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Using Photoshop and other image manipulation software to tweak faces in photos has become common practice, but it’s not always made clear when it’s been done. Berkeley and Adobe researchers have created a tool that not only can tell when a face has been Photoshopped, but can suggest how to undo it.

Right off the bat it must be noted that this project applies only to Photoshop manipulations, and in particular those made with the “Face Aware Liquify” feature, which allows for both subtle and major adjustments to many facial features. A universal detection tool is a long way off, but this is a start.

The researchers (among them Alexei Efros, who just appeared at our AI+Robotics event) began from the assumption that a great deal of image manipulation is performed with popular tools like Adobe’s, and as such a good place to start would be looking specifically at the manipulations possible in those tools.

They set up a script to take portrait photos and manipulate them slightly in various ways: move the eyes a bit and emphasize the smile, narrow the cheeks and nose, things like that. They then fed the originals and warped versions to the machine learning model en masse, with the hopes that it would learn to tell them apart.

Learn it did, and quite well. When humans were presented with images and asked which had been manipulated, they performed only slightly better than chance. But the trained neural network identified the manipulated images 99 percent of the time.

What is it seeing? Probably tiny patterns in the optical flow of the image that humans can’t really perceive. And those same little patterns also suggest to it what exact manipulations have been made, letting it suggest an “undo” of the manipulations even having never seen the original.

Since it’s limited to just faces tweaked by this Photoshop tool, don’t expect this research to form any significant barrier against the forces of evil lawlessly tweaking faces left and right out there. But this is just one of many small starts in the growing field of digital forensics.

“We live in a world where it’s becoming harder to trust the digital information we consume,” said Adobe’s Richard Zhang, who worked on the project, “and I look forward to further exploring this area of research.”

You can read the paper describing the project and inspect the team’s code at the project page.


TechCrunch

Amazon’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, Amazon Spark, is no more.

Hoping to capitalize on the social shopping trend and tap into the power of online influencers, Amazon in 2017 launched its own take on Instagram with a shoppable feed of stories and photos aimed at Prime members. The experiment known as Amazon Spark has now come to an end. However, the learnings from Spark and Amazon’s discovery tool Interesting Finds are being blended into a new social-inspired product, #FoundItOnAmazon.

Amazon Spark had been a fairly bland service, if truth be told. Unlike on Instagram, where people follow their friend, interests, brands like they like, and people they find engaging or inspiring, Spark was focused on the shopping and the sale. While it tried to mock the Instagram aesthetic at times with fashion inspiration images or highly posed travel photos, it lacked Instagram’s broader appeal. Your friends weren’t there and there weren’t any Instagram Stories, for example. Everything felt too transactional.

Amazon declined to comment on the apparent shutdown of Spark, but the service is gone from the website and app.

The URL amazon.com/spark, meanwhile, redirects to the new #FoundItOnAmazon site — a site which also greatly resembles another Amazon product discovery tool, Interesting Finds.

Interesting Finds has been around since 2016, offering consumers a way to browse an almost Pinterest-like board of products across a number of categories. It features curated “shops” focused on niche themes, like a “Daily Carry” shop for toteable items, a “Mid Century” shop filled with furniture and décor, a shop for “Star Wars” fans, one for someone who loves the color pink, and so on. Interesting Finds later added a layer of personalization with the introduction of a My Mix shop filled with recommendations tailored to your interactions and likes.

The Interesting Finds site had a modern, clean look-and-feel that made it a more pleasurable way to browse Amazon’s products. Products photos appeared on white backgrounds while the clutter of a traditional product detail page was removed.

We understand from people familiar with the products that Interesting Finds is not shutting down as Spark has. But the new #FoundItOnAmazon site will take inspiration from what worked with Interesting Finds and Spark to turn it into a new shopping discovery tool.

Interesting Finds covers a wide range of categories, but #FoundItOnAmazon will focus more directly on fashion and home décor. Similar to Interesting Finds, you can heart to favorites items and revisit them later.

The #FoundItOnAmazon site is very new and isn’t currently appearing for all Amazon customers at this time. If you have it, the amazon.com/spark URL will take you there.

Though Amazon won’t talk about why its Instagram experiment is ending, it’s not too hard to make some guesses. Beyond its lack of originality and transactional nature, Instagram itself has grown into a far more formidable competitor since Spark first launched.

Last fall, Instagram fully embraced its shoppable nature with the introduction of shopping features across its app that let people more easily discover products from Instagram photos. It also added a new shopping channel and in March, Instagram launched its own in-app checkout option to turn product inspiration into actual conversions. It was certainly a big move into Amazon territory. And while that led to headlines about Instagram as the future of shopping, it’s not going to upset Amazon’s overall dominance any time soon.

