The U.S. Senate is coming after ‘loot boxes’

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Gamers feel passionately about loot boxes, turns out some elected officials do too.

A new Senate bill was formally introduced today with bipartisan support and it could categorically shift how today’s top platforms and distribution platforms monetize the titles they sell. The bill’s introduction was first reported by The Verge.

The bill asserts that “pay-to-win” transactions that give users a nominal advantage for a fee or loot boxes which allow users to essentially play a slot machine for gaining rare or important items, are bad for minors and need to be banned. If the bill passes, offending studios could be fined.

It’s hard to reiterate what a major impact this legislation could have, the games industry has reorganized itself around micro-transactions in the past decade. Much of the growth of the industry’s greatest success stories has been tied to the idea that free-to-download games can quickly nurture massive growth with network effects and then gradually monetize those users via small payments for items that can give them a unique look or edge.

This obviously wouldn’t fully sink in-game transactions by any means, but loot boxes have been one of the most lucrative models and by placing a ceiling on acceptable behavior for these transactions, game companies might have to find new ways to monetize their content.

The death of loot boxes probably isn’t going to be mourned by many outside of game publishers’ accounting departments. There was something kind of fun about them for adults that knew exactly what they were doing, but it was still mostly in an infuriating way.

Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley, who introduced the bill, told Kotaku earlier this week that loot boxes were “basically adding casinos to children’s games,” which generally feels like a fair assertion.

As with almost all major pieces of legislation that aim to address new trends in technology, there’s potential that broadness in language can leave room for this to be very damaging to the industry, but the broadness here seems to be that this minor-oriented provision is going to end up being universal. Gizmodo notes some more issues with the grayness surrounding what exactly is “pay-to-win.”

What is a “minor-oriented” game? Is that simply any game with an ESRB rating below “M for Mature”? Nope, the bill outlines that game publishers need to focus on titles if they have “constructive knowledge that any users are under 18.” So, that’s just about every single game.

This was addressed, sort of, in a FAQs list released by Hawley’s camp:

While it is true that a large proportion of game players are adults, even games with predominantly adult player bases – including games marketed primarily to adults – tend to have enormous appeal to children. The onus should be on developers to deter child consumption of products that foster gambling and similarly compulsive purchasing behavior, just as is true in other industries that restrict access to certain kinds of products and forms of entertainment to adult consumers.

The legislation has some important problems its aiming to put in check, and clearly the gaming industry hasn’t been as active as it should in ensuring minors aren’t being taken advantage of in the midst of a micro-transaction land grab, so I’m not going to cry over them, but there’s a lot at play here so hopefully nothing rushes through without proper considerations.

You can read the full text of the legislation here.

Review: Brilliant’s smart home controllers are the antidote for smart-speaker hell

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My home is inundated with smart speakers. I’ve got Echo Dots aplenty, Google Minis to spare, and enough third-party voice-assistant devices to reproduce Plugged’s Bluetooth speaker symphony. And that’s not even getting into all the other “smart” gear I have. I need help. We were promised smart homes by science fiction, and then guaranteed they were just around the corner by tech’s biggest companies. And then we were disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, smart speakers are amazing technology. You can joke all you want, but I can’t stand pulling my phone out of my pocket for any query I can…

This story continues at The Next Web

You can do it, robot! Watch the beefy, 4-legged HyQReal pull a plane

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It’s not really clear just yet exactly what all these powerful, agile quadrupedal robots people are working on are going to do, exactly, but even so it never gets old watching them do their thing. The latest is an Italian model called HyQReal, which demonstrates its aspiration to winning strongman competitions, among other things, by pulling an airplane behind it.

The video is the debut for HyQReal, which is the successor to HyQ, a much smaller model created years ago by the Italian Institute of Technology, and its close relations. Clearly the market, such as it is, has advanced since then, and discerning customers now want the robot equivalent of a corn-fed linebacker.

That’s certainly how HyQReal seems to be positioned; in its video, the camera lingers lovingly on its bulky titanium haunches and thick camera cage. Its low slung body recalls a bulldog rather than a cheetah or sprightly prey animal. You may think twice before kicking this one.

The robot was presented today at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, where in a workshop (documented by IEEE Spectrum) the team described HyQReal’s many bulkinesses.

It’s about four feet long and three high, weighs 130 kilograms (around 287 pounds), of which the battery comprises 15 — enough for about two hours of duty. It’s resistant to dust and water exposure and should be able to get itself up should it fall or tip over. The robot was created in collaboration with Moog, which created special high-powered hydraulics for the purpose.

