Why we care whether everyone heard ‘laurel’ or ‘yanny’

Earlier this week, the internet erupted around a new obsession tailor-made to go viral. It started with a one-word snippet of recorded audio that had actually been circling the web for awhile, but unclear pronunciation made it an aural Rorschach. The…

Researchers create a real cloaking device

Researcher Amanda D. Hanford at Pennsylvania State University has created a real cloaking device that can route sound waves around an object, making it invisible to some sensing techniques.

From the report:

Hanford and her team set out to engineer a metamaterial that can allow the sound waves to bend around the object as if it were not there. Metamaterials commonly exhibit extraordinary properties not found in nature, like negative density. To work, the unit cell — the smallest component of the metamaterial — must be smaller than the acoustic wavelength in the study.

Hanford created an acoustic metamaterial that deflected sound waves under water, a difficult feat. In testing she and the team were able to place the material in water and measure sound waves pointed at it. The resulting echoes in the water suggested that the sound waves did not bounce off or around the material. This means the new material would be invisible to sonar.

Obviously this technology is still in its early stages and the material does not make the objects invisible but just very hard to detect in underwater situations. However, the fact ship captains could soon yell “Activate the cloaking device” as evil, laser-toting dolphins appear on the horizon should give everyone a bit of cheer.

ICO services: Lots of barnacles but no whales

Nearly every aspect of the current ICO market is pay-for-play or otherwise tainted. I do not paint the industry with such a broad brush lightly but this sort of chicanery hasn’t existed since the heyday of print media when journalists – myself included – took long, convoluted trips to distant headquarters where they enjoyed, as I wrote back in 2007, “suckling on the sweet teat of junket whoredom.”

As I said in this post on payola that briefly made waves a few months ago, payola is stupid and everybody should be able to see through it. But many can’t and that’s a big problem.

The ICO market is hot right now and there is money flowing from hand to hand in a torrent. One litigious company I spoke to took $10,000 to write a white paper and then returned a two page squib, refusing ultimately to refund a founder’s money. Another company, below, is sponsoring an all-inclusive trip to Seoul for a press conference. Other companies take $400,000 or more to manage your ICO, offering PR and services look to have been cobbled together in a rush yet promise millions in returns.

Any time there is a gold rush there are carpet baggers. Any time there is a bubble there are those who would take advantage of it. And anywhere there is a new, unregulated way to make – or raise – millions of dollars you’d better believe there is someone skimming.

Arguably not everyone knows the rules. They are, quite simply: don’t take free stuff in exchange for positive coverage and don’t take trips. Most tech journalists have a closet full of junk that needs to go back to manufacturers but they should never expect cash from a manufacturer to smooth things along. Junkets are dangerous primarily because they cloud a journalist’s judgment. You can imagine Syria sponsoring a fancy junket into its war zone to understand the extreme chilling effect and bias this would introduce.

Further, the other services – legal, PR, social media – that are cropping up in the market are taking a huge cut and often stand unchallenged. ICOs are hard work and very confusing. Instructions, to say the least, are unclear and anyone who has done one successfully – including this team that simulated and exit scam to send people to their ICO consultancy – is considered a global expert. It’s as if someone discovered a working Bloomberg terminal an abandoned building and then began telling everyone they could make them millions. It’s not that easy.

Ultimately these barnacles will be shaken off. TechCrunch was born out of the confusion of the second startup boom and, in turn, this created the modern VC industry, the modern pitch-off, and the accelerator. The good guys, so to speak, outnumbered the pay-for-play “incubators” and the rapacious investors and created what you see to day: a tame but useful system for unlocking wealth. Now that that system has been supplanted – and make no mistake: VC is over – the new organism has its own parasites and none of them are particularly new.

This does not mean the current system is perfect. Angel funding is almost impossible to find outside of major cities. Team and a dream has been replaced by team and multi-million dollar revenue. VC has become a spectator sport and its practitioners are – or feel like – rock stars. There is plenty of nastiness in that business.

But crypto is a different beast entirely.

“Everyone I talk to in this space is corrupt,” railed one founder to me last week. He didn’t know where to turn so he did it all himself. It worked, but not without much trial and error.