In addition to the shifting competitive landscape, Spark’s primary stakeholder, Amazon VP of Consumer Engagement Chee Chew departed at the beginning of 2019 for Twilio. While at Amazon, Chew was heavily invested in Spark’s success and product managers would even tie their own efforts to Spark in order to win his favor, sources said.

For example, Amazon’s notifications section had been changed to include updates from Spark. And Spark used to sit a swipe away from the main navigation menu on mobile.

Following Spark’s closure, Amazon’s navigation has once again been simplified. It’s now a clutter-free hamburger menu. Meanwhile, Amazon’s notifications section no longer includes Spark updates — only alerts about orders, shipments, and personalized recommendations.

In addition, it’s likely that Spark wasn’t well adopted. Just 10,000 Amazon customers used it during its first 24 hours, we heard. With Chew’s departure, Spark lost its driving force. No one needed to curry favor by paying it attention, which may have also helped contribute to its shuttering.

6/14/19, 10:20 PM ET: Updated with further context after publication.


TechCrunch

Popular short-form video app TikTok has been slowly ramping up its advertising strategy this year as it increases its focus on monetization. However, the company still generates a smaller of its revenue from in-app purchases — and that number hit a high of $ 9 million in May, according to a report from Sensor Tower. That represents 500% year-over-year growth from the $ 1.5 million spent in May 2018, and 22% growth from April’s $ 7.4 million.

Arguably, TikTok’s hasn’t put much emphasis on its in-app purchase strategy. For now, the Beijing-based app owned by ByteDance is more heavily focused on driving user growth. It knows that putting some of its best features behind a paywall could potentially limit user adoption and engagement — especially as TikTok looks for growth in emerging markets like India, where it recently said it has 200 million users, 120 million who are monthly actives.

In India, the app overtook Facebook as the most downloaded social networking app in the first quarter of the year, and is now looking to pull in more advertisers. The Economic Times recently reported brands like Pepsi, Snapdeal, Myntra, Shaadi.com, and Shopclues have signed on to advertise.

Meanwhile, Indian users only accounted for half a percent of in-app purchases — just around $ 45,000, said Sensor Tower.

The lack of spending points to how little TikTok has focused on virtual goods. Instead of offering its video effects or filters for purchase, TikTok’s coins are used for buying gifts which can be sent to live streamers to show support.

Despite TikTok’s inattention to its virtual goods strategy, iOS users in China spent $ 5.9 million, of the total $ 9 million spent on in-app purchases in May, accounting for nearly 65% of purchases. In the U.S., both iOS and Android users spent a combined nearly $ 2 million, or 22%, of the app’s gross revenue.

TikTok’s installs are continuing to climb, Sensor Tower also noted.

In May, around 56 million users worldwide installed the app for the first time — a 27% increase over April. However, new installs were down by 21% from January’s 70.8 million. To some extent, India’s brief ban on the app impacted these figures — the app likely lost a potential 15 million new users in April, Sensor Tower had earlier estimated.

To date, TikTok has seen 1.2 billion installs, up from a billion at the end of last year. This figure doesn’t equate to active user numbers, however. On that front, TikTok said last summer it has 500 million monthly actives, and hasn’t publicly shared an updated number since. Life-to-date user spending is currently at $ 97.4 million, with the app expected to pass the $ 100 million milestone this month, the new report said.


TechCrunch

Cao Xudong turned up on the side of the road in jeans and a black T-shirt printed with the word “Momenta,” the name of his startup.

Before founding the company — which last year topped $ 1 billion in valuation to become China’s first autonomous driving “unicorn” — he’d already led an enviable life, but he was convinced that autonomous driving would be the real big thing.

Cao isn’t just going for the moonshot of fully autonomous vehicles, which he says could be 20 years away. Instead, he’s taking a two-legged approach of selling semi-automated software while investing in research for next-gen self-driving tech.

Cao, pronounced ‘tsao’, was pursuing his Ph.D. in engineering mechanics when an opportunity came up to work at Microsoft’s fundamental research arm in Asia, putatively the “West Point” for China’s first generation of artificial intelligence experts. He held out there for more than four years before quitting to put his hands on something more practical: a startup.

“Academic research for AI was getting quite mature at the time,” said now 33-year-old Cao in an interview with TechCrunch, reflecting on his decision to quit Microsoft. “But the industry that puts AI into application had just begun. I believed the industrial wave would be even more extensive and intense than the academic wave that lasted from 2012 to 2015.”

