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Today — August 21st 2019Your RSS feeds

Netflix's Hyperdrive Is American Ninja Warrior for Cars

By Alex Davies
The new show pits amateur drivers against a plethora of pitfalls, from a giant seesaw to a "rail slide."

Finally, a Lightning YubiKey to Kill Password Clutter on Your iPhone

By Lily Hay Newman
First promised back in January, the first YubiKey for iOS will help cut down on painful password clutter starting ... now.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Join The New Stack for Pancake & Podcast with Q&A at TC Sessions: Enterprise

By Emma Comeau

Popular enterprise news and research site The New Stack is coming to TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise on September 5 for a special Pancake & Podcast session with live Q&A, featuring, you guessed it, delicious pancakes and awesome panelists!

Here’s the “short stack” of what’s going to happen:

  • Pancake buffet opens at 7:45 am on Thursday, September 5 at TC Sessions: Enterprise
  • At 8:15 am the panel discussion/podcast kicks off; the topic, “The People and Technology You Need to Build a Modern Enterprise
  • After the discussion, the moderators will host a live audience Q&A session with the panelists
  • Once the Q&A is done, attendees will get the chance to win some amazing raffle prizes

You can only take part in this fun pancake-breakfast podcast if you register for a ticket to  TC Sessions: Enterprise. Use the code TNS30 to get 30% off the conference registration price!

Here’s the longer version of what’s going to happen:

At 8:15 a.m., The New Stack founder and publisher Alex Williams takes the stage as the moderator and host of the panel discussion. Our topic: “The People and Technology You Need to Build a Modern Enterprise.” We’ll start with intros of our panelists and then dive into the topic with Sid Sijbrandij, founder and CEO at GitLab, and Frederic Lardinois, enterprise reporter and editor at TechCrunch, as our initial panelists. More panelists to come!

Then it’s time for questions. Questions we could see getting asked (hint, hint): Who’s on your team? What makes a great technical team for the enterprise startup? What are the observations a journalist has about how the enterprise is changing? What about when the time comes for AI? Who will I need on my team?

And just before 9 a.m., we’ll pick a ticket out of the hat and announce our raffle winner. It’s the perfect way to start the day.

On a side note, the pancake breakfast discussion will be published as a podcast on The New Stack Analysts

But there’s only one way to get a prize and network with fellow attendees, and that’s by registering for TC Sessions: Enterprise and joining us for a short stack with The New Stack. Tickets are now $349, but you can save 30% with code TNS30.

Disney+ comes to Canada and the Netherlands on Nov. 12, will support nearly all major platforms at launch

By Darrell Etherington

Disney+ will have an international launch that begins at the same time as its rollout in the U.S., Disney revealed. The company will be launching its digital streaming service on November 12 in Canada and The Netherlands on November 12, and will be available in Australia and New Zealand the following week. The streaming service will also support virtually every device and operating system from day one.

Disney+ will be available on iOS, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Android, Android TV, PlayStation 4, Roku and Xbox One at launch, which is pretty much an exhaustive list of everywhere someone might want to watch it, leaving aside some smaller proprietary smart TV systems. That, combined with the day-and-date global markets, should be a clear indicator that Disney wants its service to be available to as many customers as possible, as quickly as possible.

Through Apple’s iPhone, iPad and Apple TV devices, customers will be able to subscribe via in-app purchase. Disney+ will also be fully integrated with Apple’s TV app, which is getting an update in iOS 13 in hopes of becoming even more useful as a central hub for all a user’s video content. The one notable exception on the list of supported devices and platforms is Amazon’s Fire TV, which could change closer to launch depending on negotiations.

In terms of pricing, the service will run $8.99 per month or $89.99 per year in Canada, and €6.99 per month (or €69.99 per year) in the Netherlands. In Australia, it’ll be $8.99 per month or $89.99 per year, and in New Zealand, it’ll be $9.99 and $99.99 per year. All prices are in local currency.

That compares pretty well with the $6.99 per month (or $69.99 yearly) asking price in the U.S., and undercuts the Netflix pricing in those markets, too. This is just the Disney+ service on its own, however, not the combined bundle that includes ESPN Plus and Hulu for $12.99 per month, which is probably more comparable to Netflix in terms of breadth of content offering.

