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Daily Crunch: Stimulus bill includes money for broadband and energy

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We look at the tech implications of the new stimulus bill, Lockheed Martin makes a big rocket engine acquisition and Google Cloud expands. This is your Daily Crunch for December 21, 2020.

The big story: Stimulus bill includes money for broadband and energy

The $900 billion pandemic relief bill that lawmakers agreed on over the weekend includes a number of provisions that could have a significant impact on the tech industry. For one thing, it commits $7 billion to increase broadband access, including $50 monthly payments to help qualifying families pay for broadband.

The bill also includes $1.9 billion to “rip and replace” equipment from Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei. And there’s $35.2 billion for energy initiatives, with photovoltaics, new transportation technologies and energy efficiency technologies looking like the big winners.

Lawmakers from both parties have reached an agreement in principle on the stimulus, but it still needs final approval from Congress and President Donald Trump.

The tech giants

Lockheed Martin acquires rocket engine maker Aerojet Rocketdyne for $4.4B as space heats up — Aerojet Rocketdyne is headquartered in El Segundo, California and has nearly 5,000 employees.

Google expands its cloud with new regions in Chile, Germany and Saudi Arabia — In total, Google Cloud currently operates 24 regions with 73 availability zones.

IBM snags Nordcloud to add multi-cloud consulting expertise — Nordcloud has 500 consultants certified in AWS, Azure and Google Cloud Platform.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Bolt adds $75M to its Series C, as the battle to rule online checkout continues — Bolt offers four connected services: checkout, payments, user accounts and fraud protection.

OneTrust nabs $300M Series C on $5.1B valuation to expand privacy platform — The company has raised $710 million in a mere 18 months, some of it during a pandemic.

After lockdowns boost gaming marketplace Eneba, it raises $8M from Practica and InReach — Launched in 2018 by two Lithuanian school friends, Eneba says it has attracted 26 million unique users.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Three VCs discuss space junk and what else they’re betting on right now — VCs discuss the dangers of orbital debris, the merits of space manufacturing and how they’d rate the U.S. government when it comes to fostering space-related innovations.

Fintech startups are increasingly focusing on profitability — Some companies tore up their 2020 roadmap to build lasting businesses.

Despite economic downturn, space startup funding defies gravity — More from TC Sessions: Space 2020.

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

Everything else

Dozens of journalists’ iPhones hacked with NSO ‘zero-click’ spyware, says Citizen Lab — Targeted journalists include London-based Rania Dridi and at least 36 journalists, producers and executives working for the Al Jazeera news agency.

Dedicated commercial human in-space operations are coming sooner than you may realize — Darrell Etherington writes that the number of humans actively working beyond Earth’s atmosphere is about to start growing at a potentially exponential rate.

Original Content podcast: The pandemic thriller ‘Songbird’ could have been a lot worse — It’s not good, though!

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.

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How China’s synthetic media startup Surreal nabs funding in 3 months

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What if we no longer needed cameras to make videos and can instead generate them through a few lines of coding?

Advances in machine learning are turning the idea into a reality. We’ve seen how deepfakes swap faces in family photos and turn one’s selfies into famous video clips. Now entrepreneurs with AI research background are devising tools to let people generate highly realistic photos, voices, and videos using algorithms.

One of the startups building this technology is China-based Surreal. The company is merely three months old but has already secured a seed round of $2-3 million from two prominent investors, Sequoia China and ZhenFund. Surreal received nearly ten investment offers in this round, founder and CEO Xu Zhuo told TechCrunch, as investors jostled to bet on a future shaped by AI-generated content.

Prior to founding Surreal, Xu spent six years at Snap, building its ad recommendation system, machine learning platform, and AI camera technology. The experience convinced Xu that synthetic media would become mainstream because the tool could significantly “lower the cost of content production,” Xu said in an interview from Surreal’s a-dozen-person office in Shenzhen.

