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Monthly Archives: May 2018

People are done with Disney remixer Pogo after a homophobic rant on YouTube



Famed for his Disney-themed remixes, YouTuber Pogo has recently been under fire for making homophobic comments.

Real name Nick Bertke, the Australian producer has amassed millions of views with his sampling and electronic mashups of movies like Alice In Wonderland and Toy Story.

But in a video that has surfaced on Thursday, Bertke explained why he decided to name his channel after a homophobic slur.

“I’ve always had a very thorough dislike of homosexuals. I’ve never liked a grown man acting like a 12-year-old girl,” he said.  Read more…

More about Youtube, Australia, Culture, Youtubers, and Lgbtq Rights

Watch a hard-working robot improvise to climb drawers and cross gaps



A robot’s got to know its limitations. But that doesn’t mean it has to accept them. This one in particular uses tools to expand its capabilities, commandeering nearby items to construct ramps and bridges. It’s satisfying to watch but, of course, also a little worrying.

This research, from Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, is essentially about making a robot take stock of its surroundings and recognize something it can use to accomplish a task that it knows it can’t do on its own. It’s actually more like a team of robots, since the parts can detach from one another and accomplish things on their own. But you didn’t come here to debate the multiplicity or unity of modular robotic systems! That’s for the folks at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, where this paper was presented (and Spectrum got the first look).

SMORES-EP is the robot in play here, and the researchers have given it a specific breadth of knowledge. It knows how to navigate its environment, but also how to inspect it with its little mast-cam and from that inspection derive meaningful data like whether an object can be rolled over, or a gap can be crossed.

It also knows how to interact with certain objects, and what they do; for instance, it can use its built-in magnets to pull open a drawer, and it knows that a ramp can be used to roll up to an object of a given height or lower.

A high-level planning system directs the robots/robot-parts based on knowledge that isn’t critical for any single part to know. For example, given the instruction to find out what’s in a drawer, the planner understands that to accomplish that, the drawer needs to be open; for it to be open, a magnet-bot will have to attach to it from this or that angle, and so on. And if something else is necessary, for example a ramp, it will direct that to be placed as well.

The experiment shown in this video has the robot system demonstrating how this could work in a situation where the robot must accomplish a high-level task using this limited but surprisingly complex body of knowledge.

In the video, the robot is told to check the drawers for certain objects. In the first drawer, the target objects aren’t present, so it must inspect the next one up. But it’s too high — so it needs to get on top of the first drawer, which luckily for the robot is full of books and constitutes a ledge. The planner sees that a ramp block is nearby and orders it to be put in place, and then part of the robot detaches to climb up and open the drawer, while the other part maneuvers into place to check the contents. Target found!

In the next task, it must cross a gap between two desks. Fortunately, someone left the parts of a bridge just lying around. The robot puts the bridge together, places it in position after checking the scene, and sends its forward half rolling towards the goal.

These cases may seem rather staged, but this isn’t about the robot itself and its ability to tell what would make a good bridge. That comes later. The idea is to create systems that logically approach real-world situations based on real-world data and solve them using real-world objects. Being able to construct a bridge from scratch is nice, but unless you know what a bridge is for, when and how it should be applied, where it should be carried and how to get over it, and so on, it’s just a part in search of a whole.

Likewise, many a robot with a perfectly good drawer-pulling hand will have no idea that you need to open a drawer before you can tell what’s in it, or that maybe you should check other drawers if the first doesn’t have what you’re looking for!

Such basic problem-solving is something we take for granted, but nothing can be taken for granted when it comes to robot brains. Even in the experiment described above, the robot failed multiple times for multiple reasons while attempting to accomplish its goals. That’s okay — we all have a little room to improve.

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Why SoftBank invested $2.25 billion in Cruise



Earlier today, General Motors’ Cruise received a $2.25 billion investment from SoftBank’s Vision Fund. Once that deal closes, GM will invest another $1.1 billion.