 

Rocket Lab successfully launches rideshare rocket with two experimental USAF satellites on board

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab has successfully launched its eighth mission, an Electron rocket rideshare flight carrying four satellites to orbit for various clients. The Electron launched from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, at 12:12 AM NZST (8:12 AM ET). This was its second attempt, after a scrub last week due to adverse weather conditions on the launch range.

On board, it carried a rideshare mission from launch services provider Spaceflight, which works to bring together payloads to simplify the process of finding a provider for smaller payloads and companies. The Spaceflight portion of the payload included three satellites: One satellite from BlackSky, which does Earth-imaging, and which will join its twin launched by Rocket Lab in June already in low-Earth orbit to form a constellation.

Spaceflight’s cargo also included two experimental satellites launched by the U.S. Air Force Space Command, which will carry out tests of new technology related to spacecraft propulsion, power, communications and more, and which are designed to pave the way for deployment of related technologies in future spacecraft.

There’s also a fourth satellite on board, a CubeSat that will be the anchor for a new constellation aimed at providing up-to-date and accurate monitoring of maritime traffic, operated by Unseenlabs.

Rocket Lab’s New Zealand LC-1 will be joined by a second launch site in Virginia, to provide a U.S.-based complimentary launch site for serving customers on a monthly basis.

The company also plans to eventually make its Electron rockets reusable, even though they were originally intended as fully expendable launch vehicles, using a recovery process that involves catching returning rockets mid-air after they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Today’s launch included a test of recovery equipment for the Electron’s first stage – an initial test that aimed to have the rocket land back in the Pacific via parachute, where Rocket Lab will attempt to pick it up from the ocean for potential refurbishment.

Twitter is blocked in China, but its state news agency is buying promoted tweets to portray Hong Kong protestors as violent

By Catherine Shu

Twitter is being criticized for running promoted tweets by China’s largest state news agency that paint pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong as violent, even though the rallies, including one that drew an estimated 1.7 million people this weekend, have been described as mostly peaceful by international media.

Promoted tweets from China Xinhua News, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, were spotted and shared by the Twitter account of Pinboard, the bookmarking service founded by Maciej Ceglowski, and other users.

Every day I go out and see stuff with my own eyes, and then I go to report it on Twitter and see promoted tweets saying the opposite of what I saw. Twitter is taking money from Chinese propaganda outfits and running these promoted tweets against the top Hong Kong protest hashtags pic.twitter.com/6Wb0Km6GOb

— Pinboard (@Pinboard) August 17, 2019

I just came home from a completely peaceful march where possibly a million Hong Kong residents came out, with no police in sight, to call for basic democratic rights. What greets me is straight up lies from Xinhua about “bands of thugs”, courtesy of Twitter advertising. pic.twitter.com/pUTsnqZ5oN

— Pinboard (@Pinboard) August 18, 2019

The demonstrations began in March to protest a now-suspended extradition bill, but have grown to encompass other demands including the release of imprisoned protestors, inquiries into police conduct, the resignation of current Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam and a more democratic process for electing Legislative Council members and the Chief Executive.

While China Xinhua News has repeatedly described demonstrators as violent, international observers have criticized the Hong Kong police’s use of excessive force against peaceful protestors, including incidents documented in footage verified by Amnesty International.

The irony of China Xinhua News’ tweets is that they let the Chinese Communist Party disseminate its version of events to a worldwide audience even though Twitter is officially banned in China (along with other U.S. social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube, Tumblr and Snapchat).

The Chinese government has also recently begun to keep a closer eye on citizens who use VPNs to access blocked services. For example, the Washington Post reported in January that even though there are only an estimated 10 million Chinese citizens on Twitter, its role as a platform for critics of the Chinese government means users are under increased scrutiny.

In June, Twitter was accused of censoring critics of the Chinese government after numerous Chinese-language user accounts were removed days before the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The company said that the accounts had been removed by error and, despite speculation, “were not mass reported by the Chinese authorities.”

It is unknown how much China Xinhua News has spent on promoted tweets or where they are being targeted. Twitter has been contacted for comment.

