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April 22, 2019
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Boston Dynamics showcases new uses for SpotMini ahead of commercial production

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Last year at our TC Sessions: Robotics event, Boston Dynamics announced its intention to commercialize SpotMini. It was a big step for the secretive company. After a quarter of century building some of the world’s most sophisticated robots, it was finally taking a step into the commercial realm, making the quadrupedal robot available to anyone with the need and financial resources for the device.

CEO Marc Raibert made a return appearance at our event this week to discuss the progress Boston Dynamics has made in the intervening 12 months, both with regard to SpotMini and the company’s broader intentions to take a more market-based approach to a number of its creations.

The appearance came hot on the heels of a key acquisition for the company. In fact, Kinema was the first major acquisition in the company’s history — no doubt helped along by the very deep coffers of its parent company, SoftBank. The Bay Area-based startup’s imaging technology forms a key component to Boston Dynamics’ revamped version of its wheeled robot hand. With a newfound version system and its dual arms replaced with a multi-suction cupped gripper.

A recent video from the company demonstrated the efficiency and speed with which the system can be deployed to move boxes from shelf to conveyor belt. As Raibert noted onstage, Handle is the closest Boston Dynamics has come to a “purpose-built robot” — i.e. a robot designed from the ground up to perform a specific task. It marks a new focus for a company that, after its earliest days of DARPA-funded projects, appears to primarily be driven by the desire to create the world’s most sophisticated robots.

“We estimate that there’s about a trillion cubic foot boxes moved around the world every year,” says Raibert. “And most of it’s not automated. There’s really a huge opportunity there. And of course this robot is great for us, because it includes the DNA of a balancing robot and moving dynamically and having counterweights that let it reach a long way. So it’s not different, in some respects, from the robots we’ve been building for years. On the other hand, some of it is very focused on grasping, being able to see boxes and do tasks like stack them neatly together.”

The company will maintain a foot on that side of things, as well. Robots like the humanoid Atlas will still form an important piece of its work, even when no commercial applications are immediately apparent.

But once again, it was SpotMini who was the real star of the show. This time, however, the company debuted the version of the robot that will go into production. At first glance, the robot looked remarkably similar to the version we had onstage last year.

“We’ve we’ve redesigned many of the components to make it more reliable, to make the skins work better and to protect it if it does fall,” says Raibert.  “It has two sets [of cameras] on the front, and one on each side and one on the back. So we can see in all directions.”

I had have the opportunity to pilot the robot — making me one of a relatively small group of people outside of the Boston Dynamics offices who’ve had the opportunity to do so. While SpotMini has all of the necessary technology for autonomous movement, user control is possible and preferred in certain situations (some of which we’ll get to shortly).

[Gifs featured are sped up a bit from original video above]

The controller is an OEMed design that looks something like an Xbox controller with an elongated touchscreen in the middle. The robot can be controlled directly with the touchscreen, but I opted for a pair of joysticks. Moving Spot around is a lot like piloting a drone. One joystick moves the robot forward and back, the other turns it left and right.

Like a drone, it takes some getting used to, particularly with regard to the orientation of the robot. One direction is always forward for the robot, but not necessarily for the pilot. Tapping a button on the screen switches the joystick functionality to the arm (or “neck,” depending on your perspective). This can be moved around like a standard robotic arm/grasper. The grasper can also be held stationary, while the rest of the robot moves around it in a kind of shimmying fashion.

Once you get the hang of it, it’s actually pretty simple. In fact, my mother, whose video game experience peaked out at Tetris, was backstage at the event and happily took the controller from Boston Dynamics, controlling the robot with little issue.

Boston Dynamics is peeling back the curtain more than ever. During our conversation, Raibert debuted behind the scenes footage of component testing. It’s a sight to behold, with various pieces of the robot splayed out on lab bench. It’s a side of Boston Dynamics we’ve not really seen before. Ditto for the images of large Spot Mini testing corrals, where several are patrolling around autonomously.

Boston Dynamics also has a few more ideas of what the future could look like for the robot. Raibert shared footage of Massachusetts State Police utilizing spot in different testing scenarios, where the robot’s ability to open doors could potentially get human officers out of harm’s way during a hostage or terrorist situation.

Another unit was programmed to autonomously patrol a construction site in Tokyo, outfitted with a Street View-style 360 camera, so it can monitor building progress. “This lets the construction company get an assessment of progress at their site,” he explains. “You might think that that’s a low end task. But these companies have thousands of sites. And they have to patrol them at least a couple of times a week to know where they are in progress. And they’re anticipating using Spot for that. So we have over a dozen construction companies lined up to do tests at various stages of testing and proof of concept in their scenarios.”

