Daily Crunch: Bing has a child porn problem

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1. Microsoft Bing not only shows child pornography, it suggests it

A TechCrunch-commissioned report has found damning evidence on Microsoft’s search engine. Our findings show a massive failure on Microsoft’s part to adequately police its Bing search engine and to prevent its suggested searches and images from assisting pedophiles.

2. Unity pulls nuclear option on cloud gaming startup Improbable, terminating game engine license

Unity, the widely popular gaming engine, has pulled the rug out from underneath U.K.-based cloud gaming startup Improbable and revoked its license — effectively shutting them out from a top customer source. The conflict arose after Unity claimed Improbable broke the company’s Terms of Service and distributed Unity software on the cloud.

3. Improbable and Epic Games establish $25M fund to help devs move to ‘more open engines’ after Unity debacle

Just when you thought things were going south for Improbable the company inked a late-night deal with Unity competitor Epic Games to establish a fund geared toward open gaming engines. This begs the question of how Unity and Improbable’s relationship managed to sour so quickly after this public debacle.

4. The next phase of WeChat 

WeChat boasts more than 1 billion daily active users, but user growth is starting to hit a plateau. That’s been expected for some time, but it is forcing the Chinese juggernaut to build new features to generate more time spent on the app to maintain growth.

5. Bungie takes back its Destiny and departs from Activision 

The creator behind games like Halo and Destiny is splitting from its publisher Activision to go its own way. This is good news for gamers, as Bungie will no longer be under the strict deadlines of a big gaming studio that plagued the launch of Destiny and its sequel.

6. Another server security lapse at NASA exposed staff and project data

The leaking server was — ironically — a bug-reporting server, running the popular Jira bug triaging and tracking software. In NASA’s case, the software wasn’t properly configured, allowing anyone to access the server without a password.

7. Is Samsung getting serious about robotics? 

This week Samsung made a surprise announcement during its CES press conference and unveiled three new consumer and retail robots and a wearable exoskeleton. It was a pretty massive reveal, but the company’s look-but-don’t-touch approach raised far more questions than it answered.

World’s most valuable AI startup SenseTime unveils self-driving center in Japan

The world’s highest-valued artificial intelligence startup SenseTime has set foot in Japan. The Beijing-based firm announced on Friday that it just opened a self-driving facility in Joso, a historic city 50 kilometers away from Tokyo where it plans to conduct R&D and road test driverless vehicles.

The initiative follows its agreement with Japanese auto giant Honda in 2017 to jointly work on autonomous driving technology. SenseTime, which is backed by Alibaba and last valued at more than $4.5 billion, is best known for object recognition technologies that have been deployed in China widely across retail, healthcare and public security. Bloomberg reported this week that the AI upstart is raising $2 billion in fresh funding,

Four-year-old SenseTime isn’t the only Chinese AI company finding opportunities in Japan. China’s biggest search engine provider Baidu is also bringing autonomous vehicles to its neighboring country, a move made possible through a partnership with SoftBank’s smart bus project SB Drive and Chinese automaker King Long.

Japan has in recent years made a big investment push in AI and autonomous driving, which could help it cope with an aging and declining workfoce. The government aims to put driverless cars on Tokyo’s public roads by 2020 when the Olympics takes place. The capital city said it already successfully trialled autonomous taxis last August.

SenseTime’s test park, which is situated near Japan’s famed innovation hub Tsukuba Science City, will be open to local residents who could check out the vehicles slated to transport them in a few years.

“We are glad to have the company setting up an R&D center for autonomous driving in our city,” said Mayor of Joso Takeshi Kandatsu in a statement. “I believe autonomous driving vehicles will bring not only revolutionary changes to our traffic system, but also solutions to regional traffic problems. With the help of SenseTime, I look forward to seeing autonomous cars running on the roads of Joso. We will give full support to make it happen.”

Taking a stroll with Samsung’s robotic exoskeleton

Samsung’s look but don’t touch policy left many wondering precisely how committed the company is to its new robots. On the other hand, the company was more than happy to let me take the GEMS (Gait Enhancing and Motivation System) spin.

