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Are drone swarms the future of aerial warfare?



Technology of deploying drones in squadrons is in its infancy, but armed forces are investing millions in its development

As evening fell on Russias Khmeimim airbase in western Syria, the first drones appeared. Then more, until 13 were flashing on radars, speeding towards the airbase and a nearby naval facility.

The explosives-armed aircraft were no trouble for Russian air defences, which shot down seven and jammed the remaining six, according to the countrys defence ministry. But the failed attack in January last year was disturbing to close observers of drone warfare.

It was the first instance of a mass-drone attack and the highest number of drones that I believe weve seen non-state actors use simultaneously in a combat operation, says Paul Scharre, a defence analyst and author who studies the weaponisation of artificial intelligence.

The attempted attacks continued and in September the Russian army said it had downed nearly 60 drones around the Khmeimim base so far this year.

A Russian general presents what he says are drones that were intercepted near the Khmeimim base. Photograph: Maxime Popov/AFP via Getty Images

For now, military drone use is dominated by lightweight surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and larger attack UAVs. This situation is unlikely to change in the near future: according to defence experts at the information group Janes, orders for both types of device are expected to increase dramatically in the decade ahead.

But the assaults on Khmeimim, as well as Septembers successful strike on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, were early flashes of a possible future for aerial warfare: drone swarming.

The technology of swarming drones deployed in squadrons, able to think independently and operate as a pack is in its infancy, but armed forces around the world, including in the UK, are investing millions of pounds in its development.

Smoke rises from Saudi Aramcos Abqaiq oil processing facility on 14 September. Photograph: AP

The drones used to attack Khmeimim and the Saudi facilities were likely to have been programmed with the GPS coordinates of their targets and then launched in their direction. Israel is already using hordes of drones to overwhelm Syrian air defences, saturating areas with more targets than anti-aircraft systems can handle.

According to analysts, drone swarms of the future could have the capacity to assess targets, divide up tasks and execute them with limited human interaction.

The real leap forward is swarming where a human says Go accomplish this task and the robots in the swarm communicate amongst each other about how to divvy it up, Scharre says.

A test at China Lake, California, shows drone swarms forming an attack orbit. Photograph: US Department of Defence

Analysts predict we might see rudimentary versions of the technology in use within a decade. That might include swarms of drones operating on multiple different frequencies, so they are more resistant to jamming, or swarms that can block or shoot down multiple threats more quickly than the human brain can process.

Two fielders running to catch a ball can [usually] coordinate amongst themselves, Scharre says. But imagine a world where you have 50 fielders and 50 balls. Humans couldnt handle the complexity of that degree of coordination. Robots could handle that with precision.

Advances in swarming technology are mostly classified, though governments have given glimpses of their progress.

In 2016, the US released video of more than 100 micro-drones over a lake in California manoeuvring as a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature, an air force scientist said.

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Footage shows 2016 drone swarm test over lake in California video

In tests last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency claimed a small squadron of its drones had successfully shared information, allocated jobs and made coordinated tactical decisions against both pre-programmed and pop-up threats.

The US navy has already announced breakthroughs in autonomous boats that could sweep for mines, or serve effectively as bodyguards for larger, manned vessels.

If you look back at the USS Cole bombing that boat was just sitting as an open target at that port in Yemen, says Dan Gettinger, a co-director at the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, referring to the October 2000 attack by two boat-borne al-Qaida suicide bombers that killed 17 American sailors.

If you had a protective shield of unmanned service vehicles, they could intercept that before it happens, he says.

The idea of autonomous, intelligent drones empowered to kill understandably sparks concern. Antnio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said in a speech last year: The prospect of machines with the discretion and power to take human life is morally repugnant.

In 2017, advocates of a ban against autonomous weapons released a short film, Slaughterbots, depicting a dystopian future where terrorists could unleash swarms of tiny drones capable of identifying and killing specific people.