In 2015, Cao joined SenseTime, now the world’s highest-valued AI startup, thanks in part to the lucrative face-recognition technology it sells to the government. During his 17-month stint, Cao built the company’s research division from zero staff into a 100-people strong team.

Before long, Cao found himself craving for a new adventure again. The founder said he doesn’t care about the result as much as the chance to “do something.” That tendency was already evident during his time at the prestigious Tsinghua University, where he was a member of the outdoors club. He wasn’t particularly drawn to hiking, he said, but the opportunity to embrace challenges and be with similarly resilient, daring people was enticing enough.

And if making driverless vehicles would allow him to leave a mark in the world, he’s all in for that.

Make the computer, not the car

Cao walked me up to a car outfitted with the cameras and radars you might spot on an autonomous vehicle, with unseen computer codes installed in the trunk. We hopped in. Our driver picked a route from the high-definition map that Momenta had built, and as soon as we approached the highway, the autonomous mode switched on by itself. The sensors then started feeding real-time data about the surroundings into the map, with which the computer could make decisions on the road.

momenta

Momenta staff installing sensors to a testing car. / Photo: Momenta

Momenta won’t make cars or hardware, Cao assured. Rather, it gives cars autonomous features by making their brains, or deep-learning capacities. It’s in effect a so-called Tier 2 supplier, akin to Intel’s Mobileye, that sells to Tier 1 suppliers who actually produce the automotive parts. It also sells directly to original equipment manufacturers (OMEs) that design cars, order parts from suppliers and assemble the final product. Under both circumstances, Momenta works with clients to specify the final piece of software.

Momenta believes this asset-light approach would allow it to develop state-of-the-art driving tech. By selling software to car and parts makers, it not only brings in income but also sources mountains of data, including how and when humans intervene, to train its codes at relatively low costs.

The company declined to share who its clients are but said they include top carmakers and Tier 1 suppliers in China and overseas. There won’t be many of them because a “partnership” in the auto sector demands deep, resource-intensive collaboration, so less is believed to be more. What we do know is Momenta counts Daimler AG as a backer. It’s also the first Chinese startup that the Mercedes-Benz parent had ever invested in, though Cao would not disclose whether Daimler is a client.

“Say you operate 10,000 autonomous cars to reap data. That could easily cost you $ 1 billion a year. 100,000 cars would cost $ 10 billion, which is a terrifying number for any tech giant,” Cao said. “If you want to acquire seas of data that have a meaningful reach, you have to build a product for the mass market.”

Highway Pilot, the semi-autonomous solution that was controlling our car, is Momenta’s first mass-produced software. More will launch in the coming seasons, including a fully autonomous parking solution and a self-driving robotaxi package for urban use.

In the long run, the startup said it aims to tackle inefficiencies in China’s $ 44 billion logistics market. People hear about warehousing robots built by Alibaba and JD.com, but overall, China is still on the lower end of logistics efficiency. In 2018, logistics costs accounted for nearly 15 percent of national gross domestic product. In the same year, the World Bank ranked China 26th in its logistics performance index, a global benchmark for efficiency in the industry.

momenta

Cao Xudong, co-founder and CEO of Momenta / Photo: Momenta

Cao, an unassuming CEO, raised his voice as explained the company’s two-legged strategy. The twin approach forms a “closed loop,” a term that Cao repeatedly summoned to talk about the company’s competitive edge. Instead of picking between the presence and future, as Waymo does with Level 4 — a designation given to cars that can operate under basic situations without human intervention — and Tesla with half-autonomous driving, Momenta works on both. It uses revenue-generating businesses like Highway Pilot to fund research in robotaxis, and the sensor data collected from real-life scenarios to feed models in the lab. Results from the lab, in turn, could soup up what gets deployed on public roads.

Human or machine

During the 40-minute ride in midday traffic, our car was able to change lanes, merge into traffic, create distance from reckless drivers by itself except for one brief moment. Toward the end of the trip, our driver decided to grab the wheel for a lane change as we approached a car dangerously parked in the middle of the exit ramp. Momenta names this an “interactive lane change,” which it claims is designed to be part of its automated system and by its strict definition is not a human “intervention”.

“Human-car interaction will continue to dominate for a long time, perhaps for another 20 years,” Cao noted, adding the setup brings safety to the next level because the car knows exactly what the driver is doing through its inner-cabin cameras.

“For example, if the driver is looking down at their cellphone, the [Momenta] system will alert them to pay attention,” he said.

I wasn’t allowed to film during the ride, so here’s some footage from Momenta to give a sneak peek of its highway solution.

