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Monthly Archives: January 2014

London-based firm set up by chess-prodigy-turned-neuroscientist is Google’s biggest ever European acquisition

A two-year-old British technology company set up by a former child chess prodigy who became a groundbreaking neuroscientist has become Google’s largest European acquisition.

The search giant is spending 400m ($625m) on DeepMind Technologies, a London-based firm set up in 2012, which recently developed a computer system capable of understanding and playing an Atari computer game simply by looking at it on a screen as a human would.

The artificial intelligence (AI) firm was created by Demis Hassabis, 37. Described as “very brilliant” by his peers, he was a chess master by 13, completed his A-levels two years early and at 17 was lead programmer on the classic game Theme Park at the videogames company Bullfrog. In 1999, aged 23, he won the Mind Sports Olympiad – an annual international multi-disciplined competition for games of mental skill. He won it a record five times before retiring in 2003 from competitive play.

Born in north London, Hassabis also carried out research on brain-damaged patients which established that being able to imagine experiences is key to being able to remember past events.

DeepMind reportedly competed with Google and other AI companies for talent, and Google’s chief executive, Larry Page, is said to have led the deal himself after an earlier approach from Facebook was turned down.

Sources close to the purchase indicated that the technology would be built into Google’s search systems, rather than becoming part of its fast-expanding robotics division. Google has bought eight robotics companies, including Bot & Dolly which made the computer-controlled cameras used in the film “Gravity”.

“DeepMind was generally interested in reinforcement learning, and in deep learning, which is very useful in mining so called ‘big data’, something Google has a lot of and is interested in processing,” said Murray Shanahan, a professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial College London.

Google uses AI to understand search queries that have been written as spoken, as well as pattern recognition for image search. Its translation service also relies heavily on AI to understand the context of words and their meaning in different situations and sentences.

The broader question of whether AI technology could be misused or pose a threat to humans has led to the creation of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, which notes that “many scientists are concerned that developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole”.

The DeepMind acquisition is conditional on Google setting up an internal ethics board, sources told The Information.

Google confirmed the deal but would not supply any details.

Google’s other recent acquisitions have included the $3.2bn purchase of the smart fire alarm company Nest, described by Google’s Eric Schmidt as “an important bet” which will lead to products that are “infinitely more intelligent”.

Hassabis got a double first in computer science at Cambridge University in 1997, and returned to games as lead AI programmer on the landmark game Black & White. He set up his own games business, Elixir Studios, in 1998, but in 2005 he left for academia, working on cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence, and publishing influential papers on memory and amnesia.

After attaining a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience from University College London in 2009, Hassabis returned to business in 2012 to found DeepMind Technologies, alongside Shane Legg and Mustafa Suleyman.

Google acquired a string of robotics firms in 2013, culminating in the purchase of Boston Dynamics in December, the most high-profile purchase at the time and a company holding contracts with the US military.

Google’s robotics division was put under the leadership of the father of Android, Andy Rubin, in December, combining seven technology companies to foster a self-described “moonshot” robotics vision.

Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, told the Guardian last week that the company was aiming to be the world’s best personal assistant, and said the only limitation was the capability of the technology itself.

“We haven’t held back because people aren’t ready – we have held back because the technology doesn’t work yet,” he said. “It’s very hard to do. But we want it to be the best it can be – with opt in, full permission – to help me get through the day, figure out my questions and suggest questions I should ask people.” He added: “People are doing research into how computers discover knowledge instead of reporting what they figured out – many people are on the edge of that, so it’s maybe five years away.”

apple iphone4s top 520x245 Apple is reportedly creating its own speech tech for Siri to eliminate dependence on Nuance

We may now know why Apple quietly set up shop in Boston earlier this year, if a report from Xconomy is to be believed. According to the site, Apple is developing a team of top speech technologists in Boston to eventually eliminate its dependence on Nuance for Siri.

The likelihood of this is actually extremely high – we’ve illustrated why below.

As a reminder, Nuance is the Boston-based multinational software maker which powers Apple’s voice recognition feature in Siri. Nuance has recently seen at least two of its speech scientists leave the company and join Apple. In other words, Apple is pulling talent from Nuance and putting them to work in its own backyard.

