$35B face data lawsuit against Facebook will proceed

Facebook just lost a battle in its war to stop a $35 billion class action lawsuit regarding alleged misuse of facial recognition data in Illinois. Today it was denied its request for an en banc hearing before the full slate of ninth circuit judges that could have halted the case. Now the case will go to trial unless the Supreme Court intercedes.

The suit alleges that Illinois citizens didn’t consent to having their uploaded photos scanned with facial recognition and weren’t informed of how long the data would be saved when the mapping started in 2011. Facebook could face $1000 to $5000 in penalties per user for 7 million people, which could sum to a maximum of $35 billion.

facebook facial recognition photo review

A three-judge panel of ninth circuit judges rejected Facebook’s motion to dismiss the case and its appeal of the class certification of the plaintiffs back in August. One of those judges said that it “seems likely” that the Facebook facial recognition data could be used to identify them in surveillance footage or even unlock a biometrically secured cell phone. Facebook had originally built the feature to power photo tag suggestions, asking users if it’s them or a particular friend in an untagged photo.

Nicholas Iovino spotted the announcement today that we’ve attained and embedded below. When asked for comment, a Facebook spokesperson responded “Facebook has always told people about its use of face recognition technology and given them control over whether it’s used for them. We are reviewing our options and will continue to defend ourselves vigorously.”

[Image Credit: Mike MacKenzie]

Additional reporting by Zack Whittaker

Swarm gets green light from FCC for its 150-satellite constellation

Swarm Technologies aims to connect smart devices around the world with a low-bandwidth but ever-present network provided by satellites — and it just got approval from the FCC to do so. Apparently the agency is no longer worried that Swarm’s sandwich-sized satellites are too small to be tracked.

The company’s SpaceBEE satellites are tiny things that will provide a connection to devices that might otherwise be a pain to get online. Think soil monitors in the middle of corn fields, or buoys in the middle of the ocean. Their signals don’t need low latency or high bandwidth — so the requirements for a satellite that serves them are much lower than for consumer broadband.

Consequently Swarm’s satellites are small — so small in fact that the FCC was worried that they would be difficult to track and might be a danger to other satellites. Part of the company’s responsibility in its application was to show that isn’t the case.

The FCC approval is just one step in the long process of getting approved to go to space for commercial operations, but it’s a big one. In addition to granting Swarm permission to send up its planned 150 satellites (and up to 600 if it decides to spread out a little), the FCC assigned Swarm the wireless spectrum it needs to operate. No use being in space if you’re forbidden from transmitting on the frequencies you need, right?

Longtime satellite communications provider ORBCOMM had objected that Swarm would be taking over some parts of the spectrum it has been assigned — but the FCC found that wasn’t actually the case and in fact the company was in a way making a sort of power play that would have extended its control over those frequencies. So their concerns were dismissed.

SpaceX also filed a comment suggesting that Swarm had not adequately considered its orbital debris footprint, neglecting in particular to include its satellites’ antennas in various calculations. It also said the satellites might be a risk to the International Space Station. But documents filed by Swarm addressing these questions seem to have satisfied the FCC completely — “We find that Swarm has taken the appropriate steps to address SpaceX’s concerns,” and it granted the application with the condition that the company abide by any upcoming orbital debris rules.

Swarm has clearly moved well past the black mark on its FCC record when it launched test satellites without the proper approvals. The red tape involved in space operations is voluminous and it’s not uncommon to fall afoul of it — especially when your competitors, as evidenced by the above, are making more of it for you.

Now that it has its paperwork in order, Swarm plans to get its entire constellation in orbit by the end of the year.

“The FCC grant of Swarm’s spectrum and launch approvals is a big milestone for the company. Swarm is now poised to be first to market for an entire global satellite data communications constellation before the end of 2020,” said CEO and co-founder Sara Spangelo in a statement to TechCrunch.

