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Monthly Archives: June 2020

How to download YouTube videos



In this time of ubiquitous internet and abundance of content, downloading videos to your hard drive is rarely necessary. But sometimes, an important video can be hard to find, or can even be permanently removed from a platform, in which case it’s not a bad idea to have a personal copy. 

Say you’ve encountered a cool YouTube video and want to download it for your archive to make sure you still have it in case it disappears. YouTube has no easy “download” button, so how do you  download a video off the platform?

Fortunately, there are a few ways to grab a YouTube video fairly easily, and in good quality. However, before we continue, note that downloading videos from the regular, free version of YouTube is against the site’s terms of service. And this brings another problem: Because of this, many of the ways to download YouTube videos that you’ll find online are fairly dangerous as they’re riddled with spamware and shady ads.  Read more…

More about Youtube, Tech, and Consumer Tech

Lyft’s self-driving test vehicles are back on public roads in California



Lyft’s self-driving vehicle division has restarted testing on public roads in California, several months after pausing operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lyft’s Level 5 program said Tuesday some of its autonomous vehicles are back on the road in Palo Alto and at its closed test track. The company has not resumed a pilot program that provided rides to Lyft employees in Palo Alto.

The company said it is following CDC guidelines for personal protective equipment and surface cleaning. It has also enacted several additional safety steps to prevent the spread of COVID. Each autonomous test vehicle is equipped with partitions to separate the two safety operators inside, the company said. The operators must wear face shields and submit to temperature checks. They’re also paired together for two weeks at a time.

Lyft’s Level 5 program — a nod to the SAE automated driving level that means the vehicle handles all driving in all conditions — launched in July 2017 but didn’t starting testing on California’s public roads until November 2018. Lyft then ramped up the testing program and its fleet. By late 2019, Lyft was driving four times more autonomous miles per quarter than it was six months prior.

Lyft had 19 autonomous vehicles testing on public roads in California in 2019, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the primary agency that regulates AVs in the state. Those 19 vehicles, which operated during the reporting period of December 2018 to November 2019, drove nearly 43,000 miles in autonomous mode, according to Lyft’s annual report released in February. While that’s a tiny figure when compared to other companies such as Argo AI, Cruise and Waymo, it does represent progress within the program.

Lyft has supplemented its on-road testing with simulation, a strategy that it relied on more heavily during COVID-related shutdowns. And it will likely continue to lean on simulation even as local governments lift restrictions and the economy reopens.

Simulation is a cost-effective way to create additional control, repeatability and safety, according to a blog post released Tuesday by Robert Morgan, director of engineering, and Sameer Qureshi, director of product management at Level 5. The pair said simulation has also allowed the Level 5 unit to test its work without vehicles, without employees leaving their desks and, for the last few months, without leaving their homes. Level 5 employs more than 400 people in London, Munich and the United States.

Using simulation in the development of autonomous vehicle technology is a well-established tool in the industry. Lyft’s approach to data — which it uses to improve its simulations — is what differentiates the company from competitors. Lyft is using data collected from drivers on its ride-hailing app to improve simulation tests as well as build 3D maps and understand human driving patterns.

The Level 5 program is taking data from select vehicles in Lyft’s Express Drive program, which provides rental cars and SUVs to drivers on its platform as an alternative to options like long-term leasing.

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Facebook shuts down Hobbi, its experimental app for documenting personal projects



Facebook’s recently launched app, Hobbi, an experiment in short-form content creation around personal projects, hobbies, and other Pinterest-y content, is already shutting down. The app first arrived on iOS in February as one of now several launches from Facebook’s internal R&D group, the NPE Team.

Hobbi users have now been notified by way of push notification that the app is shutting down on July 10, 2020. The app allows users to export their data from its settings.

In the few months it’s been live on the U.S. App Store, Hobbi only gained 7,000 downloads, according to estimates from Sensor Tower. Apptopia also reported the app had under 10K downloads and saw minimal gains during May and June.

Though Hobbi clearly took cues from Pinterest, it was not designed to be a pinboard of inspirational ideas. Instead, Hobbi users would organize photos of their projects — like gardening, cooking, arts & crafts, décor, and more — in a visual diary of sorts. The goal was to photograph the project’s progress over time, adding text to describe the steps, as needed.

The end result would be a highlight reel of all those steps that could be published externally when the project was completed.