Tesla pitches a solar rental program to boost its renewable energy business

By Jonathan Shieber

Tesla is pitching customers on a new rental offering for solar power as a way to revive the flagging fortunes of its renewable energy business.

Once among the largest installers of renewables in the country through SolarCity, Tesla has seen its share of the market decline significantly since its acquisition of SolarCity three years ago. In the second quarter Tesla deployed only 29 megawatts of new solar installations, while the number one and two providers of consumer solar, SunRun and Vivint Solar installed 103 megawatts and 56 megawatts respectively.

That’s likely one reason why Elon Musk took to Twitter early Sunday morning to pitch the new solar rental program.

One click to order solar & save ~$500/year in utility bills with no long-term contract (cancel anytime)

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 18, 2019

According to Musk, the new program is “like having a money printer on your roof” for potential customers who live in states with high energy costs. “Still better to buy,” Musk exhorted, “but the rental option makes the economics obvious.”

Unlike SunRun and Vivint, which both used partnerships with homebuilders and retailers like Home Depot, BJ’s Wholesale, Costco and Sam’s Club to acquire customers, Tesla slashed ended door-to-door marketing and abandoned its partnership with Home Depot. The company began relying almost entirely on direct sales to power its solar business and eschewed the no-money-down lease model, which SolarCity had used so effectively.

Under the new system, Telsa is offering customers the option to rent solar systems for anywhere from $65 for a small installation to $195 for its largest installation. Customers only need to pay a fully refundable $100 charge.

Tesla said the contract can be canceled any time, but it would charge users $1,500 to remove the system once it has been installed.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.

 

Protein replacement startups are coming for food additives as Shiru launches from Y Combinator

By Jonathan Shieber

Shiru, a new company that’s launching from the latest batch of Y Combinator-backed startups, is joining the ranks of the businesses angling for a spot at the vanguard of the new food technology revolution.

The company was founded by Jasmin Hume, the former director of food chemistry at Just (the company formerly known as Hampton Creek) and takes its name from a homophone of the Chinese shi rou (which Hume has roughly translated to an examination of meat). At Just, Hume was working with a team that was fractionating plants to look at their physical properties to identify what products could be made from the various proteins and chemicals researchers found in the plants.

Shiru, by contrast, is using computational biology to find the ideal proteins for specific applications in the food industry.

The company’s looking at what proteins are best for creating certain kinds of qualities that are used in food additives, things like viscosity building, solubility, foam stability, emulsification, and biding, according to Hume.

In some ways, Hume’s approach looks similar to the early product roadmap for Geltor, a company backed by SOSV and IndieBio that was also looking to make functional proteins. The company, which has raised over $18 million to date, shifted its attention to proteins for the beauty industry and cosmetics instead of food — potentially leaving an opening for Shiru to exploit.

 Still in its early days, Shiru doesn’t have a product nailed down yet, but the company the science the company is exploring is increasingly well understood, and Hume says it’s looking at several different genetically engineered feedstocks — from yeasts to undisclosed strains of bacteria and fungi to make its proteins. 

“We use the power of molecular design and machine learning to identify protein structures that are more functional than existing alternatives,” says Hume. “The proteins that we are screening for are inspired by nature.”

Hume’s path to founding Shiru involves quite the pedigree. Before Just, she received her doctorate in materials chemistry from New York University, and she’d spent a stretch as a summer associate at the New York-based frontier technology-focused investment firm Lux Capital.

Hume expects to begin pilot production of initial proteins later this year and be producing small but repeatable quantities by the end of 2020.

The company hasn’t raised any outside capital before Y Combinator and is currently in the process of raising a round, Hume said.

Cloudflare says cutting off customers like 8chan is an IPO ‘risk factor’

By Zack Whittaker

Networking and web security giant Cloudflare says the recent 8chan controversy may be an ongoing “risk factor” for its business on the back of its upcoming initial public offering.

The San Francisco-based company and former Battlefield finalist, which filed its IPO paperwork with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday, earlier this month took the rare step of pulling the plug on one of its customers, 8chan, an anonymous message board linked to recent domestic terrorist attacks in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, which killed 31 people. The site is also linked to the shootings in New Zealand, which killed 50 people.

