Start Up No.1,079: DeepMind wins again, the scanner company at bars, meet your data self, Huawei’s life on subsidies, and more


Suddenly very unpopular with Wikipedia after a Google stunt. CC-licensed photo by gingerbeardman on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Until next week. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The North Face used Wikipedia to climb to the top of Google search results • AdAge

Ann-Christine Diaz:

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When you first start planning a big trip, step one will likely happen at the Google search bar. Step two might be clicking onto the images of your target destination. The North Face, in a campaign with agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made, took advantage of this consumer behavior to keep its name top of mind with travelers considering an adventure sports excursion.

The brand and agency took pictures of athletes wearing the brand while trekking to famous locations around the world, including Brazil’s Guarita State Park and Farol do Mampimptuba, Cuillin in Scotland and Peru’s Huayna Picchu. They then updated the Wikipedia images in the articles for those locations so that now, the brand would appear in the top of Google image search results when consumers researched any of those locations—all done for a budget of zero dollars.

“Our mission is to expand our frontiers so that our consumers can overcome their limits. With the ‘Top of Images’ project, we achieved our positioning and placed our products in a fully contextualized manner as items that go hand in hand with these destinations,” explained Fabricio Luzzi, CEO of The North Face Brazil in a statement. 

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As you might expect, Wikimedia (owner of Wikipedia) is absolutely furious about this.
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An AI taught itself to play a video game; for the first time, it’s beating humans • The Conversation

Amit Joshi on DeepMind’s latest:

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The Capture the Flag bot from the recent study also began learning from scratch. But instead of playing against its identical clone, a cohort of 30 bots was created and trained in parallel with their own internal reward signal. Each bot within this population would then play together and learn from each other. As David Silver – one of the research scientists involved – notes, AI is beginning to “remove the constraints of human knowledge… and create knowledge itself”.

The learning speed for humans is still much faster than the most advanced deep reinforcement learning algorithms. Both OpenAI’s bots and DeepMind’s AlphaStar (the bot playing StarCraft II) devoured thousands of years’ worth of gameplay before being able to reach a human level of performance. Such training is estimated to cost several millions of dollars. Nevertheless, a self-taught AI capable of beating humans at their own game is an exciting breakthrough that could change how we see machines.

AI is often portrayed replacing or complementing human capabilities, but rarely as a fully-fledged team member, performing the same task as human beings. As these video game experiments involve machine-human collaboration, they offer a glimpse of the future.

Human players of Capture the Flag rated the bots as more collaborative than other humans, but players of DOTA 2 had a mixed reaction to their AI teammates. Some were quite enthusiastic, saying they felt supported and that they learned from playing alongside them.

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How long before there’s a system which can learn to play any game, and trounce humans at it? In which case, isn’t that something like the scary AI, except just limited to video games?
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The Galaxy Note 10 won’t have a headphone jack or physical volume and power keys (rumour) • Android Police

David Ruddock:

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Speaking to a source familiar with the company’s plans, Android Police has learned that Samsung will likely begin its wind-down of the headphone jack – and even physical keys for functions like volume and power – with the Galaxy Note 10. The Note 10 will have no 3.5mm connector, and exterior buttons (power, volume, Bixby) will be replaced by capacitive or pressure-sensitive areas, likely highlighted by some kind of raised ‘bump’ and/or texture along the edge (i.e., a faux button). We don’t know if it’s Samsung’s intent to carry over both of these changes to the Galaxy S11 in 2020.

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Slightly delayed courage?
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This ID scanner company is collecting sensitive data on millions of bar-goers • One Zero

Susie Cagle:

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mouths off to a bouncer, tags a wall, gets in a fight, or is just too drunk and disorderly. They’re not just kicked out for the night, but “eighty-sixed” — permanently banned from the establishment.

Now imagine if a bar owner could flag that ejected patron digitally, documenting their transgression for other bar owners to see and placing them on a nightlife equivalent of a no fly list that stretches across city, state, and even international borders.

PatronScan allows bars to do just that. The PatronScan kiosk, placed at the entrance of a bar or nightlife establishment, can verify whether an ID is real or fake, and collect and track basic customer demographic data. For bars, accurate ID scanners are valuable tools that help weed out underage drinkers, protecting the establishments’ liquor licenses from fines and scrupulous state alcohol boards. But PatronScan’s main selling point is security.

The system allows a business to maintain a record of bad customer behavior and flag those individuals, alerting every other bar that uses PatronScan. What constitutes “bad behavior” is at a bar manager’s discretion, and ranges from “sexual assault” to “violence” to “public drunkenness” and “other.” When a bargoer visits another PatronScan bar and swipes their ID, their previously flagged transgressions will pop up on the kiosk screen. Unless patrons successfully appeal their status to PatronScan or the bar directly, their status can follow them for anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months, to much, much longer. According to a PatronScan “Public Safety Report” from May 2018, the average length of bans handed out to customers in Sacramento, California was 19 years. (The company’s “Public Safety Report” is embedded in full below.)

