Google’s Sundar Pichai doesn’t want you to be clear-eyed about AI’s dangers

Alphabet and Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, is the latest tech giant kingpin to make a public call for AI to be regulated while simultaneously encouraging lawmakers towards a dilute enabling framework that does not put any hard limits on what can be done with AI technologies.

In an op-ed published in today’s Financial Times, Pichai makes a headline-grabbing call for artificial intelligence to be regulated. But his pitch injects a suggestive undercurrent that puffs up the risk for humanity of not letting technologists get on with business as usual and apply AI at population-scale — with the Google chief claiming: “AI has the potential to improve billions of lives, and the biggest risk may be failing to do so” — thereby seeking to frame ‘no hard limits’ as actually the safest option for humanity.

Simultaneously the pitch downplays any negatives that might cloud the greater good that Pichai implies AI will unlock — presenting “potential negative consequences” as simply the inevitable and necessary price of technological progress.

It’s all about managing the level of risk, is the leading suggestion, rather than questioning outright whether the use of a hugely risk-laden technology such as facial recognition should actually be viable in a democratic society.

“Internal combustion engines allowed people to travel beyond their own areas but also caused more accidents,” Pichai writes, raiding history for a self-serving example while ignoring the vast climate costs of combustion engines (and the resulting threat now posed to the survival of countless species on Earth).

“The internet made it possible to connect with anyone and get information from anywhere, but also easier for misinformation to spread,” he goes on. “These lessons teach us that we need to be clear-eyed about what could go wrong.”

For “clear-eyed” read: Accepting of the technology-industry’s interpretation of ‘collateral damage’. (Which, in the case of misinformation and Facebook, appears to run to feeding democracy itself into the ad-targeting meat-grinder.)

Meanwhile, not at all mentioned in Pichai’s discussion of AI risks: The concentration of monopoly power that artificial intelligence appears to be very good at supercharging.

Funny that.

Of course it’s hardly surprising a tech giant that, in recent years, rebranded an entire research division to ‘Google AI’ — and has previously been called out by some of its own workforce over a project involving applying AI to military weapons technology — should be lobbying lawmakers to set AI ‘limits’ that are as dilute and abstract as possible.

The only thing that’s better than zero regulation are laws made by useful idiots who’ve fallen hook, line and sinker for industry-expounded false dichotomies — such as those claiming it’s ‘innovation or privacy’.

Pichai’s intervention also comes at a strategic moment, with US lawmakers eyeing AI regulation and the White House seemingly throwing itself into alignment with tech giants’ desires for ‘innovation-friendly’ rules which make their business easier. (To wit: This month White House CTO Michael Kratsios warned in a Bloomberg op-ed against “preemptive, burdensome or duplicative rules that would needlessly hamper AI innovation and growth”.)

The new European Commission, meanwhile, has been sounding a firmer line on both AI and big tech.

It has made tech-driven change a key policy priority, with president Ursula von der Leyen making public noises about reining in tech giants. She has also committed to publish “a coordinated European approach on the human and ethical implications of Artificial Intelligence” within her first 100 days in office. (She took up the post on December 1, 2019 so the clock is ticking.)

Last week a leaked draft of the Commission proposals for pan-EU AI regulation suggest it’s leaning towards a relatively light touch approach (albeit, the European version of light touch is considerably more involved and interventionist than anything born in a Trump White House, clearly) — although the paper does float the idea of a temporary ban on the use of facial recognition technology in public places.

The paper notes that such a ban would “safeguard the rights of individuals, in particular against any possible abuse of the technology” — before arguing against such a “far-reaching measure that might hamper the development and uptake of this technology”, in favor of relying on provisions in existing EU law (such as the EU data protection framework, GDPR), in addition to relevant tweaks to current product safety and liability laws.

While it’s not yet clear which way the Commission will jump on regulating AI, even the lightish-touch version its considering would likely be a lot more onerous than Pichai would like.

In the op-ed he calls for what he couches as “sensible regulation” — aka taking a “proportionate approach, balancing potential harms, especially in high-risk areas, with social opportunities”.

