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Apple announces FaceTime updates at WWDC 2021

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Over a year into a global pandemic, Apple announced some major updates to its Facetime app at WWDC 2021, which will be available in iOS 15.

Notably, Android users will now be able to join in on Facetime calls, posing some competition to apps like Zoom and Google Meet, which have boomed during lockdown. This Facetime makeover will also include links to join calls, which can be sent via Calendar invites in advance of your meeting. These links work across platforms, whether you’re on the web, an Android phone, or your iPhone.

Apple is also adding updates that make the experience of video chatting on Facetime more closely resemble real life conversations.

“When talking in person, our brains process hundreds of social auditory and visual cues when talking on a video call. Many of those signals can get lost, leaving us feeling drained. So this year, we’ve set out to make FaceTime calls feel more natural, comfortable, and lifelike,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Software Engineering.

Through a spatial audio feature, FaceTime calls will sound like you’re sitting in the same room with your friends – that means if someone is on the left side of your screen, their audio will come through the left side of your speaker. This functionality might not translate well to smaller devices like an iPhone, but could be interesting on devices like an iMac. The person speaking will have a white ring appear around their video while they’re talking, and users will be able to select a grid view to see the other people on the call, which seems quite similar to Zoom.

Next, Apple announced voice isolation, which will improve the speaker’s audio quality when calling from a noisy area. The demo video that was shown during the WWDC announcement featured a child walking into the video frame with a leaf blower. In TechCrunch’s liveblog, Darrell Etherington pointed out that the video seemed heavily edited.

Finally, a feature called SharePlay will come to Facetime, which makes it easier for friends to watch streaming videos together. SharePlay allows for group listening, watching, and screensharing, and Apple shared partners for SharePlay including Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, NBA, Twitch, TikTok, MasterClass, ESPN+, Paramount+, and PlutoTV. The SharePlay API will be available so that all video app makers can access it, meaning that even if you don’t have an AppleTV, you might soon be able to stream SharePlay content to another device while still chatting with your friends on Facetime on your phone.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/07/apple-announces-facetime-updates-at-wwdc-2021/

Techcrunch

Tiger Global in talks to back BharatPe at $2.5 billion valuation

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Indian fintech startup BharatPe is in advanced stages of talks to raise about $250 million in a new financing round led by Tiger Global, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The new round, a Series E, is giving the three-year-old New Delhi-headquartered firm a pre-money valuation of $2.5 billion, sources said, requesting anonymity as the matter is private. The round hasn’t closed, so terms may change, sources cautioned.

BharatPe, which prior to the new round had raised about $233 million in equity and $35 million in debt, was valued at about $900 million in its Series D round in February this year, and $425 million last year.

Indian news outlet the CapTable first reported about the talks between Tiger Global and BharatPe and said the round would value the startup at over $2 billion. BharatPe declined to comment.

BharatPe operates an eponymous service to help offline merchants accept digital payments and secure working capital. Even as India has already emerged as the second-largest internet market, with more than 600 million users, much of the country remains offline.

Among those outside of the reach of the internet are merchants running small businesses, such as roadside tea stalls and neighborhood stores. To make these merchants comfortable with accepting digital payments, BharatPe relies on QR codes and point of sale machines that support government-backed UPI payments infrastructure.

The startup, which serves more than 6 million merchants, said it had deployed over 50,000 PoS machines by November of last year, and enables monthly transactions worth more than $123 million. It does not charge merchants for universal QR code access, but is looking to make money by lending. Grover said the startup’s lending business grew by 10x in 2020.

On Friday, India’s central bank RBI granted an in-principle licence to Centrum Financial Services to set up a small finance bank. Centrum Financial Services has collaborated with BharatPe for the license, according to local media.

The startup is additionally also working to launch two new apps, one of which is called PostPe and enables credit on QR UPI, while the other B2C app will facilitate peer-to-peer lending at up to 12% interest (without any collateral; though BharatPe will serve as an intermediator), another source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The new products will launch as soon as this month, the source said.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/18/tiger-global-in-talks-to-back-bharatpe-at-2-5-billion-valuation/

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Artificial Intelligence

UK’s ICO warns over ‘big data’ surveillance threat of live facial recognition in public

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The UK’s chief data protection regulator has warned over reckless and inappropriate use of live facial recognition (LFR) in public places.