Currently, as Xconomy details, Apple’s Boston team publicly includes former Nuance employee Gunnar Evermann, who has a history of developing speech recognition technology; Larry Gillick, whose title is “Chief Speech Scientist, Siri at Apple;” and Don McAllaster, another ex-Nuance employee whose title at Apple is simply “Senior Research Scientist.” There are also a handful of other former Nuance employees currently at Apple, but not based in Boston, including Caroline Labrecque and Rongqing Huang.

Given how clear these titles are (again: “Chief Speech Scientist, Siri”), Apple is certainly developing some sort of speech technology in Boston. The only thing that’s currently unconfirmed is if Apple is strategically distancing itself from Nuance. Apple has a history of eliminating third-party ties to become self-reliant, and Nuance just might be next on Apple’s list.

162642967 520x245 Does anyone still use Twitter #Music? Why the Web and iOS app are quickly fading into obscurity

It’s been a little over three months since Twitter #Music was launched on the Web and iOS. The release signalled Twitter’s desire to broaden its influence on the Web. To be more. To leverage the ever-increasing number of tweets to disrupt the status-quo.

Yet for all its hype, Twitter #Music has been a disappointment. The mobile app sits patiently in a folder on my iPhone, gathering virtual dust and a sense of increasing irrelevancy. I have no desire to open it. Perhaps that’ll change with a future update, but for now it remains rather useless.

It’s not just me either. I’ve asked friends and family what their go-to app is for listening to music on the move. Spotify, Rdio and the default iOS Music app rank high. Twitter #Music does not.

Admittedly, that’s a small group of people to poll. But a quick inspection of the top free music apps in the App Store tells a similar story. Alongside the apps I just mentioned are Deezer, Soundcloud and Shazam, as well as a bunch of emerging services such as Bloom.fm filling out the top 20.

Twitter #Music isn’t featured. Nor is it in the top 50. Top 100? Nope. Top 200? Nope. At the time of writing, the app sits ranked 285. Ouch.

So why is no-one using it?

The purpose of the Twitter #Music app is three-fold; help listeners discover new music; act as an overlay for playing said music; incentivize the music industry – particularly artists and labels – to continue engaging with their fans on Twitter.

To help users find a bunch of brilliant new records, the app offers five charts with rather ambiguous names such as ‘Emerging’, ‘Unearthed’ and ‘Hunted’. They all sound inviting, but I couldn’t tell you what the difference is between any of the three.

twittermusic1 Does anyone still use Twitter #Music? Why the Web and iOS app are quickly fading into obscurity

Tapping one reveals a very compact grid filled with tiny square display pictures. Each of them represents an artist and they’re ranked in accordance with their popularity. The interface is pretty terrible though and at times completely bewildering. The various images are the size of my fingernail and reveal next to nothing about the artist or the sort of music they play. Twitter has also chosen to show their Twitter handle by default – rather than the artist’s name – which only adds to the confusion.

Selecting a specific artist then reveals a jarring profile page that tries to blend both their Twitter account and more of these tiny cuboid images. It’s the same story in the app’s ‘Suggested’ and ‘#NowPlaying’ sections. Everything feels unrefined and lacks consistent aesthetics.

Too many alternatives that are just better

Discovering new music should be a visually stunning and frictionless experience. Soundwave, Bloom.fm and even the ‘Discover’ tab in Spotify do a much better job of this than Twitter #Music by keeping their respective interfaces refreshingly simple and uncluttered. Twitter’s mobile app just feels messy in comparison.

Twitter #Music would also be a novel proposition if it offered its own digital storefront or an on-demand streaming service. But it doesn’t do that either. Tracks are either 30-second previews from iTunes with direct store links – another bid to get music labels and artists on side – or only supported with an active Spotify or Rdio subscription.

twittermusic2 Does anyone still use Twitter #Music? Why the Web and iOS app are quickly fading into obscurity

It begs the question though: why would a Spotify or Rdio subscriber leave their dedicated mobile app for this? There’s no way to create custom playlists, queue tracks or access premium features offered by these more robust and expansive services. The idea, presumably, is to reinforce Twitter #Music’s discovery options by giving users the ability to listen to new tracks in their entirety.

Twitter #Music lacks a defining feature or hook to keep users engaged. It’s an odd blend of ideas that never seem to mesh or offer a significant value proposition to the listener. There’s some potential here though and plenty of time for Twitter to turn it around – but no wonder it’s performing so poorly in the App Store at the moment.

