How Squishy Robotics created a robot that can be safely dropped out of a helicopter

If you want to build a robot that can fall hundreds of feet and be no worse the wear, legs are pretty much out of the question. The obvious answer, then, is a complex web of cable-actuated rods. Obvious to Squishy Robotics, anyway, whose robots look delicate but are in fact among the most durable out there.

The startup has been operating more or less in stealth mode, emerging publicly today onstage at our Robotics + AI Sessions event in Berkeley, Calif. It began, co-founder and CEO Alice Agogino told me, as a project connected to NASA Ames a few years back.

“The original idea was to have a robot that could be dropped from a spacecraft and survive the fall,” said Agogino. “But I could tell this tech had earthly applications.”

Her reason for thinking so was learning that first responders were losing their lives due to poor situational awareness in areas they were being deployed. It’s hard to tell without actually being right there that a toxic gas is lying close to the ground, or that there is a downed electrical line hidden under a fallen tree, and so on.

Robots are well-suited to this type of reconnaissance, but it’s a bit of a Catch-22: You have to get close to deploy a robot, but you need the robot there to get close enough in the first place. Unless, of course, you can somehow deploy the robot from the air. This is already done, but it’s rather clumsy: picture a wheeled bot floating down under a parachute, missing its mark by a hundred feet due to high winds or getting tangled in its own cords.

“We interviewed a number of first responders,” said Agogino. “They told us they want us to deploy ground sensors before they get there, to know what they’re getting into; then when they get there they want something to walk in front of them.”

Squishy’s solution can’t quite be dropped from orbit, as the original plan was for exploring Saturn’s moon Titan, but they can fall from 600 feet, and likely much more than that, and function perfectly well afterwards. It’s all because of the unique “tensegrity structure,” which looks like a game of pick-up-sticks crossed with cat’s cradle. (Only use the freshest references for you, reader.)

If it looks familiar, you’re probably thinking of the structures famously studied by Buckminster Fuller, and they’re related but quite different. This one had to be engineered not just to withstand great force from dropping, but to shift in such a way that it can walk or crawl along the ground and even climb low obstacles. That’s a nontrivial shift away from the buckyball and other geodesic types.

“We looked at lots of different tensegrity structures — there are an infinite number,” Agogino said. “It has six compressive elements, which are the bars, and 24 other elements, which are the cables or wires. But they could be shot out of a cannon and still protect the payload. And they’re so compliant, you could throw them at children, basically.” (That’s not the mission, obviously. But there are in fact children’s toys with tensegrity-type designs.)

Inside the bars are wires that can be pulled or slackened to cause to move the various points of contact with the ground, changing the center of gravity and causing the robot to roll or spin in the desired direction. A big part of the engineering work was making the tiny motors to control the cables, and then essentially inventing a method of locomotion for this strange shape.

“On the one hand it’s a relatively simple structure, but it’s complicated to control,” said Agogino. “To get from A to B there are any number of solutions, so you can just play around — we even had kids do it. But to do it quickly and accurately, we used machine learning and AI techniques to come up with an optimum technique. First we just created lots of motions and observed them. And from those we found patterns, different gaits. For instance if it has to squeeze between rocks, it has to change its shape to be able to do that.”

The mobile version would be semi-autonomous, meaning it would be controlled more or less directly but figure out on its own the best way to accomplish “go forward” or “go around this wall.” The payload can be customized to have various sensors and cameras, depending on the needs of the client — one being deployed at a chemical spill needs a different loadout than one dropping into a radioactive area, for instance.

To be clear, these things aren’t going to win in an all-out race against a Spot or a wheeled robot on unbroken pavement. But for one thing, those are built specifically for certain environments and there’s room for more all-purpose, adaptable types. And for another, neither one of those can be dropped from a helicopter and survive. In fact, almost no robots at all can.

“No one can do what we do,” Agogino preened. At a recent industry demo day where robot makers showed off air-drop models, “we were the only vendor that was able to do a successful drop.”

And although the tests only went up to a few hundred feet, there’s no reason that Squishy’s bots shouldn’t be able to be dropped from 1,000, or for that matter 50,000 feet up. They hit terminal velocity after a relatively short distance, meaning they’re hitting the ground as hard as they ever will, and working just fine afterwards. That has plenty of parties interested in what Squishy is selling.