“This is an important moment for the satellite industry, for US innovation in space, and for the large number of IoT customers world-wide that Swarm is excited to support with 2-way data services,” added CTO and co-founder Ben Longmire.

Both Sara and Ben were at TechCrunch Disrupt earlier this month, and the former sat on a panel with Bessemer Venture Partners’ Tess Hatch and OneWeb CEO Adrian Steckel (with myself as moderator). We chatted about a variety of topics relating to the new space economy — if you’re thinking of getting up there yourself, you might be interested to watch it below.

Every state but Alaska has reported vape lung victims, now numbering 1,479 nationwide

A lung condition apparently caused by vaping has been reported in every state but Alaska, the CDC has announced. The total number of suspected and confirmed cases has risen to 1,479, and at least 33 people have died as a result of the affliction.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) updates these numbers regularly and provides news on its progress in characterizing the condition, in which the only reliable shared factor is using vaping devices. More victims report using THC products than nicotine, but no specific chemical or mechanism has been proposed as the cause.

At the outset it appeared that the problem might have been rooted in a bad batch of unofficial vape cartridges tinged with some toxic chemical — and indeed the CDC has warned against buying vaping materials from any untrustworthy sources. But the scale of the problem has continuously grown and is now clearly nationwide, not local.

The demographics skew male (70 percent of victims) and younger: 79 percent are under 35, with a median of 23 (though for deaths the median is 44). 78 percent reported using THC products, while only 10 percent reported only using nicotine.

Reported victims are concentrated in Illinois and California, in both of which over a hundred cases have been reported, but that should not be taken as an indicator that states with fewer cases, like Kentucky and Oregon, are immune — they may simply be late to report. Likewise for U.S. territories, where only the Virgin Islands have reported cases — Puerto Rico and others are likely to be equally at risk.

lung cases oct15

If you use a vaping device and are experiencing shortness of breath or chest pain (though other symptoms are also associated), you should probably check with your doctor. In the meantime the CDC has recommended ceasing all use of vaping products, though as many have pointed out that may end up pushing some users back to cigarettes. Angry about that? Direct it at the vaping companies, which promoted their products as smoking cessation tools without adequate testing.

The CDC and FDA, along with state and municipal health authorities and partners, are working on determining the cause and any potential treatments of the “lung injury associated with e-cigarette use,” as they call it. Tests and sampling efforts are underway — efforts that probably should have been done before these products were allowed on the market.

You can keep up with the latest stats at the CDC’s dedicated page.

Labor leaders and startup founders talk how to build a sustainable gig economy

Over the past few years, gig economy companies and the treatment of their labor force has become a hot button issue for public and private sector debate.

At our recent annual Disrupt event in San Francisco, we dug into how founders, companies and the broader community can play a positive role in the gig economy, with help from Derecka Mehrens, an executive director at Working Partnerships USA and co-founder of Silicon Valley Rising — an advocacy campaign focused on fighting for tech worker rights and creating an inclusive tech economy — and Amanda de Cadenet, founder of Girlgaze, a platform that connects advertisers with a network of 200,000 female-identifying and non-binary creatives.

Derecka and Amanda dove deep into where incumbent gig companies have fallen short, what they’re doing to right the ship, whether VC and hyper-growth mentalities fit into a sustainable gig economy, as well as thoughts on Uber’s new ‘Uber Works’ platform and CA AB-5. The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Where current gig companies are failing

Arman Tabatabai: What was the original promise and value proposition of the gig economy? What went wrong?

Derecka Mehrens: The gig economy exists in a larger context, which is one in which neoliberalism is failing, trickle-down economics is proven wrong, and every day working people aren’t surviving and are looking for something more.

And so you have a situation in which the system we put together to create employment, to create our communities, to build our housing, to give us jobs is dysfunctional. And within that, folks are going to come up with disruptive solutions to pieces of it with a promise in mind to solve a problem. But without a larger solution, that will end up, in our view, exacerbating existing inequalities.