8chan became the second customer to have its service cut off by Cloudflare in the aftermath of the attacks. The first and other time Cloudflare booted one of its customers was neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer in 2017, after it claimed the networking giant was secretly supportive of the website.

Cloudflare, which provides web security and denial-of-service protection for websites, recognizes those customer cut-offs as a risk factor for investors buying shares in the company’s common stock.

“Activities of our paying and free customers or the content of their websites and other Internet properties could cause us to experience significant adverse political, business, and reputational consequences with customers, employees, suppliers, government entities, and other third parties,” the filing said. “Even if we comply with legal obligations to remove or disable customer content, we may maintain relationships with customers that others find hostile, offensive, or inappropriate.”

Cloudflare had long taken a stance of not policing who it provides service to, citing freedom of speech. In a 2015 interview with ZDNet, chief executive Matthew Prince said he didn’t ever want to be in a position where he was making “moral judgments on what’s good and bad,” and would instead defer to the courts.

“If a final court order comes down and says we can’t do something… governments have tanks and guns,” he said.

But since Prince changed his stance on both The Daily Stormer and 8chan, the company recognized it “experienced significant negative publicity” in the aftermath.

“We are aware of some potential customers that have indicated their decision to not subscribe to our products was impacted, at least in part, by the actions of certain of our paying and free customers,” said the filing. “We may also experience other adverse political, business and reputational consequences with prospective and current customers, employees, suppliers, and others related to the activities of our paying and free customers, especially if such hostile, offensive, or inappropriate use is high profile.”

Cloudflare has also come under fire in recent months for allegedly supplying web protection services to sites that promote and support terrorism, including al-Shabab and the Taliban, both of which are covered under U.S. Treasury sanctions.

In response, the company said it tries “to be neutral,” but wouldn’t comment specifically on the matter.

Cloudflare files for initial public offering

By Jonathan Shieber

After much speculation and no small amount of controversy, Cloudflare, one of the companies that ensures that websites run smoothly on the internet, has filed for its initial public offering.

The company, which made its debut on TechCrunch’s Battlefield stage back in 2010, has put a placeholder value of the offering at $100 million, but it will likely be worth billions when it finally trades on the market.

Cloudflare is one of a clutch of businesses whose job it is to make web sites run better, faster and with little to no downtime.

Recently the company has been at the center of political debates around some of the customers and company it keeps, including social media networks like 8Chan and racist media companies like the Daily Stormer.

Indeed, the company went so far as to cite 8Chan as a risk factor in its public offering documents.

As far as money goes, Cloudflare is — like other early-stage technology companies — losing money. But it’s not losing that much money, and its growth is impressive.

As the company notes in its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission:

We have experienced significant growth, with our revenue increasing from $84.8 million in 2016 to $134.9 million in 2017 and to $192.7 million in 2018, increases of 59% and 43%, respectively. As we continue to invest in our business, we have incurred net losses of $17.3 million, $10.7 million, and $87.2 million for 2016, 2017, and 2018, respectively. For the six months ended June 30, 2018 and 2019, our revenue increased from $87.1 million to $129.2 million, an increase of 48%, and we incurred net losses of $32.5 million and $36.8 million, respectively.

Cloudflare sits at the intersection of government policy and private company operations and its potential risk factors include a discussion about what that could mean for its business.

The company isn’t the first network infrastructure service provider to hit the market. That distinction belongs to Fastly, whose shares likely have not performed as well as investors would have liked.

Screen Shot 2019 08 15 at 10.10.17 AM

Cloudflare has raised roughly $332 million to date from investors, including Franklin Templeton Investments, Fidelity, Union Square Ventures, New Enterprise Associates, Pelion Venture Partners and Venrock. Business Insider reported that the company’s last investment gave Cloudflare a valuation of $3.2 billion.

The company will trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol “NET.” Underwriters on the company’s public offering include Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Jefferies, Wells Fargo Securities and RBC Capital Markets.

US legislator, David Cicilline, joins international push to interrogate platform power

By Natasha Lomas

US legislator David Cicilline will be joining the next meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, it has been announced. The meeting will be held in Dublin on November 7.