But Hobbi was a fairly bare bones app. There was nothing else to do but document your own projects. You couldn’t browse and watch projects other users had created, beyond a few samples, nor could you follow top users across the service. And even the tools for documentation were underdeveloped. Beyond a special “Notes” field for writing down a project’s steps, the app experience felt like a watered-down version of Stories.

Image Credits: Hobbi

Facebook wasn’t alone in pursuing the potential of short-form creative content. Google’s internal R&D group, Area 120, also published its own experiment in this area with the video app Tangi. And Pinterest was recently spotted testing a new version of Story Pins, that would allow users to showcase DIY and creative content in a similar way.

It’s not surprising to see Hobbi wind down so quickly, given its lack of traction. Facebook already said its NPE Team experiments would involve apps that changed very rapidly and would shut down if consumers didn’t find them useful.

In addition to Hobbi, the NPE Team has launched a number of apps since last summer, including meme creator Whale, conversational app Bump, music app Aux, couples app Tuned, Apple Watch app Kit, audio calling app CatchUp, collaborative music app Collab, live event companion Venue, and predictions app Forecast. Before Hobbi, the only one to have shut down was Bump. (Some are not live in the U.S., either.)

Of course, Facebook may not intend to use these experiments to create a set of entirely new social apps built from the ground-up. Instead, it’s likely looking to collect data about what features resonate with users and how different creation tools are used. This is data that can inform Facebook’s development of features for its main set of apps, like Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment but one had not been provided at the time of publication.

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NASA pays out $51 million to small businesses with big ideas



NASA has announced its latest batch of small business grants, providing more than 300 businesses a total of $51 million in crucial early-stage funding. These “phase I” projects receive up to $125,000 to help bring new technologies to market.

The Small Business Innovation Research/Technology Transfer programs help entrepreneurs and inventors transition their work from lab to commercial availability. The money is like a grant, not an investment, and Phase I recipients are eligible for larger Phase II grants if they’re warranted.

This year’s selections, as always, cover dozens of disciplines and apply to a wide range of industries. Among NASA’s own highlights in a news release are high-power solar arrays, a smart air traffic control system for urban flight, a water purification system for use on the moon and improved lithium-ion batteries.

There’s even one award for a company making “a compact sterilizer for use on spacecraft materials” that could also be employed by health workers.

Perusing the lists I was struck by the number of neuromorphic computing efforts, from radiation-hardened chips to software techniques. I take these to be chips and approaches that utilize and accelerate machine learning methods, rather than attempts at computers that truly employ the spikes and plasticity of actual neuronal networks.

The 2020 Phase II announcements won’t come for a while — NASA just released 2019’s last month.

The SBIR program is one of the federal government’s inadvertently best-kept secrets, with billions allocated to a dozen agencies to distribute to small businesses. You can learn more at SBIR.gov.

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Elementary Robotics is making its quality assurance robots commercially available



Two years and over $17 million after it first began working on its robots for quality assurance, the Los Angeles-based Elementary Robotics has finally made its products commercially available.

The company already boasts a few very large initial customers in the automotive industry, consumer packaged goods, and aerospace and defense, including Toyota, according to chief executive Arye Barnehama. Now, the robotics technology that Barnehama and his co-workers have been developing for years is broadly available to other companies beyond its six initial pilot customers.

The company’s robots look like a large box with a gantry system providing three degrees of freedom, with vertical and horizontal movement as well as a gimbal-mounted camera that can visualize products.

Image credit: Elementary Robotics

As objects are scanned by the robots they’re compared against a taxonomy of objects provided by the companies that Elementary works with to determine whether or not there’s a defect.

Barnehama also emphasizes that Elementary’s robots are not designed to replace every human interaction or assessment in the manufacturing process. “Machine learning paired with humans always performs better,” says Barnehama. “At the end of the day the human is running the factory. We’re not really a lights out factory.”

Behind the new commercialization push is a fresh $12.7 million in financing that Elementary closed at the end of 2019.

The lead investor in that round was Threshold Ventures and the firm’s partner, Mo Islam, has already taken a seat on the Elementary Robotics board of directors, while existing investors Fika Ventures, Fathom Capital and Toyota AI Ventures, also participated in the round, which will be used to allow Elementary Robotics to continue developing and deploying its automation products at scale, the company said.

“Robotics and particularly robotics applied to manufacturing has been an interest of mine,” said Islam. In Elementary Robotics, Islam saw a company that could compete with large, publicly traded businesses like Cognex. The low complexity and ease of deployment of Elementary’s hardware was another big selling point for Islam that convinced him to invest. 

