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Subscription video services’ recommendations aren’t working, study claims

Streaming video services invest heavily in technology to improve their ability to show users a set of personalized recommendations about what to what next. But according to a new research study released today by UserTesting, it seems that consumers aren’t watching much recommended content – in fact, only 29 percent of the study’s participants said they actually watched something the service recommended. On some services, those figures were extremely low – for example, only 6 percent of HBO NOW users said they watched recommended content. That’s probably because consumers found it difficult to locate HBO NOW’s recommendations in the first place. The service was given a low 16.8 “ customer experience”  score on this front, the study says. That’s a much lower score than all other services analyzed, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and YouTube TV – all of which had scores in the 80’s. (See first chart, below). To be fair, HBO NOW doesn’t really do recommendations in the same way as the others. Its app offers a “Featured” selection of content for all users, and, if you scroll down further, there are a couple of editorial collections, like “Essential HBO” or “14 Hidden Gems You Missed the First Time.” A separate “Collections” section includes more of these suggestions, like “New Movies,” “Just Added,” “Last Chance” and others. The lack of personalized, easily located recommendations also impacted HBO NOW’s overall score in the UserTesting study, which rated the services across a variety of metrics including availability of content, friction-free viewing, ease of scrubbing and episode scanning, and other factors. HBO NOW was also was dinged by survey respondents for lagging, freezing and buffering issues, though they said they appreciated its clean design. Netflix’s overall score was 89.5, making it the highest-rated streaming service among those analyzed due to having the most relevant recommendations, overall high ease-of-use, and a speedy service

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Amazon to launch a new app store with tools for its two million sellers

Amazon is launching new app store with tools created specifically to help its sellers manage their inventory and orders. Called the Marketplace Appstore, it will feature apps made using Amazon Marketplace Web Service (Amazon MWS) by Amazon and third-party developers screened by the company. According to a report by CNET, the Marketplace Appstore launches to sellers today. There are now about two million sellers on Amazon , including more than a million small to medium-sized businesses in the United States. Amazon MWS is an integrated web service API that allows sellers to share data about their inventory, orders and logistics with Amazon in order to automate more tasks. It also enables sellers to build apps for their own accounts and other sellers. The company told CNET that “many developers have innovated and created applications that complement our tools and integrate with our services. We created the Marketplace Appstore to help businesses more easily discover these applications, streamline their business operations and ultimately create a better experience for our customers.” The Marketplace Appstore is free for developers to join and use, but they are currently required to submit an application  to Amazon and undergo a business and practices review.

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Don’t expect Ubuntu maker Canonical to IPO this year

Canonical , the company best known for its Ubuntu Linux distribution, is on a path to an IPO. That’s something Canonical founder and CEO Mark Shuttleworth has been quite open about. But don’t expect that IPO to happen this year. “We did decide as a company — and that’s not just my decision — but we did decide that we want to have a commercial focus,” Shuttleworth told me during an interview at the OpenStack Summit in Vancouver, Canada today. “So we picked cloud and IoT as the areas to develop that. And being a public company, given that most of our customers are now global institutions, it makes for us also to be a global institution. I think it would be great for my team to be part of a public company. It would be a lot of work, but we are not shy of work.” Unsurprisingly, Shuttleworth didn’t want to talk about the exact timeline for the IPO, though. “We will do the right thing at the right time,” he said. That right time is not this year, though. “No, there is a process that you have to go through and that takes time. We know what we need to hit in terms of revenue and growth and we’re on track.” Getting the company on track was very much Shuttleworth’s focus over the course of the last year. That meant killing projects like the Ubuntu Phone (which Shuttleworth said was “painful,”) as well as the Unity desktop environment. Instead, the company’s focus is now squarely on helping enterprises stand up and manage their private clouds — no matter whether those run OpenStack, Kubernetes or a combination of those. That doesn’t mean Canonical has forgotten about the desktop, though.

