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Daily Crunch: Hundreds of Google and Alphabet employees unionize

By Anthony Ha

Google employees take another step in their activism, Venmo adds a check-cashing feature and Slack has some issues. This is your Daily Crunch for January 4, 2021.

The big story: Hundreds of Google and Alphabet employees unionize

More than 200 employees at Google and its parent company Alphabet have announced that they have formed the Alphabet Workers Union.

Obviously, that’s only a tiny fraction of Alphabet’s workforce of more than 130,000 employees. But according to The New York Times, the group is a “minority union” designed to give more structure to employee activism, rather than one that negotiates for a contract. And it will also be open to contractors.

“This is historic—the first union at a major tech company by and for all tech workers,” said Google software engineer Dylan Baker in a statement. “We will elect representatives, we will make decisions democratically, we will pay dues, and we will hire skilled organizers to ensure all workers at Google know they can work with us if they actually want to see their company reflect their values.”

The tech giants

It’s not just you, Slack is struggling this morning — Precisely when the downtime began is not clear, though problems amongst the TechCrunch staff began a little after 10 a.m. Eastern time.

Venmo adds a check-cashing feature, waives fees for stimulus checks — The feature can be used to cash printed, payroll and U.S. government checks, including the new stimulus checks.

Samsung’s next Unpacked event is January 14 — This one’s called “Welcome to the Everyday Epic.”

Startups, funding and venture capital

Color raises $167M funding at $1.5B valuation to expand ‘last mile’ of US health infrastructure — Color’s 2020 was a record year for the company.

Lidar startup Aeva raises another $200M ahead of its debut as a public company — Aeva is one of a handful of lidar companies to eschew the traditional IPO path and go public via a SPAC merger.

India’s CRED raises $81M, buys back shares worth $1.2M from employees — CRED has nearly doubled its customer base to about 5.9 million in the past year, or about 20% of the credit card holder base in India.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How artificial intelligence will be used in 2021 — Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang forecasts the biggest emerging use cases.

2020 was a record year for Israel’s security startup ecosystem — A look back at notable funding trends, rounds and exits.

Five questions about 2021’s startup market — Each question relates to a 2020 change that is expected to persist.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Astronaut Anne McClain on designing and piloting the next generation of spacecraft — McClain is one of the astronauts who will be taking part in the Artemis missions.

Mixtape podcast: Behind the curtain of diversity theater — Most TechCrunch readers have probably heard of diversity reports, but you may not know what’s going on behind the scenes.

Original Content podcast: ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ might be a beautiful mess, or maybe just a mess — And yet one of my co-hosts actually preferred the sequel to the original.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

The built environment will be one of tech’s next big platforms

By Jonathan Shieber

From the beginning, the plan for Sidewalk Labs (a subsidiary of Alphabet and — by extension — a relative of Google) to develop a $1.3 billion tech-enabled real estate project on the Toronto waterfront was controversial.

Privacy advocates had justified concerns about the Google-adjacent company’s ability to capture a near-total amount of data from the residents of the development or any city-dweller that wandered into its high-tech panopticon.

But Alphabet, Sidewalk Labs’ leadership and even Canada’s popular prime minister, Justin Trudeau, had high hopes for the project.

Startups working in real estate technology managed to nab a record $3.7 billion from investors in the first quarter of the year.

“Successful cities around the world are wrestling with the same challenges of growth, from rising costs of living that price out the middle class, to congestion and ever-longer commutes, to the challenges of climate change. Sidewalk Labs scoured the globe for the perfect place to create a district focused on solutions to these pressing challenges, and we found it on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront — along with the perfect public-sector partner, Waterfront Toronto,” said Sidewalk Labs chief executive Dan Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor of New York, in a statement announcing the launch in 2017. “This will not be a place where we deploy technology for its own sake, but rather one where we use emerging digital tools and the latest in urban design to solve big urban challenges in ways that we hope will inspire cities around the world.”

From Sidewalk Labs’ perspective, the Toronto project would be an ideal laboratory that the company and the city of Toronto could use to explore the utility and efficacy of the latest and greatest new technologies meant to enhance city living and make it more environmentally sustainable.

The company’s stated goal, back in 2017 was “to create a place that encourages innovation around energy, waste and other environmental challenges to protect the planet; a place that provides a range of transportation options that are more affordable, safe and convenient than the private car; a place that embraces adaptable buildings and new construction methods to reduce the cost of housing and retail space; a place where public spaces welcome families to enjoy the outdoors day and night, and in all seasons; a place that is enhanced by digital technology and data without giving up the privacy and security that everyone deserves.”

From a purely engineering perspective, integrating these new technologies into a single site to be a test case made some sense. From a community development perspective, it was a nightmare. Toronto residents began to see the development as little more than a showroom for a slew of privacy-invading innovations that Sidewalk could then spin up into companies — or a space where startup companies could test their tech on a potentially unwitting population.