Elementary says that it can be up and running at a site in a matter of days and with businesses emphasizing cost-cutting and enabling remote work to ensure worker safety, companies are embracing the technology.

“That’s where we’re really excited to be launching it,” said Barnehama. “If we get parts or data examples we can get that up and running same day. We can usually show customers within that week we can start showing them the value of that as we get more and more data through the system.”

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Facebook bans ‘violent network’ of far-right boogaloo accounts



Facebook took action to remove a network of accounts Tuesday related to the “boogaloo” movement, a firearm-obsessed anti-government ideology that focuses on preparing for and potentially inciting a U.S. civil war.

“As part of today’s action, we are designating a violent US-based anti-government network under our Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy and disrupting it on our services,” Facebook wrote in the announcement. “As a result, this violent network is banned from having a presence on our platform and we will remove content praising, supporting or representing it.”

In its announcement, the company made a distinction between “the broader and loosely-affiliated boogaloo movement” and the violent group of accounts it identified and we’ve asked Facebook to clarify how or if it will distinguish between the two moving forward.

On Tuesday, Facebook removed 220 Facebook accounts, 28 pages, 106 groups (some public, some private) and 95 Instagram accounts related to the network it identified within the boogaloo movement.

A Facebook spokesperson clarified that today’s actions don’t mean all boogaloo content will be subject to removal. The company will continue to focus on boogaloo activity that focuses on potential real-world violence, like the new cluster of content taken down. The new designation of some boogaloo networks as “dangerous organizations” does mean that Facebook will scan its platform for symbols connected to the accounts that meet that designation.

The company notes that it has been monitoring boogaloo content since 2019, but previously only removed the content when it posed a “credible” threat of offline violence, citing that the presence of that threat in its decision to more aggressively identify and remove boogaloo content.

“… Officials have identified violent adherents to the movement as those responsible for several attacks over the past few months,” the company wrote in its blog post. “These acts of real-world violence and our investigations into them are what led us to identify and designate this distinct network.”

Earlier this month, an Air Force sergeant found with symbols connected to the boogaloo movement was charged with murder for killing a federal security officer during protests in Oakland.

In an April report, the watchdog group Tech Transparency Project detailed how extremists committed to the boogaloo movement “[exchange] detailed information and tactics on how to organize and execute a revolt against American authorities” in Facebook groups, some private. Boogaloo groups appear to have flourished on the platform in the early days of the pandemic, with politicized state lockdowns, viral misinformation and general uncertainty fueling fresh interest in far-right extremism.

As the Tech Transparency Project report explains, the boogaloo movement initially used the cover of humor, memes and satire to disguise an underlying layer of real-world violent intent. Boogaloo groups have a mix of members with varying levels of commitment to real-world violence and race-based hate, but organizations studying extremism have identified overlap between boogaloo supporters and white supremacist groups.

Facebook’s action against the boogaloo movement come the same day that Democratic senators wrote a letter to the company demanding accountability for its role in amplifying white supremacy and other forms of far-right extremism. In the letter, addressed to Mark Zuckerberg, Lawmakers cited activity by members of boogaloo groups as part of Facebook’s “failure to address the hate spreading on its platform.”

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Dfinity demonstrates its TikTok clone, opens up its ‘Internet Computer’ to outside developers



Dfinity appeared in 2018, amid the flurry of investments in the blockchain space, It raised $102 million in funding at a $2 billion valuation in a round jointly led by Andreessen Horowitz and Polychain Capital, along with other investors including KR1. I must admit that at the time it appeared to all intents and purposes as if it would be yet another attempt to replace Ethereuem. Or at least something similar. But then something odd happened. It started behaving like an actual software company.

In January this year it didn’t talk about blockchain at all, but instead demonstrated an open social network called “LinkedUp” sort of open version of LinkedIn. The demonstration didn’t go live and technically-speaking it was under-whelming until you realized it wasn’t running or any server, and performed faster than a native mobile app. Dfinity, it turned out, wasn’t a traditional blockchain startup, but was taking a leaf out of that world’s championing of the move towards decentralization.

In fact, it was building its so-called “Internet Computer”: a decentralized and non-proprietary network to run the next generation of ‘mega-applications’.

Today it announced that the “Internet Computer” is now open to third-party developers and entrepreneurs to build that next generation. The vision is to “reboot” the internet in a way that destroys the ability to create virtual monopolies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

As its next technical demonstration, it launched “CanCan”, a TikTok-like app that will run in a browser (though it is not publicly available as such) and which is not owned by a company. The idea is that anyone could build their own TikTok.