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Comcast is leaking the names and passwords of customers’ wireless routers

Comcast has just been caught in a major security snafu: revealing the passwords of its customers’ Xfinity-provided wireless routers in plaintext on the web. Anyone with a subscriber’s account number and street address number will be served up the Wi-Fi name and password via the company’s Xfinity internet activation service. Security researchers Karan Saini and Ryan Stevenson reported the issue to ZDnet . The site is meant to help people setting up their internet for the first time: ideally, you put in your data, and Comcast sends back the router credentials while activating the service. The problem is threefold: You can “activate” an account that’s already active The data required to do so is minimal and it is not verified via text or email The wireless name and password are sent on the web in plaintext This means that anyone with your account number and street address number (e.g. the 1425 in “1425 Alder Ave,” no street name, city, or apartment number needed), both of which can be found on your paper bill or in an email, will instantly be given your router’s SSID and password, allowing them to log in and use it however they like or monitor its traffic. They could also rename the router’s network or change its password, locking out subscribers. This only affects people who use a router provided by Xfinity/Comcast , which comes with its own name and password built in. Though it also returns custom SSIDs and passwords, since they’re synced with your account and can be changed via app and other methods. What can you do? While this problem is at large, it’s no good changing your password — Comcast will just provide any malicious actor the new one.

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Comcast is leaking the names and passwords of customers’ wireless routers

Comcast has just been caught in a major security snafu: revealing the passwords of its customers’ Xfinity-provided wireless routers in plaintext on the web. Anyone with a subscriber’s account number and street address number will be served up the Wi-Fi name and password via the company’s Xfinity internet activation service. Security researchers Karan Saini and Ryan Stevenson reported the issue to ZDnet . The site is meant to help people setting up their internet for the first time: ideally, you put in your data, and Comcast sends back the router credentials while activating the service. The problem is threefold: You can “activate” an account that’s already active The data required to do so is minimal and it is not verified via text or email The wireless name and password are sent on the web in plaintext This means that anyone with your account number and street address number (e.g. the 1425 in “1425 Alder Ave,” no street name, city, or apartment number needed), both of which can be found on your paper bill or in an email, will instantly be given your router’s SSID and password, allowing them to log in and use it however they like or monitor its traffic. They could also rename the router’s network or change its password, locking out subscribers. This only affects people who use a router provided by Xfinity/Comcast , which comes with its own name and password built in. Though it also returns custom SSIDs and passwords, since they’re synced with your account and can be changed via app and other methods. What can you do?

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Uizard raises funds for its AI that turns design mockups into source code

When you’re trying to build apps, there is a very tedious point where you have to stare at a wireframe and then laboriously turn it into code. Actually, the process itself is highly repetitive and ought to be much easier. The traditional software development from front-end design to front-end html/css development to working code is expensive, time-consuming, tedious and repetitive. But most approaches to solving this problem have been more complex than they need to be. What if you could just turn wireframes straight into code and then devote your time to the more complex aspects of a build? That’s the idea behind a Copenhagen-based startup called Uizard . Uizard’s computer vision and AI platform claims to be able to automatically turn design mockups — and this could be on the back of napkin — into source code that developers can plug into their backend code. It’s now raised an $800,000 pre-seed round led by New York-based LDV Capital with co-investors ByFounders, The Nordic Web Ventures, 7percent Ventures, New York Venture Partners, entrepreneur Peter Stern (co-founder of Datek) and Philipp Moehring and Andy Chung from AngelList . This fundraising will be used to grow the team and launch the beta product. The company received interest in June 2017 when they released their first research milestone dubbed “pix2code” and implementation on GitHub was the second-mosttrending project of June 2017 ahead of Facebook Prepack and Google TensorFlow.