Twitter says it will restrict users from retweeting world leaders who break its rules

Twitter said it will restrict how users can interact with tweets from world leaders who break its rules.

The social media giant said it will not allow users to like, reply, share or retweet the offending tweets, but instead will let users quote-tweet to allow ordinary users to express their opinions.

The company said the move will help its users stay informed about global affairs, but while balancing the need to keep the site’s rules in check.

Twitter has been in a bind, amid allegations that the company has not taken action against world leaders who break its rules.

“When it comes to the actions of world leaders on Twitter, we recognize that this is largely new ground and unprecedented,” Twitter said in an unbylined blog post on Tuesday.

Last year, Twitter said it would not ban President Trump despite incendiary tweets, including allegations that he threatened to declare war on North Korea. However, in the case of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, he had one of his tweets deleted from the site.

“We want to make it clear today that the accounts of world leaders are not above our policies entirely,” the company said. Any user who tweets content promoting terrorism, making “clear and direct” threats of violence, and posting private information are all subject to ban.

But Twitter said in cases involving a world leader, “we will err on the side of leaving the content up if there is a clear public interest in doing so.”

In such a case, “we may place it behind a notice that provides context about the violation and allows people to click through should they wish to see the content,” said Twitter, making good on a promise it made in June.

“Our goal is to enforce our rules judiciously and impartially,” Twitter added in a tweet. “In doing so, we aim to provide direct insight into our enforcement decision-making, to serve public conversation, and protect the public’s right to hear from their leaders and to hold them to account.”

Libra claims 180 potential replacements for 7 mutineers

Attempting to signal its popularity despite high-profile defections from Visa, Stripe, and more, the Facebook-led cryptocurrency Libra Assocation announced that 1,500 organizations have expressed interest in joining the Libra project. 180 of those meet eligibility requirements to become members, which could replace the 7 companies that dropped out of the Association this month including Kayak owner Bookings Holdings today.

This new crop of potential recruits could help the Libra Association reach its 100-member goal ahead of a scheduled 2020 launch that looks likely to be delayed by intense regulator pushback.

The announcement came out of the first official meeting of the Libra Association today in Geneva, Switzerland. The group appointed its board of directors: Facebook’s head of its cryptocurrency Calibra team David Marcus, Andreessen Horowitz’s Katie Haun, Xapo’s Wences Cesares, Kiva Microsystems’ Matthew Davie, and PayU’s Patrick Ellis. Marcus’ inclusion should be no surprise given he’s been the public face of Libra, even though his former company PayPal pulled out of the Association. Marcus writes that he’s “honored to have been voted in”

Another former PayPal’er Bertrand Perez was formally named the Libra Association’s COO and Interim Managing Director after unofficially holding these titles. The former senior director of payments engineering at PayPal is now also the chairperson of Libra’s five-member board and full-membership council. “We have no vocation to play the pirates” he told news outlet Revyuh last month, noting “if, for example, the European Central Bank still refuses us the right to operate in Europe, we will not do it, we do not intend to play the pirates, we respect the legislation.”

Libra’s head of communications and policy Dante Disparte formerly of Risk Cooperative and head of business development Kurt Hemecker formerly of Zong had their roles confirmed too.

Libra Association 21 Members

The remaining Libra Association members listed below signed the Libra charter. They’ve agreed that members can leave for any reason, and with some restrictions transfer their membership plus $10 million in Libra Investment Tokens stake to another eligible organization.