SoftBank landed on Cruise because it’s one of “a handful that in our view have a meaningful opportunity in front of them,” SoftBank Vision Fund Managing Partner Michael Ronen told TechCrunch. Cruise’s integrated play of hardware and software attracted SoftBank, Ronen said, as well as the fact that Cruise’s spirit, creativity and energy “has not been diminished at all.”

These investments are expected to enable Cruise to deploy commercially starting next year. But what’s most important about this investment to Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt, he told TechCrunch, is the fact that Cruise — which sold to GM for more than $1 billion in 2016 — now has stock and equity in the company again.

That’s because “we’re in a war right now to attract the greatest minds in the world to work on this,” Vogt told me. And in order to keep those great minds on board and continue attracting new ones, Vogt said he wants to give them a chance to “participate in the value we create.”

“From my standpoint, it’s like we’re a startup all over again,” he told me.

Based on Cruise’s rate of improvement in self-driving testing, the company is still on track to commercialization next year, GM President Dan Ammann told TechCrunch. Regarding what that commercialization looks like has yet to be determined.

While Cruise’s service will be a consumer-facing experience and network, “we remain open to other opportunities to partner with folks if and when that makes sense,” Ammann said. He added that partnering with SoftBank, which has invested in ride-hailing companies like Didi, Uber and Grab, brings an ecosystem and relationships along with it.

TOKYO, JAPAN – MAY 10: SoftBank Group Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Masayoshi Son speaks during a press conference on May 10, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. SoftBank announced net profit for its fiscal year ending 31 March today reporting a record profit of 1.43 trillion yen ($12.5 billion). (Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

But before Cruise gets to commercialization, the company needs to be confident in its safety abilities — especially in light of the fatal crash in March involving one of Uber’s self-driving cars.

“Our ultimate decision to go fully driverless will be gated by safety and whether we’re operating at a certain level of safety,” Ammann said.

Ammann declined to comment on the specifics of its safety metrics and assessments, but said Cruise is engaged with regulators to make those types of assessment.

“You should assume we have a very deep understanding of what that looks like and how we measure it, but we don’t want to share detail on that at this time,” Ammann said.

SoftBank’s Ronen echoed GM’s Ammann comments about safety and commercial deployment, noting these are early days and it’s important to get the technology and safety right.

Cruise and GM’s fourth generation steering wheel-free car

“This is the first time we’ll all be putting our lives in the hands of robots, literally, daily and if the safety is not there, nothing is going to work, no matter what form you put it in on the road,” Ronen said.

Once Cruise gets to that point, the next step is to determine the best option for deployment. And, as Ronen pointed out, it’s not like the U.S. will suddenly be filled with Cruise’s autonomous cars in 2019. Instead, he said, “it’s going to be a gradual process.”

Earlier this year, Cruise CTO AG Gangadhar, formerly of Uber, left his role at the company. Vogt is currently operating as CEO and CTO of Cruise, and he told me he loves it.

“I’m really enjoying this,” Vogt said about being acting CTO. “So this is the way it’s going to be for the foreseeable future.”

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Ticketfly’s website is offline after a hacker got into its homepage and database



Following what it calls a “cyber incident,” the event ticket distributor Ticketfly took its homepage offline on Thursday morning. The company left this message on its website, which remains nonfunctional hours later:

“Following a series of recent issues with Ticketfly properties, we’ve determined that Ticketfly has been the target of a cyber incident. Out of an abundance of caution, we have taken all Ticketfly systems temporarily offline as we continue to look into the issue. We are working to bring our systems back online as soon as possible. Please check back later.

For information on specific events please check the social media accounts of the presenting venues/promoters to learn more about availability/status of upcoming shows. In many cases, shows are still happening and tickets may be available at the door.”

Before Ticketfly regained control of its site, a hacker calling themselves IsHaKdZ hijacked it to display apparent database files along with a Guy Fawkes mask and an email contact.

According to correspondence with Motherboard, the hacker apparently demanded a single bitcoin (worth $7,502, at the time of writing) to divulge the vulnerability that left Ticketfly open to attack. Motherboard reports that it was able to verify the validity of at least six sets of user data listed in the hacked files, which included names, addresses, email addresses and phone numbers of Ticketfly customers as well as some employees. We’ll update this story as we learn more.