The company is still extremely small and has very little funding: mainly a $500,000 grant from NASA and $225,000 from the National Science Foundation’s SBIR fund. But they’re also working from UC Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator, which has already put them in touch with a variety of resources and entrepreneurs, and the upcoming May 14 demo day will put their unique robotics in front of hundreds of VCs eager to back the latest academic spin-offs.

You can keep up with the latest from the company at its website, or of course this one.

Why we’re looking into the Mueller report

After nearly two years of investigation and months of delays — not to mention partisan bickering the whole time, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the president’s campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election is out today.

We’re not a politics news site but we’re still looking into it — tech has figured more prominently than ever in the last few years and understanding its role in what could be a major political event is crucial for the industry and government both.

The report and discussion thereof is bound to be highly politically charged from the get-go and the repercussions from what is disclosed therein are sure to reach many in and out of office. But there are also interesting threads to pull as far as events and conspiracies that could only exist online or using modern technology and services, and for these the perspective of technology, not politics, reporting may be best suited to add context and interpretation.

What do we expect to find in the report that is of particular interest to the tech world?

The topic that is most relevant and least explored already is the nature of Russia’s most direct involvement in the 2016 election, namely the hack of the Democratic National Committee email server, attributed to Russia’s GRU intelligence unit, and funneling of this information to WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign. The recent arrest of Julian Assange may prove relevant here.

The report will illuminate many things relating to these events, not necessarily technical details — although they may have been furnished by any number of parties — but plans, dates, people involved, and networks through which the hack and resulting data were communicated. Why was this added to Mueller’s pile in the first place? What about Assange? Who knew about the hack and when, and what does that imply?

Another topic, which seems more well trodden but about which we can never seem to know enough, is the origin and extent of Russian “troll farm” activity through the so-called Internet Research Agency. We’ve seen a great deal of their work as part of the ongoing barbecue of Facebook’s leadership, and to a lesser extent other social media platforms, but there’s much we don’t know as well.

Was there coordination with some U.S. entities? How was the content created, and the topics chosen? Was there a stated outcome, such as dividing the electorate or damaging Clinton’s reputation? Was this contiguous with earlier operations? How, if at all, did it change once Trump was named the Republican candidate, and was this related to other communications with his campaign?

The last of our topics of most likely interest is that of the technological methods employed by Mueller in his investigation. Previous investigations of this scale into the activities of sitting presidents and their campaigns have occurred in completely different eras, when things like emails, metadata, and encrypted messaging weren’t, as they are today, commonplace.

How did Mueller pursue and collect privileged communications on, for example, private email servers and hosted web services? What services and networks were contacted, and how did they respond? How were the U.S.’ surveillance tools employed? What about location service from tech giants or telecoms? Was other garden-variety metadata — the type we are often told is harmless and which is often unregulated — used in the investigation to any effect?

We will be poring over the report with these thoughts and ideas in mind but also with an eye to any other interesting tech-related item that may appear. Perhaps that private server used “admin/password” as their login. Perhaps GRU agents were communicating using a cryptographic method known to be unsafe. Perhaps the vice-president uses a Palm Pre?

We’ll leave the politics to cable news and D.C. insiders, but tech is key to this report and we aim to explain why and how.

FCC looks to slap down China Mobile’s attempt to join US telecom system

The FCC has proposed to deny an application from China Mobile, a state-owned telecom, to provide interconnect and mobile services here in the U.S., citing security concerns. It’s another setback to the country’s attempts to take part in key portions of American telecommunications.

China Mobile was essentially asking to put call and data interconnection infrastructure here in the U.S.; It would have come into play when U.S. providers needed to connect to Chinese ones. Right now the infrastructure is generally in China, an FCC spokesperson explained on a press call.

In a draft order that will be made public tomorrow and voted on in May, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai moves to deny the application, which has been pending since 2011. Such applications by foreign-owned entities to build and maintain critical infrastructure like this in the U.S. have to pass through the Executive, which only last year issued word that it advised against the deal.

In the last few months, the teams at the FCC have reviewed the record and came to the conclusion that, as Chairman Ajit Pai put it:

It is clear that China Mobile’s application to provide telecommunications services in our country raises substantial and serious national security and law enforcement risks. Therefore, I do not believe that approving it would be in the public interest.