  • Payments: PayU (Naspers’ fintech arm)
  • Technology and marketplaces: Facebook/Calibra, Farfetch, Lyft, Spotify AB, Uber Technologies, Inc.
  • Telecommunications: Iliad, Vodafone Group
  • Blockchain: Anchorage, Bison Trails, Coinbase, Inc., Xapo Holdings Limited
  • Venture Capital: Andreessen Horowitz, Breakthrough Initiatives, Ribbit Capital, Thrive Capital, Union Square Ventures
  • Nonprofit and multilateral organizations, and academic institutions: Creative Destruction Lab, Kiva, Mercy Corps, Women’s World Banking
  • No Longer Members: Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, Stripe, Booking Holdings, eBay, Mercado Pago

Libra Association Membership

The Libra Association members

The Libra Association did not announce any changes in strategy or other plans that could help the organization assuage regulators’ fears. One path suggested by Libra Association member Andreessen Horowitz’s partner Chris Dixon was to move to Libra being denominated in U.S. dollars rather than being pegged to a basket of international currencies. That might quiet concerns about Libra potentially competing directly with the US dollar.

This leaves the reveal of the 180 potential members as the biggest news from the meeting. A Libra Association spokeperson writes:

“Since the Libra project was announced on June 18th, 2019, it has generated excitement around the world. the Libra Association confriemd that over 1,500 entities have indicated interest in joining the Libra project effort, and approximately 180 entities have met the preliminary membership criteria shared at Libra.org.”

Those requirements include businesses hitting two of three thresholds of a $1 billion USD market value or $500 million in customer balances, reaching 20 million people a year, or being recognized as a top 100 industry leader. There are other criteria for cryptocurrencies businesses, non-profits, and universities.

Bertrand Perez

The Libra Association chairperson, COO, and interim managing director Bertrand Perez

However, we don’t have information on when the interest of those 1500 potential partners was tallied. The withdrawl of Mastercard, PayPal, and more, comments from regulators intent on blocking the currency, and Marcus’ tense questioning on Capitol Hill could have since scared off some would-be allies.

Marcus and Perez face an uphill battle to get Libra to market. Not only do they have to prove it’s safeguarded against fraud, moneylaundering, and hurting sovereign currencies. They also must tangle with the toxic brand Facebook has developed over the years. Legislators who feel like the social network is too big are seizing on their second chance to constrain it with Libra.

Why each Libra member’s mutiny hurts Facebook

There’s a strategic cost to the defection of Visa, Stripe, eBay, and more from the Facebook -led cryptocurrency Libra Association . They’re not just names dropping off a list. Each potentially made Libra more useful, ubiquitous, or reputable. Now they could become obstacles to the token’s launch or growth.

Fearing regulators’ inquiries not just into their Libra involvement but the rest of their businesses, these companies are pulling out at least for now. None had made precise commitments to integrating Libra into their products, and they’ve said they could still get involved later. But their exit clouds the project’s future and leaves Facebook to absorb more of the blowback.

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Here’s what each of the departing Libra Association members brought to the table and how they could spawn new challenges for the cryptocurrency:

Visa

With one of most widely-accepted payment methods, Visa could have helped make Libra universally spendable. It’s also one of the most prestigious names in finance, lending deep credibility to the project. Visa’s departure leaves Libra looking more like tech companies barging into payments, conjuring fears of their move fast, break things approach that could cause financial ruin if Libra runs into problems. It also could leave Libra with a much weaker presence in brick-and-mortar shops. No one will want to own a cryptocurrency that doesn’t appreciate in value and can’t be easily spent.

MasterCard

The involvement of MasterCard alongside Visa made Libra look like the incumbents adapting to modern technologies. This made it less threatening, and gave cryptocurrency an air of inevitability. MasterCard would have also brought an even wider network of locations where Libra could one day be used for payment. Now MasterCard and Visa might actively work against Libra to prevent their payment methods being made obsolete by Libra and its elimination of transaction fees through the blockchain. Two of Libras biggest allies could become its biggest foes.

