area.
By contrast US lawmakers have found themselves on the back foot, increasingly viewed as laggards on the issue vs Europe.
California also recently passed a state-wide data protection law. So federal regulators now have clear impetus to draw up domestic privacy rules. Though it remains to be seen whether they will stand up to platform power at home and hold their own on the world stage. Or merely close down the risk of a state-by-state data protection patchwork springing up to create new compliance headaches for business.
Silicon Valley’s response to the prospect of an overarching US privacy law has been predictably disingenuous — with attempts to reframe the issue under broadbrush, malleable concepts like ‘control’ or ‘accountability’; and lobbying efforts aimed at steering regulators away from drafting rules anywhere near as robust as GDPR.
The usual soundbites are being trotted out about the need to ‘protect innovation‘ (aka the data-fuelled business models such companies use as revenue engines).
Cook’s intervention is a reminder that not every tech giant is hostile to privacy. And privacy does not have to be systematically violated for value to be derived from data.
For example, Apple has invested in pro-privacy technologies that enable it to leverage data-based insights while protecting individual privacy, such as its use of differential privacy to pull aggregate patterns of behaviour across its user-base; rather than pursuing a per-person profiling approach, as adtech giants Google and Facebook do, riding roughshod over individual privacy in the process.
In his speech to the audience of international privacy commissioners, Cook is expected to thank global regulators for the work they do, and reiterate that Apple views privacy as a “fundamental human right” — a position which aligns the company with the EU’s ethics-based perspective on big data.
He will also compliment GDPR, specifically — dubbing it an example of how “good policy and political will can come together to protect the rights of us all” — and focus on ethical underpinnings, saying that at Apple “we are optimistic about technology’s awesome potential for good. But we know that it won’t happen on its own. Every day, we work to infuse the devices we make with the humanity that makes us.”
In another remark, Cook will say: “We will never achieve technology’s true potential without the full faith and confidence of the people who use it” — which looks like a not-so-coded attack on big tech’s trust crisis, which continues to be fuelled by data breach after data breach, every passing week.
As we wrote previously, Apple’s signalling to US lawmakers on privacy is clear.
In the speech, Cook will also seek to push the conversation beyond talk of compliance and defence of rights — by laying out a broad, positive vision for technology and privacy in the 21st century.
He is expected to tell delegates “we need to keep making progress — now more than ever” on “humanity’s greatest common project”, citing challenges such as climate change, fighting disease, and education and economy inclusion.
Cook is the first tech CEO to give the keynote speech at the ICDPPC, accepting an invitation from the conference organizers to do so.
He is also perhaps the only big tech CEO who could comfortably take to such a stage in person.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai will also be heard at the conference, but remotely, via pre-recorded video messages. The companies are sending policy staffers to answer delegates’ questions in Q&A sessions.
Virtually every modern computer processor was thrown under the bus earlier this year when researchers found a fundamental design weakness in Intel, AMD and ARM chips, making it possible to steal sensitive data from the computer’s memory.
The Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities — which date back to 1995 — punched holes in the walls that keeps apps from accessing other parts of the system’s memory that it doesn’t have permission to read. That meant a skilled attacker could figure out where sensitive data was stored, like passwords and encryption keys. While the companies mitigated some of the flaws, they acknowledged that their long term plan would require a core redesign in how their computer processors work.
Now, a team of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) researchers say they have found a way to prevent a similar range of flaws like Meltdown and Spectre in the future.
When an app needs to store something in memory, it asks the processor where to put it. But searching for that memory is slow, so processors use a trick known as “speculative execution” to run several sets of tasks at the same time while it finds the right memory slot. But attackers can exploit the same technique to allow an app to read parts of the memory that it shouldn’t be allowed to read.
MIT’s CSAIL says their technique would split up memory so that the data not stored in the same place — in what the team calls “secure way partitioning.”
They call it called DAWG — or “Dynamically Allocated Way Guard” — which, admittedly might sound ridiculous, but it’s meant to work as a counterpoint to Intel’s Cache Allocation Technology, or CAT. According to their work, DAWG works similarly to CAT and doesn’t require many changes to the device’s operating system — making it potentially as easy to install on an affected computer as Meltdown’s microcode fix.