For “social opportunities” read: The plentiful ‘business opportunities’ Google is spying — assuming the hoped for vast additional revenue scale it can get by supercharging expansion of AI-powered services into all sorts of industries and sectors (from health to transportation to everywhere else in between) isn’t derailed by hard legal limits on where AI can actually be applied.

“Regulation can provide broad guidance while allowing for tailored implementation in different sectors,” Pichai urges, setting out a preference for enabling “principles” and post-application “reviews”, to keep the AI spice flowing.

The op-ed only touches very briefly on facial recognition — despite the FT editors choosing to illustrate it with an image of the tech. Here Pichai again seeks to reframe the debate around what is, by nature, an extremely rights-hostile technology — talking only in passing of “nefarious uses” of facial recognition.

Of course this wilfully obfuscates the inherent risks of letting blackbox machines make algorithmic guesses at identity every time a face happens to pass through a public space.

You can’t hope to protect people’s privacy in such a scenario. Many other rights are also at risk, depending on what else the technology is being used for. So, really, any use of facial recognition is laden with individual and societal risk.

But Pichai is seeking to put blinkers on lawmakers. He doesn’t want them to see inherent risks baked into such a potent and powerful technology — pushing them towards only a narrow, ill-intended subset of “nefarious” and “negative” AI uses and “consequences” as being worthy of “real concerns”. 

And so he returns to banging the drum for “a principled and regulated approach to applying AI” [emphasis ours] — putting the emphasis on regulation that, above all, gives the green light for AI to be applied.

What technologists fear most here is rules that tell them when artificial intelligence absolutely cannot apply.

Ethics and principles are, to a degree, mutable concepts — and ones which the tech giants have become very practiced at claiming as their own, for PR purposes, including by attaching self-styled ‘guard-rails’ to their own AI operations. (But of course there’s no actual legal binds there.)

At the same time data-mining giants like Google are very smooth operators when it comes to gaming existing EU rules around data protection, such as by infesting their user-interfaces with confusing dark patterns that push people to click or swipe their rights away.

But a ban on applying certain types of AI would change the rules of the game. Because it would put society in the driving seat.

Laws that contained at least a moratorium on certain “dangerous” applications of AI — such as facial recognition technology, or autonomous weapons like the drone-based system Google was previously working on — have been called for by some far-sighted regulators.

And a ban would be far harder for platform giants to simply bend to their will.

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The marketplace of ideas is a weapons market now

The most interesting thing I saw online this week was Venkatesh Rao’s “Internet of Beefs” essay. I don’t agree with all of it. I’m not even sure I agree with most of it. But it’s a sharp, perceptive, well-argued piece which offers an explanation for why online public spaces have almost all become battlefields, or, as he puts it:

“are now being slowly taken over by beef-only thinkers … Anything that is not an expression of pure, unqualified support for whatever they are doing or saying is received as a mark of disrespect, and a provocation … as the global culture wars evolve into a stable, endemic, background societal condition of continuous conflict.” He goes on to taxonomizes the online knights and mooks who fight in this conflict, in incisive detail.

I agree this continuous conflict exists. (There exists another theory arguing that it’s really mostly bots and disinformation ops. Maybe, I guess, but that claim seems increasingly unconvincing.) I think this seething tire-fire conflict is part of something larger: the transition of the marketplace of ideas from a stock market into a weapons market.

Once, the idea was, there existed a “marketplace of ideas,” wherein people from across the political spectrum — generally the highly educated, but with some room for notions bubbling up from the grassroots — would introduce ideas for initiatives, actions, programs, and/or laws. These ideas would be considered, contrasted, debated, honed, amended, and weighed, and over time, in the same way stock markets identify the best companies, the the marketplace of ideas would identify the finest concepts. These in turn would then see actual implementation, courtesy of those in power — i.e. the rich and the elected — for the greater good of all.