Some analysts are sceptical of these nightmare scenarios. Drones may one day develop the capacity to carry out targeted killings in swarms. But militaries are not certain to adopt such technology, says Jack Watling, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

Their reluctance would be more about expense than ethics. If you think about the logistics of having a lot of sophisticated drones that can pick out individuals, process the data, communicate with each other, navigate a city theres a lot of moving parts to that and its very expensive, Watling says.

More affordable, and therefore more likely to be procured, he says, will be drone swarms that perform relatively simple tasks such as cluttering radar systems to distract and confuse enemy sensors.

Part of what makes drones so attractive is their low cost, Scharre adds. Western military inventories have drastically shrunk in past years, as ships and aircraft have become more sophisticated and too expensive to purchase in large quantities (which, in turn, raises the cost of each vessel or plane).

Drones are a cheap way to boost the sheer size of a force. Western militaries are trying to find ways to add numbers to the equation, to complement these expensive, bespoke aircraft and ships with cheaper systems that can augment them, Scharre says.

Ultimately, he adds, it may be fruitless to try to predict the future of swarming technology from the vantage point of 2019. Imagine someone looking at an airplane in 1912, he says. They might be thinking, This will be useful. But nobody really knows yet what it can do.

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End of an era as Google founders step down from parent company




Larry Page and Sergey Brin have handed over control of Alphabet to Sundar Pichai

Twenty-one years after founding Google in a messy garage in Menlo Park, California, Larry Page and Sergey Brin have stepped down from day-to-day management of the company to assume the role of proud parents offering advice and love, but not daily nagging!

Page and Brins decision to hand over control of Google, and its parent company Alphabet, to long-standing lieutenant Sundar Pichai is the end of an era for the search engine giant, which had been built in their image and followed their personal values.

Their exit from the executive suite is the biggest change at the top of a US technology powerhouse since Steve Jobs resigned as chief executive of Apple shortly before he died from cancer in 2011, or when Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft, stood down as chief executive in 2000. Amazons Jeff Bezos is now the only founder-chief executive from that period to still be in day-to-day control of his company.

Today, in 2019, if the company was a person, it would be a young adult of 21 and it would be time to leave the roost, Googles founders wrote in a public letter on Tuesday. While it has been a tremendous privilege to be deeply involved in the day-to-day management of the company for so long, we believe its time to assume the role of proud parents offering advice and love, but not daily nagging!

Weve never been ones to hold on to management roles when we think theres a better way to run the company. And Alphabet and Google no longer need two CEOs and a president.

Pichai, 47, who was previously chief executive of Google, will take on all of those roles as Alphabets chief executive. He owns about 0.1% of Alphabets shares.

Im excited about Alphabets long-term focus on tackling big challenges through technology, Pichai, who has worked at the company since 2004, said on Twitter. Thanks to Larry & Sergey, we have a timeless mission, enduring values and a culture of collaboration & exploration a strong foundation well continue to build on.

Sundar Pichai (@sundarpichai)

Im excited about Alphabets long term focus on tackling big challenges through technology. Thanks to Larry & Sergey, we have a timeless mission, enduring values and a culture of collaboration & exploration – a strong foundation well continue to build on

December 4, 2019

Brin and Page, both 46, said they would remain actively involved as board members and major shareholders. In addition, we plan to continue talking with Sundar regularly, especially on topics were passionate about, they said.

Page had been chief executive of Alphabet since the parent company was created in 2015 to manage all of Googles disparate moonshoot ventures, including flying cars and technology to disrupt the ageing process.

Brin had been president of Alphabet and had already distanced himself from day-to-day management. For a time, Brin had moved his desk to X, the self-described moonshot factory where engineers worked on projects that were expected to fail but had big potential if they didnt.

Together, Brin and Page control 51% of a special class of Alphabets voting shares, giving them ultimate control of the companys future direction. They own 11.4% of the company, worth $101bn (77bn). Alphabets total stock market value is $912bn and has increased by almost 25% so far this year.

Page and Brin are ranked the seventh- and tenth-richest people in the world, according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index with estimated fortunes of $62.7bn and $60.9bn respectively.