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And of course you don’t know what the company is doing with all that data because it’s America, where your personal data is my potential future revenue stream.
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Would you recognise yourself from your data? • BBC News

Carl Miller had the clever idea of getting all the data held about him, to see what it revealed – and whether it was accurate:

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About 1,500 of those pages were this kind of educated guesswork, all of it from companies I had never heard of before.

It’s easy to find data on this scale a little alarming, but most of it I found more silly than sinister:
• The age of my boiler had been predicted
• My likelihood to be interested in gardening was 23.3%
• My interest in prize draws and competitions was 11%
• My “animal/nature awareness level” was low
• My consumer technology audience segmentation was described as (among other things) “young and struggling”.
• My household was found to have no “regular interest in book reading” (I have written a book)
• At one moment I was a go-getter, an idea-seeker.
• Then I was a love aspirer, a disengaged worker, part of a group called budgeted stability or, simply, downhearted.
• Something I did triggered a “Netmums – women trying to conceive” event.

If this was a reflection of myself, I didn’t recognise it.

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Not a very accurate picture, in other words. This is the world of “targeted” advertising?

And of course when he did try to get the data, in many cases he was directed to broken systems or told to send his request by snail mail. Though there’s an argument that you want to make it a little harder to access that data than just downloading it, because otherwise it might be open to hackers.
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Border collies run like the wind to bring new life to Chilean forest • Mother Nature Network

Mary Jo Dilonardo:

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The worst wildfire season in Chile’s history ravaged more than 1.4 million acres early in 2017, destroying nearly 1,500 homes and killing at least 11 people. More than a dozen countries sent fire-fighting specialists to help battle the dozens of destructive blazes. When the fires were finally extinguished, the landscape was a charred wasteland.

A few months later, a unique team was brought in to help restore the damaged ecosystem. They have four legs and a penchant for careening at high speeds through the forest.

Border collies Das, Summer and Olivia were outfitted with special backpacks brimming with seeds. Then they were sent on a mission, let loose to race through the ruined forests. As they bounded and darted, their packs streamed a trickle of seeds. The hope is that these seeds will take root and sprout, bringing the forest slowly back to life one tree at a time.

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Look at those doggos. This is your happy story for today.
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Huawei a key beneficiary of China subsidies that US wants ended • AFP.com

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Huawei’s annual reports and public records show that it has received hundreds of millions of dollars in grants, heavily subsidised land to build facilities and apartments for loyal employees, bonuses to top engineers, and massive state loans to international customers to fund purchases of Huawei products.

“Below market price land sales, massive targeted R&D grants, and export financing on terms that are more favourable than what Huawei could get from the private sector collectively appear to provide significant subsidies that other countries could challenge at the WTO if they are harming domestic companies,” said Claire Reade, a former assistant US trade representative.

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei had denied that the company received subsidies in a BBC interview in February, but a Huawei spokeswoman later said Ren meant the firm did not receive any special government aid.

“Like other companies, Huawei receives research subsidies from governments in several jurisdictions,” the spokeswoman told AFP.

Over the past 10 years, Huawei has received 11bn yuan ($1.6bn) in grants, according to its annual reports.

More than half was given by China as “unconditional government grants” because of the firm’s “contributions to the development of new high-technology” in China, according to Huawei’s 2009 annual report.

Even some of Huawei’s top engineers receive bonuses through government programmes: more than 100 of them received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the city of Shenzhen last year…

…Huawei inked a $10bn credit line with the China Development Bank (CDB) in 2004 to provide low-cost financing to customers buying its telecom gear. It was tripled to $30bn in 2009.

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The grants don’t amount to much, but the credit line does.
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What Apple Watch design alternatives do you wish had made it into the final product? • Quora

Anna-Katrina Shedletsky worked on the team that built the first version:

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One of the important skills in engineering and designing a new product is making tough decisions about how to weigh the risk of a feature with its potential value add and to make the call as to whether it should be in the first generation, or a later version (after some of the other risks have been figured out). ECG is a good example of Apple showing restraint: just because it was potentially possible, doesn’t mean it should be in the product. The team figured ECG out on later generations of the product and it’s helping a ton of people manage their health better – so congratulations to them!

I also wish we had been able to make the cellular antenna work in the first generation product – we couldn’t figure it out because the antenna design was already incredibly challenging and the chipset for cellular at the time would have taken up 1/2 of all of the board space available (and we needed that space for other important stuff!).

Antenna Design was a challenge because the design was … not particularly antenna friendly: it’s a metal box strapped to an incredibly lossy surface (your wrist). Think back to the contemporary designs of the day: iPhones had splits in the enclosures to enable large portions of the metal enclosure itself to be an antenna. That didn’t work for Watch because it’s not possible to make a split between metal and non-metal (an insulator like plastic) that is also waterproof under pressure.

