Start Up No.1,042: Walmart gets robotic, Google’s kids app problem, China bans bitcoin miners, Brexit causes medicine shortages, and more


Consumer PC sales are forecast to slow – again. CC-licensed photo by DocChewbacca on Flickr.

A selection of 14 links for you. Sorry, long extension. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Walmart is rolling out the robots • WSJ

Sarah Nassauer and Chip Cutter:

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Walmart is expanding its use of robots in stores to help monitor inventory, clean floors and unload trucks, part of the retail giant’s efforts to control labor costs as it spends more to raise wages and offer new services like online grocery delivery.

The country’s largest private employer said at least 300 stores this year will add machines that scan shelves for out-of-stock products. Autonomous floor scrubbers will be deployed in 1,500 stores to help speed up cleaning, after a test in hundreds of stores last year. And the number of conveyor belts that automatically scan and sort products as they come off trucks will more than double, to 1,200.

The company said the addition of a single machine can cut a few hours a day of work previously done by a human, or allow Walmart to allocate fewer people to complete a task, a large saving when spread around 4,600 US stores. Executives said they are focused on giving workers more time to do other tasks, and on hiring in growing areas like e-commerce.

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What’s the betting they’ll go with “allocate fewer people to complete a task”? A fast-food diner I occasionally go to used to have waiter service; now you go to the counter to make your order. The staff dislike it (less interaction with people), diners dislike it (more queing), but guess what: more money for the owners.
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Google’s founders haven’t shown up at its weekly town halls in 2019 • Buzzfeed News

Alex Kantrowitz and Caroline O’Donovan:

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Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have yet to make an appearance at any of the company’s weekly “TGIF” town halls in 2019, BuzzFeed News has learned. Their absence from these meetings, the longest attendance lapse in company history, comes at a time when Google is wrestling with tough questions from its employees on a variety of issues, ranging from harassment to censorship.

The town halls give Google employees a chance to ask questions of leadership with no limitations, and are a key element of Google’s transparent workplace culture. They regularly feature an introduction from leadership, a presentation from a team, followed by time for employee questions. For years, Page and Brin have attended, either individually or together, and faced questions from Google’s rank and file about the company and its direction. Asked when their last TGIF appearance was, Google declined to comment.

“I don’t think they’ve ever missed more than a few consecutively, and definitely not both,” one Google employee said. “It’s a double act! One of them was consistently always there at minimum.”

Their withdrawal isn’t entirely unexpected, according to a company source. The cofounders planned to step back their Google involvement when they formed Alphabet in 2015…

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Are they bored with their toy? Uninterested in their staff? Yet Google’s facing more questions than ever.
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Google’s Play Store is packed with nasty, violent games aimed at kids • WIRED UK

K.G Orphanides:

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Mad Max Zombies, an Android first-person shooter full of spurting blood, disturbing imagery of walking corpses and realistic firearms, was rated by its creator as Pegi 3 – a rating that’s considered suitable for all age groups, with no sounds or pictures that are likely to frighten young children and only the mildest, most childlike depictions of violence.

It’s just one gory example of a growing problem. The Play Store is full of apps that defy Google’s age rating policy and filtering tools. Some of these games have been installed millions of times. After we sent Google a sample of 36 games with inappropriate content for their ratings and a further 16 with other forms of dubious content and permissions, including some which tracked the location of users, 16 games have so far either been entirely removed or re-released with revised ratings and permissions…

…In contrast to Apple, which has a strict age rating policy and approval process on all apps, Google seemingly does not invest its profits into building a robust, human-monitored system to ensure that all age ratings across its platform are correct. In fact, there’s very little control whatsoever of ratings given to games that can be downloaded by children through the Play Store. Behind the scenes, each game’s age appropriateness is assigned automatically by a questionnaire filled in by its creator. For anyone downloading a game, the Play Store displays an official Pegi age rating, despite there being no manual monitoring and rating for individual titles.

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Too reliant on algorithms. If Apple can afford humans to check this stuff, why can’t Google?
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Chinese state planner wants to ban crypto mining • Decrypt

Ben Munster:

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Chinese state planners want to phase out China’s vast Bitcoin and cryptocurrency mining sector, in a move that will further push miners away from the country—which controls an estimated 74% of global Bitcoin mining power.