This was the world of think tanks, of policy documents, of presentations at important conferences, of reporting breathlessly on major speeches, of trial-balloon op-eds, of congressional and parliamentary testimony, of councils and summits and studies that produced lavishly bound reports with the expectation that they would be seriously and judiciously considered by all sides of a debate. It was a world where new ideas might climb the hierarchy of the so-called great and good until they rose high enough that it was seen fit to actually implement them.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but if we ever lived in a world anything like that, well, we don’t any more. Some reject it on the (correct) grounds that this so-called marketplace of ideas, shockingly, always seemed to favor entrenching the interests of those “great and good,” the rich and the elected, the councilors and the presenters, rather than the larger population. Others simply want more for themselves and less for everyone else, rather than aiming for any kind of Pareto-optimal ideal outcome for all.

Nowadays the primary goal is to win the conflict, and other outcomes are at best secondary. Policy documents and statistical analyses are not taken for serious across-the-board consideration; they are simply weapons, or fig leaves, to serve as defenses or pretexts for decisions which have already been made.

This may seem so self-evident that it’s not even worth writing about — you probably need only consider your local national politics — but the strange thing is that so many of the participants in the whole apparatus, the policy analysts and think tankers and speechgivers and presenters, don’t seem to realize that nowadays their output is used as weapons and pretexts, rather than ideas to compete with other ideas in a rational marketplace.

Let’s pick a few relatively apolitical/acultural ones, to minimize the chance of your own ingrained conflict responses kicking in. Consider NIMBYism in Bay Area real estate: the opposition to building more housing on the grounds that this could not possibly lower housing prices. It’s a perfect object example of a low-level constant conflict in which all participants have long sine decided on their sides. There is no point in bringing conflicting data to a NIMBY (and, of course, they would say the same about a YIMBY like myself) as they will find a way to dismiss or ignore it. You can lead a horse to data, but you can’t make them think.

A couple more low-politics examples from my own online spaces: in the cryptocurrency world, most participants are so incentivized to believe in their One Truth that nearly every idea or proposal leads to an angry chorus denouncing all other truths. Or consider advocates of greater law enforcement “lawful access” to all encrypted messaging, vs. my own side, that of privacy advocates devoutly opposed to such. Neither side seems particularly interested in actually seriously considering any new data or new idea which might support the other side’s arguments. The dispute is more fundamental than that.

There exist a few remaining genuine marketplaces of ideas. Engineering standards and protocols, for one. (Yes, politics and personal hobbyhorses / vendettas get everywhere, even there, but relatively speaking.) The law, for another, albeit seemingly decreasingly so. But increasingly, academic papers, policy analyses, cross-sectional studies, closely argued op-eds, center-stage presentations, etc., are all artifacts of a world which no longer exists, if it ever really did. Nowadays these artifacts are largely just used to add a veneer of respectability to pre-existing tribal beliefs.

This isn’t true of every politician, CEO, billionaire, or other decisionmaker. And it’s certainly more true of one side than the other. But the increasingly irrelevant nature of our so-called marketplace of ideas seems hard to ignore. Perhaps, when it comes to the the tangible impact of these ceaseless online coal-fire conflicts, that old joke at the expense of academia applies: the discourse is so vicious because the stakes are so small.

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Max Q: SpaceX succeeds with a spectacular Crew Dragon test launch

Max Q is a new weekly newsletter all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Sundays in your inbox.

We’re off and running with good milestones achieved for NASA’s commercial crew program, which means it’s more likely than ever we’ll actually see astronauts launch from U.S. soil before the year is out.

If that’s not enough to get you pumped about the space sector in 2020, we also have a great overview of 2019 in space tech investment, and a look forward at what’s happening next year from Space Angels’ Chad Anderson. Plus, we announced our own dedicated space event, which is happening this June.

SpaceX successfully tests Crew Dragon safety system

SpaceX launched its Crew Dragon commercial astronaut spacecraft on Sunday. No one was on board, but the test was crucial because it included firing off the in-flight abort (IFA) safety system that will protect actual astronauts should anything go wrong with future real missions.

The SpaceX in-flight abort test included this planned fireball, as the Falcon 9 rocket it launched upon broke up.