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Alibaba’s newest initiative aims to make Hong Kong a global AI hub

Alibaba is teaming up with SenseTime, the world’s highest-valued AI startup, to launch a not-for-profit artificial intelligence lab in Hong Kong in a bid to make the city a global hub for artificial intelligence. Alibaba, which is SenseTime’s largest single investor thanks to a recent $600 million round at a valuation of $4.5 billion , is providing financing for the “HKAI Lab” through its Hong Kong entrepreneurship fund . SenseTime said it will contribute too, although the total amount of capital backing the initiative hasn’t been revealed. The partners of the project — which also includes the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP) — said the aim is to “advance the frontiers of AI,” which includes helping startups commercialize their technology, develop ideas and promote knowledge sharing in the AI field. That’s all fairly general — Alibaba has a track record of politicking through technology investment schemes in Greater China and Southeast Asia — but one tangible project is a six-month accelerator program planned for September which will welcome AI startups to the HKAI Lab. Alibaba’s Cloud business and HKSTP are among the backers that will help the program offer early-stage funding to successful applicants, while Alibaba and SenseTime will help with mentoring and development during the program. “Alibaba sees AI as a fundamental technology that will make a difference to society,” Alibaba executive vice chairman Joe Tsai said in a statement. “We envision the Hong Kong AI Lab to be an open platform where researchers, startups and industry participants can collaborate and build a culture of innovation.” China and the U.S. are the two biggest players in the global AI battle; this project alone won’t divert that, but it could stir up potential in Hong Kong. Alibaba maintains tight relationships in Hong Kong, particularly through the fund which is around $130 million in size.

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This top Silicon Valley venture firm just made a contrarian move with its newest fund

In Silicon Valley, venture firms with a track record of success find themselves awash in money thanks to the growing number of institutions that want to invest more of their capital in tech. In March, an SEC filing showed that General Catalyst had closed a $1.375 billion fund , the biggest vehicle in its 18-year history. Battery Ventures also closed on two funds earlier this year that are the 35-year-old firm’s biggest to date. Sequoia Capital, meanwhile, is reportedly out raising $12 billion across a series of funds, a move that’s unprecedented for the firm — or any U.S.-based venture firm, for that matter. Fifteen-year-old Emergence Capital could easily follow the same path. Emergence funds early-stage ventures that are focused on enterprise and SaaS applications, and it does this very well. Its bets include the storage company Box (now public), the social networking company Yammer (sold for $1.2 billion to Microsoft in 2012) and Veeva Systems, the company that’s generally known for its customer relations software for the life sciences and pharmaceutical industries, though envious investors recognize Veeva as the company that produced a more than 300x return for Emergence when it went public in 2013. (Emergence had invested just $6.5 million in the outfit and owned 31 percent of it going into the IPO. It was also Veeva’s sole venture backer.) Still, when it came time to raise its fifth fund, Emergence did not raise a billion-dollar fund, as it surely could have. Instead, the San Mateo, Calif., firm, which closed its fourth fund with $335 million in 2015, opted to increase the fund by 30 percent, closing its new vehicle this past Friday with $435 million. We talked the other day with firm co-founder Jason Green, who is one of four general partners, about the firm’s trajectory. Specifically, we asked why — like almost every other firm in Silicon Valley — it didn’t close its newest fund with exponentially more in capital commitments than its last fund. The answer, said Green: “Our sweet spot is on early market fit, with a core team we can work around.” Because that hasn’t changed, neither has the size of the funds it raises, he said

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Launch with TechCrunch in the Startup Battlefield competition at Disrupt SF 2018

Hey, this message goes out to all you early-stage startup founders with the drive and determination to take your company all the way to the land of the unicorns. Now’s the time to apply to TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield competition — the world’s best start-up pitch competition going down at  Disrupt San Francisco 2018  on September 5-7. If you require incentive, consider this: we bumped the top prize this year to a very cool $100,000. That sure would help your bottom line, now wouldn’t it? If you’re not tuned in to how Startup Battlefield works, we’ll break it down for you. Seasoned TechCrunch editors review all applications in a highly-competitive vetting process. How competitive? The acceptance rate ranges from 3 to 6 percent. Factors that influence the decision include the team, the product and the market potential. Anywhere from 15-30 pre-Series A startups will make the final cut. This is a good time to point out that competing in  Startup Battlefield doesn’t cost a thing, and that TechCrunch does not charge startups any fees or take any equity. All competing teams receive free expert pitch training from the Startup Battlefield team who, trust us, have seen it all when it comes to startup pitch competitions. You’ll be primed and ready for round one where you’ll deliver a six-minute pitch and demo to a panel of expert judges — and then answer any questions they may have. The cream of the crop — roughly five teams — will advance to round two for a repeat pitch performance in front of a fresh set of judges. Every exciting, heart-pounding minute takes place in front of a live audience numbering in the thousands, and we live-stream it to the world on TechCrunch.com, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