Image Credit: David Ramos/Getty Images

Spotify

It’s been one week since Spotify announced it would allow anyone on an iOS or Android tablet or smartphone to use its music streaming app free of charge. And, it appears this was a good move for the company as far as growing its listener base. The streaming music service said Thursday that downloads of the app have increased by four times in the last week; this means four times as many people are downloading the app today compared with a week ago. While Spotify would not release specific numbers, it’s likely a hefty amount of people are downloading the app. In March, Spotify said it had surpassed 6 million subscribers, a gain of 1 million since December 2012, but it hasn’t updated its user numbers since then. Spotify also has more than 24 million active users in 55 markets worldwide. A year ago, the company’s service reached only 17 countries.

Read the full story at CNET.

AT&T

Never let it be said that AT&T and Verizon don’t follow each other’s leads. Just one day after Verizon announced it would start publishing a semiannual transparency report that details all of the law enforcement requests it receives, AT&T announced that it would being doing the same in early 2014. The carrier’s report will include info on the total number of law-enforcement data requests received from the government in criminal cases, the number of subpoenas, court orders, and warrants received, and the total number of customers affected. The first report issued should cover all of the requests from 2013. AT&T also reiterated that it ensures all data requests and its responses are “completely lawful and proper in that country” and that it doesn’t allow the government direct connections or access to its network or customer information.

Read the full story at The Verge.

lenovo 520x245 Spy agencies reportedly have a long standing ban on Lenovo PCs due to back door vulnerabilities

Spy agencies in the UK, Australia and the US have internally banned using Lenovo PCs because of remote access vulnerabilities that were discovered during testing, a new report from the Australian Financial Review alleges.

Chinese technology firms have long attracted suspicion from international governments, with telecommunications firms Huawei and ZTE recently coming under suspicion in both the US and UK. Lenovo has grown to become one of the top PC makers, but its popularity with consumers hasn’t translated over to classified government networks.

The ban is believed to extend across the “Five Eyes” group of nations, which includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, because their respective intelligence agencies have linked their networks.

While Lenovo hasn’t gone after the required security certifications needed to provide hardware to some of these agencies, AFR’s report suggests there’s more to the situation.

According to the paper, intelligence sources confirmed the ban was instituted in the mid-2000s “after intensive laboratory testing of its equipment allegedly documented “back-door” hardware and “firmware” vulnerabilities in Lenovo chips.”

Details on the discoveries remain classified, but the vulnerabilities allegedly could provide remote access to intruders.

Also of concern is the extent of Lenovo’s ties with the government. China’s Academy of Sciences has a substantial stake in Legend Holdings, Lenovo’s largest shareholder.

Lenovo didn’t immediately respond when contacted by The Next Web, but the company did tell AFR that it did not know of the spy agency ban.

Part of the deep-rooted suspicion of Chinese hardware may come from Western governments’ own interest in creating back doors in their own hardware. For instance, security expert Professor Farinaz Koushanfar told AFR that she had “personally met with people inside the NSA who have told me that they’ve been working on numerous real-world cases of malicious implants for years.” France was also believed to be working on kill switches for its military equipment.

Given that most of this is locked up as classified, we probably won’t ever find out what’s really going on here. Still, given the recent revelations of the deep surveillance structures created by the likes of the NSA, it’s hard not to look at all our technology with a bit of mistrust.

See also: Here’s the letter Apple, Google, Microsoft and others sent to the US government over data requests and UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee says GCHQ is accessing the NSA’s PRISM programme legally

Image credit: Philippe Lopez / Getty Images

Federal grand jury indictment alleges that SAC maintained elite group that has traded on insider information since 1999

A federal grand jury has indicted SAC Capital, the embattled hedge fund that has been pursued by financial authorities for years, for insider trading after regulators failed to charge its powerful founder, Steven A Cohen.

The US attorney who brought the charges, Preet Bharara, also hit the firm with civil money-laundering charges that would require the firm to forfeit potentially billions of dollars in assets.

A 41-page indictment alleges that SAC, founded in 1992, maintained an elite group that has traded on insider information since 1999.

SAC is also alleged to have hired portfolio managers specifically for their insider contact in the industries in which they traded, and failed to raise red flags when insider information was suggested as the basis for a trade.