It sounds good on paper, and the robot clearly has the torque needed to pull a small passenger airplane, as you can see in the video. But that’s not really what robots like this are for — they need to generate versatility and robustness under a variety of circumstances, and the smarts to navigate a human-centric world and provide useful services.

Right now HyQReal is basically still a test bed — it needs to have all kinds of work done to make sure it will stand up under conditions that robots like Spot Mini have already aced. And engineering things like arm or cargo attachments is far from trivial. All the same it’s exciting to see competition in a space that, just a few years back, seemed totally new (and creepy).

Trump’s latest explanation for the Huawei ban is unacceptably bad

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Over the past week, the US government has taken extreme and unprecedented steps against Huawei, cutting it off from every US partner at the risk of a long-term rupture in trade between the US and China. But while the impact of the order is clear, it’s still not entirely clear why it was put in place.

The official explanation, according to the initial executive order, is that Huawei hardware puts the US at risk for espionage. As the order puts it, “foreign adversaries are increasingly creating and exploiting vulnerabilities in information and communications technology and services,” and the “unrestricted acquisition or use” of hardware made by foreign adversaries makes those vulnerabilities worse.

Continue reading…

Automakers have a choice: Become data companies or become irrelevant

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While Bezos amassed billions, Apple took over our culture, Google became ubiquitous and software ate the world, the automotive industry needed a bailout. Since then, they have more or less recovered, but they are no longer the undisputed titans of American industry. That title now belongs to companies that traffic in data, and the FAANGs of the world have their digital fingers on the pulse of what moves us.

However, not all hope is lost for the old auto titans. Cars are here to stay, whether they have drivers or not. Automakers can ensure their seat at the table by implementing strategies better suited for the digital age and making data a core part of their future business.

Massive opportunity

“Big data” is a tired phrase, but the data boom is in full swing. New mobility giants like Lyft and Uber are built on data. Existing data and technology-focused companies, like Samsung (acquiring Harman), Intel (acquiring Mobileye), Google (with Maps and Waymo) and Apple (with Maps and Titan), are building mobility products. This makes perfect sense given the scale of the transportation and mobility sector.

There are 1.2 billion vehicles in operation globally, and people travel more than 23 trillion (that is with a T) miles every year. By 2020, each person on Earth will create an estimated 1.7 MB of data per second. A 2016 report from AAA showed that Americans spend an average of 17,600 minutes driving every year. By those estimates, Americans will be generating 1.8 TB of data every year in their vehicles. Add additional sensors to a vehicle like cameras, radar and lidar, connect these vehicles to the cloud, and suddenly Intel’s claims that autonomous vehicles will produce 4 TB of data in one and a half hours of driving doesn’t look too crazy. McKinsey believes there could be as much as $750 billion of value in vehicle data by 2030. Both numbers are hand-wavy, but the message is clear: there exists a massive opportunity.

Who wants the data?

Not all data is created equal and different data customers are seeking different data points to augment and expand their existing services. Automakers themselves and dealerships want to track vehicles post-production to better understand how customers are using their products. They can use this data to improve their product, push customers to dealerships for maintenance and repair and ultimately retain customers to enhance lifetime value.

Telecommunication companies are seeking to provide in-vehicle Wi-Fi and data services and ultimately scaling 5G networks to connect vehicles to the internet. Repair shops want to have remote access to sensors and systems on the vehicle to diagnose and even predict maintenance and repair events. Urban planners, advertisers and hedge funds want to access location-based analytics to understand how and why we are moving to provide a complete picture of individual preferences.

Insurance companies want access to speed, acceleration and navigation data to provide more accurate premium estimates for individual users and usage-based insurance. Developers want access to vehicle data to build new products and services that we have yet to conceive. The list goes on and on.

Data customers have a more advanced vehicle data strategy than the automakers themselves, and they have partnered with many startups that are trying to collect and aggregate vehicle data. For example, many startups provide a piece of hardware that plugs into the onboard diagnostic (OBD) port of a vehicle in partnership with insurance companies or repair shops. However, the OBD provides only a small subset of the total vehicle data.

Who has it?

Despite these “hacks,” the richest data set for vehicle-specific data is recorded on the CANBUS, and the automakers have the easiest access that data. This puts automakers in the best position to decide who can utilize the data and how.