The IFA seems to have worked as intended, propelling the Crew Dragon away from the Falcon 9 it was launched on top of at high speed. In an actual emergency, this would ensure that the astronauts aboard were transported to a safe distance, and then returned to Earth at a safe speed using the onboard parachutes, which seem to have deployed exactly as planned.

Elon Musk details Starship operational plans

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is looking a bit further ahead, in the meantime, to when his company’s Starship spacecraft is fully operational and making regular trips to Mars. Musk said he wants to be launching Starships as much as thrice daily, with the goal of moving megatons of cargo and up to a million people to Mars at full target operating pace.

SpinLaunch raises $35M more for catapult launcher

Secretive space launch startup SpinLaunch is adding to its operating capital with a new $35 million investment, a round led by Airbus Ventures, GV and more. The company wants to use rotational force to effectively fling payloads out of Earth’s atmosphere – without using any rockets. Sounds insane, but I’ve heard from people much smarter than me that the company, and the core concept, is sound.

What 2020 holds for space startup invesment

I spoke to Space Angels CEO Chat Anderson about his company’s quarterly tracking of private investment in the space technology sector, which they’ve been doing since 2017. They’re uniquely well-positioned to combine data from both public sources and the companies they speak to, and perform due diligence on, so there’s no better place to look for insight on where we’ve been, and an educated perspective on where we’re going. (ExtraCrunch subscription required).

Rocket Lab is expanding its LA presence

Rocket Lab was born in New Zealand, and still operates a facility and main launch pad there, but it’s increasingly building out its U.S. presence, too. Now, the company shared its plans to build a combined HQ/Mission Control/rocket fab facility in LA. Construction is already underway, and it should be completed later this year.

Orbex lands a new customer with lots of rideshare mission experience

‘Rideshare’ in space means something entirely different than it does on Earth – you’re not hailing an Uber, you’re booking one portion of cargo space aboard a rocket with a group of other clients. Orbex has a new customer that bought up all the capacity for one of its future rideshare missions, planned for 2022. The new launch provider hasn’t actually launched any rockets, however, so it’ll have to pass that key milestone before it makes good on that new contract.

We’re having a space event!

Yes, it’s official: TechCrunch is hosting its on space-focused tech event on June 25 in LA. This will be a one-day, high-profile program featuring discussions with the top companies and people in space tech, startups and investment. We’ll be revealing more about programming over the next few months, but if you get in now you can guarantee your spot.

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Google takes on AWS and Azure in India with Airtel cloud deal

Google has inked a deal with India’s third-largest telecom operator as the American giant looks to grow its cloud customer base in the key overseas market that is increasingly emerging as a new cloud battleground for AWS and Microsoft .

Google Cloud announced on Monday that the new partnership, effective starting today, enables Airtel to offer G Suite to small and medium-sized businesses as part of the telco’s ICT portfolio.

Airtel, which has amassed over 325 million subscribers in India, said it currently serves 2,500 large businesses and over 500,000 small and medium-sized businesses and startups in the country. The companies did not share details of their financial arrangement.

In a statement, Thomas Kurian, chief executive of Google Cloud, said, “the combination of G Suite’s collaboration and productivity tools with Airtel’s digital business offerings will help accelerate digital innovations for thousands of Indian businesses.”

The move follows Reliance Jio, India’s largest telecom operator, striking a similar deal with Microsoft to sell cloud services to small businesses. The two announced a 10-year partnership to “serve millions of customers.”

AWS, which leads the cloud market, interestingly does not maintain any similar deals with a telecom operator — though it did in the past. Deals with carriers, which were very common a decade ago as tech giants looked to acquire new users in India, illustrates the phase of the cloud adoption in the nation.

Nearly half a billion people in India came online last decade. And slowly, small businesses and merchants are also beginning to use digital tools, storage services, and accept online payments. According to a report by lobby group Nasscom, India’s cloud market is estimated to be worth more than $7 billion in three years.

Like in many other markets, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are locked in an intense battle to win cloud customers in India. All of them offer near identical features and are often willing to pay out a potential client’s remainder credit to the rival to convince them to switch, industry executives have told TechCrunch.