On Monday, the National Development and Reform Commission listed the enormous cryptocurrency mining sector among various other industries slated to be “eliminated,” saying the enormous wattage required to secure the Bitcoin network—and those of other cryptocurrencies—could be put to better use elsewhere, according to Reuters.

The news comes several months after China enacted a nationwide ban on cryptocurrencies, crypto news sites and crypto startups, while simultaneously building out its blockchain capabilities for surveillance purposes. Miners—many of which are situated in the energy rich provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan—have also begun to flee amid the clampdown, with mining giant Bitmain relocating to Singapore in January.

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Love the “building out its blockchain capabilities for surveillance purposes” – which is slightly “but it’s so UNFAIR that they’re using this and stopping that.” Think this is going to crimp bitcoin quite a bit, quite soon.
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YouTube is developing choose-your-own-adventure programs • Bloomberg

Lucas Shaw:

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YouTube is developing choose-your-own-adventure-style shows, exploring a new storytelling format that could increase viewers and ad sales for the world’s largest video website.

An new unit will develop interactive programming and live specials under Ben Relles, who had been overseeing unscripted programs, the Google-owned company said Tuesday. Relles, who has worked at YouTube for eight years, just started in the role and is still exploring the best ways for YouTube viewers to participate in stories.

Producers have tried for years to tell stories that let viewers pick different outcomes, but only recently has the technology advanced enough to entice large investments from some of the world’s top media companies.

“We now have amazing new tools and opportunities to create and tell multilayered and interactive stories,” Susanne Daniels, YouTube’s head of original programming, said in a statement.

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Notice that it has shut down its VR studios, but is opening up this avenue. Netflix has really blazed a trail here with Bandersnatch, but it’s difficult to pull that off again and again.
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Roblox games platform plans European expansion • Financial Times

Aliya Ram:

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About a quarter of the company’s users are based in Europe, where it has been growing faster than the US, according to Chris Misner, president of Roblox International. 

He said Roblox, which was founded in 2004, had completed its first wave of growth in the US and Commonwealth countries and would now look to continental Europe and Asian markets for further growth. 

“We expect Europe to overtake the US in the next one or two years,” he said. “In Asia we are seeing green shoots, and I’m spending time looking at different markets out there.”

Roblox’s rise has gone relatively unnoticed by many adults, but its monthly active userbase of 90m people rivals some of the world’s most popular games, including shooting blockbuster Fortnite and Microsoft’s Minecraft, which have 78.3m and 91m monthly active users respectively, according to figures reported last year.

Unlike those titles, Roblox acts as a marketplace where users build their own games and virtual worlds that become more or less prominent based on their popularity with users. In this respect, the platform has become like a YouTube for games, which founder David Baszucki said enables developers to monetise their inventions. 

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Cultural influences – principally, news organisation managers’ indifference to video games – means that this whole sector is underreported.
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What kind of local news is Facebook featuring on Today In? Crime, car crashes, and not too much community • Nieman Journalism Lab

Christine Schmidt:

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If you don’t know what “Today In” is, don’t feel too bad — not many Facebook users do. Only about 1.1 million users have opted in to it in their app. (Check the hamburger-menu tab; you may have to tap on “More” to see it. It may sometimes pop up in your News Feed.) It began in a few test cities in early 2018 and it’s now live in 400-plus cities in the United States.

To see what sort of news it was surfacing, I tracked Today In’s stories for 10 different cities over a Monday–Friday period. The cities are a mix of big and small, some of which you’ll probably recognize without the state — Raleigh, New Orleans, Akron, Boise — and some you might not — Somerville, Massachusetts; Kingsport, Tennessee; Fort Pierce, Florida; Katy, Texas; Lincoln, Nebraska, and Toms River, New Jersey. Some are close to places Facebook considers “news deserts”; others still have a comparatively rich local news ecosystem. I noted the first five stories shared each afternoon in each city. (You can get more by tapping a “see more” button.) It’s not the most scientific method, but it’s a pretty good scan of what Facebook is surfacing.

What did I see? Satire, obituaries from funeral home websites, lots of local TV, and a weird network of sites that scrape other local news and yet somehow make it into Facebook’s scanner. And again, over half of the news was just crime, courts, and dead bodies.