So when the economic implications of the global COVID-19 pandemic started to become clear back in March of this year, it seemed as good a time as any for Sidewalk Labs to shutter the project.

“[As] unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community,” Doctoroff said in a statement. “And so, after a great deal of deliberation, we concluded that it no longer made sense to proceed with the Quayside project.”

Loon’s stratospheric balloons are now teaching themselves to fly better thanks to Google AI

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet’s Loon has been using algorithmic processes to optimize the flight of its stratospheric balloons for years now – and setting records for time spent aloft as a result. But the company is now deploying a new navigation system that has the potential to be much better, and it’s using true reinforcement learning AI to teach itself to optimize navigation better than humans ever could.

Loon developed the new reinforcement learning system, which it says is the first to be used in an actual product aerospace context, with its Alphabet colleagues at Google AI in Montreal over the past couple of years. Unlike its past algorithmic navigation software, this one is devised entirely by machine – a machine that’s able to calculate the optimal navigation path for the balloons much more quickly than the human-made system could, and with much more efficiency, meaning the balloons use much less power to travel the same or greater distances than before.

How does Loon know it’s better? They actually pitted the new AI navigation against their human algorithm-based prior system directly, with a 39 day test that flew over the Pacific Ocean. The reinforcement learning model kept the Loon balloon aloft over target areas for longer continuous periods, using less energy than the older system, and it even came up with some new navigational moves that the team has never seen or conceived of before.

After this and other tests proved such dramatic successes, Loon actually then went ahead and deployed across its entire production fleet, which is currently deployed across parts of Africa to serve commercial customers in Kenya.

This is one of few real-world examples of an AI system that employs reinforcement learning to actively teach itself to perform better being used in a real-life setting, to control the performance of real hardware operating in a production capacity and serving paying customers. It’s a remarkable achievement, and definitely one that will be watched closely by others in aerospace and beyond.

Google says its News Showcase will add free access to paywalled stories

By Anthony Ha

Google News Showcase visitors will soon be able to read select paywalled articles at no extra charge.

That’s one of several announcements that the search giant made today about News Showcase, the program where it pays publishers (with $1 billion committed initially) to license their content for a new format in Google News. So far, Google News Showcase has launched in countries including Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, France, U.K. and Australia — in several cases, those are markets where it’s previously faced legal challenges and antitrust scrutiny.

Google says it will be paying participating publishers to provide “limited access to paywalled content for News Showcase users.” Those users will, however, still need to register directly with the publishers, which Google says will give them a way to build a relationship. (Facebook has also been experimenting with ways to present paywalled content, in its case by linking Facebook accounts to news subscriptions.)

The main News Showcase format is essentially story panel, and Google says it’s introducing a new panel allowing publishers to curate a daily selection of their most important stories. Those panels will be shown to users who follow those publishers.

Google is also bringing the News Showcase to new devices and channels. It started out on Google News on Android and is now available on iOS as well, with plans to expand to the news.google.com website and Discover soon. And it says it has doubled the number of partners since the launch in October — the list of nearly 400 publishers participating in the program includes new names like Le Monde, Courrier International, L’Obs, Le Figaro, Libération and L’Express in France, plus Página12, La Gaceta and El Día in Argentina.

“As 2020 comes to a close, it is heartening to witness the progress of News Showcase and the enthusiasm from both publishers and readers around the world,” the company writes. “We will continue to engage and incorporate feedback as we build out features and grow the product to add to the future sustainability of our news partners.”

YouTube targets music fans with new audio ad format

By Anthony Ha

YouTube is announcing new ad products today, designed to help marketers reach YouTube visitors who are doing more listening than watching.

The big addition is audio advertising. As the Google -owned video site puts it in a blog post, these are ads designed for viewers who “squeeze in a living room workout before dinner, catch up on a podcast or listen to a virtual concert on a Friday night.”

In other words, audio ads are designed for videos where audience members may only be glancing at the screen occasionally, or might ignoring the visuals altogether. To be clear, these ads won’t be audio-only, but YouTube says the audio should be doing most of the communication, while the visual side is limited to “a still image or simple animation.”

The company says that in early testing, more than 75% of audio ad campaigns on YouTube resulted in a significant lift in brand awareness. For example, this Shutterfly ad resulted in a 14% lift in ad recall and a 2% increase in favorability in its target audience.

The key, YouTube says, is that the audio has to carry the message: “Think: If I close my eyes, I can still clearly understand what this ad is about.”

In addition to launching audio ads in beta, YouTube is also announcing dynamic music lineups, allowing marketers to target their campaigns at collections of music channels on YouTube. These lineups can be focused on a genre, such as Latin music or K-pop, or on an interest like fitness.

In a separate blog post, YouTube’s Head of Music Lyor Cohen made a broader case to advertisers about why they should see YouTube as an essential music streaming platform.