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Patient reporting tool from CancerAid now integrates with Epic Systems and Apple HealthKit



CancerAid, a self-reporting and symptom monitoring tool for cancer patients, has scored its first major coup in the U.S. healthcare market with its integration into Epic Systems electronic health records at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles and an integration with Apple’s HealthKit.

Cedars, an investor in the company through an accelerator program it ran in conjunction with Techstars, marks the first U.S. hospital system to incorporate CancerAid’s self-reporting information into a dashboard system for doctors.

It’s been a long road for company co-founders Raghav Murali-Ganesh and Nikhil Pooviah, who first met eight years ago at the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, a Sydney, Australia cancer treatment center.

Pooviah was a resident working with Murali-Ganesh in radiation oncology, positions the two men occupied for several years before venturing off on their own to launch the service that would become CancerAid.

The company’s initial inspiration came from years spent checking out the tools that were already in the market for cancer patients — tools like Chemo Calendar that helped with things like scheduling and monitoring appointments.

Instead of studying for some particularly tricky upcoming exams, Pooviah was spending time developing a patient-facing self-reporting symptom tracker and a community portal for cancer patients to discuss, share and monitor their own symptoms.

CancerAid co-founders Drs. Nikhil Pooviah and Raghav Murali-Ganesh and Martin Seneviratne

It was that first tool that won the company acceptance into the Cedars Sinai accelerator and a competitive position in TechCrunch’s inaugural Startup Battlefield competition in Sydney, Australia.

From its initial development, CancerAid now has four primary functions. On the patient side, there’s personalized cancer information for patients after their initial diagnosis. The company also provides a personal journal and symptom journal for patients to report on how they’re feeling, both emotionally and physically, as they progress through their treatment.

A feature the company calls “Champions” was added so that family and friends could keep up with patients and encourage them. And finally, the company added a social networking feature so patients could connect with a broader community of patients and survivors.

Now, the company has added “ClinicianLink,” a clinician-facing dashboard that sits in Epic and integrates with the existing workflows of nurses, oncologists, radiologists and the rest of the hospital administration and operational staff that touches patients as they undergo treatment.

The company expects to lock in six-figure licensing deals for hospital systems to access the entire toolkit and offer it to patients.

For hospitals, there’s some research that suggests simply by reporting their symptoms patients can improve their own outcomes, because doctors have a better sense on more regular intervals of the potential problems their patients face, the company said.

“Patients will be able to use the patient-facing app at home, with a feedback loop back to their care team (physicians, nurses) in the hospital in real-time,” wrote Pooviah in an email. “This feedback loop helps reduce [emergency room] visits and 30 day readmissions (saving $19,000 per patient per year).”

Beyond the Epic integration, CancerAid is also integrating with HealthKit — so that Apple wearables will be able to have the CancerAid functionality, the company said.

The company has 20,000 patients on the app already, and is being used in 80 of the 200 largest U.S. health systems, according to Pooviah.

Backed by $1.9 million in funding from strategic and financial investors, including Cedars-Sinai Health System, Techstars, Australia’s Shark Tank, Slingshot Ventures and Artesian Capital, the company is looking to expand in the U.S. through a dedicated subsidiary as it concentrates on one of the world’s largest healthcare markets.

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Teens dump Facebook for YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat



A Pew survey of teens and the ways they use technology finds that kids have largely ditched Facebook for the visually stimulating alternatives of Snapchat, YouTube, and Instagram. Nearly half said they’re online “almost constantly,” which will probably be used as a source of FUD, but really is just fine. Even teens, bless their honest little hearts, have doubts about whether social media is good or evil.

The survey is the first by Pew since 2015, and plenty has changed. The one that has driven the most change seems to be the ubiquity and power of smartphones, which 95 percent of respondents said they had access to. Fewer, especially among lower income families, had laptops and desktops.