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Basically, having laid waste to local journalism (along with Google), Facebook now finds there’s none to report. But also: its algorithms don’t know how or where to look.
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Brexit ‘already causing medicine shortages’ at pharmacies in England • The Guardian

Lisa O’Carroll:

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Brexit has contributed to a shortage of certain medicines at pharmacies in England, according to a body that represents the sector.

It comes as a medical charity says anxiety over drugs shortages has risen among epilepsy patients because of Brexit, potentially causing them further health issues.

Supply issues partly blamed on Brexit contingency planning have caused an official list of “concession” priced medicines – those drugs for which the NHS will pay a higher than usual tariff – to reach its longest since 2014, when the system was introduced.

The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), which draws up the list, said Britain’s planned exit from the EU coupled with manufacturers’ views of the country as a less attractive market had caused these significant problems.

Medicines are usually added to the concessions list when manufacturers or wholesalers raise their prices because of factors such as supply issues. The list is considered a good measure for increases in shortages.

Ninety-six medicines appear on the concessions list, including the common painkiller naproxen and certain morphine products prescribed to cancer patients.

Simon Dukes, the chief executive of PSNC, said: “Community pharmacies are reporting increasing problems sourcing some generic medicines for their patients.”

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The irony is that it’s the older demographic, who mostly voted for Leave, who are now being affected. It might even shorten their lives. (I heard exactly the same point about medicine shortages, and the same reason, from my doctor the morning this story appeared.)
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Record 83% of surveyed US teens own an iPhone • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

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A record 83% of U.S. teens own an iPhone as of spring 2019, according to investment bank Piper Jaffray’s semiannual “Taking Stock With Teens” survey of around 8,000 high school students. Respondents were roughly 54% male and 46% female with an average age of 16.3 years.

Meanwhile, 86% of U.S. teens expect their next smartphone to be an iPhone, matching an all-time high set in fall 2018. This metric has steadily grown in Apple’s favor over the years, rising from 75% in spring 2016.

iPhone popularity among teens is a good sign for Apple, as many of them could stick with the iPhone as an adult. Teens also become locked into the Apple ecosystem at an early age, becoming accustomed to services like iMessage, Apple Music, and iCloud as well as accessories like the AirPods and Apple Watch.

The survey found that 27% of US teens own a smartwatch, while 22% of respondents plan to purchase an Apple Watch within the next six months. By comparison, 20% of teens said they plan to purchase an Apple Watch in the next six months in the year-ago survey.

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That’s a lot of Apple Watches. Surely the peak audience.
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A powerful spyware app now targets iPhone owners • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:

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Security researchers have discovered a powerful surveillance app first designed for Android devices can now target victims with iPhones.

The spy app, found by researchers at mobile security firm Lookout, said its developer abused their Apple-issued enterprise certificates to bypass the tech giant’s app store to infect unsuspecting victims.

The disguised carrier assistance app once installed can silently grab a victim’s contacts, audio recordings, photos, videos and other device information — including their real-time location data. It can be remotely triggered to listen in on people’s conversations, the researchers found. Although there was no data to show who might have been targeted, the researchers noted that the malicious app was served from fake sites purporting to be cell carriers in Italy and Turkmenistan.

Researchers linked the app to the makers of a previously discovered Android app, developed by the same Italian surveillance app maker Connexxa, known to be in use by the Italian authorities.

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What’s not clear is whether the app could grab those contacts, photos etc without the user’s permission, or whether iOS’s permissions structure is robust against that threat. Of course the social engineering side – “this app needs to access…” – can still work.
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Just like cops snared the Golden State killer, we tried to track down BuzzFeed employees from their DNA • Buzzfeed News

Peter Aldhous:

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How hard is it to crack cases in this way? And what issues does it raise, as police recruit genealogists to help them solve crimes by sifting through the perpetrators’ extended family trees?

To explore these questions, my editor Virginia Hughes and I conjured up an experiment: She would recruit BuzzFeed employees to play the role of “suspects” and get their DNA tested with a company used by genealogy enthusiasts. She’d then download their DNA profiles, containing data on hundreds of thousands of genetic markers, and send the files to me labeled with randomly chosen fake names. Then I’d play genealogy “detective” and try to figure out who they really were.