National security issues are of course inevitable whenever a foreign-owned company wants to be involved with major infrastructure work in the U.S., and often this can be taken care of with a mitigation agreement. This would be something like an official understanding between the relevant parties that, for instance, law enforcement in the U.S. would have access to data handled by the, say, German-owned equipment, and German authorities would alert U.S. about stuff it finds, that sort of thing.

But that presupposes a level of basic trust that’s absent in the case of a company owned (indirectly but fully) by the Chinese government, the FCC representative explained. It’s a similar objection to that leveled at Huawei, which given its close ties to the Chinese government, the feds have indicated they won’t be contracting with the company for infrastructure work going forward.

The denial of China Mobile’s application on these grounds is apparently without precedent, Pai wrote in a separate note: “Notably, this is the first time the Executive Branch has ever recommended that the FCC deny an application due to national security concerns.”

It’s likely to further strain relations between our two countries, though the news likely comes as no surprise to China Mobile, which probably gave up hope some time around the third or fourth year its application was stuck in a bureaucratic black hole.

The draft order will be published tomorrow, and will contain the evidence and reasoning behind the proposal. It will be voted on at the FCC open meeting on May 9.

Xbox One does away with discs in new $249 All-Digital Edition

Discs! What are they good for? Well, they’re nice if you don’t want to be tied to an online-only ecosystem. But if you don’t mind that, Microsoft’s latest Xbox One S “All-Digital Edition” might be for you. With no slots to speak of, the console is limited to downloading games to its drive — which is how we’ve been doing it on PC for quite some time.

Announced during today’s “Inside Xbox” video presentation, the Xbox One S All-Digital Edition — honestly, why not just give it a different letter? — is identical to the existing One S except for, of course, not having a disc slot in the front.

The Xbox One X (left) and S (center) are missing this valuable feature exclusive to the All-Digital Edition (right)

The impact of the news was lessened somewhat by Sony’s strategically timed tease of its next-generation console, revealing little — but enough to get gamers talking on a day Microsoft would have preferred was about its game ecosystem. But to return to the disc-free Xbox.

“We’re not looking to push customers toward digital,” explained Microsoft’s Jeff Gattis in a press release. “It’s about meeting the needs of customers that are digital natives that prefer digital-based media. Given this is the first product of its kind, it will teach us things we don’t already know about customer preferences around digital and will allow us to refine those experiences in the future. We see this as a step forward in extending our offerings beyond the core console gamer.”

The CPU and GPU are the same, RAM is the same, everything is the same. Even, unfortunately, the hard drive: a single lonely terabyte (imagine saying that a few years ago) that could fill up fast if every game has to be downloaded in full rather than loaded from disc.

It’s also the exact same shape and size as the S, which seems like a missed opportunity — they couldn’t make it a little smaller or thinner after taking out the whole Blu-ray assembly? Well, at least the original is a nice-looking little box to begin with. (“Changes that affect the form of a console can be complex and costly,” said Gattis.)

At $249 it’s $50 cheaper than the disc-using edition, and comes with copies of Sea of Thieves, Minecraft and Forza Horizon 3. That’s a pretty decent value, I’d say. If you’re looking to break into the Xbox ecosystem and don’t want to clutter your place with a bunch of discs and cases, this is a nice option. Sea of Thieves had kind of a weak start but has grown quite a bit, FH3 is supposed to be solid and Minecraft is of course Minecraft.

You may also want to spring for the new Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service, which combines Xbox Live Gold and Xbox Game Pass — meaning you get the usual online benefits as well as access to the growing Game Pass library. There’s enough there now that, with the games you get in the box, you shouldn’t have to buy much of anything until whatever Microsoft announces at E3 comes out. (There’s even a special offer for three months of Game Pass for a buck to get you started.)

You can pre-order the All-Digital Edition (which really should have been called the Xbox One D) now, and it should ship and be available at retailers starting May 7.

Chilly reception for marijuana tycoon game shows games industry’s backwards stance on drugs

Intense and graphic violence is something we’ve come to simply expect from games, but sexual and other adult themes are still largely taboo — including, as publisher Devolver Digital is learning, drugs. Even if the game in question is a relatively serious tycoon-type look at the current (and legal!) business of selling weed.

Devolver is no stranger to controversy; it has published and helped develop dozens of games and many of them have featured the kind of graphic violence that sets off those who still see the medium as a corruptive, fundamentally debased one. And to be fair, the likes of Hotline Miami aren’t going to change any minds.