Another founder is handing out legal documents his legal team produced for him because he was sick they cost so much. Given that the average equity investment in a startup requires one document and a handshake, to spend upwards of $100,000 for documentation galls. Add in an opaque, hype-filled market and a secretive investment class and you get an explosive mixture.

This will not lost. The barnacles will fall off. But until then it’s sad that such a promising technology will be tainted by the behavior of a few growth marketers who are using the techniques they learned selling penis pills to sell securities. Don’t expect financial authorities to cut these cheaters down, either. That can only be done by the market, a market that knows when enough is enough and that it shouldn’t cost dumb money to raise smart money.

You can’t pay for coverage. You shouldn’t charge to pitch. You shouldn’t make profit on wild inequity. But people will do these things and more and things will not change until the entire industry – from the founders to the service companies to the investors to the media – agrees to scrape them off.

 

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Spam filters and AI help figure out what animals do all day

The pond-dwelling Hydra is not a very complex little animal but it does have a complex repertoire of moves that aren’t clear until after extensive human observation. Examining these moves took a long time and scientists were never sure that they had seen all of them. Now, thanks to an algorithm used to catch spam, researchers have been able to catalog all of the Hydra’s various moves, allowing them to map those moves to the neurons firing in its weird little head.

“People have used machine learning algorithms to partly analyze how a fruit fly flies, and how a worm crawls, but this is the first systematic description of an animal’s behavior,” said Rafael Yuste, a neuroscientist at Columbia University . “Now that we can measure the entirety of Hydra’s behavior in real-time, we can see if it can learn, and if so, how its neurons respond.”

Luckily, the little Hydra was pretty predictable. From the report:

In the current study, the team went a step further by attempting to catalog Hydra’s complete set of behaviors. To do so, they applied the popular “bag of words” classification algorithm to hours of footage tracking Hydra’s every move. Just as the algorithm analyzes how often words appear in a body of text to pick out topics (and flag, for example, patterns resembling spam), it cycled through the Hydra video and identified repetitive movements.

Their algorithm recognized 10 previously described behaviors, and measured how six of those behaviors responded to varying environmental conditions. To the researchers’ surprise, Hydra’s behavior barely changed. “Whether you fed it or not, turned the light on or off, it did the same thing over and over again like an Energizer bunny,” said Yuste.

The system used to map the Hydra’s reactions can be used to map more complicated systems. The researchers essentially “reverse-engineered” the Hydra and may be able to use the technique to “maintain stability and precise control in machines, from ships to planes, navigating in highly variable conditions.”

“Reverse engineering Hydra has the potential to teach us so many things,” said Shuting Han, a graduate student at Columbia.

See you on Monday for some crypto talk

I’ll be helping build a larger meetup focused on pre-ICO companies in New York on April 23 and I’d love to see you there. It will be held at Knotel on April 23 at 7pm and will feature a pitch-off with eight startups — I will write about the best ones — and two panels with some yet-unnamed stars in the space.

I’d love to see you there, so please sign up here. The team is charging for tickets so we can get some beers and pizza for the attendees.

I am looking to fill out a panel so if you’d like to join me on stage and have done extensive ICO work email me at john@techcrunch .com.

The event will be held at 551 Fifth Avenue on the 9th Floor and you can sign up to pitch here. I’ll have more information as we get closer to the event. I’m notifying companies today if they will pitch.

How Facebook gives an asymmetric advantage to negative messaging

Few Facebook critics are as credible as Roger McNamee, the managing partner at Elevation Partners. As an early investor in Facebook, McNamee was only only a mentor to Mark Zuckerberg but also introduce him to Sheryl Sandberg.

So it’s hard to underestimate the significance of McNamee’s increasingly public criticism of Facebook over the last couple of years, particularly in the light of the growing Cambridge Analytica storm.

According to McNamee, Facebook pioneered the building of a tech company on “human emotions”. Given that the social network knows all of our “emotional hot buttons”, McNamee believes, there is “something systemic” about the way that third parties can “destabilize” our democracies and economies. McNamee saw this in 2016 with both the Brexit referendum in the UK and the American Presidential election and concluded that Facebook does, indeed, give “asymmetric advantage” to negative messages.

McNamee still believes that Facebook can be fixed. But Zuckerberg and Sandberg, he insists, both have to be “honest” about what’s happened and recognize its “civic responsibility” in strengthening democracy. And tech can do its part too, McNamee believes, in acknowledging and confronting what he calls its “dark side”.