Raibert says the Spot Mini is still on track for a July release. The company plans to manufacture around 100 in its initial run, though it’s still not ready to talk about pricing.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Hacker dumps thousands of sensitive Mexican embassy documents online

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A hacker stole thousands of documents from Mexico’s embassy in Guatemala and posted them online.

The hacker, who goes by the online handle @0x55Taylor, tweeted a link to the data earlier this week. The data is no longer available for download after the cloud host pulled the data offline, but the hacker shared the document dump with TechCrunch to verify its contents.

The hacker told TechCrunch in a message: “A vulnerable server in Guatemala related to the Mexican embassy was compromised and I downloaded all the documents and databases.” He said he contacted Mexican officials but he was ignored.

In previous correspondence with the hacker, he said he tries to report problems and has received bounty payouts for his discoveries. “But when I don’t get a reply, then it’s going public,” he said.

More than 4,800 documents were stolen, most of which related to the inner workings of the Mexican embassy in the Guatemalan capital, including its consular activities, such as recognizing births and deaths, dealing with Mexican citizens who have been incarcerated or jailed and the issuing of travel documents.

More than a thousand passports — including identification issued to diplomats — were stolen. (Image: supplied)

We found more than a thousand highly sensitive identity documents of primarily Mexican citizens and diplomats — including scans of passports, visas, birth certificates and more — but also some Guatemalan citizens.

Several documents contained scans of the front and back of payment cards.

One of the diplomatic visas issued to a Mexican diplomat stolen in the files. (Image: supplied)

The stolen data also included dozens of letters granting diplomatic rights, privileges and immunities to embassy staff. Diplomatic rights grant employees of the foreign embassy certain protections from their host country’s government and law enforcement. Diplomatic immunity, for example, allows staff to be granted safe passage in and out of the country and are generally safe from prosecution. Other documents seen by TechCrunch were signed off personally by Mexico’s ambassador to Guatemala, Luis Manuel López Moreno, and were instructed to be transported by diplomatic bag, which foreign missions use to transport official correspondence between countries that cannot be searched by police or customs.

Many of the files were marked “confidential,” though it’s not known if the hacked data included anything considered by the Mexican government to be classified or secret. Other files were internal administrative documents relating to staff medical expenses, vacation and time off and vehicle certifications.

When reached Friday, Gerardo Izzo, a spokesperson for the consul general in New York, said it is taking the matter “very seriously” but did not immediately have comment.

Friday is a national holiday in Mexico.

Related stories:

News Source = techcrunch.com

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs is developing visual cues to indicate when their tech is monitoring you

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Alphabet’s subsidiary focused on urban tech development, Sidewalk Labs, is now trying to reinvent signage for smart cities. These signs aren’t to direct the flow of traffic, or to point the way to urban landmarks — they’re designed to let citizens know when they’re being monitored.

The proposal is part of a push by the company to acclimate people to the technologies that it’s deploying in cities like New York and Toronto.

Globally, competition for contracts to deploy sensors, data management and predictive technologies in cities can run into the tens of millions, if not billions of dollars, and Sidewalk Labs knows this better than most. Because its projects are among the most ambitious deployments of sensing and networking technologies for smart cities, the company has also faced the most public criticism.

So at least partially in an attempt to blunt attacks from critics, the company is proposing to make its surveillance and monitoring efforts more transparent.

“Digital technology is all around us, but often invisible. Consider: on any one urban excursion (your commute, perhaps), you could encounter CCTVs, traffic cameras, transit card readers, bike lane counters, Wi-Fi access points, occupancy sensors that open doors — potentially all on the same block,” writes Jacqueline Lu, whose title is “assistant director of the public realm” at Sidewalk Labs.

Lu notes that while the technologies can be useful, there’s little transparency around the data these technologies are collecting, who the data is being collected by and what the data is collected for.

Cities like Boston and London already indicate when technology is being used in the urban environment, but Sidewalk Labs convened a group of designers and urban planners to come up with a system for signage that would make the technology being used even more public for citizens going about their day.

Image courtesy of Sidewalk Labs

Back in 2013, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission called for the development of these types of indicators when it issued a call for mobile privacy disclosures. But that seems to have resulted in companies just drafting reams of jargon-filled disclosures that obscured more than they revealed.

At Sidewalk, the goal is transparency, say the authors of the company’s suggested plan.

“We strongly believe that people should know how and why data is being collected and used in the public realm, and we also believe that design and technology can meaningfully facilitate this understanding. For these reasons, we embarked on a collaborative project to imagine what digital transparency in the public realm could be like,” writes Lu and her co-authors Principal Designer Patrick Keenan and Legal Associate Chelsey Colbert.

As an example, Sidewalk showed off potential designs for signage that would alert people to the presence of the company’s Numina technology.