Surreal has no intention, however, to replace human creators or artists. In fact, Xu doesn’t think machines can surpass human creativity in the next few decades. This belief is embodied in the company’s Chinese name, Shi Yun, or The Poetry Cloud. It is taken from the title of a novel by science fiction writer Liu Cixin, who tells the story of how technology fails to outdo the ancient Chinese poet Li Bai.

“We have an internal formula: visual storytelling equals creativity plus making,” Xu said, his eyes lit up. “We focus on the making part.”

In a way, machine video generation is like a souped-up video tool, a step up from the video filters we see today and make Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) and Kuaishou popular. Short video apps significantly lower the barrier to making a professional-looking video, but they still require a camera.

“The heart of short videos is definitely not the short video form itself. It lies in having better camera technology, which lowers the cost of video creation,” said Xu, who founded Surreal with Wang Liang, a veteran of TikTok parent ByteDance.

Commercializing deepfakery

Some of the world’s biggest tech firms, such as Google, Facebook, Tencent and ByteDance, also have research teams working on GAN. Xu’s strategy is not to directly confront the heavyweights, which are drawn to big-sized contracts. Rather, Surreal is going after small and medium-sized customers.

Surreal’s face swapping software for e-commerce sellers

Surreal’s software is currently only for enterprise customers, who can use it to either change faces in uploaded content or generate an entirely new image or video. Xu calls Surreal a “Google Translate for videos,” for the software can not only swap people’s faces but also translate the languages they speak accordingly and match their lips with voices.

Users are charged per video or picture. In the future, Surreal aims to not just animate faces but also people’s clothes and motions. While Surreal declined to disclose its financial performance, Xu said the company has accumulated around 10 million photo and video orders.

Much of the demand now is from Chinese e-commerce exporters who use Surreal to create Western models for their marketing material. Hiring real foreign models can be costly, and employing Asian models doesn’t prove as effective. By using Surreal “models”, some customers have been able to achieve 100% return on investment (ROI), Xu said. With the multi-million seed financing in its pocket, Surreal plans to find more use cases like online education so it can collect large volumes of data to improve its algorithm.

Uncharted territory

The technology powering Surreal, called generative adversarial networks, is relatively new. Introduced by machine learning researcher Ian Goodfellow in 2014, GANs consist of a “generator” that produces images and a “discriminator” that detects whether the image is fake or real. The pair enters a period of training with adversarial roles, hence the nomenclature, until the generator delivers a satisfactory result.

In the wrong hands, GANs can be exploited for fraud, pornography and other illegal purposes. That’s in part why Surreal starts with enterprise use rather than making it available to individual users.

Companies like Surreal are also posing new legal challenges. Who owns the machine-generated images and videos? To avoid violating copyright, Surreal requires that the client has the right to the content they upload for moderation. To track and prevent misuse, Surreal adds an encrypted and invisible watermark to each piece of the content it generates, to which it claims ownership. There’s an odd chance that the “person” Surreal produces would match someone in real life, so the company runs an algorithm that crosschecks all the faces it creates with photos it finds online.

“I don’t think ethics is something that Surreal itself can address, but we are willing to explore the issue,” said Xu. “Fundamentally, I think [synthetic media] provides a disruptive infrastructure. It increases productivity, and on a macro level, it’s inexorable, because productivity is the key determinant of issues like this.”

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Israel’s “green pass” is an early vision of how we leave lockdown

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The commercial opens with a tempting vision and soaring instrumentals. A door swings wide to reveal a sunlit patio and a relaxed, smiling couple awaiting a meal. “How much have we missed going out with friends?” a voiceover asks. “With the green pass, doors simply open in front of you … We’re returning to life.” It’s an ad to promote Israel’s version of a vaccine passport, but it’s also catnip for anyone who’s been through a year in varying degrees of lockdown. Can we go back to normal life once we’ve been vaccinated? And if we can, what kind of proof should we need?