The line includes a trio of wearable exoskeletons, the A (ankle), H (hip) and K (knee). Each serve a different set of needs and muscles, but ultimately provide the same functions: walking assistant and resistance for helping wearers improve strength and balance.

Samsung’s far from the first to tackle the market, of course. There are a number of companies with exoskeleton solutions aimed at walking support/rehabilitation and/or field assistance for physically demanding jobs. Rewalk, Ekso and SuitX have all introduced compelling solutions, and a number of automotive companies have also invested in the space.

At this stage, it’s hard to say precisely what Samsung can offer that others can’t, though certainly the company’s got plenty of money, know how and super smart employees. As with the robots, if it truly commits and invests, if could produce some really remarkable work in this space.

Having taken the hip system for a bit of a spin Samsung’s booth, I can at least say that the assistive and resistance modes do work. A rep described the resistance as feeling something akin to walking under water, and I’m hard pressed to come up with a better analogy. The assistive mode is a bit hard to pick up on at first, but is much more noticeable when walking up stairs after trying out the other mode.

Like the robots, it’s hard to know how these products will ultimately fit into the broader portfolio of a company best know for smartphones, TVs and chips. Hopefully we won’t have to wait until the next CES to find out.

Meet Caper, the AI self-checkout shopping cart

The Amazon boogie-man has every retailer scrambling for ways to fight back. But the cost and effort to install cameras all over the ceiling or into every shelf could block stores from entering the autonomous shopping era. Caper Labs wants to make eliminating checkout lines as easy as replacing their shopping carts while offering a more familiar experience for customers.

The startup makes a shopping cart with a built-in barcode scanner and credit card swiper, but it’s finalizing the technology to automatically scan items you drop in thanks to three cameras and a weight sensor. The company claims people already buy 18 percent more per visit after stores are equipped with its carts.

Caper’s cart

Today, Caper is revealing that it’s raised a total of $3 million including a $2.15 million seed round led by prestigious First Round Capital and joined by food-focused angels like Instacart co-founder Max Mullen, Plated co-founder Nick Taranto, Jet’s Jetblack shopping concierge co-founder Jenny Fleiss, plus Y Combinator. Caper is now in two retailer in the NYC area, though it plans to use the cash to expand to more and develop a smart shopping basket for smaller stores.

“If you walked in to a grocery store 100 years ago versus today, nothing has really changed” says Caper co-founder and CEO Lindon Gao. “It doesn’t make sense that you can order a cab with your phone or go book a hotel with your phone, but you can’t use your phone to make a payment and leave the store. You still have to stand in line.”

Autonomous retail is going to be a race. $50 million-funded Standard Cognition, ex-Pandora CTO Will Glaser’s Grabango, and scrappier startups like Zippin and Inokyo are all building ceiling and shelf-based camera systems to help merchants keep up with Amazon Go’s expanding empire of cashierless stores. But Caper’s plug-and-play cart-based system might be able to leapfrog its competitors if its easier for shops to set up.

Caper combines image recognition and a weight sensor to identify items without a barcode scan

“I don’t have an altruistic reason to care about retail, but I really want to put a dent in the universe and I think retail is severely under-innovated” Gao candidly remarked. Most founders try to spin a “super hero origin story” about why they’re the right person for the job. For Gao, chasing autonomous retail is just good business. He built is first startup in gaming commerce at age 14. The jewelry company he launched at 19 still operates. He went on to become an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan but “I always felt like I was more of a startup guy.”

Caper was actually a pivot from his previous entry to the space called QueueHop that made cashierless apparel security tags that unlocked when you paid. But during Y Combinator, he discovered how tough it’d be to scale a product that require a complete rethinking of a merchant’s operations flow. So Gao hoofed it around NYC to talk to 150 merchants and discover what they really wanted. The cart was the answer.

Caper co-founder and CEO Lindon Gao

V1 of Caper’s cart lets people scan their items’ barcodes and pay on the cart with a credit card swipe or Apple/Android Pay tap with their receipt emailed to them. But each time they scan, the cart is actually taking 120 photos and precisely weighing the items to train Caper’s machine vision algorithms in what Gao likens to how Tesla is inching towards self-driving.