That tech monitors traffic patterns by recording, anonymizing and transmitting data from sensors using digital recording and algorithmically enhanced software to track movement in an area. These sensors are installed on light poles and transmit data wirelessly.

At the very least, the technology can’t be any worse than the innocuously intended cameras that are monitoring public spaces already (and can be turned into surveillance tools easily).

The hexagonal designs indicate the purpose of the technology, the company deploying it, the reason for its use, whether or not the tech is collecting sensitive information and a QR code that can be scanned to find out more information.

The issue with experiments like these in the public sphere is that there’s no easy way to opt out of them. Sidewalk Lab’s Toronto project is both an astounding feat of design and the apotheosis of surveillance capitalism.

Once these decisions are made to cede public space to the private sector, or sacrifice privacy for security (or simply better information about a location for the sake of convenience), they’re somewhat difficult to unwind. As with most of the salient issues with technology today, it’s about unintended consequences.

Information about a technology’s deployment isn’t enough if the relevant parties haven’t thought through the ramifications of that technology’s use.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Netflix says it’s testing a shuffle feature for when you don’t know what to watch

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Netflix is testing a new feature that can help you start streaming when you don’t know what to watch. The company confirmed it’s testing a shuffle mode of sorts, which will allow you to easily click on a popular show to start playing a random episode. The idea with the feature is to offer an experience that’s more like traditional TV — where you could just turn the set on, and there would be something to watch.

With today’s streaming services, that sort of seamless experience is more difficult to achieve. Instead, viewers now have to first select a streaming app, then scroll through endless menus and recommendations before they can settle on their next title.

The new shuffle feature, instead, offers something closer to the experience of turning on cable TV, when there was always some classic favorite show playing in syndication.

The shows being tested with the new feature appear to be those that people choose when they don’t know what else to watch, like “The Office,” “New Girl,” “Our Planet,” “Arrested Development” and others.

“The Office,” in particular, has a reputation for being a go-to pick for when you’re not in the middle of some other binge fest.

The TV shows appear in a new row, titled “Play a Random Episode.” To get started, you’d click any TV show’s thumbnail, and a random episode from the series then starts playing.

The thumbnails themselves are also adorned with a red “shuffle” icon to indicate they’ll play a random episode.

(Above: Seems someone had the right idea)

The new feature was first spotted by the folks at Android Police, who saw the option appear in the Android version of Netflix’s app.

Netflix confirmed to TechCrunch the shuffle feature is something it’s considering, but hasn’t yet committed to rolling out.

“We are testing the ability for members to play a random episode from different TV series on the Android mobile app. These tests typically vary in length of time and by region, and may not become permanent,” a Netflix spokesperson said.

Netflix for some time has been focused on ways to get users streaming its content faster, after they log in. That’s where its decision to run autoplaying trailers comes in, for example, or why it now features those Stories-inspired previews, or why it tested promoting its shows right on the login screen.

Image credit: Android Police

News Source = techcrunch.com

Daily Crunch: Zoom and Pinterest go public

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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 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Zoom pops 81 percent in Nasdaq debut

Thursday was a big day for tech IPOs, with Zoom opening trading at $65 a share. The company’s initial public offering gave it a fully diluted market cap of roughly $16 billion.

Meanwhile, Pinterest debuted on the New York Stock Exchange at $23.75 per share.

2. Facebook now says its password leak affected ‘millions’ of Instagram users

“We discovered additional logs of Instagram passwords being stored in a readable format,” the company said. “We now estimate that this issue impacted millions of Instagram users. We will be notifying these users as we did the others.”

3. Mueller report sheds new light on how the Russians hacked the DNC and the Clinton campaign

At one point, the Russians used servers located in the U.S. to carry out the massive data exfiltration effort, the report says.

The Instagram app is seen on an iPhone on 16 March, 2017. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

4. Instagram hides Like counts in leaked design prototype

Hiding Like counts could reduce the herd mentality, where people just Like what’s already got tons of Likes. It could also reduce the sense of competition.

5. The consumer version of BBM is shutting down on May 31

While the consumer version of BlackBerry Messenger is shutting down, the service will still exist. In fact, BlackBerry announced a plan to open its enterprise version to general consumers.

6. Amazon launches ad-supported music service to Echo owners

Until this week, Echo owners who wanted to stream music from Amazon could either pay for an annual Prime membership in order to access Prime Music, or they could pay $3.99 per month to stream from Amazon Music Unlimited.

7. The different playbooks of D2C brands

Venture capital firms have invested over $4 billion in D2C brands since 2012, with 2018 alone accounting for over $1 billion. How are these D2C brands going to evolve and how could they sustain as businesses? (Extra Crunch membership required.)

News Source = techcrunch.com

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