Although there are still many unknowns about vaccines, and many practical issues surrounding implementation, those considering vaccine passport programs include airlines, music venues, Japan, the UK, and the European Union

Some proponents, including those on one side of a fierce debate in Thailand, have focused on ending quarantines for international travelers to stimulate the hard-hit tourism industry. Others imagine following Israel’s lead, creating a two-tiered system that allows vaccinated people to enjoy the benefits of a post-pandemic life while others wait for their shots. What is happening there gives us a glimpse of the promise—and of the difficulties such schemes face.

How it works

Israel’s vaccine passport was released on February 21, to help the country emerge from a month-long lockdown. Vaccinated people can download an app that displays their “green pass” when they are asked to show it. The app can also display proof that someone has recovered from covid-19. (Many proposed passport systems offer multiple ways to show you are not a danger, such as proof of a recent negative test. The Israeli government says that option will come to the app soon, which will be especially useful for children too young to receive an approved vaccine.) Officials hope the benefits of the green pass will encourage vaccination among Israelis who have been hesitant, many of whom are young. 

“People who get vaccinated need to know that something has changed for them, that they can ease up,” says Nadav Eyal, a prominent television journalist. “People want to know that they can have some normalcy back.”

Despite the flashy ads, however, it’s still too early to tell how well Israel’s program will work in practice—or what that will mean for vaccine passports in general. Some ethicists argue that such programs may further entrench existing inequalities, and this is already happening with Israel’s pass, since few Palestinians in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank have access to vaccines

The green pass is also a potential privacy nightmare, says Orr Dunkelman, a computer science professor at Haifa University and a board member of Privacy Israel. He says the pass reveals information that those checking credentials don’t need to know, such as the date a user recovered from covid or got a vaccine. The app also uses an outdated encryption library that is more vulnerable to security breaches, Orr says. Crucially, because the app is not open source, no third-party experts can vet whether these concerns are founded.

“This is a catastrophe in the making,” says Ran Bar Zik, a software columnist for the newspaper Haaretz. 

Zik recommends another option currently available under the green pass program: downloading a paper vaccination certificate instead of using the app. Although that’s possible, the app is expected to become the most widespread verification method.

Unnecessarily complicated

In the US, developers are trying to address such privacy concerns ahead of any major rollout. Ramesh Raskar runs the PathCheck Foundation at MIT, which has partnered with the design consultancy Ideo on a low-tech solution. Their prototype uses a paper card, similar to the one people currently receive when they’re vaccinated. 

The paper card could offer multiple forms of verification, scannable in the form of QR codes, allowing you to show a concert gatekeeper only your vaccination status while displaying another, more information-heavy option to health-care providers. 

“Getting on a bus, or getting into a concert, you need to have a solution that is very easy to use and that provides a level of privacy protection,” he says. But other situations may require more information: an airline wants to know that you are who you say you are, for example, and hospitals need accurate medical records. 

It’s not just about making sure you don’t have to hand over personal information to get into a bar, though: privacy is also important for those who are undocumented or who mistrust the government, Raskar says. It’s important for companies not to create another “hackable repository” when they view your information, he adds. 

He suggests that right now commercial interests are getting in the way of creating something so simple—it wouldn’t make much money for software companies, which at least want to show off something that could be repurposed later in a more profitable form. Compared with Israel, he says, “we’re making things unnecessarily complicated in the US.” 

The way forward

It’s unclear what the US—which, unlike Israel, doesn’t have a universal identity record or a cohesive medical records system—would need to do to implement a vaccine passport quickly. 

But whichever options eventually do make it into widespread use, there are also aspects of this idea that don’t get laid out in the ads. For example, proposals have been floated that would require teachers and medical staff to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test to gain admittance to their workplaces. 

That could be overly intrusive on individual privacy rights, says Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. Still, he says, “most people understand that there is a logic in that people who are vaccinated will have less limitations.”

Despite the progress in delivering vaccines, all these passport efforts are all still in the early stages. PathCheck’s idea hasn’t rolled out yet, although pilots are under discussion. In Denmark, vaccine passports are still more a promise than a plan. And even in Israel, the vision put forward by government advertising is still just an ambition: while pools and concert venues may be open to green pass holders, dining rooms and restaurants aren’t open yet—for anybody.