This mobile-native cohort has opted for mobile-native content and apps, which means highly visual and easily browsable. That’s much more the style on the top three apps: YouTube takes first place with 85 percent reporting they use it, then Instagram at 72 percent, and Snapchat at 69.

Facebook, at 51 percent, is a far cry from the 71 percent who used it back in 2015, when it was top of the heap by far. Interestingly, the 51 percent average is not representative of any of the income groups polled; 36 percent of higher income households used it, while 70 percent of teens from lower income households did.

What could account for this divergence? The latest and greatest hardware isn’t required to run the top three apps, nor (necessarily) an expensive data plan. With no data to go on from the surveys and no teens nearby to ask, I’ll leave this to the professionals to look into. No doubt Facebook will be interested to learn this — though who am I kidding, it probably knows already. (There’s even a teen tutorial.)

Twice as many teens reported being “online constantly,” but really, it’s hard to say when any of us is truly “offline.” Teens aren’t literally looking at their phones all day, much as that may seem to be the case, but they — and the rest of us — are rarely more than a second or two away from checking messages, looking something up, and so on. I’m surprised the “constantly” number isn’t higher, honestly.

Gaming is still dominated by males, almost all of whom play in some fashion, but 83 percent of teen girls also said they gamed, so the gap is closing.

When asked whether social media had a positive or negative effect, teens were split. They valued it for connecting with friends and family, finding news and information, and meeting new people. But they decried its use in bullying and spreading rumors, its complicated effect on in-person relationships, and how it distracts from and distorts real life.

Here are some quotes from real teens demonstrating real insight.

Those who feel it has an overall positive effect:

  • “I feel that social media can make people my age feel less lonely or alone. It creates a space where you can interact with people.”
  • “My mom had to get a ride to the library to get what I have in my hand all the time. She reminds me of that a lot.”
  • “We can connect easier with people from different places and we are more likely to ask for help through social media which can save people.”
  • “It has given many kids my age an outlet to express their opinions and emotions, and connect with people who feel the same way.”

And those who feel it’s negative:

  • “People can say whatever they want with anonymity and I think that has a negative impact.”
  • “Gives people a bigger audience to speak and teach hate and belittle each other.”
  • “It makes it harder for people to socialize in real life, because they become accustomed to not interacting with people in person.”
  • “Because teens are killing people all because of the things they see on social media or because of the things that happened on social media.”

That last one is scary.

You can read the rest of the report and scrutinize Pew’s methodology here.

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I would happily ditch the selfie camera for a full-screen phone



Once a month or so, I’m reminded that my phone has a front-facing camera when I accidentally hit the toggle button, only to be greeted with a closeup image of my own, dumb face.

Honestly, I can’t remember the the last time I used the thing — not intentionally, at least. I tried scrolling through my camera roll to locate the precise moment in which I felt compelled to take a selfie, but ultimately ended up getting tired of the exercise, giving up some time around May of last year.

I have no use for the front-facing camera. I don’t know, maybe I’m in the minority on this one, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Every time I see another phone with another notch or hear stories about companies frantically pushing for some workaround, I quietly wonder what it would be like to live in a world where that wasn’t an issue, because there was no camera getting in the way of that precious screen real estate.

I realize for most mainstream manufacturers, this is probably just a pipe dream. Too many companies have invested too much in the technology to make it appear unnecessary. In recent years, the device has taken on an importance beyond the selfie, including, most notably, the big push by Apple, Samsung and countless Android manufacturers to add face unlock.

There are the proprietary apps like FaceTime and Animoji and a powerful lobby of third-party social media companies that rely on the inclusion of as many cameras as humanly possible on a mobile device. I suppose I fall out of that target demographic. I don’t Snapchat or FaceTime, and when the Google app changed from Hangouts to Meet and I suddenly saw video of myself staring back, again, total freak-out.

Perhaps it’s best left to some smaller manufacturer looking to distinguish themselves from a million other Android manufacturers. Someone out there could be the first to go truly full screen, without a silly gimmick like the Vivo’s pop-up, or whatever eight million patents Essential has filed over the past couple of years. Full screen, without the inherent vanity of that unblinking eye staring back at you.