But for the company’s first original commissioned IP, it had the idea of assembling a game in the popular “tycoon” genre, but focused on the emerging and popular sector of growing marijuana.

Obviously this is somewhat controversial, but the plant is legal in many states and countries already and on its way in plenty of others. This isn’t the time or place for a full evaluation of the scheduling system and the war on drugs, but it suffices to say that it is a complex and interesting business ecosystem that’s teetering on the edge of widespread acceptance. That makes it a bit edgy, but also fresh and relevant — perfect, Devolver thought, to build a game around. So they made Weedcraft, Inc.

Unfortunately, the company’s co-founder Mike Wilson told me the other day, they underestimated how square the gaming industry is.

“This is definitely the hardest game I’ve had to market, and that’s saying something,” Wilson told me. “It has been a fucking nightmare. The fact that we’re still so afraid of a topic like weed instead of the murder simulators you can market any time, anywhere, it’s shocking.”

Console game stores were reluctant to even carry it, and warned Devolver that it would never be featured, which is a death sentence for a game’s discoverability. They couldn’t get ads approved on Facebook or Instagram, and the person who submitted them even had his account suspended. And just this week, streamers trying out the game on YouTube had their videos demonetized.

The only stores that didn’t buck were Steam, which is largely content-agnostic, and GOG, a popular DRM-free storefront.

Why, though? This isn’t a game about smoking blunts or cutting dime bags with oregano to sell to middle school kids.

Well, it is a little pro-legalization.

“This isn’t a pro-legalization game. This is a tycoon game. You don’t do drugs in the game!” said Wilson. “You can play as a totally legal, scrupulous businessperson. We did all this research with like, dispensaries, geneticists, lawyers, we were worried about cultural sensitivity with the subject matter, things like how much more black people get jailed for it. We wanted it to be representative of all the social issues involved. It’s kind of like doing a game about booze in the prohibition era — like, what an interesting industry to study, right?”

It’s not that the companies involved here — Microsoft, Sony, YouTube and so on — are applying some invisible rules. The rules are there; when I contacted YouTube for comment, they pointed me to the list of guidelines for “advertiser-friendly content.” And plain as day there’s the one about drugs: “Video content that promotes or features the sale, use, or abuse of illegal drugs, regulated drugs or substances, or other dangerous products is not suitable for advertising.”

It’s just a bit weird to me still that we have this backwards, puritan approach to this stuff. Think of how much vile garbage is on YouTube and how the most popular games in the world glorify guns and death. But a recreational drug legal in many places and generally well thought of, not to mention a massive and growing business — that’s beyond the pale.

I understand YouTube doesn’t want people doing bong-clearing competitions, and console makers want to appear family-friendly so they don’t lose that teen and tween market. But surely we can be adults about this.

Gaming is maturing to be an interactive storytelling medium that encompasses serious issues, but the industry is holding itself back by its squeamishness about adult themes. And that feeds into the puritanical objections from misguided commentators, who go nuts over romancing an alien in Mass Effect or the ridiculous “Hot Coffee” thing in GTA, but don’t acknowledge the sophisticated storytelling of Return of the Obra Dinn, or subversive commentary of Papers, Please, or the impressive period recreation of an Assassin’s Creed.

Drugs are a complex and controversial topic. I get that some people want to stay hands-off. But when that hands-off stance doesn’t apply to graphic violence, sexism, and other sore spots, it comes off as prudish and hypocritical.

OpenAI Five crushes Dota2 world champs, and soon you can lose to it too

Dota2 is one of the most popular, and complex, online games in the world, but an AI has once again shown itself to supersede human skill. In matches over the weekend, OpenAI’s “Five” system defeated two pro teams soundly, and soon you’ll be able to test your own mettle against — or alongside — the ruthless agent.

In a blog post, OpenAI detailed how its game-playing agent has progressed from its younger self — it seems wrong to say previous version, since it really is the same extensive neural network as many months ago, but with much more training.

The version that played at Dota2’s premiere tournament, The International, gets schooled by the new version 99 percent of the time. And it’s all down to more practice:

In total, the current version of OpenAI Five has consumed 800 petaflop/s-days and experienced about 45,000 years of Dota self-play over 10 realtime months (up from about 10,000 years over 1.5 realtime months as of The International), for an average of 250 years of simulated experience per day.