Chair of the committee, the Irish Fine Gael politician Hildegarde Naughton, announced Cicilline’s inclusion today.

The congressman — who is chairman of the US House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law Subcommittee — will attend as an “ex officio member” which will allow him to question witnesses, she added.

Exactly who the witnesses in front of the grand committee will be is tbc. But the inclusion of a US legislator in the ranks of a non-US committee that’s been seeking answers about reining in online disinformation will certainly make any invitations that get extended to senior executives at US-based tech giants much harder to ignore.

Naughton points out that the addition of American legislators also means the International Grand Committee represents ~730 million citizens — and “their right to online privacy and security”.

“The Dublin meeting will be really significant in that it will be the first time that US legislators will participate,” she said in a statement. “As all the major social media/tech giants were founded and are headquartered in the United States it is very welcome that Congressman Cicilline has agreed to participate. His own Committee is presently conducting investigations into Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple and so his attendance will greatly enhance our deliberations.”

“Greater regulation of social media and tech giants is fast becoming a priority for many countries throughout the world,” she added. “The International Grand Committee is a gathering of international parliamentarians who have a particular responsibility in this area. We will coordinate actions to tackle online election interference, ‘fake news’, and harmful online communications, amongst other issues while at the same time respecting freedom of speech.”

The international committee met for its first session in London last November — when it was forced to empty-chair Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who had declined to attend in person, sending UK policy VP Richard Allan in his stead.

Lawmakers from nine countries spent several hours taking Allan to task over Facebook’s lack of accountability for problems generated by the content it distributes and amplifies, raising myriad examples of ongoing failure to tackle the democracy-denting, society-damaging disinformation — from election interference to hate speech whipping up genocide.

A second meeting of the grand committee was held earlier this year in Canada — taking place over three days in May.

Again Zuckerberg failed to show. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg also gave international legislators zero facetime, with the company opting to send local head of policy, Kevin Chan, and global head of policy, Neil Potts, as stand ins.

Lawmakers were not amused. Canadian MPs voted to serve Zuckerberg and Sandberg with an open summons — meaning they’ll be required to appear before it the next time they step foot in the country.

Parliamentarians in the UK also issued a summons for Zuckerberg last year after repeat snubs to testify to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee’s enquiry into fake news — a decision that essentially gave birth to the international grand committee, as legislators in multiple jurisdictions united around a common cause of trying to find ways to hold social media giants to accounts.

Delighted to hear that @davidcicilline will be joining us for the next International Grand Committee on disinformation in Dublin in November https://t.co/TI07XEVwLm @CommonsCMS

— Damian Collins (@DamianCollins) August 15, 2019

While it’s not clear who the grand committee will invite to the next session, Facebook’s founder seems highly unlikely to have dropped off their list. And this time Zuckerberg and Sandberg may find it harder to turn down an invite to Dublin, given the committee’s ranks will include a homegrown lawmaker.

In a statement on joining the next meeting, Cicilline said: “We are living in a critical moment for privacy rights and competition online, both in the United States and around the world.  As people become increasingly connected by what seem to be free technology platforms, many remain unaware of the costs they are actually paying.

“The Internet has also become concentrated, less open, and growingly hostile to innovation. This is a problem that transcends borders, and it requires multinational cooperation to craft solutions that foster competition and safeguard privacy online. I look forward to joining the International Grand Committee as part of its historic effort to identify problems in digital markets and chart a path forward that leads to a better online experience for everyone.”

Multiple tech giants (including Facebook) have their international headquarters in Ireland — making the committee’s choice of location for their next meeting a strategic one. Should any tech CEOs thus choose to snub an invite to testify to the committee they might find themselves being served with an open summons to testify by Irish parliamentarians — and not being able to set foot in a country where their international HQ is located would be more than a reputational irritant.