Under Page and Brin, Googles motto had been: Dont be evil but it was changed to: Do the right thing when Alphabet was created in 2015.

The company has recently faced a growing number of complaints and allegations from politicians and its own workforce. Last year Page was called before the US Senate Intelligence Committee investigating foreign powers influence in elections, but he didnt show up.

Last week, Google dismissed several outspoken workers for allegedly violating its data security policies. Some employees accused the firm of trying to suppress its critics.

Thousands of employees walked out of Google offices around the world last year to protest against a $90m payoff to the former Android boss Andy Rubin, despite finding sexual misconduct claims against him to be credible. The board has since opened an investigation into how executives handle claims of sexual misconduct.

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Employees also protested against the companys contract with the US Department of Defence for artificial intelligence work, arguing that Google should not be in the business of war. Google said last year it would not renew the contract.

Google was fined 1.5bn (1.3bn) by the European commission earlier this year for abusive practices in its AdSense platform by blocking rivals Microsoft and Yahoo from selling ads in Google search results pages. This followed a $5bn fine for anti-competitive behaviour associated with its Android mobile operating system in 2018 and a 2.4bn fine for ecommerce violations in 2017.

The pairs reference to becoming proud parents is a knowing nod to the parental supervision they brought to the company when they appointed the Silicon Valley veteran Eric Schmidt as Googles chief executive in 2001, when Page and Brin were still in their 20s and the company was growing rapidly.

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This Week in Apps: Black Friday’s boost, security news and the year’s biggest apps



This Week in Apps: Black Friday’s boost, security news and the year’s biggest apps

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all. What are developers talking about? What do app publishers and marketers need to know? How are politics impacting the App Store and app businesses? And which apps are everyone using?

This week we look at how the Black Friday weekend played out on mobile (including which non-shopping category that saw a boost in revenue!), as well as a few security-related stories, TikTok’s latest bad press, plus Apple and Google’s best and most downloaded apps of 2019, and more.


80% of Android apps are encrypting traffic by default

Google gave an update on Android security this week, noting that 80% of Android applications were encrypting traffic by default, and that percentage was higher for apps targeting Android 9 or higher, with 90% of them encrypting traffic by default. Android protects the traffic entering or leaving the devices with TLS (Transport Layer Security). Its new statistics are related to Android 7’s introduction of the Network Security Configuration in 2016, which allows app developers to configure the network security policy for their app through a declarative configuration file. Apps targeting Android 9 (API level 28) or higher automatically have a policy set by default that prevents unencrypted traffic for every domain. And since Nov. 1, 2019, all apps (including app updates) must target at least Android 9, Google says. That means the percentages will improve as more apps roll out their next updates.

Black Friday boosted mobile game revenue to a record $70M

U.S. sales holiday Black Friday wasn’t just good for online shoppers, who spent a record $7.4 billion in sales, $2.9 billion from smartphones. It also boosted iOS and Android mobile game revenue to a single-day record of $69.7 million in the U.S., according to Sensor Tower. This was the most revenue ever generated in a single day for the category, and it represents a 25% increase over 2018. Marvel Contest of Champions from Kabam led the day with approximately $2.7 million in player spending. Two titles from Playrix — Gardenscapes and Homescapes — also won big, with $1 million and $969,000 in revenue, respectively.

These increases indicate that consumers are looking for all kinds of deals on Black Friday, not just those related to holiday gift-giving. They’re also happy to spend on themselves in games. Mobile publishers caught on to this trend and offered special in-game deals on Black Friday which really paid off.

Did Walmart beat Amazon’s app on Black Friday?

Sensor Tower and Apptopia said it did. App Annie also said it did, but then later took it back (see update). In any event, it must have been a close race. According to Sensor Tower, Walmart’s app reached No.1 on the U.S. App Store on Black Friday with 113,000 new downloads, a year-over-year increase of 23%. Amazon had 102,000 downloads, making it No. 2.

Arguably, many Amazon shoppers already have the app installed, so this is more about Walmart’s e-commerce growth more so than some ding on Amazon.