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time an RL [reinforcement learning] agent has been trained using such a long-lived training run.

One is tempted to cry foul at a datacenter-spanning intelligence being allowed to train for 600 human lifespans. But really it’s more of a compliment to human cognition that we can accomplish the same thing with a handful of months or years, while still finding time to eat, sleep, socialize (well, some of us) and so on.

Dota2 is an intense and complex game with some rigid rules but a huge amount of fluidity, and representing it in a way that makes sense to a computer isn’t easy (which likely accounts partly for the volume of training required). Controlling five “heroes” at once on a large map with so much going on at any given time is enough to tax a team of five human brains. But teams work best when they’re acting as a single unit, which is more or less what Five was doing from the start. Rather than five heroes, it was more like five fingers of a hand to the AI.

Interestingly, OpenAI also discovered lately that Five is capable of playing cooperatively with humans as well as in competition. This was far from a sure thing — the whole system might have frozen up or misbehaved if it had a person in there gumming up the gears. But in fact it works pretty well.

You can watch the replays or get the pro commentary on the games if you want to hear exactly how the AI won (I’ve played but I’m far from good. I’m not even bad yet). I understand they had some interesting buy-back tactics and were very aggressive. Or, if you’re feeling masochistic, you can take the AI on yourself in a limited time event later this week.

We’re launching OpenAI Five Arena, a public experiment where we’ll let anyone play OpenAI Five in both competitive and cooperative modes. We’d known that our 1v1 bot would be exploitable through clever strategies; we don’t know to what extent the same is true of OpenAI Five, but we’re excited to invite the community to help us find out!

Although a match against pros would mean all-out war using traditional tactics, low-stakes matches against curious players might reveal interesting patterns or exploits that the AI’s creators aren’t aware of. Results will be posted publicly, so be ready for that.

You’ll need to sign up ahead of time, though: The system will only be available to play from Thursday night at 6 PM to the very end of Sunday, Pacific time. They need to reserve the requisite amount of computing resources to run the thing, so sign up now if you want to be sure to get a spot.

OpenAI’s team writes that this is the last we’ll hear of this particular iteration of the system; it’s done competing (at least in tournaments) and will be described more thoroughly in a paper soon. They’ll continue to work in the Dota2 environment because it’s interesting, but what exactly the goals, means, or limitations will be are yet to be announced.

Did you fly a drone over Fenway Park? The FAA would like a chat

Drones are great. But they are also flying machines that can do lots of stupid and dangerous things. Like, for instance, fly over a major league baseball game packed with spectators. It happened at Fenway Park last night, and the FAA is not happy.

The illegal flight took place last night during a Red Sox-Blue Jays game at Fenway; the drone, a conspicuously white DJI Phantom, reportedly first showed up around 9:30 PM, coming and going over the next hour.

One of the many fans who shot a video of the drone, Chris O’Brien, told CBS Boston that “it would kind of drop fast then go back up then drop and spin. It was getting really low and close to the players. At one point it was getting really low and I was wondering are they going to pause the game and whatever, but they never did.

Places where flying is regularly prohibited, like airports and major landmarks like stadiums, often have no-fly rules baked into the GPS systems of drones — and that’s the case with DJI. In a statement, however, the company said that “whoever flew this drone over the stadium apparently overrode our geofencing system and deliberately violated the FAA temporary flight restriction in place over the game.”

The FAA said that it (and Boston PD) is investigating both to local news and in a tweet explaining why it is illegal.

That’s three nautical miles, which is quite a distance, covering much of central Boston. You don’t really take chances when there are tens of thousands of people all gathered in one spot on a regular basis like that. Drones open up some pretty ugly security scenarios.

Of course, this wasn’t a mile and a half from Fenway, which might have earned a slap on the wrist, but directly over the park, which as the FAA notes above could lead to hundreds of thousands in fines and actual prison time. It’s not hard to imagine why: If that drone had lost power or caught a gust (or been hit by a fly ball, at that altitude), it could have hurt or killed someone in the crowd.

It’s especially concerning when the FAA is working on establishing new rules for both hobby and professional drone use. You should leave a comment there if you feel strongly about this, by the way.

Here’s hoping they catch the idiot who did this. It just goes to show that you can’t trust people to follow the rules, even when they’re coded into a craft’s OS. It’s things like this that make mandatory registration of drones sound like a pretty good idea.