Publishing an opinion today on the use of this biometric surveillance in public — to set out what is dubbed as the “rules of engagement” — the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, also noted that a number of investigations already undertaken by her office into planned applications of the tech have found problems in all cases.

“I am deeply concerned about the potential for live facial recognition (LFR) technology to be used inappropriately, excessively or even recklessly. When sensitive personal data is collected on a mass scale without people’s knowledge, choice or control, the impacts could be significant,” she warned in a blog post.

“Uses we’ve seen included addressing public safety concerns and creating biometric profiles to target people with personalised advertising.

“It is telling that none of the organisations involved in our completed investigations were able to fully justify the processing and, of those systems that went live, none were fully compliant with the requirements of data protection law. All of the organisations chose to stop, or not proceed with, the use of LFR.”

“Unlike CCTV, LFR and its algorithms can automatically identify who you are and infer sensitive details about you. It can be used to instantly profile you to serve up personalised adverts or match your image against known shoplifters as you do your weekly grocery shop,” Denham added.

“In future, there’s the potential to overlay CCTV cameras with LFR, and even to combine it with social media data or other ‘big data’ systems — LFR is supercharged CCTV.”

The use of biometric technologies to identify individuals remotely sparks major human rights concerns, including around privacy and the risk of discrimination.

Across Europe there are campaigns — such as Reclaim your Face — calling for a ban on biometric mass surveillance.

In another targeted action, back in May, Privacy International and others filed legal challenges at the controversial US facial recognition company, Clearview AI, seeking to stop it from operating in Europe altogether. (Some regional police forces have been tapping in — including in Sweden where the force was fined by the national DPA earlier this year for unlawful use of the tech.)

But while there’s major public opposition to biometric surveillance in Europe, the region’s lawmakers have so far — at best — been fiddling around the edges of the controversial issue.

A pan-EU regulation the European Commission presented in April, which proposes a risk-based framework for applications of artificial intelligence, included only a partial prohibition on law enforcement’s use of biometric surveillance in public places — with wide ranging exemptions that have drawn plenty of criticism.

There have also been calls for a total ban on the use of technologies like live facial recognition in public from MEPs across the political spectrum. The EU’s chief data protection supervisor has also urged lawmakers to at least temporarily ban the use of biometric surveillance in public.

The EU’s planned AI Regulation won’t apply in the UK, in any case, as the country is now outside the bloc. And it remains to be seen whether the UK government will seek to weaken the national data protection regime.

A recent report it commissioned to examine how the UK could revise its regulatory regime, post-Brexit, has — for example — suggested replacing the UK GDPR with a new “UK framework” — proposing changes to “free up data for innovation and in the public interest”, as it puts it, and advocating for revisions for AI and “growth sectors”. So whether the UK’s data protection regime will be put to the torch in a post-Brexit bonfire of ‘red tape’ is a key concern for rights watchers.

(The Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform report advocates, for example, for the complete removal of Article 22 of the GDPR — which gives people rights not to be subject to decisions based solely on automated processing — suggesting it be replaced with “a focus” on “whether automated profiling meets a legitimate or public interest test”, with guidance on that envisaged as coming from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). But it should also be noted that the government is in the process of hiring Denham’s successor; and the digital minister has said he wants her replacement to take “a bold new approach” that “no longer sees data as a threat, but as the great opportunity of our time”. So, er, bye-bye fairness, accountability and transparency then?)

For now, those seeking to implement LFR in the UK must comply with provisions in the UK’s Data Protection Act 2018 and the UK General Data Protection Regulation (aka, its implementation of the EU GDPR which was transposed into national law before Brexit), per the ICO opinion, including data protection principles set out in UK GDPR Article 5, including lawfulness, fairness, transparency, purpose limitation, data minimisation, storage limitation, security and accountability.

Controllers must also enable individuals to exercise their rights, the opinion also said.

“Organisations will need to demonstrate high standards of governance and accountability from the outset, including being able to justify that the use of LFR is fair, necessary and proportionate in each specific context in which it is deployed. They need to demonstrate that less intrusive techniques won’t work,” wrote Denham. “These are important standards that require robust assessment.

“Organisations will also need to understand and assess the risks of using a potentially intrusive technology and its impact on people’s privacy and their lives. For example, how issues around accuracy and bias could lead to misidentification and the damage or detriment that comes with that.”