PayPal

Facebook has repeatedly told regulators that its Calibra app plus integrations into Messenger and WhatsApp would not be the only Libra wallets, pointing to PayPal . Facebook’s head of Libra David Marcus told Congress when asked about the social network’s outsized power to exploit Libra through its own Calibra wallet that “you have companies like PayPal and others that will, of course, collaborate, but [also] compete with us”. Now Facebook won’t have a scaled payment method it doesn’t own to point to as a likely alternative for people who don’t want to trust Facebook’s Calibra, Messenger, or WhatsApp to be their Libra wallet. The Libra Association also loses PayPal’s enormous network of online merchants that accept it, plus the inroad to integration into its peer-to-peer payback app Venmo. PayPal convinced the mainstream public to trust online payments — the exact kind of trust Facebook desperately needs. The fact that Marcus was also the former president of PayPal but couldn’t keep it in the association raises concerns about the group’s coalition-building prowess.

Stripe

Stripe’s enormous popularity with ecommerce vendors made it a valuable Libra Association member. Together with PayPal, Stripe facilitates a huge portion of online transactions outside of China. Its ease of integration made it a top pick for developers Facebook surely hoped would build atop Libra. Stripe’s exit destroys a critical bridge to the fintech startup ecosystem that could have helped institutionalize Libra. Now the association will have to work on engineering payment widgets from scratch without Stripe’s assistance, which could slow adoption if it ever launches.

There’s a clear reason all these payment processors bailed. Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) wrote a letter to Visa, MasterCard, and Stripe’s CEOs this week explaining that “If you take this on, you can expect a high level of scrutiny from regulators not only on Libra-related activities, but on all payment activities.”

eBay

As one of the longest standing ecommerce companies, eBay bolstered beliefs that Libra could be used to power transactions between untrusted strangers without a costly middleman. It might have also put Libra into practice on one of the top western online marketplaces outside of Amazon. Without destinations like eBay onboard, average netizens will have fewer opportunities to be exposed to Libra’s potential to eliminate transaction fees.

Mercado Pago

One of the lesser-known Libra Association members, Mercado Pago helps merchants receive payments via email or in installments. The idea of connecting financially underserved populations has been core to Facebook’s pitch for why Libra should exist. The Libra Association has been light on the details of how exactly it serves this demographic, relying on the inclusion of partners like Mercado Pago to help it figure this out later. Mercado Pago’s departure leaves Libra looking more like a financial power grab rather than a tool to assist the disadvantaged.

Who’s Left?

On Monday, the remaining Libra Association members will meet to finalize the initial member list, elect a board, and create a charter to govern the project. This forced the hands of the companies above, who had their last chance to depart this week before being pulled deeper into Libra.

Facebook Currency Hearing

UNITED STATES – JULY 16: David Marcus, head of Facebook’s Calibra digital wallet service, prepares to testify during the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on “Examining Facebook’s Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations” on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Who’s left includes venture capital firms, ride sharing companies, non-profits, and cryptocurrency companies. They are less tied up with the status quo of payment processing, and therefore had less to lose. The blockchain-specific companies were likely hoping to piggyback on financial giants like Visa to get Libra approved and create more legitimacy for their industry as a whole.

These partners could help fund an ecosystem of Libra developers, create daily use cases, spread the system in the developing world, and push for alliances between Libra and cryptocurrency players. Facebook will need to fight to keep them aboard if it wants to avoid Libra looking like a unilateral disruption of the economy.

For Libra to actually launch, Facebook needs to make serious concessions and divert from its initial vision. Otherwise if it continues to butt heads with regulators, more members could flee. One option floated by Libra Association member Andreessen Horowitz’s a16z Crypto partner Chris Dixon was for Libra to be denominated in US dollars instead of a basket of international currencies. That might lessen fears that Libra intends to compete directly with the dollar.

It’s become apparent that Facebook will not get its ideal cryptocurrency out the door. This is the brand tax of 100 scandals coming back to bite it. Now the best it can hope for is to get even a watered-down version launched, prove it can actually help the underbanked, and then hope to convince regulators it’s well-intentioned.

Pegging Libra to just the $ could soothe regulators, a16z says

What if Libra wasn’t backed by a basket of international currencies, but only the dollar?