Human beings are already further along the autonomous spectrum than many of us think. Cao, like a lot of other AI scientists, believes robots will eventually take over the wheel. Alphabet-owned Waymo has been running robotaxis in Arizona for several months now, and smaller startups like Drive.ai are also offering a similar service in Texas.

Despite all the hype and boom in the industry, there remains thorny questions around passenger safety, regulatory schema and a host of other issues for the fast-moving tech. Uber’s fatal self-driving crash last year delayed the company’s future projects and prompted a public backlash. As a Shanghai-based venture capitalist recently suggested to me: “I don’t think humanity is ready for self-driving.”

The biggest problem of the industry, he argued, is not tech-related but social. “Self-driving poses challenges to society’s legal system, culture, ethics and justice.”

Cao is well aware of the contention. He acknowledged that as a company with the power to steer future cars, Momenta has to “bear a lot of responsibility for safety.” As such, he required all executives in the company to ride a certain number of autonomous miles so if there’s any loophole in the system, the managers will likely stumble across it before the customers do.

“With this policy in place, the management will pay serious attention to system safety,” Cao asserted.

Momenta

Momenta’s new headquarters in Suzhou, China / Photo: Momenta

In terms of actually designing the software to be reliable and to trace accountability, Momenta appoints an “architect of system research and development,” who essentially is in charge of analyzing the black box of autonomous driving algorithms. A deep learning model has to be “explainable,” said Cao, which is key to finding out what went wrong: Is it the sensor, the computer, or the navigation app that’s not working?

Going forward, Cao said the company is in no rush to make a profit as it is still spending heavily on R&D, but he assured that margins of the software it sells “are high.” The startup is also blessed with sizable fundings, which Cao’s resume certainly helped attract, and so did his other co-founders Ren Shaoqing and Xia Yan, who were also alumni of Microsoft Research Asia.

As of last October, Momenta had raised at least $ 200 million from big-name investors including GGV Capital, Sequoia Capital, Hillhouse Capital, Kai-Fu Lee’s Sinovation Ventures, Lei Jun’s Shunwei Capital, electric vehicle maker NIO’s investment arm, WeChat operator Tencent and the government of Suzhou, which will house Momenta’s new 4,000 sq-meter headquarters right next to the city’s high-speed trail station.

When a bullet train speeds past Suzhou, passengers are able to see from their windows Momenta’s recognizable M-shape building, which, in the years to come, might become a new landmark of the historic city in eastern China.


TechCrunch

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Telegram faces DDoS attack in China… again

The popular encrypted messaging service Telegram is once again being hit with a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack in Asia as protestors in Hong Kong take to the streets.

As they look to evade surveillance measures by government officials, Telegram is one of the tools that organizers have turned to. Four years ago, a similar attack struck the company’s service, just as China was initiating a crackdown on human rights lawyers in the country.

2. Bird confirms acquisition of Scoot

This acquisition means Bird may finally get to operate shared electric scooters in San Francisco.

3. LaLiga fined $ 280K for soccer app’s privacy-violating spy mode

Users of the LaLiga app were outraged to discover the smartphone software does rather more than show minute-by-minute commentary of football matches: It can use the microphone and GPS of fans’ phones to record their surroundings in a bid to identify bars that are unofficially streaming games.

4. Google leaks its own phone

Details of the Pixel 4 have been swirling around this week, so Google decided to just leak the design of its next phone via its official Twitter account, revealing the backplate and new camera module on the smartphone.

5. NFC gets a lot more powerful in iOS 13

This opens up a range of new application possibilities, Apple said, including the ability to create apps that read passports and contactless smart cards and interact with NFC-enabled hardware.

6. Facebook collected device data on 187,000 users using banned snooping app

The social media giant said in a letter to Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s office — which TechCrunch obtained — that it collected data on 31,000 users in the U.S., including 4,300 teenagers. The rest of the collected data came from users in India.

7. Uber’s annual flying taxi summit reveals Uber Air has a ways to go

We talked to Uber Director of Engineering for Energy Storage Systems Celina Mikolajczak at the company’s third annual Elevate Summit in Washington, D.C. this week. (Extra Crunch membership required.)


TechCrunch

Three years after acquiring Jet for $ 3 billion, Walmart announced today that it is now more fully integrating Jet’s teams into Walmart. Jet will continue to operate as a standalone brand, mainly in large cities.

Jet president Simon Belsham will support the transition through early August. After that, Jet will be managed by Kiernan Shanahan, Walmart senior vice president of food, consumables and health and wellness and the lead of Walmart Ecommerce’s Everyday Living category. Jeff Saunders, Jet’s vice president of operations and tech lead, will lead the integration of Jet into the Everyday Living team.