The timing of the publication of the ICO’s opinion on LFR is interesting in light of wider concerns about the direction of UK travel on data protection and privacy.

If, for example, the government intends to recruit a new, ‘more pliant’ information commissioner — who will happily rip up the rulebook on data protection and AI, including in areas like biometric surveillance — it will at least be rather awkward for them to do so with an opinion from the prior commissioner on the public record that details the dangers of reckless and inappropriate use of LFR.

Certainly, the next information commissioner won’t be able to say they weren’t given clear warning that biometric data is particularly sensitive — and can be used to estimate or infer other characteristics, such as their age, sex, gender or ethnicity.

Or that ‘Great British’ courts have previously concluded that “like fingerprints and DNA [a facial biometric template] is information of an ‘intrinsically private’ character”, as the ICO opinion notes, while underlining that LFR can cause this super sensitive data to be harvested without the person in question even being aware it’s happening. 

Denham’s opinion also hammers hard on the point about the need for public trust and confidence for any technology to succeed, warning that: “The public must have confidence that its use is lawful, fair, transparent and meets the other standards set out in data protection legislation.”

The ICO has previously published an Opinion into the use of LFR by police forces — which she said also sets “a high threshold for its use”. (And a few UK police forces — including the Met in London — have been among the early adopters of facial recognition technology, which has in turn led some into legal hot water on issues like bias.)

Disappointingly, though, for human rights advocates, the ICO opinion shies away from recommending a total ban on the use of biometric surveillance in public by private companies or public organizations — with the commissioner arguing that while there are risks with use of the technology there could also be instances where it has high utility (such as in the search for a missing child).

“It is not my role to endorse or ban a technology but, while this technology is developing and not widely deployed, we have an opportunity to ensure it does not expand without due regard for data protection,” she wrote, saying instead that in her view “data protection and people’s privacy must be at the heart of any decisions to deploy LFR”.

Denham added that (current) UK law “sets a high bar to justify the use of LFR and its algorithms in places where we shop, socialise or gather”.

“With any new technology, building public trust and confidence in the way people’s information is used is crucial so the benefits derived from the technology can be fully realised,” she reiterated, noting how a lack of trust in the US has led to some cities banning the use of LFR in certain contexts and led to some companies pausing services until rules are clearer.

“Without trust, the benefits the technology may offer are lost,” she also warned.

There is one red line that the UK government may be forgetting in its unseemly haste to (potentially) gut the UK’s data protection regime in the name of specious ‘innovation’. Because if it tries to, er, ‘liberate’ national data protection rules from core EU principles (of lawfulness, fairness, proportionality, transparency, accountability and so on) — it risks falling out of regulatory alignment with the EU, which would then force the European Commission to tear up a EU-UK data adequacy arrangement (on which the ink is still drying).

The UK having a data adequacy agreement from the EU is dependent on the UK having essentially equivalent protections for people’s data. Without this coveted data adequacy status UK companies will immediately face far greater legal hurdles to processing the data of EU citizens (as the US now does, in the wake of the demise of Safe Harbor and Privacy Shield). There could even be situations where EU data protection agencies order EU-UK data flows to be suspended altogether…

Obviously such a scenario would be terrible for UK business and ‘innovation’ — even before you consider the wider issue of public trust in technologies and whether the Great British public itself wants to have its privacy rights torched.

Given all this, you really have to wonder whether anyone inside the UK government has thought this ‘regulatory reform’ stuff through. For now, the ICO is at least still capable of thinking for them.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/18/uks-ico-warns-over-big-data-surveillance-threat-of-live-facial-recognition-in-public/

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Automotive

Ford acquires Electriphi as it prepares to woo EV fleet customers

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Ford has two electric vehicles in the pipeline —  the E-Transit cargo van and F-150 Lighting Pro —aimed at commercial customers. Now, the automaker is rounding out its future EV commercial business with the acquisition of battery management and fleet monitoring software startup Electriphi.

Terms of the acquisition weren’t disclosed. Ford is betting that the software developed by the three-year-old San Francisco startup will help it capture more than $1 billion in revenue just from charging by 2030. Ford Pro has financial ambitions beyond charging. The business unit said it expects to generate $45 billion in revenue from hardware and adjacent and new services by 2025 — up from $27 billion in 2019.