After all, according to Cohen, more than 2 billion logged-in viewers are watching at least one music video each month. And, he wrote, “music is more front and center than you might think” — 60% of YouTube’s music viewing happens on mobile, where background viewing/listening is disabled.

That might seem like an odd thing to emphasize while launching an ad format better suited to background listening, but Cohen continued, “Regardless of when and how people are tuning in, we have ways to help advertisers connect, even when they’re consuming music in the background. Now you can complement the moments your consumers are watching, by engaging them in moments when they’re listening, with newly announced audio ads.”

Sequoia-backed recycling robot maker AMP Robotics gets its largest purchase order

By Jonathan Shieber

AMP Robotics, the manufacturer of robotic recycling systems, has received its largest purchase order from the publicly traded North American waste handling company, Waste Connections.

The order, for 24 machine learning enabled robotic recycling systems, will be used on container, fiber and residue lines across numerous materials recovery facilities, the company said.

The AMP technology can be used to recover plastics, cardboard, paper, cans, cartons and many other containers and packaging types reclaimed for raw material processing.

The tech can tell the difference between high-density polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate, low-density polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene. The robots can also sort for color, clarity, opacity and shapes like lids, tubs, clamshells, and cups — the robots can even identify the brands on packaging.

So far, AMP’s robots have been deployed in North America, Asia, and Europe with recent installations in Spain, and across the US in California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

In January, before the pandemic began, AMP Robotics worked with its investor, Sidewalk Labs on a pilot program that would provide residents of a single apartment building representing 250 units in Toronto with detailed information about their recycling habits.

Working with the building and a waste hauler, Sidewalk Labs  would transport the waste to a Canada Fibers material recovery facility where trash will be sorted by both Canada Fibers employees and AMP Robotics. Once the waste is categorized, sorted, and recorded Sidewalk will communicate with residents of the building about how they’re doing in their recycling efforts.

Sidewalk says that the tips will be communicated through email, an online portal, and signage throughout the building every two weeks over a three-month period.

For residents, it was an opportunity to have a better handle on what they can and can’t recycle and Sidewalk Labs is betting that the information will help residents improve their habits. And for folks who don’t want their trash to be monitored and sorted, they could opt out of the program.

Recyclers like Waste Connections should welcome the commercialization of robots tackling industry problems. Their once-stable business has been turned on its head by trade wars and low unemployment. About two years ago, China decided it would no longer serve as the world’s garbage dump and put strict standards in place for the kinds of raw materials it would be willing to receive from other countries. The result has been higher costs at recycling facilities, which actually are now required to sort their garbage more effectively.

At the same time, low unemployment rates are putting the squeeze on labor availability at facilities where humans are basically required to hand-sort garbage into recyclable materials and trash.

AMP Robotics is backed by Sequoia Capital,  BV, Closed Loop Partners, Congruent Ventures  and Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, a spin-out from Alphabet that invests in technologies and new infrastructure projects.

Alphabet’s X partners with Econet Group to roll out Project Taara wireless light-beam broadband in Africa

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet’s X ‘Moonshot Factory’ subsidiary has a lot of cutting edge projects in development, so it’s always exciting when one of them gets ready for real-world deployment. On Tuesday, X announced that its ‘Project Taara’ high-speed optical wireless broadband endeavor is working with internet provider Econet and its subsidiaries to begin rolling out its tech across Sub-Saharan Africa.

This deployment follows a series of small pilots in Kenya specifically, but now Taara and Econet are ready to start adding high-speed wireless optical links to supplement and enhance Econet service reach more broadly, starting with Liquid Telecom customers in Kenya. Taara is yet another approach to extending the reach of broadband networks to parts of the Earth that have typically not had access or high-speed connections, due primarily to infrastructure challenges.

X’s Taara is essentially a fiber optic network cable without the cable – it uses a narrow, invisible beam of light to transmit data between two terminals that can span up to nearly 12.5 miles, while providing transfer speeds up to 20 Gbps, which means they can be used to connect thousands of customers or households while providing speeds high enough for streaming high quality video.

Image Credits: X, the moonshot factory

Taara’s technology can essentially be used to patch gaps in traditional fiber optic networks, spanning rivers or crossing terrain that would be hard or impossible to span using either under or aboveground cable. They do require unbroken line of sight, so X sets them atop tall structures to help ensure that’s achieved, and it also means they’re best suited to plugging holes in traditional networks, not necessarily building out entirely new ones. But contrasted to efforts like Alphabet’s Loon stratospheric balloons or SpaceX’s Starlink satellite-based network, it’s relatively easy and cheap to get this up and running and working with existing network infrastructure.

X has been piloting Taara in a number of deployments around the world, but this is a sign that it’s maturing towards a commercialization stage that could see it in service as a supplement to existing networks in a lot more places relatively soon.

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