In the end, I identified 6 out of our 10 volunteers. Four of those cases I solved by tracking them down through their relatives’ family trees, much as the cops did with DeAngelo. In a twist I didn’t anticipate, I found two more not through their relatives, but simply because their ancestry indicated that their family came from a specific country — raising uncomfortable questions about genetic racial profiling.

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Pretty soon people are going to start doing this for their own entertainment. And then you’ll get people claiming to have solved murders. It could get to be a big mess.
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Global device shipments will be flat in 2019 • Gartner

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“For the eighth consecutive year, the PC market is at a standstill,” said Ranjit Atwal, research director at Gartner. “PC shipments will total 258 million units in 2019, a 0.6% decline from 2018.” Traditional PCs are set to decline 3% in 2019 to total 189 million units.

Worldwide Device Shipments by Device Type, 2018-2021 (Millions of Units)

Device Type

2018

2019

2020

2021

Traditional PCs (Desk-Based and Notebook)

195,317

189,472

182,823

175,058

Ultramobiles (Premium)

64,471

68,869

74,432

79,871

Total PC Market

259,787

258,341

257,255

254,929

Ultramobiles (Basic and Utility)

149,561

147,963

145,811

143,707

Computing Device Market

409,348

406,304

403,066

398,636

Mobile Phones

1,811,922

1,802,394

1,824,628

1,798,356

Total Device Market

2,221,270

2,208,697

2,227,694

2,196,992

Source: Gartner (April 2019)

Slow upgrade on phones (though by 2023 foldables might be 5% of high-end phones – that’s tiny), and consumers are retiring but not replacing their PCs. Tech stasis.

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We may be just days away from seeing a black hole for the first time ever • BGR

Mike Wehner:

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The Event Horizon researchers are going all-out with the announcement, which is scheduled for this Wednesday, and they’ll be holding press conferences in multiple languages simultaneously all around the globe.

The official announcement promises plenty of information as well as “audiovisual material” which we can only hope includes the first-ever images of a black hole.

Countless theories, calculations, and estimations have been made about black holes, leading science to suspect a jet black “pit” of sorts with gravitational pull so intense that nothing can escape it. What a real black hole actually looks like, however, could differ significantly. There’s a lot riding on what we see on Wednesday, and while we’ve seen black holes in science fiction for decades, we might be in for a surprise.

The images, once we see them, will have been made possible by a planet-wide network of telescopes working in unison to peer deeper into the galaxy than ever before. The Event Horizon Telescope project’s primary goal has always been to image a black hole, and they’re now just days away from delivering on that promise.

The announcement is scheduled for 0900 EST [1400 BST, 0600 PST] on Wednesday, April 10th. And the entire event will be streamed online via Facebook as well as the ESO’s official website.

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That’s today, if you’re reading this on April 10. Let’s hope it’s more than a slide with a black dot at the centre.
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Fiat Chrysler pools fleet with Tesla to avoid EU emissions fines • Financial Times

Patrick McGee and Peter Campbell:

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Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has agreed to pay Tesla hundreds of millions of euros so the electric carmaker’s vehicles are counted in its fleet in order to avoid large fines for breaking tough new EU emissions rules.

The move will allow FCA to offset CO2 emissions from its cars against Tesla’s, lowering its average figure to a permissible level. From next year, the EU’s target for average CO2 emissions from cars is 95g per kilometre.

In 2018, average emissions were 120.5g per kilometre, according to data supplier Jato Dynamics. FCA averaged 123g last year, according to UBS, which said the carmaker had the “highest risk of not meeting the target”.

Analysts at Jefferies forecast FCA could face fines in excess of €2bn in 2021 when the new targets become law. A study by PA Consulting last year said FCA was likely to exceed the target by 6.7g of CO2 per kilometre — the biggest gap among the 13 carmakers it profiled. 

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Tesla getting more money must be a good thing; its very existence is pushing other vehicle makers towards electric. But this is a scuzzy way to do it.
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2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,042: Walmart gets robotic, Google’s kids app problem, China bans bitcoin miners, Brexit causes medicine shortages, and more

  1. Talk to any US kid under 12 and Roblox and Minecraft are the two games they play all the time (Fornite above 12).

    Talking of Google and games, I’m amazed they haven’t simply scraped Apple’s ratings and applied them to the Google Play Store. That would cut a lot of work down for them.

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