According to Vladimir Kiriansky, one of the research paper’s authors, the new technique “establishes clear boundaries for where sharing should and should not happen, so that programs with sensitive information can keep that data reasonably secure.”
Not only could the technology help to protect regular computers, but also also vulnerable cloud infrastructures.
Although DAWG can’t prevent against every speculative attack, the researchers are now working to improve their technology to prevent against more — if not all attacks.
But if their technology is picked up by Intel or any other chip maker, the researchers say techniques like DAWG could “restore our confidence in public cloud infrastructure, and hardware and software co-design will help minimize performance overheads.”
Kernel panic! What are Meltdown and Spectre, the bugs affecting nearly every computer and device?
Blockchain, one of the world’s biggest crypto wallets, plans to give away a vast amout of cryptocurrency in a bold move to scale the adoption of crypto to a more mainstream audience.Blockchain and the Stellar Development Foundation (stellar.org) will distribute $125m worth of Stellar lumens [XLM] to Blockchain’s users. Blockchain is claiming this is the largest airdrop in the history of crypto, and potentially the largest consumer giveaway ever, and to most outside observers, it looks that way.Critics of the move will, however, may lay the charge that’s it’s a cynical move akin to cheap marketing techniques. Whatever the case, most people would probably say they’d have quite liked someone to ‘give them a bitcoin’ a few years ago… It remains to be seen, however, what effect it will actually have in the ground in regards to crypto adoption.Accessible to anyone with a Blockchain Wallet, Blockchain says that the first batch of recipients will receive their lumens, Stellar’s native digital currency this week – for free. The Stellar network has gained a reputation for scalability, with its lumen token enabling competitively quick, low-cost worldwide transactions. It has it’s critics however, and not every crypto fan out there will be impressed.In a statement Peter Smith, CEO at Blockchain, said: “At Blockchain, we’re committed to putting our users first. Providing exclusive access to the next generation of cryptoassets allows new and existing users alike to test, try, trade, and transact with new, trusted cryptoassets in a safe and easy way. We’re empowering our users with private keys, which allow them to go beyond just storing their crypto to actually using them. In turn, we can help build a bigger and more engaged crypto community, and drive network effects that make the ecosystem more useful and valuable for the many rather than the few.”Stellar is Blockchain’s first airdrop partner following the launch of the company’s Airdrops Guiding Principles framework in October 2018.Jed McCaleb, co-founder of Stellar Development Foundation, said, “We believe that airdrops are central to creating a more inclusive digital economy. Giving away lumens [XLM] for free is an invitation to communities to design the services they need. Our hope is to eventually have global citizens own and use lumens, in both developing and developed economies. By working with Blockchain to increase the availability and active use of lumens on the network, leveraging their almost 30m wallets, we will increase the network’s utility by many orders of magnitude.”As part of the airdrop, Blockchain is also partnering with a number of organizations to further the adoption of lumens, including charity: water, Stanford d.school, code.org, Network for Good, and IBM, who share the company’s vision for using this transformational technology to build a better future. Blockchain plans on revealing specific details of each initiative in the coming weeks.Carissa Carter, Director of Teaching and Learning at Stanford d.school, said, “The strength of any network is derived from innovation. We are excited to join Blockchain on this airdrop to empower some of the most brilliant and creative minds to start experimenting and building on Stellar’s network.”
Researchers at the Hybrid Robotics Group at UC Berkeley and CMU are hard at work making sure their robots don’t fall over when tiptoeing through rough terrain. Using machine learning and ATRIAS robots, the teams are able to “teach” robots to traverse stepping stones they’ve never seen before.
Their robots, described here, are unique in that they are bipedal and use a mixture of balance and jumping to ensure they don’t tip off the blocks.
“What’s different about our methods is that they allow for dynamic walking as opposed to the slower quasi-static motions that robots tend to use,” write the researchers. “By reasoning about the nonlinearities in the dynamics of the system and by taking advantage of recent advances in optimal and nonlinear control technology, we can specify control objectives and desired robot behaviors in a simple and compact form while providing formal stability and safety guarantees. This means our robots can walk over discrete terrain without slipping or falling over, backed by some neat math and some cool experimental videos.”
The robots are currently “blind” and can’t use visual input to plan their next move. However, with a robot called CASSIE, they will be able to see and feel the stones as they hop along, ensuring that they don’t tip over in the heat of fun… or battle.