Soon, Caper wants to go entirely scanless, and sections of its two pilot stores already use the technology. The cameras on the cart will use image recognition matched with weight sensor to identify what you toss in your cart. You shop just like normal but then just pay and leave with no line. Caper pulls in a store’s existing security feed to help detect shoplifting, which could be a bigger risk than with ceiling and shelf camera systems, but Gao says it hasn’t been a problem yet. He woudn’t reveal the price of the carts but said “they’re not that much more expensive than a standard shopping cart. To outfit a store it should be comparable to the price of implementing traditional self-checkout.” Shops buy the carts outright and pay a technology subscriptions but get free hardware upgrades.

Caper hopes to deliver three big benefits to merchants. First, they’ll be able to repurpose cashier labor to assist customers so they buy more and keep shelves stocked, though eventually this technology is likely to eliminate a lot of jobs. Second, the ease and affordable cost of transitioning means businesses will be able to recoup their investment and grow revenues as shoppers buy more. And third, Caper wants to share data its carts collect on routes through the store, shelves customers hover in front of, and more with its retail partners so they can optimize their layouts.

Caper’s screen tracks items you add to the cart and can surface discounts and recommendations

One big advantage over its ceiling and shelf camera competitors is that Caper’s cart can promote deals on nearby or related items. In the future, it plans to add recommendations based on what’s on your cart to help you fill out recipes. ‘Threw some chips in the cart? Here’s where to find the guacamole that’s on sale.’ A smaller hand-held smart basket could broaden Caper’s appeal beyond grocers amongst littler shops.

Gao says that with merchants already seeing sales growth from the carts, what keeps him up at night is handling Caper’s supply chain since the product requires a ton of different component manufacturers. The startup has to move fast if it wants to be what introduces Main Street to autonomous retail. But no matter what gadgets it builds in, Caper must keep sight of the real-world stress their tech will undergo. Gao concludes “We’re basically building a robot here. The carts need to be durable. They need to resist heat, vibration, rain, people slamming them around. We’re building our shopping cart like a tank.”

CES revokes award from female-founded sex tech company

Sex tech has been done at the Consumer Electronics Show before. This year, however, seems to be different, with the organization behind CES, the Consumer Technology Association, revoking an innovation award from a company geared toward women’s sexual health.

The CTA revoked an innovation award from Lora DiCarlo, the company behind a hands-free device that uses biomimicry and robotics to help women achieve a blended orgasm by simultaneous simulating the G-spot and the clitoris. Called Osé, formerly known as Vela, the device uses micro-robotic technology to mimic the sensation of a human mouth, tongue and fingers in order to produce a blended orgasm for women.

“Vela does not fit into any of our existing product categories and should not have been accepted for the Innovation Awards Program,” CTA Senior Manager of Event Communications Sarah Brown said in a statement to TechCrunch. “CTA has communicated this position to Lora DiCarlo. We have apologized to the company for our mistake.”

CTA is also prohibiting Lora DiCarlo from exhibiting at CES, TechCrunch has confirmed. When asked why, Brown simply said, “Because they don’t fit a product category.”

As Lora Haddock, founder and CEO of Lora DiCarlo, notes in an open letter today, CES has recognized products like ones from B.sensory and OhMiBod, which won the Digital Health and Fitness Product category in 2016. CES also allowed a virtual reality porn company to exhibit at the show in 2017, as well as a sex toy robot for men to exhibit in 2018.

OhMiBod’s winning product in 2016

In a follow-up email, I asked Brown if she could elaborate on why OhMiBod was allowed to exhibit while Lora DiCarlo’s was not. At the time of publication, TechCrunch had yet to receive a response. It’s worth noting that OhMiBod’s product that year helps to strengthen the pelvic floor. However, OhMiBod is back this year exhibiting a remote-controlled vibrator that allows partners to control one another’s vibrators.

“There is an obvious double-standard when it comes to sexuality and sexual health,” Haddock wrote. “While there are sex and sexual health products at CES, it seems that CES/CTA administration applies the rules differently for companies and products based on the gender of their customers. Men’s sexuality is allowed to be explicit with a literal sex robot in the shape of an unrealistically proportioned woman and VR porn in point of pride along the aisle. Female sexuality, on the other hand, is heavily muted if not outright banned.”