(Red Sox won, by the way. But the season’s off to a rough start.)

Matt Cutts on solving big problems with lean solutions at the US Digital Service

Updating the federal government’s digital infrastructure seems like a Herculean task akin to cleaning out the Augean stables. Where do you even start shoveling? Former Googler and current head of the U.S. Digital Service Matt Cutts says it’s not quite that hard — but he’s had to leave his Silicon Valley startup outlook at the door.

“In the Valley and San Francisco, they’re geared to move fast and break things. And that’s fantastic to explore a space,” Cutts told me in an interview. “But the government has to move purposefully and fix things. It’s more about finding the right decision, achieving consensus, creating good communication.”

The USDS is a small (and actively recruiting) department that takes on creaking interfaces and tangled databases of services for, say, veteran benefit management or immigration documentation, buffing them to a shiny finish that may save their users months of literal paperwork.

Some notes from the USDS’s work on modernizing the Medicare payment system.

Recently, for instance, the USDS overhauled VA.gov, which is how many veterans access things like benefits, make medical appointments, and so on. But until recently it was kind of a mess of interconnected sub-sites and instructional PDFs. USDS interviewed a couple thousand vets and remade the site with a single login, putting the most-used services right on the front page. Seems obvious, but the inertia of these systems is considerable.

“Oftentimes we build a front end and it still talks to an abysmal, or maybe antiquarian, system in the back end,” Cutts said. “VA.gov required a special version of Internet Explorer!”

There are always paper alternatives, but those can be so slow and clunky that they might take three or four months to complete, and can be so complex that people will hire a lawyer to do them rather than risk further delay. These are ostensibly free and open services available to all vets — but they weren’t in practice. And there were accessibility problems all over the place, Cutts noted, which is especially troubling with a disability-heavy population like veterans.

These projects are often short-term, putting modern web and backend standards to work and handing the results off to the agency or department that requested it. The USDS isn’t built for long-term support but acts as a strike team putting smart solutions in place that may seem obvious in startup culture but haven’t yet become standard operating procedure in the capitol.

The work they do is guided by impact, not politics, which is likely part of the reason they’ve managed to avoid interference by the Trump administration, which has treated many other Obama-era initiatives like pests to be exterminated. Yet the nature of the work is in a way fundamentally progressive, in that it is about bottom-up accessibility and helping under-represented or unprivileged groups.

For instance, they’ve been hard at work on immigration issues that would expedite both asylum seekers and seasonal farm workers at the Mexican border. That’s a political live wire right now, even if the decision to do it was strictly based on helping a large population frustrated by outdated digital tools.

The new farmers.gov, built for the Department of Agriculture, vastly streamlines the H-2A visa application process, centralizing documentation and services that were previously spread across several other major departments and websites. That’s unarguably a good thing, but like anything relating to immigration and foreign labor it is possible it could get swept up in the partisan twister. Fortunately that doesn’t seem to have happened.

The new, improved and simplified farmers.gov provides app integration and straightforward design.

“The fact is we get good support,” Cutts said when I asked him about the current political environment. It may not be loud in that support, but quiet actions like appointing former USDS officials and engineers to important roles within administration are common, he said.

There are plenty of other programs looking to modernize federal as well as state systems, he pointed out; it’s a rising tide and it’s lifting a lot of boats.

“I signed up for a three month tour, and that was three years ago,” he said. “It’s really a whole civic tech movement here, there are a ton of people sort of holding hands and working together. There’s also stuff happening at the state and local level, at the international level, from the UK to Estonia and Singapore — everyone’s starting to realize this matters.”

Recruitment, however, is more difficult than he’d like, perhaps partly because of self-imposed hiring practices made to reflect the diversity of the country.

“We get the best results when we represent all of America,” said Cutts. “So I go to Microsoft and Ann Arbor, regular events, but also like, Lesbians Who Tech or Grace Hopper Fest.”

Still, startups and big tech companies regularly poach talent or otherwise lure them away. “They’re just better at recruiting,” he said. And there’s some kind of fundamental disconnect at work, too, perhaps the comfortable contempt many young people have for the government — but he suggested that those seeking to do good might want to do a more serious evaluation of the tech landscape.

“I joined Google because I wanted to make the world a better place,” he said. “But if you look at the #metoo movement, how the tech industry has been acting lately… everyone at those companies has to ask that question, am I really having that impact?”