The three companies have also launched a range of tools and conducted training in India in recent years to help mom-and-pop stores easily build presence on the web. Last week, Amazon announced it was investing $1 billion into its India operations to help about 10 million merchants come online.

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France improves stock options policies for startup employees

A couple of weeks ago, France’s digital minister Cédric O announced some changes when it comes to stock options in France. President Emmanuel Macron is going to talk about the new policy today ahead of the World Economic Forum.

While I don’t want to be too technical, here’s a quick overview of the changes.

First, the price of stock options (also known as BSPCE in France) won’t be based on the same VC-determined valuation. Let’s take an example — a VC fund invests in a Series A round, valuing the company at €12 million.

If you join the company after, you can get stock options based on a lower valuation, which increases the chances of higher returns. Going forward, there will be a different valuation for employees getting stock options.

Second, if you work for a foreign startup but you’re based in France, you couldn’t receive stock options. For instance, if you’re a Citymapper employee — a startup that is headquartered in London — based out of the Paris office, you could forget about stock options. Employees based in France can now receive stock options even if the company isn’t incorporated in France.

Third, the French Tech Visa now also works for foreign companies with an office in Paris. If you work for Berlin-based N26 and you want to hire a great Brazilian data scientist in your Paris office, you can now go through the fast-track visa process for startup employees.

Last year, VC firm Index Ventures coordinated an effort to overhaul stock option policies across Europe by lobbying policymakers. Hundreds of tech CEOs have signed the ‘Not Optional’ letter since then.

According to Index Ventures, Germany, Spain and Belgium are the lowest-ranked European countries when it comes to the regulatory framework around stock options.

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Catalyst Fund gets $15M from JP Morgan, UK Aid to back 30 EM fintech startups

The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.

The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.

That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.

Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.

“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.

Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.

Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.

Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.

African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s companies, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.

That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.

The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.

By several estimates, Africa is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale payment solutions on the continent.

Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech startups on the continent.

This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.

For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation

“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.

This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.

More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets such as Nigeria, India and Mexico.

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Open banking platform Tink raises €90M at a post-money valuation of €415M

Tink, the European open banking platform, is disclosing €90 million in new funding, just 11 months after the Sweden-headquartered company announced a €56 million round of funding.

Co-leading this new round is Dawn Capital, HMI Capital and Insight Partners. The round also includes the incumbent postal operator and Italy’s largest financial services network Poste Italiane as a new investor, along with existing investors Heartcore Capital, ABN AMRO Ventures and BNP Paribas’ venture arm, Opera Tech Ventures.

The injection of capital will enable Tink to accelerate its European expansion plans and further develop its product accordingly.

“During 2020, we are committed to building out our platform with more bank connections and, on top of that, expand our product offering,” Tink co-founder and CEO Daniel Kjellén tells me. “Our aim is to become the preferred pan-European provider of digital banking services and increase our local presence across the region”.

Originally launched in Sweden in 2013 as a consumer-facing finance app with bank account aggregation at its heart, Tink has long since repositioned its offering to become a fully-fledged open banking platform, requisite with developer APIs, to enable banks and other financial service providers to ride the open banking/PSD2 train.

Through its various APIs, Tink provides four pillars of technology: “Account Aggregation,” “Payment Initiation,” “Personal Finance Management” and “Data Enrichment.” These can be used by third parties to roll their own standalone apps or integrated into existing banking applications.

“We have grown significantly, both in terms of our platform’s connectivity and as an organisation,” says Kjellén, when asked what has changed in the last 11 months. “We have during the year launched our platform in Belgium, Austria, the U.K., Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and Italy. In total, our open banking platform is right now live in twelve European markets and connects to more than 2,500 banks that reach more than 250 million bank customers across Europe”.

The company’s headcount has also grown a lot, too. In the beginning of 2019 it sat at around 120, but is now at 300 employees. Most but not all are based in its headquarters in Stockholm, alongside local offices including recently opened sites in Paris, Helsinki, Oslo, Madrid, Warsaw, Milan and Copenhagen.