Regulatory pushback to the Facebook-led cryptocurrency Libra has caused major partners including Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, and eBay to pull out of the Libra Association. But one of the remaining members has floated a major change to the stablecoin that could calm concerns that Libra could hurt the world economy by challenging national currencies for supremacy.

Last week, venture partner Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz’s a16z Crypto, one of the remaining members of the governing Libra Association, spoke  on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt. He said he still believed Libra will launch, but it might require some changes to get the green light from governments. When I asked what changes might assuage regulators, he told me “For example, denominating the currency in US dollars. I’m giving a hypothetical example. My understanding is the intention was never to create a new currency. It’s much focused on the payment rails.”

Dixon meant that Libra could be pegged directly to the US dollar instead of to a basket of international currencies as is currently the plan, a16z Crypto clarified when asked.

Originally, Libra was slated to be denominated in…Libra using the unicode symbol ≋. It would be a stablecoin backed 1:1 with a basket of the world’s top currencies that Reuters says Der Spiegel reports Facebook told a German legislator would be made up of 50% US dollar, 18% Euro, 14% Japanese Yen, 11% British pound, and 7% Singaporean dollar.

The purpose of the basket was to make Libra’s value more consistent. A spike or decline in value of any currency in the basket would have limited impact on Libra’s value, and the basket could be altered in makeup to further protect it from fluctuations.

Libra cryptocurrency logo

But if it was denominated in $, the US regulators in particular might be less worried that citizens might choose to use the Libra instead of the dollar. This might demonstrate that Libra sees itself as deferential to the American economic system and government Facebook must answer to.

Conversely, the Libra would become vulnerable to shifts in value of the US dollar. But since many international currencies and financial systems are also linked to the dollar, there at least would be more precedent for how Libra would operate. The move could make foreign governments less skiddish about the cryptocurrency since their national currencies wouldn’t be directly influenced.

On Monday, the Libra Association will meet to finalize its membership, elect a board, and create a charter governing its efforts. How Libra is denominated could be reviewed at this meeting.

Denominating in dollars that could quell another worry about the cryptocurrency — that if it became popular and the Libra Association decided to change the basket’s components or remove one currency, it could significantly impact that currency’s value.

The French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire previously said “the monetary sovereignty of countries is at stake from a possible privatisation of money . . . we cannot authorise the development of Libra on European soil.”

Facebook’s head of Libra David Marcus has tried to dispel this idea, saying Libra is designed to run “on top of existing currencies . . . there’s no new money creation, which will strictly remain the province of sovereign Nations.” Yet regulators are still largely opposed to its planned launch in 2020.

Pegging Libra to the dollar would give the Libra Association less flexibility to maintain a steady value, but also less power. Governments wouldn’t fear that they’d need to maintain a positive relationship with the Libra Association for fear of their currency being ejected from the basket. It would put Libra more directly in competition with other stablecoins like Tether that are locked to the US dollar.

Chris Dixon DSC02399

a16z Crypto’s Chris Dixon (left) speaks with TechCrunch’s Josh Constine at Disrupt SF 2019

Dixon also announced that Andreessen Horowitz is launching the a16z Crypto Startup School, which will offer a free, zero-equity educational program for blockchain entrepreneurs. The goal is to pass knowledge from seasoned cryptocurrency startup founders to newer entrants to the space.

Dixon says the hope is that the best students would seek investment from the fund but that won’t be required. Those interested can sign up for more info on how to apply when it’s available, though videos of the school’s sessions will be available.

Andreessen Horowitz’s commitment to cryptocurrency could make it less likely to abandon the Libra Association than some other payments companies more firmly rooted in the status quo financial system. That loyalty will only pay off if Libra ever passes muster with regulators and actually reaches the market.

Descartes Labs snaps up $20M more for its AI-based geospatial imagery analytics platform

Satellite imagery holds a wealth of information that could be useful for industries, science and humanitarian causes, but one big and persistent challenge with it has been a lack of effective ways to tap that disparate data for specific ends.