If you’re not sure, you might consider doing a tour at the USDS. They’re launching products and helping people just like startups aim to do, but they’re beholden to ordinary citizens in need, not investors. That sounds like a step up to me.

This little translator gadget could be a traveling reporter’s best friend

If you’re lucky enough to get travel abroad, you know it’s getting easier and easier to use our phones and other gadgets to translate for us. So why not do so in a way that makes sense to you? This little gadget seeking funds on Kickstarter looks right up my alley, offering quick transcription and recording — plus music playback, like an iPod Shuffle with superpowers.

The ONE Mini is really not that complex of a device — a couple microphones and a wireless board in tasteful packaging — but that combination allows for a lot of useful stuff to happen both offline and with its companion app.

You activate the device, and it starts recording and both translating and transcribing the audio via a cloud service as it goes (or later, if you choose). That right there is already super useful for a reporter like me — although you can always put your phone on the table during an interview, this is more discreet and of course a short-turnaround translation is useful as well.

Recordings are kept on the phone (no on-board memory, alas) and there’s an option for a cloud service, but that probably won’t be necessary considering the compact size of these audio files. If you’re paranoid about security this probably isn’t your jam, but for everyday stuff it should be just fine.

If you want to translate a conversation with someone whose language you don’t speak, you pick two of the 12 built-in languages in the app and then either pass the gadget back and forth or let it sit between you while you talk. The transcript will show on the phone and the ONE Mini can bleat out the translation in its little robotic voice.

Right now translation online only works, but I asked and offline is in the plans for certain language pairs that have reliable two-way edge models, probably Mandarin-English and Korean-Japanese.

It has a headphone jack, too, which lets it act as a wireless playback device for the recordings or for your music, or to take calls using the nice onboard mics. It’s lightweight and has a little clip, so it’s probably better than connecting directly to your phone in many cases.

There’s also a 24/7 interpreter line that charges two bucks a minute that I probably wouldn’t use. I think I would feel weird about it. But in an emergency it could be pretty helpful to have a panic button that sends you directly to a person who speaks both the languages you’ve selected.

I have to say, normally I wouldn’t highlight a random crowdfunded gadget, but I happen to have met the creator of this one, Wells Tu, at one of our events and trust him and his team to actually deliver. The previous product he worked on was a pair of translating wireless earbuds that worked surprisingly well, so this isn’t their first time shipping a product in this category — that makes a lot of difference for a hardware startup. You can see it in action here:

He pointed out in an email to me that obviously wireless headphones are hot right now, but the translation functions aren’t good and battery life is short. This adds a lot of utility in a small package.

Right now you can score a ONE Mini for $79, which seems reasonable to me. They’ve already passed their goal and are planning on shipping in June, so it shouldn’t be a long wait.

Trifecta! SpaceX launches first mission on Falcon Heavy and lands all three boosters

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch vehicle undertook its first commercial mission today, taking a communications satellite to orbit and proving the viability of its heavy-lift rocket platform. And as a piece de resistance, all three rocket cores autonomously landed themselves back on Earth and will soon be ready to fly again.

The mission is still underway, but the most dangerous moments are over with, and the system passed with flying colors. It’ll be some time before the second stage 2 burn and separation from the payload, at which point the mission will be considered a success.

The launch is a powerful endorsement of Falcon Heavy, which provides far more payload capacity, at far lower cost, than any competitor. New launch vehicles are being tested by SpaceX’s numerous competitors, but Falcon Heavy has the advantage of already existing and working as designed.

All planned launch events went as planned, though high winds delayed takeoff yesterday. After takeoff at about 6:35 local time in Cape Canaveral, the two first stages detached and made a picture-perfect landing at LZ-1 and LZ-2; the center core landed on the the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You. The latter was a bit of a nailbiter, as the video cut out just as the center core booster’s retro began to light the pad. But good signal a handful of seconds later revealed the final third of the trifecta.

It must be said that the crowd was going absolutely wild basically from T-0 to T+10 minutes, when the center core landed. Landing all three has never been done, and drone ship landings have led to some of SpaceX’s most public (not to say embarrassing) failures.

Currently the LV is in a cruise state before a second burn takes it to the desired orbit, after which Arabsat-6A will continue under its own power. It is also possible that SpaceX will catch the fairings, though that isn’t as sure a thing for several reasons.

We’ll keep this post updated with the latest.