I’m not saying its enough for one company to get me to switch over, but it’s 2018 and 90 percent of smartphones look virtually identical. Why not at least give the consumer the ability to opt out, at least until phone manufacturers solve the notch?  

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Motiv’s fitness ring can help you find a lost iPhone



I was surprisingly impressed when I tested out Motiv’s fitness ring. Honestly, I’m not a ring wearer myself, but it’s nice to see a hardware startup think outside the fitness band — and produce a surprisingly capable product in the process. The company’s also done a pretty decent job continuing to add features to the little wearable.

Back in April, the ring got Alexa functionality and Android support. This week, the company announced some additional features for Amazon’s smart assistant, along with the ability to use the device to locate a lost phone. That last bit is one of the more compelling additions to the ring since launch. If the lost iPhone is within Bluetooth range, a few twists of the ring will set the handset ringing and vibrating until you find the thing.

As for Alexa functionality, users can now ask the assistant for more detailed fitness information, including active minutes, calories, sleep and steps. Motiv has also added new social functionality to the ring, in the form of Circles, which lets users share activity feed with friends who also use the ring.

None are particularly earth-shattering in and of themselves, but it’s nice to see the startup continuing to introduce innovative new features for the hardware.

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Why now is the time to join Startup Alley at Disrupt SF



TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 is coming to Moscone West on September 5-7, and this year will be twice as big and bigger and better than ever. We’re looking for startups to be a part of our massive menagerie of innovation, Startup Alley. If you’ve never been to a Disrupt before, Startup Alley is where hundreds of early-stage companies (who are pre-series A although we do make some exceptions) showcase their talent and technology to attendees, investors and members of the press. This year, we’re expecting over 1,200 startups to be in attendance.

Plus, we have some contests and giveaways just for those who sign up for a Startup Alley Exhibitor Package— yup, you have a chance to snag some free stuff! Who doesn’t want in on that?!

All you have to do is buy a Startup Alley Exhibitor Package for $1,995, and you might get one (or more!) of these opportunities:

  • All startups who purchase a Startup Alley Exhibitor Package will be entered into a drawing to win 2 VIP Disrupt SF dinner tickets; a rare chance to mingle with TechCrunch editors, investors, and other tech enthusiasts
  • One startup from Startup Alley will be selected at random every week leading up to Disrupt SF to be featured on our website and an email as the ‘Startup Alley Spotlight of the Week’
  • 25 startups from Startup Alley will be selected at random every month leading up to Disrupt to have a 60-second flash pitch on the Showcase Stage (that’s 75 startups who get to pitch!)

These incentives are available for Startup Alley Exhibitor Package purchases right now — remember, all you have to do is buy a table (and you get THREE Founder Passes to the full conference if you buy before July 25), and you could walk away from Disrupt with some shiny new connections, exposure, and more! But don’t take our word for it – the CEO of Testcard.com, Luke Heron said, “If you’re a startup or an entrepreneur, exhibiting at Disrupt is a no-brainer.” Even Vlad Larin of Zeroqode told us that “TechCrunch Disrupt was a massively positive experience. It gave us the chance to show our technology to the world and have meaningful conversations with investors, accelerators, incubators, solo founders and developers.”

So, what are you waiting for? Secure your table today.

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Moms really, really love Netflix



The gift of health is precious, but the gift of distraction is… priceless.

The polling company YouGov releases an annual Top 10 list for how brands rank in value, satisfaction, and other metrics — among moms. This year, the brand that received the top spot is everyone’s favorite streaming service: Netflix.

Netflix edged out Band-Aid for the top spot. Yes, Moms think (slightly) better of a TV and movie streaming service, than they do the healer of scraped knees. Honestly, checks out.

When the moms love you, you know you’re in.

Image: YOUGOV

Amazon, Nike, and Dove also ranked highly amongst America’s moms. And the award for “most improved” brand went to… Uber?!  Read more…

More about Netflix, Kids, Moms, Mothers, and Bandaid

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