She added, “This double standard makes it clear that women’s sexuality is not worthy of innovation. By excluding female-focused Sex Tech, CES and CTA are essentially saying that women’s sexuality and sexual health is not worthy of innovation.”

Here’s the timeline of events. Lora DiCarlo applied for the CES Innovation Award back in September. In early October, the CTA notified the company of its award. Fast forward to Oct. 31, 2018 and CES Projects Senior Manager Brandon Moffett notified the company that it had been disqualified.

In its letter to the company, obtained by TechCrunch, the CTA cited a clause that explained how entries deemed “in their sole discretion to be immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with the CTA’s image will be disqualified. CTA reserves the right in its sole discretion to disqualify any entry at any time which, in CTA’s opinion, endangers the safety or well being of any person, or fails to comply with these Official Rules. CTA decisions are final and binding.”

But Lori DiCarlo argues the device is not immoral, obscene or inappropriate. In a letter to the CTA in November, Lori DiCarlo General Counsel Kenneth N. Bass wrote:

There is certainly nothing immoral about a device aimed at women’s sexual health unless CTA is regressing more than 100 years to an era when women’s sexuality was taboo. Such devices are legal for sale in the United States, and a major public university had no problem using its resources to develop it. The device is also not obscene—it is simply an electronic device with the proper anatomical dimensions to function.

In response to the company’s general counsel, CTA Deputy General Counsel Kara Maser said the product does not fit into any of its existing product categories.

“We can understand your frustration, but hope you understand that we cannot make an award for an ineligible product, even if your submission was mistakenly allowed in the first instance,” Maser wrote. “We made an error and we are sincerely sorry for the oversight.”

But Lora DiCarlo stands firmly behind its submission into the robotics category. It was designed in partnership with Oregon State University and has applied for eight patents around micro-robotics, soft robotics, mechanical engineering for biomimetic functions and advanced material science.

“The Osé device undoubtedly falls within the classification of robotic devices. A common definition of a robot is ‘a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer,'” Oregon State University College of Engineering Research Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering John Parmigiani wrote in support of the company. “The Osé device easily satisfies this definition. The Osé device elicits an intense response from users through a series of complex actions involving biomimicry and precise applications of pressure variation, motion, and expansion. It does so automatically as programmed by computer circuit boards. It contains advanced electromechanical and micromechanical technology commonly associated with robotic products. Osé is truly unique because it is a robotic device and offers a level of sophistication not found in other products in the same market.”

Moving forward, Lora DiCarlo plans to release its product in Q3 of this year. To date, the company has raised $1.1 million in funding.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

Ubtech shows off pair of humanoid robots at CES

You’d be forgiven for not knowing the name Ubtech, Honestly, I wasn’t really familiar with the Chinese company until late 2017, when they brought a biopedal stormtrooper robot by our offices. The company’s about to get a pick up some traction, however. Last year, it announced that it had scored an $820 million Series C, led by Tencent.

With that little bit of wind it its sails, the company took to CES this week in full force, showing off a small army of robots. At the center of the announcements are updates to the company’s humanoid bots, Walker and Cruzr.

The bipedal Walker stands nearly five feet tall and weighs a beefy 170 pounds. The robot’s newly redesigned hands are capable of grasping and manipulating objects, while the self-balancing torso makes for smooth bipedal movement The robot interacts with its environment in a number of ways, including voice, touch and vision. Ubtech says Walker will be launching “in the very near future.”

Cruzr, meanwhile, is designed to help provide customer service, making it something akin to Softbank’s Pepper. The wheeled robot is already in use in a number of locations. A revamped version of the robot with an amped up processor, LTE connectivity and improved servos will be arriving soon, marking the first time Cruzr has been on sale in North America.

Specific timing and price are still TBD.

Watch the ANYmal quadrupedal robot go for an adventure in the sewers of Zurich

There’s a lot of talk about the many potential uses of multi-legged robots like Cheetahbot and Spot — but in order for those to come to fruition, the robots actually have to go out and do stuff. And to train for a glorious future of sewer inspection (and helping rescue people, probably), this Swiss quadrupedal bot is going deep underground.

