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Pitch onstage at TechCrunchs Robotics & AI show March 3 at UC Berkeley



On March 3 next year, TechCrunch will host the fourth annual TC Sessions: Robotics + AI at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. This time around we’re adding a new twist to the incredible line-up of speakers, breakout sessions and Q&As: a pitch-off for early-stage companies in the robotics and AI space.

How it works: The night before the event, 10 startups, chosen through an online application process, will pitch at a private event with TechCrunch editors, main-stage speakers and industry experts. A panel of VC judges will select the top five teams to then pitch the next day on the main stage at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI.

It is a once in a lifetime opportunity for founders to get their company in front of the tier-one leaders and investors in the industry, as well as receive video coverage on TechCrunch. We expect 1,500 attendees at the show and tens of thousands online.

Extra treat: Each of the 10 startup team finalists will receive two free tickets to attend the show the next day.

Apply here by February 1. TechCrunch will review applications and notify companies by February 15 so the founders have time to prepare. So, what are you waiting for? Get some spotlight!

Not interested in the pitch-off but want to attend this fantastic, show? Grab your Early-Bird pass here before it’s too late!

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Of course Facebook and Google want to solve social problems. Theyre hungry for our data | Nathalie Olah




Giving big tech companies power over the NHS or the climate crisis wont build a fairer world. But public ownership would, says author Nathalie Olah

We hear it said all the time, most recently in a national campaign for BT: Technology will save us. The slogan was plastered on billboards across the country as part of BTs new advertising campaign, linked to a UK-wide digital skills movement developed partly with Google. The sentiment is so ubiquitous that it even led to a dispute with a startup of a similar name. But in an era dominated by the big four (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) the idea that tech will save us rings hollow, an example of utopian messaging being used to conceal the simple pursuit of profit.

Having proposed solutions to everything from food shortages to suicide prevention to climate breakdown, companies such as Google and Facebook two of the leading western companies in the artificial intelligence arms race claim theres almost nothing that cannot be tackled through tech. But there are reasons to be sceptical. These companies business models depend on the development of ever more complex algorithms, sustained by enormous quantities of data. This data is used to improve the algorithms but access to it is also sold to advertisers and third-party businesses.

Conquering new sources of data has therefore become their primary mission. And thats why theyre eyeing our public commons: telecommunications, energy and even urban space, which continuously generate enormous quantities of real-time data. In 2017, it was reported that Googles AI outfit DeepMind was in talks with the National Grid. DeepMinds founder, Demis Hassabis, expressed an interest in expanding technology similar to that used to minimise energy wastage at Google data centres where electricity usage had been cut by 15% across the energy grid. This is an improvement, of course, but as one of the main examples of how AI systems might be used to tackle climate change it is hardly inspiring.

It also neglects to mention that unprecedented access to our critical infrastructure and publicly generated data would be given to a US tech giant. The collaboration between DeepMind and the (privatised, shareholder-paying) National Grid has for now been abandoned for reasons that are unclear. A recent article in Forbes speculates that the two companies couldnt reach an agreement on costs and intellectual property rights, in perhaps the most telling example of big techs ambitions to boost revenues through the commandeering of national infrastructure. Could Googles recent engagement with BT be built on a similar ambition?

Giving tech giants the power to solve social problems would mean granting them an immense stake in almost everything that our society requires in order to function. Google is currently signing contracts with the NHS to process patient records, despite there being legal question marks over a similar arrangement with a London hospital a few years ago. Whats more, the climate crisis is a political, not a technological problem. Whatever improvements Google or Facebook could make to our infrastructure would still fall far short of solving it. And when environmental collapse stands to affect poorest communities the hardest, the question remains as to how an industry that drives extreme wealth inequality can really be said to help build a greener, more humane, world.

These companies are able to make it seem as though their sole ambition is to optimise and improve their systems for the greater good. But this rhetoric distracts us from the fact that they are ushering in a new kind of surveillance capitalism, whereby a small number of entities extract enormous amounts of wealth through their access to data that is generated by us, the public.

To ensure that we retain the control to manage these systems, and to avoid an unprecedented level of power and wealth being concentrated in the hands of a very small elite, our infrastructure urgently needs to be brought under state control. This is why the Green New Deal, backed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US and taken up in the UK by the Labour party, is so important. Not only will the UK version pursue efforts to keep global average temperature rises below 1.5C, but by encompassing public ownership of energy companies it provides a democratic line of defence against the predations of Silicon Valley. Labours proposal to part-nationalise BT opens up a new front in this battle especially since the party is planning to help pay for it with a tax on big tech.

In the years to come, this will give the state a far stronger negotiating position on resources, both digital and physical, as well as on the practical applications of this potentially world-altering technology. It is absolutely essential that publicly powered technology is answerable to public power.

Nathalie Olah is the author of Steal As Much As You Can

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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.

Play Video

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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AWS announces DeepComposer, a machine-learning keyboard for developers




Today, as AWS re:Invent begins, Amazon announced DeepComposer, a machine learning-driven keyboard aimed at developers.

“AWS DeepComposer is a 32-key, 2-octave keyboard designed for developers to get hands on with Generative AI, with either pretrained models or your own,” AWS’ Julien Simon wrote in a blog post introducing the company’s latest machine learning hardware.

The keyboard is supposed to help developers learn about machine learning in a fun way, and maybe create some music along the way. The area involved in generating creative works in artificial intelligence is called “generative AI.” In other words, it helps you teach machines to generate something creative using “generative adversarial networks.”

“Developers, regardless of their background in ML or music, can get started with Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs). This Generative AI technique pits two different neural networks against each other to produce new and original digital works based on sample inputs. With AWS DeepComposer, you can train and optimize GAN models to create original music,” according to Amazon.

AWS DeepComposer keyboard

Developers can train their own machine learning models or use ones supplied by Amazon to get started. Either way, you create the music based on the model, tweak it in the DeepComposer console on the AWS cloud, then generate your music. If you wish, you can share your machine-generated composition on SoundCloud when you’re done.

This is the third machine learning teaching device from Amazon, joining the DeepLens camera introduced in 2017 and the DeepRacer racing cars introduced last year. It’s worth noting that this is just an announcement. The device isn’t quite ready yet, but Amazon is allowing account holders to sign up for a preview when it is.

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