McNamee is certainly doing this. He has now teamed up with ex Google ethicist Tristan Harris in the creation of The Center for Human Technology — an alliance of Silicon Valley notables dedicated to “realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.”

Does Ready Player One reveal the future of VR?

It was barely minutes after the Ready Player One premiere, and texts from my friends and colleagues in the VR community began pouring in…

“How was it?”

Those of us in the mixed reality industries have been waiting for this film like the VR messiah that will deliver us to public mass adoption. And the breathless prayer? “Please, oh please, let Ready Player One make VR look cool.”

To many, VR creators make expensive content that few will ever experience or have interest in experiencing. I have read dozens of articles in the last year announcing either the end or the beginning of VR.

I have seen VR portrayed as a portent for humanity’s most solitary, basic, and evil instincts over and over again in television and film. Most of all, I received questions from people that are confused by what this technology is and moreover, why it even has value.

Because of Ready Player One, there are now giant billboards on streets around the world where someone is wearing a VR Headset. For those of us who have lived and breathed this technology for years, this movie is everything.

And so, I was excited to find that yes, this movie portrays something that I’ve known and felt in my bones for a while now — VR is in fact cool.

I’m imagining that people will now want to suit up, run to THE VOID or the Imax Experience Center and try VR for themselves. But here’s a word of caution to the uninitiated: VR is currently not the OASIS. Please do not expect VR to feel, look and behave like the OASIS, because we are not there yet. But I’ll be damned if we’re not close.

So given this, here’s an overview of what’s present in the film, where we are today, and what the future might hold.

NOTE: Some minor film spoilers below.

Headsets

Film:

At first glance, the headsets in Ready Player One look surprisingly like generation one Oculus Rifts in size and shape. However, the film claims that Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) projection in 2024 is composed of harmless lasers beaming directly into your retinas– far from our current display-based HMDs. The film’s headsets appear to be inside-out tracking, lightweight, wireless, and can produce images indistinguishable from reality with minimal or no processing lag. Other sci-fi-based headsets appear later in the film, when Wade upgrades his HMD to a model with semi-transparent glass. In the book, there are allusions to OASIS’ massive servers in Columbus, so all the processing power is probably not coming from the headsets themselves but rather sent via 5G (or higher) network to each user.

Today:

Off-the-shelf HMDs are tethered to powerful PCs, and those coming later in 2018 (Vive Pro , Oculus Go, and supposedly Oculus Prototype Santa Cruz, among others) are either a mobile-based power/resolution or require a PC wireless display link. While we don’t have lasers entering our retinas (yet), we can assume someone’s working on it.

Tomorrow:

When it is released, Magic Leap promises to be the closest thing we have to a complex mixed reality headset. It beams information directly into your eyes that utilize your sense of depth, which should make for a more comfortable experience than hours in a headset staring at pixels; yet, it’s imperfect as the field of view will in no way be full resolution like in the OASIS. Right now the design is somewhat clunky– there’s still a walkman-like battery pack to deal with and a FOV of 40 degrees at best. Other than the release of Ready Player One, the launch of Magic Leap One is probably the most anticipated event in the brief history of VR. As a side note, the term “VR” may no longer be applicable, because it’s predicted that AR and VR headsets will merge and become one device.

Haptics

Film: 

The haptic suits in RPO are aesthetically gorgeous. As described in the original book, an interwebbing of sensors and material covers the user’s body — it looks like a slim-fit wetsuit but with gloves and boots. When characters get shot or hit in VR, they feel the pain on their bodies, which thematically ups the stakes during the battle scenes. There’re also a few instances of “pleasure” haptics.

In the VR nightclub, Art3mis dances against Wade and the crotch region of his suit, ahem, “activates.” Other scenes contain a few cheeky allusions to some risque things people might be be up to in the OASIS.

Our villain Nolan Sorrento wears a haptic suit on his bouts in the OASIS, but usually confines the haptic experience to an ornate leather chair that allows him to feel sensations/maintain a patriarchal technical overlord vibe. (Cool.)

Today:

Sorrento’s chair feels reminiscent of the Positron rig that has been dotting film festivals and hotels lately. They’re quite comfy and are great for first time VR users. In terms of romantic haptics, the teledildonics and VR porn industry is alive and well, and new products keep being developed. Haptic gloves like Haptx VR Gloves do exist and keep getting better! So far, texture, shape, and cold/warm sensations are all achievable by individual systems and products.