We’ve already seen that larger automakers like BMW do not want to cede control to large technology companies — so what are the other options? Data management and monetization are not core competencies of the automotive industry. Manufacturers and suppliers currently operate on seven-year product cycles, which give them complete control over a stable value chain at the expense of interaction with end customers and less than state-of-the-art digital capabilities. Privacy and security concerns are looming, particularly for luxury brands with century-long heritages. Key for automakers will be finding a way to gain access to data expertise without giving away their proprietary position in the market.

Smaller automakers may be okay ceding some position to technology companies that could provide ADAS, autonomy and data management solutions (e.g. Aurora, Waymo) as they would likely struggle to build on their own. Ceding this position would relegate those automakers down the automotive hierarchy, but perhaps bring them greater volume in the future. For example, Waymo is developing its technology stack on Chrysler and Jaguar vehicles.

Automakers overwhelmed by this prospect may want to consider an acquisition, as they did for self-driving technology with Argo AI and Cruise. For instance, Ford acquired TransLoc and Autonomic to develop internal capabilities. General Motors took a substantial stake in third-party data platform Wejo. Automakers could also attempt to build these capabilities on their own. Toyota is developing a $1 billion data center.

What’s next?

It is abundantly clear to us at Autotech Ventures that there is a lot of value to be captured from vehicle data. That value will only grow as more and more sensors are added to vehicles. Automakers are in prime position to capture a tremendous share of this value, but will need to move quickly and perhaps reorganize their priorities along the way. We are skeptical that they can do it on their own.

Whether automakers decide to engage tech companies, acquire startups to help them gain expertise or rely on a startup to supply their data management needs, we expect a lot of activity in the space soon.

Snap, which has yet to release a diversity report, hires its first head of D&I

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Snap has brought on its first-ever diversity and inclusion lead, former Google Director of Diversity Strategy Oona King.

In a memo sent to Snap employees today, Snap Chief People Officer Lara Sweet announced King’s hiring. Although Snap is late in the game of hiring a diversity lead and has yet to release a diversity report, Sweet said Snap wants to “lead by example and contribute to human progress by breaking down systemic barriers that lead to people feeling excluded.”

This comes shortly after reports surfaced that Snap paid settlements to at least three female employees who alleged they were laid off due to their gender. And about one year ago, a former Snap engineer‘s email surfaced from November 2017 that criticized the company for having a toxic and sexist culture that is unwelcome to people of color and women. The former Snap engineer, Shannon Lubetich, described how Snap is not adequately promoting diversity at the company.

“The letter was a really good wake-up call for us,” Snap CEO Evan Spiegel said last May at a tech conference.

Spiegel described how, in light of the letter, Snap hired external consultants to help the company figure out areas in which to improve. Snap also ran a company-wide survey and changed its promotion structure, Spiegel said.

While Snap has previously said it provides diversity numbers to its employees, the company has yet to publicly produce a diversity report, unlike its many peers in the tech industry.

Here’s the full memo Sweet sent to employees:

Hi Team,

At Snap we are deeply committed to making progress on Diversity & Inclusion. We want to lead by example and contribute to human progress by breaking down systemic barriers that lead to people feeling excluded. And we know we have to start at home: ensuring Snap’s employee culture represents the diversity of our global users is critical to our success.

As a part of this commitment, I’m very excited to announce Oona King as Snap’s first VP of Diversity and Inclusion. Oona comes to us from Google, where she is Director of Diversity Strategy. She brings extensive experience from a variety of industries including technology, media, and politics, having been an advisor to the British Prime Minister on issues of equality and the second black woman elected to British Parliament earlier in her career. She also held Head of Diversity and Inclusion roles at both YouTube and the British Broadcaster, Channel 4. Oona will report to me, and help ensure our diversity and inclusion efforts are even more impactful – both within the company and across our products and content.  Oona starts on June 11.

We’re so excited to have Oona join us, to help us build diversity and inclusion into everything we do – from how we build teams, to how we create products and content.  We’re confident she will help us make Snap a more diverse and inclusive company at all levels, so please join me in welcoming Oona to Snap — we can’t wait to have her on the team!


From green screen computers to staff shortages, a new audit says Cook County’s property tax system needs more resources

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Cook County’s assessor has one quarter of the staff needed to evaluate the area’s more than 1.8 million property parcels. Despite plans for new technology, the office still relies on a green screen computer mainframe. The system’s low-quality data is so outdated that investigators can’t calculate…

Broncos Adam Gotsis and Justin Simmons address mentality entering contract year

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Justin Simmons and Adam Gotsis enter the final year of their Broncos contracts with differing mindsets. How much do the defensive stalwarts ponder their future in Denver beyond 2019 during the dog days of OTAs?