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Microsoft acquires conversational AI startup Semantic Machines to help bots sound more lifelike

Microsoft announced today that it has acquired Semantic Machines , a Berkeley-based startup that wants to solve one of the biggest challenges in conversational AI: making chatbots sound more human and less like, well, bots. In a blog post, Microsoft AI & Research chief technology officer David Ku wrote that “with the acquisition of Semantic Machines, we will establish a conversational AI center of excellence in Berkeley to push forward the boundaries of what is possible in language interfaces.” According to Crunchbase , Semantic Machines was founded in 2014 and raised about $20.9 million in funding from investors including General Catalyst and Bain Capital Ventures. In a 2016 profile, co-founder and chief scientist Dan Klein told TechCrunch that “today’s dialog technology is mostly orthogonal. You want a conversational system to be contextual so when you interpret a sentence things don’t stand in isolation.” By focusing on memory, Semantic Machines’ AI can produce conversations that not only answer or predict questions more accurately, but also flow naturally. Instead of building its own consumer products, Semantic Machines focused on enterprise customers. This means it will fit in well with Microsoft’s conversational AI-based products, including Microsoft Cognitive Services and Azure Bot Service, which are used by one million and 300,000 developers, respectively, and virtual assistants Cortana and Xiaolce.

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After tens of thousands of pre-orders, 3D audio headphones startup Ossic disappears

After taking tens of thousands of crowd-funding pre-orders for a high-end pair of “3D sound” headphones, audio startup Ossic announced this weekend that it is shutting down the company and backers will not be receiving refunds. The company raised $2.7 million on Kickstarter and $3.2 million on Indiegogo for their Ossic X headphones which they pitched as a pair of high-end head-tracking headphones that would be perfect for listening to 3D audio, especially in a VR environment. While the company also raised a “substantial seed investment,” in a letter on the Ossic website , the company blamed the slow adoption of virtual reality alongside their crowdfunding campaign stretch goals which bogged down their R&D team. “This was obviously not our desired outcome. The team worked exceptionally hard and created a production-ready product that is a technological and performance breakthrough. To fail at the 5 yard-line is a tragedy. We are extremely sorry that we cannot deliver your product and want you to know that the team has done everything possible including investing our own savings and working without salary to exhaust all possibilities.” We have reached out to the company for additional details. Through January 2017, the San Diego company had received more than 22,000 pre-orders for their Ossic X headphones. This past January, Ossic announced that they had shipped out the first units to the 80 backers in their $999 developer tier headphones. In that same update, the company said they would enter “mass production” by late spring 2018. In the end, after tens of thousands of pre-orders, Ossic only built 250 pairs of headphones and only shipped a few dozen to Kickstarter backers. Crowdfunding campaign failures for hardware products are rarely shocking, but often the collapse comes from the company not being able to acquire additional funding from outside investors. Here, Ossic appears to have been misguided from the start and even with nearly $6 million in crowdfunding and seed funding, which they said nearly matched that number, they were left unable to begin large-scale manufacturing. The company said in their letter, that it would likely take more than $2 million in additional funding to deliver the existing backlog of pre-orders

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Apple started paying $15 billion European tax fine

It took a couple of years, but Apple has started to pay back illegal tax benefits to the Irish government. The company has paid $1.77 billion (€1.5 billion) into an escrow account designed to hold the fine. Apple has to pay $15 billion in total (€13 billion). In August 2016, the European Commission said that Apple benefited from illegal tax benefits in Ireland from 2003 to 2014. According to Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, Apple managed to lower its effective corporate tax rate thanks to a Double Irish structure . By creating two different Irish subsidiaries and allocating profit to the right subsidiary, you can end up paying corporate tax on a fraction of your actual profit. Of course, Apple wasn’t the only tech company that optimized its tax structure. And the company also claimed that everything was legal . The Irish government tried to appeal the decision but the decision remained intact. Ireland had to recover €13 billion starting on January 2017. But nothing happened.