Tomorrow:

Complete sensory VR immersion is years away, but is one of the most oft requested and dreamed about advances in the industry. Teslasuit appears to be the next product to market that aims to let you feel it all in VR, and it looks a hell of a lot like Wade’s suit.

Movement

Film:

One of the first scenes in the film features Wade navigating the OASIS on a simple omnidirectional treadmill. As the film progresses, movement mechanics get into completely new territory. The “sixers” (the film’s enemy army against the Gunters) stand upright in individual pods with treadmills beneath them; if needed, they and can sit down to “drive” vehicles. On the Gunter side, in Aech’s truck the “Hive Five” are tethered to the ceiling via cables for unobstructed fighting moves.

Today:

Omnidirectional treadmills exist today but the kinks are being ironed out. Many are designed similar to ones in the film (micro- and macro-treadmill arrangements). User motion tracking is done via external sensors, and for maximum movement the closest thing we have to a tetherless VR experience is location-based experiences a la The Void, and that still requires backpacks.

Tomorrow:

A Virtual Reality where your physical movements match virtually in a 1:1 ratio without the need for wires. Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs) are already in use for motion capture in films and games, and these systems can be integrated into next-next-gen haptic suits for full-body presence. (That being considered, some folks will always want to play from a couch or chair.)

Digital currency

Film:

One universal currency exists in the OASIS, and its value is more stable than real-world currency. (Is FIAT even real currency some might ask? Don’t start with me, man). In the OASIS, currency is more trusted than in the actual world. Wade receives bonuses for leveling up in the race to catch the egg, and uses digital currency to order real products via drones in the real world. In the OASIS, users can go on quests that require work that are actual proof-of work.

Today:

So cryptocurrency today is a bit of a mess. Between ICO’s failing to launch or completely made up advisory boards, people are doubting the security of a digital currency. That being said, millions of people are eager to learn more about this currency revolution and its claims to strive for the financial equalization of the world.

Tomorrow:

Democratizing cryptocurrency is paramount. Some companies, like Robin Hood, are doing a great job by providing cryptocurrency to the masses via readily accessible mobile apps. Some argue that Ready Player One actually predicted the rise of cryptocurrency; however, it did not predict alt-coins such as Ethereum, Monero or Ripple.

Avatars

Film:

As Wade declares in the beginning of the film, in the OASIS you can “be whomever you want to be”, whatever appearance, ethnicity, background, gender, sex, or species. It’s all up to you as a consumer and denizen of the OASIS. For example, Wade dawns a haircut which is then corrected by Art3mis to be cooler (more spikey). Wade’s best friend Aech is an African American female but is able to be a male muscled warlord in the OASIS. There’s a glorious beauty to avatars in this film for the free folk that is contrasted by the monochromatic Sixers in their Loyalty Centers. This is a free and open internet — be who you want to be.

Today:

It would be lovely if who we are in VR is a direct representation of our real selves — however current methods for duplication leave out facets of what makes us human. For example, Facebook wouldn’t let this VR user be fat. Scanning technologies such as Windows Mixed Reality capture stages can scan your likeness — but it will cost a pretty penny.

Tomorrow:

In the future, avatar creation will be a democratized process where users can scan themselves (either face or body) to import into the cloud, or simply be whatever figure suits their preference. Think of this as a VR Chat-level of character selection but with customization to the nines.

We are at the cusp of a media revolution: New definitions of reality develop every day, and Ready Player One is giving these technologies mass market exposure.

At the same time, this film speaks to the morality surrounding how we equip ourselves with immersive tech in the new digital frontier. Will the OASIS be well protected and well propagated? Should we look to artists or business people to be the curators of this space?

If we are to avoid the advertisement-laden virtual realm that RPO’s 101 Industries desires, we must take steps in this early adoption phase. That is the core of the film’s premise: virtual reality has as much impact on the world as real reality. Choose wisely.

Another chapter on Facebook’s privacy woes is being written in Latin America

The abuse of Facebook’s platform for political purposes is a problem that doesn’t stop at the U.S border. Governments around the world are continuing to wrestle with the implications of Cambridge Analytica’s acquisition of Facebook user data from the heart of Europe to the capitals of Latin America’s most populous nations. 