The tantalizing part of Dfinity’s ideas is that because of the nature of the architecture, apps like CanCan can be built with less than 1,000 lines of code. Facebook, to take an example, contains over 62 million lines of code.

To achieve this, Dfinity is drawing on the work of Andreas Rossberg, co-creator of WebAssembly, who has now created Motoko, a new programming language optimized for Dfinity’s Internet Computer.

The Internet Computer’s serverless architecture allows the Internet to natively host software and services, eliminating — claims Dfinity — the need for proprietary cloud services. Without web servers, databases, and firewalls, developers can create powerful software much more quickly, and that software then runs far faster than normal.

Dominic Williams, founder and Chief Scientist at DFINITY said in a statement: “One of the biggest problems emerging in technology is the monopolization of the internet by Big Tech — companies that have consolidated near-total control over our technologies. They collect vast amounts of information about us that they sell for profit and leverage to amass greater market share, and acquire or bulldoze rivals at an alarming rate… The Internet Computer provides a means to reboot the internet — creating a public alternative to proprietary cloud infrastructure. It will empower the next-generation of developers and entrepreneurs to take on Big Tech with open internet services. It aims to bring the internet back to its free and open roots — not dominated by a handful of corporations.”

This “Tungsten” release of the Internet Computer means third-party developers and entrepreneurs, will be able to start kicking the tyres on this platform and start spitting out web apps and even smartphone apps.

Projects currently being built include a decentralized payment application and a “pan-industry platform for luxury goods”, whatever that is. Successful and promising applications may also benefit from Beacon Fund, an ecosystem fund stewarded by the DFINITY Foundation and Polychain Capital that aims to support ‘DeFi’ apps and open internet services built on the Internet Computer.

Interested developers and enterprises can submit an application to access the Internet Computer starting July 1, 2020 via dfinity.org.

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Skygauge’s innovative tilting rotor drones are up for pre-order, with deliveries in 2021



I have had a few occasions to see Skygauge’s drones in-person, primarily on visits to Asia. The Canadian team is involved in HAX’s program and has spent time working out of their Shenzhen offices. In fact, they competed at our last hardware battlefield in the city late last year.

To a person, everyone I’ve spoken with seems impressed by the company’s tiltable rotor technology, which allows the massive industrial drones to maneuver in ways more traditional quadcopters can’t. I have little doubt the startup has had no trouble getting the attention of companies looking for an edge in the drone space, and like so many other robotics and robotics/drone/automation companies, it’s gotten a pretty significant boost in interest due to COVID-19.

Today the startup announced that it has opened pre-orders on its drones, with plans to launch in 2021 — it’s not disclosing pricing, but interested parties can plunk down a refundable $1,000 deposit. The company has already lined up “100 potential customers,” along with planned demos for 10 Fortune 500 companies. The pandemic, meanwhile, has opened up increased potential for these sorts of automated industrial inspection devices. The company notes a recent temporary FAA exemption for additional drone-based inspections of oil and gas sites in Texas, as workers are expected to stay home.

“Our goal is to get people out of dangerous environments and the need for this has never been greater because of COVID-19,” co-founder and CEO Nikita Iliushkin says in a statement.

Skygauge apparently maxed out its early adopter program during the pandemic. I’ll be curious to see if the company’s success ultimately lies in producing its own drones or licensing its impressive technology to third-parties. Meantime, it has raised $400,000 in pre-seed funding, with plans to raise more.

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Parrot launches $7,000 drone for thermal surveillance, search-and-rescue missions



Parrot’s latest drone is absolutely not for photographers, videographers, and other sundry dilettantes. Its latest Anafi model is far more capable than its consumer models. It’s built to fly in inclement weather for one, and offers loads of zoom power and thermal imaging for surveillance, search-and-rescue, and industrial inspections.

But while the regular Anafi goes for around $700, the Anafi USA is priced at a staggering $7,000. It’s a big jump, but there are reasons for business customers to consider spending the money.

Portable and flies in the rain

The Anafi USA is a small, foldable drone with a nose-mounted camera, and—in a first for Parrot—an airframe that can fly in the rain. It’s small enough to slide into a backpack or messenger bag when folded, and weighs just over a pound. The battery is rated for 32 minutes of flight time. Read more…

More about Surveillance, Enterprise, Parrot Drones, Tech, and Drones

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