While Watch had many engineering challenges this one was fundamental: without at least a Wi-Fi antenna, we had no product.

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The story that follows of how they figured out the Wi-Fi antenna is remarkable – and might explain why the Watch didn’t arrive quite when expected; the supply chain has a lot of hysteresis.
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Deceased GOP strategist’s hard drives reveal new details on the census citizenship question • The New York Times

Michael Wines:

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Thomas B. Hofeller achieved near-mythic status in the Republican Party as the Michelangelo of gerrymandering, the architect of partisan political maps that cemented the party’s dominance across the country.

But after he died last summer, his estranged daughter discovered hard drives in her father’s home that revealed something else: Mr. Hofeller had played a crucial role in the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Files on those drives showed that he wrote a study in 2015 concluding that adding a citizenship question to the census would allow Republicans to draft even more extreme gerrymandered maps to stymie Democrats. And months after urging President Trump’s transition team to tack the question onto the census, he wrote the key portion of a draft Justice Department letter claiming the question was needed to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the rationale the administration later used to justify its decision.

Those documents, cited in a federal court filing Thursday by opponents seeking to block the citizenship question, have emerged only weeks before the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of the citizenship question.

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He died in August; the story relates a remarkable chain of events – just off coincidence – that got the files to the court. That word “estranged” is doing a lot of work here; the obvious subtext is that she disagreed strongly with his politics. And now she might have overturned them.

Of course, in past times those hard drives would have been letters.
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Leap Motion, once a virtual-reality high flier, sells itself to UK rival • WSJ

Parmy Olson:

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Leap Motion, a virtual-reality startup that helped pioneer gesture tracking technology, has agreed to sell itself to British rival UltraHaptics [based in Bristol] for approximately $30m, according to people familiar with the matter—about a tenth of its valuation just a few years ago.

Leap Motion, based in San Francisco, develops and licenses sensors that track hand movements for virtual-reality experiences. Over the past decade, firms have rushed into the nascent fields of augmented and virtual reality. Augmented reality overlays computerized images on the real world through glasses or a headset, like Microsoft’s HoloLens 2. Virtual reality aims to more fully immerse people in a digital world through a headset like the Oculus Rift, owned by Facebook.

Leap Motion made an early splash in the VR field. Founded in 2010, the startup initially attracted an array of venture capitalists including Silicon Valley investor Andreessen Horowitz. By 2013, the company was valued at approximately $300m, according to a person familiar with the matter.

But it struggled to take advantage of its early name-brand recognition in a field that was new, fast-changing and tied heavily to the AR and VR hardware market. A device Leap Motion rolled out to help control a computer with finger movements met mixed reviews.

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Apple considered buying it twice, according to reports. UltraHaptics has been using LeapMotion’s tech for six years for “using focussed sound waves to create the sensation of touch in midair”; potential application in cars. The clock ticks louder for Magic Leap.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,079: DeepMind wins again, the scanner company at bars, meet your data self, Huawei’s life on subsidies, and more

  1. I’ll be accused of whataboutism again, and claim context again: How do subsidies and grants to Huawei compare to subsidies and grants to other large firms, in IT in particular ?

    I mean, a few weeks ago we were enraged at Amazon HQ2 tax cuts. Before that at Apple’s. I’m sure Google has similarly egregious favors thrown their way. And all compound that with tax shenanigans.

    In the end, what is the net effective tax contribution from, and tax rate on, each of them ? That’s really the only thing that maters. Direct subsidies, tax breaks, international tax shopping… are fragmented surface things, the meaningful figures in the end are how much net tax they contribute overall, and how it compares.

  2. Re: Galaxy Note unfeatures. I’m curious how OEMs decide to evolve their feature sets. (Aside from Apple: looks, lock-in and ancillary revenues ^^). Losing the Jack/FM Radio or the SD sot w/ less than 256GB internal flash produces a “can’t buy” error for me. I guess buttons can be virtual if that’s well executed, we kind of adjusted when the nav buttons moved from the bezels to the screen (and I personally rejoiced when they vanished into gestures, but most of “my” users couldn’t handle that).
    At this stage of maturity of the smartphone market, I’m puzzled by the absence of some things:
    1- counter-marketing. Why isn’t anyone releasing The Brick, a smartphone with screws for easy maintanability and quasi-removable battery ? I’d co-brand it with iFixIt, and market it on XDA. Flagships are 95% identical, go for the difference ?
    2- Dell-like customization. I understand design constraints are higher (space, firmware…), but you’d think by now at least one OEM would have figured a way to offer a choice of good-enough or excellent camera on the same chassis.
    3- expandability. Again, I know constraints are higher, but if Moto is sticking with it, why aren’t they trying to make it a standard ?

    As for the Note losing the Jack and FM radio, I blame Apple.

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