In South America, several chapters are still being written into the public record of Facebook’s privacy privations. Some Latin American democracies are also beginning to investigate whether the data harvesting techniques associated with Cambridge Analytica (CA) were used in their electoral processes.

Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and South America: a recap

Brazil

The Brazilian Public Prosecutor’s Office started an investigation to clarify if Cambridge Analytica (CA) had illegal access to Facebook’s private information from millions of Brazillians through their subsidiary, a Sao Paulo-based consulting group named A Ponte Estratégia Planejamento e Pesquisa LTDA.

The investigation came as a result of Cambridge Analytica Chief Data Officer Dr Alex Tayler and Managing Director Mark Turnbull saying to an undercover journalist that the company was now targeting Brazil, among other countries. The Brazilian case is a big deal for Facebook because it is its third-largest market and has an election coming in seven months.

Argentina

Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group, has an office in Buenos Aires which address matches with the office of an Argentinian agricultural enterprise called Blacksoil, according to the news outlet, Clarin. The article pointed out that Alexander Nix, former CA’s CEO, was friend of the owner of the company, Lucas Talamoni Grether with whom he had conducted business before.

The Argentinian National Electoral Chamber (CNE), which is in charge of overseeing the elections and auditing campaign contributions and expenses, initiated an “internal investigation” following the scandal revealed by British TV Channel 4. Political parties are accusing one another of using CA services in the 2017 midterm election but there is no hard evidence either supporting or refuting the allegations.

Mexico and Colombia

Mexico, the fifth largest market for Facebook, is also involved in the Cambridge Analytica debacle. In the same video that CA executives mention targeting Brazil, they admit having operated in Mexico using an app called Pig.Gi. Mexico’s general election are due on July 1st. The same app was used to access data from Colombian users, according to the tech site Hipertextual.

Nevertheless, Pig.Gi’s founder and CEO, Joel Phillips, admitted signing a deal with the data company but says the information never got to their hands and there is no evidence that the company had any access to personal data from Mexicans or Colombians, according to the same article.

Apart from being named by Alexander Nix in the video leak which blew up the scandal, there isn’t much empirical evidence of Cambridge Analytica actually tampering with South American electoral processes. However ineffectual Cambridge Analytica’s efforts have been, Facebook is still on the hook when it comes to “fake news” and misinformation in the region.

Misinformed emerging democracies

During the Argentinian electoral process in 2017 hundreds of fake articles were distributed through Facebook. A fact-checking site called Chequeado compiled some of the misinformation that was distributed on the platform.

Among them there were reports accusing the leader of a Teacher’s Union of not being a teacher; of the Buenos Aires Province Governor raising her own salary by 100% and even a claim that the US Government recorded Macri’s Administration as being the most corrupt in the world.

There were some sites created for the sole purpose of spreading Fake News on Facebook and these pieces went viral over and over again.

On the other hand, Brazil has steadily become a fake news heaven. The political instability that reigns in the country has made it easier for fake news to spread within fanatic circles. The Monitor Do Debate Politico No Meio Digital, an organization that follows the trail of political news in Social Networks, told El Pais that there are lots of sites which are not officially developing a systematic campaign of fake news prior to the October elections but have begun spreading fake reports in the social ecosystem.

This scheme is repeating itself throughout Latin American countries — and with the same characteristics. It’s not necessarily systemic, but it is growing. The difference remains in the plausibility of the pieces which were spread in the region.

Although there were no conspiracy theories that compared candidates to a reptile, in South America stories did aim to enhance what people already thought of political figures.

According to Luciano Galup, a social media strategist for political campaigns in the region, fake news are most effective in polarized societies. A study made by Oxford University in the US, showed that extremists tend to distribute more fake information than moderates within parties. And polarization is a major characteristic of the Latin American region’s political scenario. This makes Latin America the perfect victim for people trying to tamper with elections by presenting propaganda as actual news.

If we add that up with the lack of control from governments and Facebook attempts to solve the issue, we have a ticking time bomb. The only positive, Galup says, is that services like the ones on offer from Cambridge Analytica are prohibitively expensive for most political parties in Latin America.

In this case, the only thing saving elections in the region from outside corrupting influences may be the greed of those same corrupting influences.