Electriphi, along with its 30-person team, will be folded into the newly minted Ford Pro business unit, which is focused on providing services to commercial customers of its electric Transit van and F-150 Lightning Pro pickup truck. Ford will start shipping E-Transit to customers later this year. The F-150 Lightning Pro, a commercial variant of the all-electric Lightning pickup truck, is expected to come to market in spring 2022.

“As commercial customers add electric vehicles to their fleets, they want depot charging options to make sure they’re powered up and ready to go to work every day,” said Ford Pro CEO Ted Cannis. “With Electriphi’s existing advanced technology IP in the Ford Pro electric vehicles and services portfolio, we will enhance the experience for commercial customers and be a single-source solution for fleet-depot charging.”

Electriphi launched in 2018 when it became obvious that upcoming state and federal mandates would drive heavy duty vehicles and mid-sized commercial fleets towards electrification, co-founder and CEO Muffi Ghadiali told TechCrunch in a recent interview. The company has focused on segments deploying commercial electric vehicles in the U.S. and internationally, a list that includes school buses and transit buses.

“If you just think about what’s going to happen in the next 10 years — it’s a massive transformation in mobility for energy and software,”  Ghadiali said. “The stakes are incredibly high and time is running out.” He noted fleet operators are nervous about that upcoming mandates that will require moving to zero-emissions vehicles by the end of the decade. “To turn over your entire fleet in 10 years, you have to start now; they’re going, ‘I have to make sure that my fleet operations don’t skip a heartbeat, while this transition is happening.’”

Ford first approached Electriphi in early 2021. The startup had raised just $4.2 million at a valuation of about $11 million prior to the deal with autoomaker.

While Ford’s focus is building out the software for its E-Transit and Lightning Pro, it is possible that it will also continue to serve Electriphi’s customer base.

“Interestingly, as it turns out, the underlying Ford platform is used across many different vehicle types as well as school buses,” Ghadiali said. “So it’s hard to say which segments we won’t still be in because they are you know they are very relevant to what we do. Of course, our focus will be the large volume that the Ford is going to ship in the next year.”

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/17/ford-acquires-electriphi-as-it-prepares-to-woo-ev-fleet-customers/

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Techcrunch

Delivery service Gopuff acquires rideOS for $115 million-plus

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On-demand goods, food and alcohol delivery service Gopuff has acquired fleet management platform rideOS for $115 million to $125 million, sources familiar with the deal say.

This acquisition comes just a few months after the Philadelphia-based startup announced a $1.15 billion funding round at a $8.9 billion valuation, up from $3.9 billion in October. Last fall, the company also raised $380 million and bought BevMo, a beverage retailer. Gopuff did not share its updated valuation with this new acquisition.

Gopuff provides delivery of everything from cleaning and pet products to over-the-counter medication and food in more than 650 U.S. cities, charging $1.95 for delivery that happens in 30 minutes or less and is available either very late or even 24/7.

This will be incredibly important as the company looks to expand into New York this year, a place where residents expect high rent prices to come with the opportunity to have anything from hummus to diapers delivered at 4 a.m. Speaking of diapers, Gopuff told TechCrunch it has just doubled its baby category and added hundreds of new local products, and that it has expanded to delivering beauty products and “better-for-you” products, which seem to be a mix of organic stuff and healthier snacks.

Gopuff also acquired U.K.-based Fancy Delivery in May, marking its first entrance into international markets. As the company prepares to expand in more complex and high-density cities and enter into new verticals, Gopuff says rideOS’s tech geared toward advanced routing, complex dispatch and fleet optimization will be essential. The company aims to use its new IP to better power multimodal deliveries and reduce delivery times.

By acquiring rideOS, Gopuff also hopes to improve its unit economics and develop new tools to help both its delivery managers and partners be more organized and efficient on the ground, the company says. RideOS, a platform created and led by former Uber, Google and Apple employees in the mapping and ride-hailing space, sees this acquisition as a chance to scale and stay at the forefront of defining the Instant Needs economy.

“Gopuff’s mission and global ambition to be the world’s go-to solution for immediate everyday needs is a natural extension of rideOS’ vision to build software that efficiently moves people and things throughout the world,” said Justin Ho, co-founder and CEO of rideOS, in a statement. “Given Gopuff’s exponential growth, we expect to significantly increase our headcount by the end of this year, expanding our presence in Silicon Valley, Pittsburgh, and Berlin.”

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/17/delivery-service-gopuff-acquires-rideos-for-115-million-plus/

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