Ireland’s privacy regulator is also sitting on a stack of open investigations against tech giants — again with Facebook and Facebook owned companies producing the fattest file (some 11 investigations). But there are plenty of privacy and security concerns to go around, with the DPC’s current case file also touching tech giants including Apple, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Birth control delivery startup Nurx approaches $300M valuation

By Kate Clark

Nurx, citing 200,000 current patients and a monthly growth rate as high as 20%, has raised $32 million in Series C equity funding in a round co-led by existing investors Kleiner Perkins and Union Square Ventures. The company has also secured $20 million in debt financing, bringing total new capital to $52 million.

The San Francisco-based digital health startup, which seeks to make birth control more accessible and affordable by shipping it direct to consumers, has raised more than $90 million in debt and equity funding to date, with the latest infusion bringing its valuation to nearly $300 million, according to stock authorization filings uncovered by PitchBook. Nurx declined to comment on its valuation.

The goal, Nurx chief executive officer Varsha Rao explains, is to become a telehealth platform focused on all sensitive health needs.

“We see there is a need to help people that may have issues that often carry stigma and judgment by providing a streamlined platform,” Rao tells TechCrunch. “What the company is doing in terms of providing more accessibility from a physical and economic perspective to critical health services is very inspiring for me.”

The fresh bout of funding comes four months after a scathing New York Times report highlighted irresponsible practices at the company, including reshipping returned medications and attempting to revise medical policy on birth control for women over the age of 35.

Nurx’s Rao, who joined from Clover Health just one week before the article was published, says she feels good about how the company has scaled: “I want to make it clear, patient safety was never at risk even then; having said that, we are super committed to always investing in compliance and patient safety and all of the things that are important.”

The business plans to use the funding to double its engineering team and launch additional “sensitive” healthcare services, of which Rao declined to further outline. In addition to shipping birth control D2C, including the pill, shot, ring and patch, Nurx provides emergency contraception, STI and HPV testing and screening kits, and PrEP medication, the once-daily pill that reduces the risk of getting HIV.

The company added STI testing kits to its line up last month and has since performed tests for 1,000 patients, Nurx says.

Nurx’s service is currently live in 26 states and Washington, D.C. The company plans to be accessible to 90% of the U.S. population by the end of the year, with additional launches, including the state of Nebraska, expected this month.

A graduate of Y Combinator, Nurx investors also include Reproductive Health Investors Alliance, Dreamers VC, Lowercase Capital and debt and equity provider Triple Point Capital.

At Twitter, It Seems No One Can Hear the Screams

By Arielle Pardes
Twitter’s brass at an event this week struggled to balance the platform’s reputation for viral rage with the conversational mecca it wants to become.

Google Assistant Now Lets You Send Reminders to Other People

By Lauren Goode
Hey Google, is this the future of passive-aggressive exchanges at home?

Energy Vault raises $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund as energy storage grabs headlines

By Jonathan Shieber

Imagine a moving tower made of huge cement bricks weighing 35 metric tons. The movement of these massive blocks is powered by wind or solar power plants and is a way to store the energy those plants generate. Software controls the movement of the blocks automatically, responding to changes in power availability across an electric grid to charge and discharge the power that’s being generated.

The development of this technology is the culmination of years of work at Idealab, the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup incubator, and Energy Vault, the company it spun out to commercialize the technology, has just raised $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund to take its next steps in the world.

Energy storage remains one of the largest obstacles to the large-scale rollout of renewable energy technologies on utility grids, but utilities, development agencies and private companies are investing billions to bring new energy storage capabilities to market as the technology to store energy improves.

The investment in Energy Vault is just one indicator of the massive market that investors see coming as power companies spend billions on renewables and storage. As The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, ScottishPower, the U.K.-based utility, is committing to spending $7.2 billion on renewable energy, grid upgrades and storage technologies between 2018 and 2022.

Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Utah, the American subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems is working on a joint venture that would create the world’s largest clean energy storage facility. That 1 gigawatt storage would go a long way toward providing renewable power to the Western U.S. power grid and is going to be based on compressed air energy storage, large flow batteries, solid oxide fuel cells and renewable hydrogen storage.

“For 20 years, we’ve been reducing carbon emissions of the U.S. power grid using natural gas in combination with renewable power to replace retiring coal-fired power generation. In California and other states in the western United States, which will soon have retired all of their coal-fired power generation, we need the next step in decarbonization. Mixing natural gas and storage, and eventually using 100% renewable storage, is that next step,” said Paul Browning, president and CEO of MHPS Americas.