Perhaps better positioned than most, I asked Kjellén what types of use cases are really resonating with open banking, given that many industry commentators don’t think it has quite yet lived up to the hype.

“Many of our customers are seeing the advantage of being able to build smart multi-banking products with the data that they are now able to fetch and use to add value for their end users,” he says. “The use cases that really show the potential of open banking that we see our customers thriving with are those that leverage the full value of the financial data to deliver truly personalised experiences at scale, or remove friction in the user journey to a minimum, such as proactive price comparison, enhanced credit scoring and onboarding. Use cases such as these show that the consumer’s data can really work for them and bring improvements to their everyday interactions”.

One example Kjellén gives me is Klarna, the checkout credit provider, which he says is using open banking to provide a “wonderful” in-app experience. “I love that I as a consumer can now choose to change my mind and slice up the payments for a purchase I have already paid in full with my bank card,” he explains. “This shows how the potential of open banking goes way beyond just accessing a transaction history and allows the most innovative players, such as Klarna, to create a new standard in consumer experience”.

Kjellén says another standout use-case is using PSD2 APIs to verify identity to complete any type of customer registration completely automatically. “[That is] something that I find very innovative. It automates the previously time-consuming administration on the business side and delivers a completely seamless digital service on the end user side,” he says.

Meanwhile, Tink says its customer numbers have “quadrupled” in the past year, and includes PayPal, Klarna, NatWest, ABN AMRO, BNP Paribas Fortis, Nordea and SEB. “More than 4,000 developers are currently using Tink to build and power new innovative financial services and products,” adds Kjellén.

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Samsung invests $500M to set up a smartphone display plant in India

Samsung, which once led India’s smartphone market, is investing $500 million in its India operations to set up a manufacturing plant to produce displays at the outskirts of New Delhi.

The company disclosed the investment and its plan in a filing to the local regulator earlier this month. The South Korean giant said the plant would produce displays for smartphones as well as a wide-range of other electronics devices.

In the filing, the company disclosed that it would be using some land for the new plant from its existing factory in Noida.

In 2018, Samsung opened a factory in Noida that it claimed was the world’s largest mobile manufacturing plant. For that factory, the company had committed about $700 million.

The new factory should help Samsung further increase its capacity to produce smartphone components locally and access a range of tax benefits New Delhi offers.

Those benefits would come in handy to the company as it faces off Xiaomi, the Chinese smartphone vendor that put an end to Samsung’s lead in India.

Samsung is now the second largest smartphone player in India, which is the world’s second largest market with nearly 500 million smartphone users. The company in recent months has also lost market share to Chinese brand Realme, which is poised to take over Samsung in the quarter that ended in December last year, according to research firms.

TechCrunch has reached out to Samsung for comment.

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In Los Angeles, the Women’s March embraces technology to organize and inspire

The roughly 300,000 marchers that filled the streets of downtown Los Angeles for the third annual Women’s March received more than just an opportunity to hear from some of the state’s high powered politicians, they were also part of a new experiment from local March organizers in bringing technology into the movement.

Using an organizational tool called SameSide, whose launch coincided with the Women’s March and a joint effort with RockTheVote, Women’s March organizers are hoping to transfer excitement about the march into broader political engagement with local and national women’s issues in this Presidential election year.

At the same time, the March organizers were trying to find a way to incorporate art and artists into the event, while being respectful of public spaces. That’s where a new, pre-launch application called Mark, came into the picture.

Mark, a joint venture between the Danish game development firm Sybo and the Chinese mobile game publisher iDreamSky, uses augmented reality to permanent installations of digital street art. The two year old company is still in beta, but decided to work with the Women’s March as an initial test of its product.

The company agreed to donate up to $300,000 in total, and up to $100 per-person for new users who downloaded the application. Mark donated $1 per download and initial share by a user for an account created during the march. Subsequent donations will be made fo consecutive days in app and multiple shares of posts made using MARK, according to the company. Login for 60 straight days and share 20 Mark AR posts and the company agreed to donate $100 to The Women’s March.