In fact, Apptopia said that Amazon still had 162% more mobile sessions over the full holiday weekend — meaning Amazon was more shopped than Walmart.

More broadly, mobile shopping is still huge on Black Friday. The top 10 shopping apps grew their new installs by 11% over last year on Black Friday, to reach a combined 527,000 installs.

Report: Android Advanced Protection Program could prevent sideloading

Google’s Advanced Protection Program protects the accounts of those at risks of targeted attacks — like journalists, activists, business leaders, and political campaign teams. This week, 9to5Google found the program may get a new protection feature with the ability to block sideloading of apps, according to an APK breakdown. What’s not yet clear is if program members will have the option to disable the protection, but there are some indications that may be the case. Another feature the report uncovered appears to show that Play Protect will automatically scan all apps, including those from outside the Play Store. This won’t affect the majority of Android users, of course, but it is an indication of where Google believes security risks may be found: sideloaded apps.

Bug hunter suggests Security.plist standard for apps

Published at Sat, 07 Dec 2019 15:00:09 +0000

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Credit startup Migo expands to Brazil on $20M raise and Africa growth




After growing its lending business in West Africa, emerging markets credit startup Migo is expanding to Brazil on a $20 million Series B funding round led by Valor Capital Group.

The San Franicso-based company — previously branded — provides AI-driven products to large firms so those companies can extend credit to underbanked consumers in viable ways.

That generally means making lending services to low-income populations in emerging markets profitable for big corporates, where they previously were not.

Founded in 2013, Migo launched in Nigeria, where the startup now counts fintech unicorn Interswitch and Africa’s largest telecom, MTN, among its clients.

Offering its branded products through partner channels, Migo has originated more than 3 million loans to over 1 million customers in Nigeria since 2017, according to company stats.

“The global social inequality challenge is driven by a lack of access to credit. If you look at the middle class in developed countries, it is largely built on access to credit,” Migo founder and CEO Ekechi Nwokah told TechCrunch.

“What we are trying to do is to make prosperity available to all by reinventing the way people access and use credit,” he explained.

Migo does this through its cloud-based, data-driven platform to help banks, companies and telcos make credit decisions around populations they previously may have bypassed.

These entities integrate Migo’s API into their apps to offer these overlooked market segments digital accounts and lines of credit, Nwokah explained.

“Many people are trying to do this with small micro-loans. That’s the first place you understand risk, but we’re developing into point of sale solutions,” he said.

Migo’s client consumers can access their credit lines and make payments by entering a merchant phone number on their phone (via USSD) and then clicking on “Pay with Migo.” Migo can also be set up for use with QR codes, according to Nwokah.

He believes structural factors in frontier and emerging markets make it difficult for large institutions to serve people without traditional credit profiles.

“What makes it hard for the banks is its just too expensive,” he said of establishing the infrastructure, technology and staff to serve these market segments.

Nwokah sees similarities in unbanked and underbanked populations across the world, including Brazil and African countries such as Nigeria.

“Statistically, the number of people without credit in Nigeria is about 90 million people and its about 100 million adults that don’t have access to credit in Brazil. The countries are roughly the same size and the problem is roughly the same,” he said.

On clients in Brazil, Migo has a number of deals in the pipeline — according to Nwokah — and has signed a deal with a big-name partner in the South American country of 210 million, but could not yet disclose which one.

Migo generates revenue through interest and fees on its products. With lead investor Valor Capital Group, Velocity Capital and The Rise Fund joined the startup’s $20 million Series B.

Increasingly, Africa — with its large share of the world’s unbanked — and Nigeria — home to the continent’s largest economy and population — have become proving grounds for startups looking to create scalable emerging market finance solutions.

Migo could become a pioneer of sorts by shaping a fintech credit product in Africa with application in frontier, emerging and developed markets.

“We could actually take this to the U.S. We’ve had discussions with several partners about bringing the technology to the U.S. and Europe,” said founder Ekechi Nwokah. In the near-term, though, Migo is more likely to expand to Asia, he said.

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