Energy Vault’s technology could also be used in these kinds of remote locations, according to chief executive Robert Piconi.

Energy Vault’s storage technology certainly isn’t going to be ubiquitous in highly populated areas, but the company’s towers of blocks can work well in remote locations and have a lower cost than chemical storage options, Piconi said.

“What you’re seeing there on some of the battery side is the need in the market for a mobile solution that isn’t tied to topography,” Piconi said. “We obviously aren’t putting these systems in urban areas or the middle of cities.”

For areas that need larger-scale storage that’s a bit more flexible there are storage solutions like Tesla’s new Megapack.

The Megapack comes fully assembled — including battery modules, bi-directional inverters, a thermal management system, an AC breaker and controls — and can store up to 3 megawatt-hours of energy with a 1.5 megawatt inverter capacity.

The Energy Vault storage system is made for much, much larger storage capacity. Each tower can store between 20 and 80 megawatt hours at a cost of 6 cents per kilowatt hour (on a levelized cost basis), according to Piconi.

The first facility that Energy Vault is developing is a 35 megawatt-hour system in Northern Italy, and there are other undisclosed contracts with an undisclosed number of customers on four continents, according to the company.

One place where Piconi sees particular applicability for Energy Vault’s technology is around desalination plants in places like sub-Saharan Africa or desert areas.

Backing Energy Vault’s new storage technology are a clutch of investors, including Neotribe Ventures, Cemex Ventures, Idealab and SoftBank.

TransferWise’s debit card launches in Australia and New Zealand, with Singapore to follow

By Catherine Shu

International money transfer startup TransferWise’s debit card is now available in Australia and New Zealand, with a Singapore launch expected by the end of this year as the company expands its presence in the Asia-Pacific region. TransferWise’s debit card, which features low, transparent fees and exchange rates, first launched in the United Kingdom and Europe last year before arriving in the United States in June. Since its launch, the company claims the debit card has been used for 15 million transactions.

Australian and New Zealand customers will have access to the TransferWise Platinum debit Mastercard (a business debit card is also available). Cards are linked to TransferWise accounts, which give holders bank account numbers and details in multiple countries, making it easier and cheaper to send and receive multiple currencies. The company says that over the past year, customers have deposited more than $10 billion in their accounts.

TransferWise’s debit cards allow users to spend in more than 40 currencies at real exchange rates. In an email, co-founder and CEO Kristo Käärmann told TechCrunch that TransferWise decided to launch its debit card in Australia and New Zealand because its business there has already been growing quickly. “In addition to responding to customer demand, launching the card in Australia and New Zealand was also driven by the fact that Aussies and Kiwis are being overcharged by banks for using their own money abroad. It is expensive to use debit, travel and credit cards for spending or withdrawals,” he said.

Käärmann added that “independent research conducted by Capital Economics showed that Australians lost $2.14 billion last year alone just for using their bank-issued card abroad. This is because banks and other providers charge transaction fees every time someone uses their card abroad, plus an inflated exchange rate. Similarly, in New Zealand, Kiwis lost $1 billion simply for using their card abroad.”

One of TransferWise’s competitive advantages is that unlike most legacy banking and money transfer services, its accounts and cards were designed from the start to be used internationally. “While there are existing multi-currency cards that exist in Australia and New Zealand, they are prohibitively expensive to use. For example in Australia, the TransferWise Platinum debit Mastercard is on average 11 times cheaper than most travel, debit, prepaid and credit cards,” Käärmann said.

TransferWise cards don’t have transaction fees or exchange rate markups and cardholders are allowed to withdraw up to AUD $350 every 30 days for free at any ATM in the world.

The company is currently talking to regulators in several Asian countries, a process that can take up to two years, Käärmann said. It was recently granted a remittance license in Malaysia, and plans to make its remittance service available there by the end of this year.

Artificial intelligence can contribute to a safer world

By Jonathan Shieber
Matt Ocko Contributor
Matt Ocko is co-Managing Partner and co-founder of DCVC (Data Collective).
Alan Cohen Contributor
Alan Cohen is an operating partner at DCVC.