Image courtesy of Mark

“Any movement encompasses art,” says Women’s March Los Angeles Foundation executive director Emiliana Guereca. “Social justice art and technology and the movement really melded for us. Even though it’s technology, it’s organic.”

Using Google’s persistent cloud anchors in ARCore, Mark users are able to create permanent images that can be viewed and modified through the company’s app. In Los Angeles, the company worked with American and international artists Amy Sol, Sam Kirk , Faith XLVIILedania, and Fatma Al-Remaihi to create pieces that would be available at specific sites throughout the march route.

Though the Women’s March may serve as Mark’s debut, the company intends to avoid picking political sides. “We want to be as politically neutral as possible,” says Mark’s chief executive Jeff Lyndon Ko. The former founder of the publicly traded Shenzhen-based gaming publisher iDreamSky, acknowledged that his new company couldn’t work in China’s tightly controlled social media market.

“This project will have a lot more legs outside of the Greater China reach,” Ko said.  As for the company’s Chinese shareholders (iDreamSky is an investor in Mark), the politics of the women’s movement in the U.S. were a foreign concept. “MyChina team was like, ‘What is that?’” Ko said.

If the collaboration with Mark was designed to inspire, the work that The Women’s March Foundation Los Angeles is doing with SameSide is intended to incite action.

A graduate of the politically focused accelerator, Higher Ground Labs, Sameside is the work of Nicole a’Beckett and her brother, a former Navy Seal. Together the two worked to create a social network that would combine political engagement and social activities to develop communities built around shared ideologies and purpose.

The company offers push notifications and reminders of important dates as well as a database of potentially engaged activists who could be organized around social events. It’s kind of like a politically focused “Meetup” with the added ability to message members about important dates and include calls to action for future activity.

“The Women’s March is the unofficial launch of SameSide, and is making the Women’s March in Los Angeles a catalyst for action by providing a platform for people everywhere to set up affiliated events — things like sign making parties, meet-up coffee parties the morning of the march, house parties for those who can’t attend a march — and delivering a voter registration action kit powered by Rock the Vote to everyone who RSVPs to any affiliated events or the Los Angeles Women’s March,” wrote a’Beckett in an email.

The Women’s March Foundation Los Angeles organizers view political engagement as a crucial next step for march participants. “There is a ‘to-do’ list after marching,” says Guereca. “The draw to Sameside is now people can plug in. How to continue the movement via your phone is critical.”

 

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China Roundup: Tencent’s new US gaming studio and WeChat’s new paywall

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

The spotlight this week is back on Tencent, which has made some interesting moves in gaming and content publishing. There will be no roundup next week as China observes the Lunar New Year, but the battle only intensifies for the country’s internet giants, particularly short-video rivals Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) and Kuaishou, which will be vying for user time over the big annual holiday. We will surely cover that when we return.

‘Honor of Kings’ creator hiring for U.S. studio

Tencent’s storied gaming studio TiMi is looking to accelerate international expansion by tripling its headcount in the U.S. in 2020, the studio told TechCrunch this week, though it refused to reveal the exact size of its North American office. Eleven-year-old TiMi currently has a team working out of Los Angeles on global business and plans to grow it into a full development studio that “helps us understand Western players and gives us a stronger global perspective,” said the studio’s international business director Vincent Gao.

Gao borrowed the Chinese expression “riding the wind and breaking the wave” to characterize TiMi’s global strategy. The wind, he said, “refers to the ever-growing desire for quality by mobile gamers.” Breaking the wave, on the other hand, entails TiMi applying new development tools to building high-budget, high-quality AAA mobile games.

The studio is credited for producing one of the world’s most-played mobile games, Honor of Kings, a mobile multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game, and taking it overseas under the title Arena of Valor. Although Arena of Valor didn’t quite take off in Western markets, it has done well in Southeast Asia in part thanks to Tencent’s publishing partnership with the region’s internet giant Garena.