That’s created a demand for better analytics, and now, one of the startups that has been building solutions to do just that is announcing a round of funding as it gears up for expansion. Descartes Labs, a geospatial imagery analytics startup out of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is today announcing that it has closed a $20 million round of funding, money that CEO and founder Mark Johnson described to me as a bridge round ahead of the startup closing and announcing a larger growth round.

The funding is being led by Union Grove Venture Partners, with Ajax Strategies, Crosslink Capital, and March Capital Partners (which led its previous round) also participating. It brings the total raised by Descartes Labs to $60 million, and while Johnson said the startup would not be disclosing its valuation, PitchBook notes that it is $220 million ($200 million pre-money in this round).

As a point of comparison, another startup in the area of geospatial analytics, Orbital Insight, is reportedly now raising money at a $430 million valuation (that data is from January of this year, and we’ve contacted the company to see if it ever closed).

Santa Fe — a city popular with retirees that counts tourism as its biggest industry — is an unlikely place to find a tech startup. Descartes Labs’ presence there is a result of that fact that it is a spinoff from the Los Alamos National Laboratory near the city.

Johnson — who had lived in San Francisco before coming to Santa Fe to help create Descartes Labs (his previous experience building Zite for media, he said, led the Los Alamos scientists to first conceive of the Descartes Labs IP as the basis of a kind of search engine) — admitted that he never thought the company would stay headquartered there beyond a short initial phase of growth of six months.

However, it turned out that the trends around more distributed workforces (and cloud computing to enable that), engineers looking for employment alternatives to living in pricey San Francisco, plus the heated competition for talent you get in the Valley all came together in a perfect storm that helped Descartes Labs establish and thrive on its home turf.

Descartes Labs — named after the seminal philosopher/mathematician Rene Descartes — describes itself as a “data refinery”. By this, it means it injests a lot of imagery and unstructured data related to the earth that is picked up primarily by satellites but also other sensors (Johnson notes that its sources include data from publicly available satellites; data from NASA and the European space agency, and data from the companies themselves); applies AI-based techniques including computer vision analysis and machine learning to make sense of the sometimes-grainy imagery; and distills and orders it to create insights into what is going on down below, and how that is likely to evolve.

Screenshot 2019 10 11 at 13.26.33

This includes not just what is happening on the surface of the earth, but also in the air above it: Descartes Labs has worked on projects to detect levels of methane gas in oil fields, the spread of wildfires, and how crops might grow in a particular area, and the impact of weather patterns on it all.

It has produced work for a range of clients that have included governments (the methane detection, pictured above, was commissioned as part of New Mexico’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), energy giants and industrial agribusiness, and traders.

“The idea is to help them take advantage of all the new data going online,” Johnson said, noting that this can help, for example, bankers forecast how much a commodity will trade for, or the effect of a change in soil composition on a crop.

The fact that Descartes Labs’ work has connected it with the energy industry gives an interesting twist to the use of the phrase “data refinery”. But in case you were wondering, Johnson said that the company goes through a process of vetting potential customers to determine if the data Descartes Labs provides to them is for a positive end, or not.

“We have a deep belief that we can help them become more efficient,” he said. “Those looking at earth data are doing so because they care about the planet and are working to try to become more sustainable.”

Johnson also said (in answer to my question about it) that so far, there haven’t been any instances where the startup has been prohibited to work with any customers or countries, but you could imagine how — in this day of data being ‘the new oil’ and the fulcrum of power — that could potentially be an issue. (Related to this: Orbital Insight counts In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture arm, as one of its backers.)

Looking ahead, the company is building what it describes as a “digital twin” of the earth, the idea being that in doing so it can better model the imagery that it injests and link up data from different regions more seamlessly (since, after all, a climatic event in one part of the world inevitably impacts another). Notably, “digital twinning” is a common concept that we see applied in other AI-based enterprises to better predict activity: this is the approach that, for example, Forward Networks takes when building models of an enterprise’s network to determine how apps will behave and identify the reasons behind an outage.