We all see the headlines nearly every day. A drone disrupting the airspace in one of the world’s busiest airports, putting aircraft at risk (and inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of passengers) or attacks on critical infrastructure. Or a shooting in a place of worship, a school, a courthouse. Whether primitive (gunpowder) or cutting-edge (unmanned aerial vehicles) in the wrong hands, technology can empower bad actors and put our society at risk, creating a sense of helplessness and frustration.

Current approaches to protecting our public venues are not up to the task, and, frankly appear to meet Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” It is time to look past traditional defense technologies and see if newer approaches can tilt the pendulum back in the defender’s favor. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can play a critical role here, helping to identify, classify and promulgate counteractions on potential threats faster than any security personnel.

Using technology to prevent violence, specifically by searching for concealed weapons has a long history. Alexander Graham Bell invented the first metal detector in 1881 in an unsuccessful attempt to locate the fatal slug as President James Garfield lay dying of an assassin’s bullet. The first commercial metal detectors were developed in the 1960s. Most of us are familiar with their use in airports, courthouses and other public venues to screen for guns, knives and bombs.

However, metal detectors are slow and full of false positives – they cannot distinguish between a Smith & Wesson and an iPhone. It is not enough to simply identify a piece of metal; it is critical to determine whether it is a threat. Thus, the physical security industry has developed newer approaches, including full-body scanners – which are now deployed on a limited basis. While effective to a point, the systems in use today all have significant drawbacks. One is speed. Full body scanners, for example, can process only about 250 people per hour, not much faster than a metal detector. While that might be okay for low volume courthouses, it’s a significant problem for larger venues like a sporting arena.

Image via Getty Images

Fortunately, new AI technologies are enabling major advances in physical security capabilities. These new systems not only deploy advanced sensors to screen for guns, knives and bombs, they get smarter with each screen, creating an increasingly large database of known and emerging threats while segmenting off alarms for common, non-threatening objects (keys, change, iPads, etc.)

As part of a new industrial revolution in physical security, engineers have developed a welcomed approach to expediting security screenings for threats through machine learning algorithms, facial recognition, and advanced millimeter wave and other RF sensors to non-intrusively screen people as they walk through scanning devices. It’s like walking through sensors at the door at Nordstrom, the opposite of the prison-like experience of metal detectors with which we are all too familiar. These systems produce an analysis of what someone may be carrying in about a hundredth of a second, far faster than full body scanners. What’s more, people do not need to empty their pockets during the process, further adding speed. Even so, these solutions can screen for firearms, explosives, suicide vests or belts at a rate of about 900 people per hour through one lane.

Using AI, advanced screening systems enable people to walk through quickly and provide an automated decision but without creating a bottleneck. This volume greatly improves traffic flow while also improving the accuracy of detection and makes this technology suitable for additional facilities such as stadiums and other public venues such as Lincoln Center in New York City and the Oakland airport.

Apollo Shield’s anti-drone system.

So much for the land, what about the air?   Increasingly drones are being used as weapons. Famously, this was seen in a drone attack last year against Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. An airport drone incident drew widespread attention when a drone shut down Gatwick Airport in late 2018 inconveniency stranded tens of thousands of people.

People are rightly concerned about how easy it is to get a gun. Drones are also easy to acquire and operate, and quite difficult to monitor and to defend against. AI is now being deployed to prevent drone attacks, whether at airports, stadiums, or critical infrastructure. For example, new AI-powered radar technology is being used to detect, classify, monitor and safely capture drones identified as dangerous.

Additionally, these systems use can rapidly develop a map of the airspace and effectively create a security “dome” around specific venues or areas. These systems have an integration component to coordinate with on-the-ground security teams and first responders. Some even have a capture drone to incarcerate a suspicious drone. When a threatening drone is detected and classified by the system as dangerous, the capture drone is dispatched and nets the invading drone. The hunter then tows the targeted drone to a safe zone for the threat to be evaluated and if needed, destroyed.

While there is much dialogue about the potential risk of AI affecting our society, there is also a positive side to these technologies. Coupled with our best physical security approaches, AI can help prevent violent incidents.

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