ETH Zurich / Daniel Winkler

The robot is called ANYmal, and it’s a long-term collaboration between the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, abbreviated there as ETH Zurich, and a spin-off from the university called ANYbotics. Its latest escapade was a trip to the sewers below that city, where it could eventually aid or replace the manual inspection process.

ANYmal isn’t brand new — like most robot platforms, it’s been under constant revision for years. But it’s only recently that cameras and sensors like lidar have gotten good enough and small enough that real-world testing in a dark, slimy place like sewer pipes could be considered.

Most cities have miles and miles of underground infrastructure that can only be checked by expert inspectors. This is dangerous and tedious work — perfect for automation. Imagine instead of yearly inspections by people, if robots were swinging by once a week. If anything looks off, it calls in the humans. It could also enter areas rendered inaccessible by disasters or simply too small for people to navigate safely.

But of course, before an army of robots can inhabit our sewers (where have I encountered this concept before? Oh yeah…) the robot needs to experience and learn about that environment. First outings will be only minimally autonomous, with more independence added as the robot and team gain confidence.

“Just because something works in the lab doesn’t always mean it will in the real world,” explained ANYbotics co-founder Peter Fankhauser in the ETHZ story.

Testing the robot’s sensors and skills in a real-world scenario provides new insights and tons of data for the engineers to work with. For instance, when the environment is completely dark, laser-based imaging may work, but what if there’s a lot of water, steam or smoke? ANYmal should also be able to feel its surroundings, its creators decided.

ETH Zurich / Daniel Winkler

So they tested both sensor-equipped feet (with mixed success) and the possibility of ANYmal raising its “paw” to touch a wall, to find a button or determine temperature or texture. This latter action had to be manually improvised by the pilots, but clearly it’s something it should be able to do on its own. Add it to the list!

You can watch “Inspector ANYmal’s” trip below Zurich in the video below.

UK police release airport drone suspects and admit there may not have been any drones after all

Less than a week after mystery drones grounded flights at the U.K’s second largest airport, wreaking havoc on as many as 140,000 people’s travel plans for the Christmas period, police have admitted that there may in fact not have been any drones at all.

Gatwick airport reopened on Friday after a one-day shutdown but it appears that investigators are no closer to knowing what actually took place.

The Guardian reports that police released and exonerated a couple who had been detained as suspects, while a senior police spokesperson said that there is “always a possibility that there may not have been any genuine drone activity in the first place.”

Indeed, the police are reliant on eyewitness accounts — 67 of them, to be precise — to piece together what happened. The BBC reported last week that two drones flying “over the perimeter fence and into where the runway operates from” were spotted by bystanders late Wednesday, with a third reportedly seen on Thursday morning. Runways were shut for around six hours between Wednesday evenings and the early hours of Thursday, before a fuller suspension came into effect after the alleged sighting of the third drone.

Police released suspects Elaine Kirk and Paul Gait on Sunday evening after concluding that they were not responsible for the incident. Their arrest had prompted British newspapers and commentators to berate the pair even before they were charged. The Mail on Sunday shamed them for “ruining Christmas” while TV presenter and former tabloid journalist Piers Morgan was forced to apologize for an earlier tweet that labeled Kirk and Gait as “clowns.”

Despite going down the wrong avenue with the arrest, investigators do have more to work with after they recovered a fallen and damaged drone from the north side of the airport. It is being tested for clues on who piloted it, according to The Guardian .

As we explained last week, the U.K. has specific laws around flying drones near an airport although it remains unclear exactly what did take place.

The U.K. made amendments to existing legislation this year to make illegal flying a drone within 1km of an airport after a planned drone bill got delayed.

The safety focused tweak to the law five months ago also restricted drone flight height to 400 ft. A registration scheme for drone owners is also set to be introduced next year.

Under current U.K. law, a drone operator who is charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or a person in an aircraft can face a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.

Although, in the Gatwick incident case, it’s not clear whether simply flying a drone near a runway would constitute an attempt to endanger an aircraft under the law. Even though the incident has clearly caused major disruption to travelers as the safety-conscious airport takes no chances.

Drones ground flights at UK’s second largest airport

Mystery drone operator/s have grounded flights at the UK’s second largest airport, disrupting the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people hoping to get away over the festive period.