In a blog post announcing the transition, Walmart Ecommerce president and CEO Marc Lore explained that the company decided to fold the rest of Jet’s teams into Walmart because “Across most of the country, we saw we could get a much higher return on our marketing investments with Walmart.com, so we’ve dialed up our marketing spend there. However, in specific large cities where Walmart has few or no stores, Jet has become hyper focused on those urban customers.”

“While this has made Jet smaller from a sales perspective, it has helped us create a smart portfolio approach where our businesses complement each other,” he added.

After Walmart acquired Jet in 2016, it merged a few of its teams, including supply chain. Combining fulfillment centers and mirroring inventory helped Walmart build its delivery logistics , enabling two-day free shipping and free next-day delivery without a membership fee, making it more competitive with Amazon, which charges a fee for its Prime program.

Jet.com relaunched last year to focus on customers in big cities, like New York, with a product assortment tailored to their shopping preferences and three-hour grocery delivery to compete with Amazon Prime Now. Jet also introduced a concierge shopping service called JetBlack last year as a standalone e-commerce business aimed at busy parents living in cities who don’t have a lot of time to shop in brick and mortar stores or browse online. Last week, JetBlack announced that its customers spend an average of $ 1,500 per month on purchases, on top of the $ 50 monthly fee they pay for the service.

In his post, Lore wrote “Jet continues to be a very valuable brand to us, and it is playing a specific role in helping Walmart reach urban customers. The focus has largely been on NY so far, and we’re looking at other cities where we might bring together Jet’s expertise and the scale and operating model of Walmart. More to come on that.”


TechCrunch

About two months ago, in the middle of the night, a small, specially designed unmanned aircraft system – a drone – carried a precious cargo at 300 feet altitude and 22 miles per hour from West Baltimore to the University of Maryland Medical Center downtown, a trip of about 5 minutes. They called it, “One small hop for a drone; one major leap for medicine.”

The cargo was a human kidney, and waiting for that kidney at the hospital was a patient whose life would be changed for the better.

“This whole thing is amazing,” the 44-year-old recipient later told the University of Maryland engineering and medical teams that designed the drone and the smart container. The angel flight followed more than two years of research, development and testing by the Maryland aerospace and medical teams and close coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) .

There were many other ways the kidney could have been delivered to the hospital, but proving that it could be done by drone sets the stage for longer and longer flights that will ultimately lower the cost and speed up the time it takes to deliver an organ. And speed is life in this case – the experts say the length of time it takes to move an organ by traditional means is a major issue today.

This is one example of how small drones are already changing the landscape of our economy and society. Our job at the Department of Transportation (DOT), through the FAA, is to safely integrate these vehicles into the National Airspace System.

Time is of the essence. The Department has been registering drones for less than four years and already there are four times as many drones—1.5 million– on the books as manned aircraft. This week in Baltimore, more than 1,000 members of the drone community are coming together to discuss the latest issues in this fast-growing sector  as part of the fourth annual FAA UAS Symposium, which the Department co-hosts with the Association for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Along with public outreach, the Department is also involved in demonstration projects, including the Integration Pilot Program, or IPP. Created by this Administration in 2017, the IPP allows the FAA to work with state, local and tribal governments across the U.S. to get the experience needed to develop the regulations, policy and   guidance for safely integrating drones, including tackling tough topics like security and privacy. The experience gained and the data collected will help ensure the United States remains the global leader in safe UAS integration and fully realizes the economic and societal benefits of this technology.

A couple of IPP examples show the ingenuity of the drone community.

In San Diego, the Chula Vista police department and CAPE, a private UAS teleoperations company, are using drones as first responders to potentially save the lives of officers and make the department more efficient. Since October, they have launched drone first responders on more than 400 calls in which 59 arrests were made, and for half of those calls, the drone was first on the scene with an average on-scene response time of 100 seconds. Equally important is the 60 times that having the drone there first eliminated the need to send officers at all.

Recently as the result of an IPP project, the FAA granted the first airline certification to Alphabet Inc.’s Wing Aviation, a commercial drone operator that will deliver packages in rural Blacksburg, Virginia.

What happens next is that the FAA will gradually implement new rules to expand when and how those operators can conduct their business safely and securely. To manage all the expected traffic, the FAA is working with NASA and industry on a highly automated UAS Traffic Management, or UTM, concept.

At the end of the day, drones will help communities like Baltimore — and others throughout the country — save lives and deliver new services. DOT and the FAA will help ensure it’s all done safely, and that public concerns about privacy and security are addressed.


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