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AI will save us from yanny/laurel, right? Wrong

If you haven’t taken part in the yanny/laurel controversy over the last couple days, allow me to sincerely congratulate you. But your time is up. The viral speech synth clip has met the AI hype train and the result is, like everything in this mortal world, disappointing. Sonix, a company that produces AI-based speech recognition software, ran the ambiguous sound clip through Google, Amazon, and Watson’s transcription tools, and of course its own. Google and Sonix managed to get it on the first try — it’s “laurel,” by the way. Not yanny. Laurel . But Amazon stumbled, repeatedly producing “year old” as its best guess for what the robotic voice was saying. IBM’s Watson, amazingly, got it only half the time, alternating between hearing “yeah role” and “laurel.” So in a way, it’s the most human of them all. Top: Amazon; bottom: IBM. Sonix CEO Jamie Sutherland told me in an email that he can’t really comment on the mixed success of the other models, not having access to them. “As you can imagine the human voice is complex and there are so many variations of volume, cadence, accent, and frequency,” he wrote. “The reality is that different companies may be optimizing for different use cases, so the results may vary. It is challenging for a speech recognition model to accommodate for everything.” My guess as an ignorant onlooker is it may have something to do with the frequencies the models have been trained to prioritize.

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AWS adds more EC2 instance types with local NVMe storage

AWS is adding a new kind of virtual machine to its growing list of EC2 options. These new machines feature local NVMe storage , which offers significantly faster throughput than standard SSDs. These new so-called C5d instances join the existing lineup of compute-optimized C5 instances the service already offered. AWS cites high-performance computing workloads, real-time analytics, multiplayer gaming and video encoding as potential use cases for its regular C5 machines and with the addition of this faster storage option, chances are users who switch will see even better performance. Since the local storage is attached to the machine, it’ll also be terminated when the instance is stopped, so this is meant for storing intermediate files, not long-term storage. Both C5 and C5d instances share the same underlying platform, with 3.0 GHz Intel Xeon Platinum 8000 processors. The new instances are now available in a number of AWS’s U.S. regions, as well as in the service’s Canada regions. Prices are, unsurprisingly a bit higher than for regular C5 machines, starting at $0.096 per hour for the most basic machine with 4 in AWS’s Oregon region, for example. Regular C5 machines start at $0.085 per hour. It’s worth noting that the EC2 F1 instances , which offer access to FPGAs, also use NVMe storage. Those are highly specialized machines, though, while the C5 instances are interesting to a far wider audience of developers. On top of the NVMe announcement, AWS today also noted that its EC2 Bare Metal Instances are now generally available.

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Tiny house trend advances into the nano scale

All around the world, hip young people are competing to see who can live in the tiniest, quirkiest, twee-est house. But this one has them all beat. Assembled by a combination of origami and nanometer-precise robot wielding an ion beam, this tiniest of houses measures about 20 micrometers across. For comparison, that’s almost as small as a studio in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It’s from the Femto-ST Institute in France, where the tiny house trend has clearly become an obsession. Really, though, the researchers aren’t just playing around. Assembly of complex structures at this scale is needed in many industries: building a special radiation or biological sensor in place on the tip of an optical fiber could let locations be probed or monitored that were inaccessible before. The house is constructed to show the precision with which the tools the team has developed can operate. The robot that does the assembly, which they call μRobotex, isn’t itself at the nano scale, but operates with an accuracy of as little as 2 nanometers. The operator of μRobotex first laid down a layer of silica on the tip of a cut optical fiber less than the width of a human hair. They then used an ion beam to cut out the shape of the walls and add the windows and doors. By cutting through some places but only scoring in others, physical forces are created that cause the walls to fold upwards and meet. Once they’re in place, μRobotex switches tools and uses a gas injection system to attach those surfaces to each other. Once done, the system even “sputters” a tiled pattern on the roof.

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