The indictment marks the culmination of a six-year investigation by Bharara. The government pursued an investigation against Cohen but apparently dropped its attempt to bring charges last month.

“SAC became, over time, a veritable magnet for market cheaters,” Bharara said at a news conference in Manhattan. “That’s why the institution, and not individuals, stand accused of insider trading.” He said that the charges were “a predictable product of pervasive institutional failure”, and added: “A company reaps what it sows. SAC seeded itself with corrupt traders.”

Cohen was not mentioned by name in the indictment but referred to obliquely as “the SAC owner” and an “individual residing in Greenwich, Connecticut.”

“The SAC owner failed to question candidates who implied that their ‘edge’ was based on sources of inside information,” the indictment says. Later, it notes: “The SAC owner fostered a culture that focused on not discussing inside information too openly, rather than not seeking or trading on such information in the first place.”

The government’s case centers on SAC’s culture. It alleges that employees at SAC “engaged in a pattern of obtaining inside information from dozens of publicly-traded companies across multiple industry sectors. Employees …traded on inside information themselves and, at times, recommended trades to the SAC owner based on inside information.”

Under US securities laws, fund managers may only trade on company information that has been publicly disclosed.

The indictment mentions several other SAC employees as well as employees of affiliate investment firms. One portfolio manager for Cohen-controlled Sigma Capital, Wes Wang, is cited in connection with insider trading in eight technology stocks including Taiwan Semiconductor, Cisco, and eBay. In 2012, Wang pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit securities fraud.

Other alleged insider trading by SAC Capital mentioned in the indictment includes some of the biggest North American companies, such as Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, BlackBerry maker RIM, and Yahoo.

SAC denied the allegations. It said in a statement: “SAC has never encouraged, promoted or tolerated insider trading and takes its compliance and management obligations seriously. The handful of men who admit they broke the law does not reflect the honesty, integrity and character of the thousands of men and women who have worked at SAC over the past 21 years. SAC will continue to operate as we work through these matters.”

The chief target of the US attorney’s legal strategy, according to experts, is to foil Cohen himself by attacking his deputies and the trading culture of the firm he created. Cohen controls 60% of the money in SAC Capital and has a net worth of roughly $9bn, according to Bloomberg.

The indictment holds that SAC’s trading culture was heavily centralized, with dozens of portfolio managers answering directly to Cohen without knowledge of what their peers in the firm were doing.

Cohen, until his legal troubles, was a towering figure on Wall Street, a billionaire unknown to much of the public but famous in the finance community for his enviable investment profits and casual style. While maintaining an intense work regimen – working at over seven computer screens in his office – he was habitually seen around the firm’s Connecticut trading floor in a blue fleece vest that became almost iconic.

He was known for quirks such as his disdain of ringing phones, which created a silent trading floor, and maintaining the firm’s temperature at a breezy 69F so traders would not be too comfortable.

For investors, he held a notable mystique: SAC was so sought-after by clients that they paid the firm a fee of 3% of the money under management and allowed the firm to take up to 50% of their investment profits, according to the indictment.

SAC seemed to have a green thumb for stocks, watching them gain up to 10% in value in a single day after buying shares, and up to 15% in a month, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis in March.

The swirl of legal issues around insider trading have already temporarily claimed the careers of two of Cohen’s top lieutenants, Michael Steinberg and Mathew Martoma, both of whom were arrested at their homes and subsequently indicted. The government’s case against Martoma accuses him of making a profit of $276m by trading on nonpublic information related to healthcare companies Wyeth and Elan.

Martoma has maintained his innocence. His trial is set for November.

The indictment is the latest in a series of investigations of SAC by regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as federal prosecutors.

Most recently, last week the SEC filed civil administrative charges against Cohen, arguing that he “failed reasonably to supervise” Steinberg and Martoma.

In response to the SEC’s charges, Cohen’s lawyers argued, in 46-page white paper to staff, that he was too busy to read his email, and estimated he opened only 11% of his messages. As a result, they held, he could not have acted on insider tips contained in those emails.

Previously, SAC and its affiliates paid a $617.5m fine to settle SEC charges on insider trading, even though a judge grew irritated that the firm would be able to pay money to absolve itself of charges without admitting or denying wrongdoing.