The BBC reports that Gatwick Airport’s runway has been shut since Wednesday night on safety grounds, after drones were spotted being flown repeatedly over the airfield.

It says airlines have been advised to cancel all flights up to at least 16:00 GMT, with the airport saying the runway would not open “until it was safe to do so”.

More than 20 police units are reported to be searching for the drone operator/s.

The UK made amendments to existing legislation this year to make flying a drone within 1km of an airport illegal, after a planned drone bill got delayed.

The safety-focused tweak to the law five months ago also restricted drone flight height to 400ft. A registration scheme for drone owners is also set to be introduced next year.

Under current UK law, a drone operator who is charged with recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft or a person in an aircraft can face a penalty of up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine, or both.

Although, in the Gatwick incident case, it’s not clear whether simply flying a drone near a runway would constitute an attempt to endanger an aircraft under the law. Even though the incident has clearly caused major disruption to travellers as the safety-conscious airport takes no chances.

Further adding to the misery of disrupted passengers today, the Civil Aviation Authority told the BBC it considered the event to be an “extraordinary circumstance” — meaning airlines aren’t obligated to pay financial compensation.

There’s been a marked rise in UK aircraft incidents involving drones over the past five years, with more than 100 recorded so far this year, according to data from the UK Airprox Board.

Aviation minister Baroness Sugg faced a barrage of questions about the Gatwick disruption in the House of Lords today, including accusations the government has dragged its feet on bringing in technical specifications that might have avoided the disruption.

“These drones are being operated illegally… It seems that the drones are being used intentionally to disrupt the airport, but, as I said, this is an ongoing investigation,” she told peers, adding: “We changed the law earlier this year, bringing in an exclusion zone around airports. We are working with manufactures and retailers to ensure that the new rules are communicated to those who purchase drones.

“From November next year, people will need to register their drone and take an online safety test. We have also recently consulted on extending police powers and will make an announcement on next steps shortly.”

The minister was also pressed on what the government had done to explore counterdrone technology which could be used to disable drones, with one peer noting they’d raised the very issue two years ago.

“My Lords, technology is rapidly advancing in this area,” responded Sugg. “That is absolutely something that we are looking at. As I said, part of the consultation we did earlier this year was on counterdrone technology and we will be announcing our next steps on that very soon.”

Another peer wondered whether techniques he said had been developed by the UK military and spy agency, GCHQ — to rapidly identify the frequency a drone is operating on, and either jam it or take control and land it — will be “given more broadly to various airports”?

“All relevant parts of the Government, including the Ministry of Defence, are working on this issue today to try to resolve it as quickly as possible,” the minister replied. “We are working on the new technology that is available to ensure that such an incident does not happen again. It is not acceptable that passengers have faced such disruption ahead of Christmas and we are doing all we can to resolve it as quickly as possible.”

Sphero is finished making Star Wars products

Sphero’s on-going deals are about more than just priming the pump for the holidays. The Colorado robotic toy startup is also in the process of cleaning out inventory of what are now be marked “legacy” products on its site. All of the Disney licensed products now carry a “THIS IS A LEGACY PRODUCT AND NO LONGER IN PRODUCTION” tag, and in many cases are no longer available through Sphero’s site.

The move is no surprise, of course. The company announced nearly a year ago amid layoffs that its licensed products would be a casualty of its shift toward education. Looks like that’s all finally run its course. Sphero CEO Paul Berberian confirmed the move with the Verge, noting shrinking returns.

“When you launch a toy, your first year’s your biggest,” he told the site. “Your second year’s way smaller, and your third year gets really tiny.”

BB-8 was a notable hit for the company, selling millions of units and putting Sphero on the map for many. It eventually spread itself too thin, however, double, tripling and quadrupling down with robotic toy takes on R2-D2, Lightning McQueen for cars and Spider-Man.

It was clearly too much, too fast, making its Disney partnership both a blessing and curse. Ultimately, the company saw STEM education as the clear path forward for its offerings.

For those who purchased one of the above, Sphero has promised to offer app support for “at least two years.” You might still be able to get a deal on one if you hurry.