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

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Hyzon Motors’ hydrogen fuel ambitions include two US factories

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Hyzon Motors plans to produce fuel cells, including a critical component required to power hydrogen vehicles, at two U.S. factories in a move aimed at kickstarting domestic production at a commercial scale.

The hydrogen-powered truck and bus manufacturer has already leased a 28,000-square-foot facility in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook and plans to expand it by an additional 80,000 square feet. Production at the Chicago facility is expected to begin in the fourth quarter of 2021. The announcement comes just three weeks after Hyzon announced it would become a publicly traded company through a merger with Decarbonization Plus Acquisition Corporation in a deal valued at $2.1 billion, and a little over one week after revealing plans to renovate a 78,000-square-foot factory in Monroe County, New York.

Hyzon is a new name with a nearly two decades of experience. The company was established in March of last year after spinning off from Singapore’s Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies, which has been developing commercial applications for fuel cells since 2003. Hyzon inked a deal in February with the New Zealand company Hiringa Energy for up to 1,500 fuel cell trucks on New Zealand’s roads by 2026. Now it is setting its sights on the North American hydrogen fuel cell vehicle market. Due to the lack of an established domestic hydrogen fueling network, the company is targeting heavy-duty vehicle customers that have a “back-to-base” business model.

Hyzon’s decision to build factories in the United States is noteworthy because production of fuel cell materials in the country lags far behind Europe and Asia. The U.S. also lacks the kind of national hydrogen refueling and infrastructure network found abroad.

“Hydrogen is much more available in places like Germany or The Netherlands,” Hyzon CEO Craig Knight said in an interview with TechCrunch. “There’s already a number of commercial vehicle stations where you can just pull up and pay to fill up like you do with gasoline today in the U.S. It won’t be long before that is a reality, but for the moment we limit the dependence on networks of hydrogen stations by focusing on the customers that use back-to-base operating models, where you only need one piece of hydrogen infrastructure to fuel dozens or even sometimes hundreds of vehicles in a given area.”

Much of the hydrogen that’s produced in the U.S. is so-called “grey hydrogen,” or hydrogen that’s produced from natural gas. An increasing number of companies are pursuing “green hydrogen,” or hydrogen produced via electrolysis powered by renewable energy. Hyzon sources both types for its operations. Hydrogen production remains one of the main factors determining the rate of scale for fuel cell producers.

The Chicago facility will design, develop and produce the membrane electrode assembly, the fuel cell component that helps trigger the electrochemical reaction required to produce power. The company anticipates the new facility will be able to produce enough MEAs for up to 12,000 fuel cell-powered trucks annually.

Finished MEAs will be sent to the company’s recently announced fuel cell stack and system assembly plant in Monroe County, where the components will be assembled into complete fuel cells. From there, the fuel cells will be delivered to a partner truck manufacturer to be assembled into commercial heavy-duty vehicles. The company’s main assembly partner in the United States is Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary Fontaine Modification.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is finding use cases in heavy-duty vehicles because trucking companies are frequently paid by how much weight they can transport, and how quickly they can do it. The time investment of battery charging and the loss of carrying capacity makes fuel cells an attractive alternative for companies looking to decarbonize their vehicle fleets.

Hyzon sees positive network effects and economies of scale associated with hydrogen fuel cell adoption — and increasing marginal costs of electric battery adoption. Although the company has not announced plans to dive into the light-duty vehicle market, it remains bullish on the value proposition of hydrogen fuel cells.

“We think at some point it becomes an increasing marginal cost of adoption for battery electric, because you run into infrastructure limitations around the electricity grid, around the size of depots and the capacity to build the charging infrastructure,” Knight said. “We believe there’s a dis-economy of scale attached to going battery electric when you’ve got really high utilization. We believe that some of the lighter vehicles will also start to move onto hydrogen. We’re not totally dependent on that for our model, but that’s our belief.”

Hyzon, which expects to be listed on the Nasdaq in late May or early June, will be listed under the ticker HYZN.

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