In addition to the funding round, Descartes Labs named Phil Fraher its new CFO, and is announcing Veery Maxwell, Director for Energy Innovation and Patrick Cairns, who co-founded UGVP, as new board observers.

NASA’s new Moon-bound spacesuit is safer, smarter and much more comfortable

The next Americans to set foot on the Moon will do so in a brand new spacesuit that’s based on, but hugely improved from, the original Apollo suits that last went up there in the ’70s. With easier entry, better mobility and improved communications, these won’t be nearly as clumsy or restrictive — though you still wouldn’t want to wear one around the house.

The new spacesuit, known as the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit or xEMU, is still deep in development, but its features have been more or less finalized. It’s already being tested underwater, and orbital testing is scheduled for 2023.

Rather than build something completely new from the ground up, NASA engineers decided to address the (sometimes literal) pain points of a previous, proven design. As such, the new suit superficially resembles the ones in which we saw moonwalkers bunny-hopping around the lunar surface. But that’s because the basic design for a suit that protects you from hard vacuum and cosmic radiation is relatively straightforward.

In NASA’s words, a spacesuit is “a personalized spaceship that mimics all of the protections from the harsh environment of space and the basic resources that Earth and its atmosphere provide.” There’s only so much wiggle room there.

But while some parts may not have changed much since the old days, others are getting major improvements. First and foremost, both for safety and mission purposes, maneuverability has been upgraded in tons of ways.

xemu suit info

Infographic showing new and updated features of NASA’s new xEMU spacesuit

For one thing, there are altogether new joints and better ranges of motion for existing ones. The standard “astronaut stance” indicative of the inflexibility of the Apollo suits should be all but eliminated with the new freedoms afforded xEMU users. Not only will the normal range of motion be easier, but astronauts will be able to reach across their own torso or lift something clear over their head.

More flexible knees and “hiking-style” boots with flexible soles will make crouching and getting up much easier as well. It’s hard to believe we got this far without those basic capabilities.

xemu digitial fit check

A 3D scan of the body (indicated by the dots) shows how various suits and parts would fit

The fit of the suits will be vastly better as well; NASA is using anthropometry, or 3D scanning of the body, to determine exactly which pieces and fits will be best for a given astronaut.

Speaking of which, much of the suit will be made from easily swappable, modular parts. The lower half can be switched out when doing an orbital EVA versus a surface EVA, for instance. And the helmet’s visor has a “sacrificial” protective layer that can easily be replaced with a new one if it gets damaged.

Inside the helmet, the familiar but apparently widely disliked “Snoopy caps” that housed microphones and such are gone, replaced by modern voice-activated mics and headphones that will produce much better audio quality and much less sweat.

For that matter, the entire communications stack has been replaced with a new HD camera and lights, connected by a high-speed wireless data link. Live video from the Moon may be old hat, but it’s going to be a bit different from that grainy black-and-white business in 1969.

One of the most important new features is rear entry. The awkward process of donning an old-style EVA suit requires a good deal of space and help. The new ones are entered via a hatch on the back, allowing more natural placement of arm hinges and other features, and possibly changing how the suits are mounted. One can easily imagine a suit acting as a sort of airlock: you climb in the back, it seals you in, and you walk right out into space. Well, there’d probably be more to it than that, but the rear-entry hatch could facilitate some cool stuff along those lines.

Although NASA is designing and certifying these suits, it may not actually make them itself. The agency called last week for input on how it might best source spacesuits from the commercial space industry.

That’s part of NASA’s decision to rely increasingly on contractors and private industry to support its 2024 Moon ambitions. Of course, contractors were an essential part of the Apollo program as well, but NASA is now giving them much more leeway and may even use private launch services.

You can keep up with the latest NASA spacesuit news here, of course, or at the agency’s SuitUp tag.