Honor of Kings and a few other Tencent games have leveraged the massive WeChat and QQ messengers to acquire users. That raises the question of whether Tencent can replicate its success in overseas markets where its social apps are largely absent. But TiMi contended that these platforms are not essential to a game’s success. “TiMi didn’t succeed in China because of WeChat and QQ. It’s not hard to find examples of games that didn’t succeed even with [support from] WeChat and QQ.”

Call of Duty: Mobile is developed by Tencent and published by Activision Blizzard (Image: Call of Duty: Mobile via Twitter) 

When it comes to making money, TiMi has from the outset been a strong proponent of game-as-a-service whereby it continues to pump out fresh content after the initial download. Gao believes the model will gain further traction in 2020 as it attracts old-school game developers, which were accustomed to pay-to-play, to follow suit.

All eyes are now on TiMi’s next big move, the mobile version of Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty. Tencent, given its experience in China’s mobile-first market, appears well-suited to make the mobile transition for the well-loved console shooter. Developed by Tencent and published by Blizzard, in which Tencent owns a minority stake, in September, Call of Duty: Mobile had a spectacular start, recording more worldwide downloads in a single quarter than any mobile game except Pokémon GO, which saw its peak in Q3 2016, according to app analytics company Sensor Tower.

The pedigreed studio has in recent times faced more internal competition from its siblings inside Tencent, particularly the Lightspeed Quantum studio, which is behind the successful mobile version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). While Tencent actively fosters internal rivalry between departments, Gao stressed that TiMi has received abundant support from Tencent on the likes of publishing, business development and legal matters.

WeChat erects a paywall – with Apple tax

Ever since WeChat rolled out its content publishing function — a Facebook Page equivalent named the Official Account — back in 2012, articles posted through the social networking platform have been free to read. That’s finally changing.

This week, WeChat announced that it began allowing a selected group of authors to put their articles behind a paywall in a trial period. The launch is significant not only because it can inspire creators by helping them eke out additional revenues, but it’s also a reminder of WeChat’s occasionally fraught relationship with Apple.

WeChat launched its long-awaited paywall for articles published on its platform 

Let’s rewind to 2017 when WeChat, in a much-anticipated move, added a “tipping” feature to articles published on Official Account. The function was meant to boost user engagement and incentivize writers off the back of the popularity of online tipping in China. On live streaming platforms, for instance, users consume content for free but many voluntarily send hosts tips and virtual gifts worth from a few yuan to the hundreds.

WeChat said at the time that all transfers from tipping would go toward the authors, but Apple thought otherwise, claiming that such tips amounted to “in-app purchases” and thus entitled it to a 30% cut from every transaction, or what is widely known as the “Apple tax.”

WeChat disabled tipping following the clash over the terms but reintroduced the feature in 2018 after reaching consensus with Apple. The function has been up and running since then and neither WeChat nor Apple charged from the transfers, a spokesperson from WeChat confirmed with TechCrunch.

If the behemoths’ settlement over tipping was a concession on Apple’s end, Tencent has budged on paywalls this time.

Unlike tipping, the new paywall feature entitles Apple to its standard 30% cut of in-app transactions. That means transfers for paid content will go through Apple’s in-app purchase (IAP) system rather than WeChat’s own payments tool, as is the case with tipping. It also appears that only users with a Chinese Apple account are able to pay for WeChat articles. TechCrunch’s attempt to purchase a post using a U.S. Apple account was rejected by WeChat on account of the transaction “incurring risks or not paying with RMB.”

The launch is certainly a boon to creators who enjoy a substantial following, although many of them have already explored third-party platforms for alternative commercial possibilities beyond the advertising and tipping options that WeChat enables. Zhishi Xingqiu, the “Knowledge Planet”, for instance, is widely used by WeChat creators to charge for value-added services such as providing readers with exclusive industry reports. Xiaoe-tong, or “Smart Little Goose”, is a popular tool for content stars to roll out paid lessons.

Not everyone is bullish on the new paywall. One potential drawback is it will drive down traffic and discourage advertisers. Others voice concerns that the paid feature is vulnerable to exploitation by clickbait creators. On that end, WeChat has restricted the application to the function only to accounts that are over three months old, have published at least three original articles and have seen no serious violations of WeChat rules.

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