Simmons: “A lot of thought.”

Gotsis: “I haven’t really thought about it too much.”

Plenty has changed in Denver since both players were drafted in 2016. They are on their third head coach, third defensive coordinator and their roles have evolved. Simmons, a third-round safety, was the only Broncos defensive player last season to not miss a snap (1,077) while ranking second in tackles (97) and tied for first in interceptions (three). Gotsis, a second-round defensive end, played the third-most snaps last year among defensive lineman (512) and had six disruptions — sacks/knockdowns/pressures — his most effective NFL season to date.

Both players are being counted on to be stalwarts of Denver’s defense this year in what could also be an audition to remain Broncos long term.

Simmons: “If I had a choice, I would stay here, not even a question of looking elsewhere.”

Gotsis: “This is the place that drafted me, they obviously wanted me here and I’ve loved my time here. I want to keep going out and playing hard for this team and all the guys in this locker room.”

The Broncos’ decision to keep either player beyond 2019 will first rely on their upcoming production. A large positive for both has been durability with neither having missing significant time due to injury.

Simmons returns as Denver’s unquestioned starter at free safety with the benefit of no current in-house option to replace his specific role. His nine missed tackles last season ranked fifth-most on the team, but through the course of playing several roles in a banged-up secondary. Simmons expects to be more settled into “one position” in 2019, unless called upon to move around.

“I thought last year was OK and I’m not a mediocre/ guy,” Simmons said. “I’m excited for this year, just to be able to bounce back, selfishly, and then also get back to winning and going to the postseason.”

Gotsis doesn’t currently top Denver’s D-line hierarchy, but that could change. Fellow defensive end Derek Wolfe will be a 30-year-old free agent in 2020, and if Denver decides to move on from the veteran, Gotsis could be in line to replace him.  Per the Denver Post’s game charting, Gotsis last season had 17 run “stuffs” — gain of three or fewer yards not including short yardage — tied for third-most on the team.

“I really feel like I’m a big part of this defense and this team,” Gotsis said. “I’m ready to go out there this year and help lead these guys and get back in the playoffs.”

Fant signs contract. First-round tight end Noah Fant signed a four-year contract with a team option for a fifth year on Thursday. Fant was selected No. 20 overall by the Broncos after general manager John Elway traded down 10 spots with Pittsburgh, which drafted linebacker Devin Bush.

Per the industry website Spotrac, Fant’s contract will be worth $12.55 million, including a $7.15 million signing bonus. His salary cap charge this year will be $2,282,363.

Fant had 78 catches in three years for Iowa The Broncos have three unsigned draft picks: Second-rounders Dalton Risner and Drew Lock and third-rounder Dre’Mont Jones.

Trade impasse: Trump pledges $16B to farmers; markets slump

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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump rolled out another $16 billion in aid for farmers hurt by his trade policies, and financial markets shook Thursday on the growing realization that the U.S. and China are far from settling a bitter, year-long trade dispute.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that the first of three payments is likely to be made in July or August and suggested that the U.S. and China were unlikely to have settled their differences by then.

“The package we’re announcing today ensures that farmers do not bear the brunt of unfair retaliatory tariffs imposed by China and other trading partners,” Perdue said.

The latest bailout comes atop $11 billion in aid Trump provided farmers last year.

“We will ensure our farmers get the relief they need and very, very quickly,” Trump said.

Seeking to reduce America’s trade deficit with the rest of the world and with China in particular, Trump has imposed import taxes on foreign steel, aluminum, solar panels and dishwashers and on thousands of Chinese products.

U.S trading partners have lashed back with retaliatory tariffs of their own, focusing on U.S. agricultural products in a direct shot at the American heartland, where support for Trump runs high.

William Reinsch, a trade analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former U.S. trade official, called the administration’s aid package for farmers “a fairly overt political ploy.”

“It’s not economics,” Reinsch said. Trump wants win the farm states again in the 2020 election, “and he’s got members of Congress beating up on him” to resolve the trade conflicts.

Financial markets slumped Thursday on heightened tensions between the U.S. and China. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 286 points, or 1%, to 25,490. It had been down 448 points earlier in the day.

U.S. crude plunged 6% on fears that the trade standoff could knock the global economy out of kilter and kill demand for energy.

Talks between the world’s two biggest economies broke off earlier this month with no resolution to a dispute over Beijing’s aggressive efforts to challenge American technological dominance. The U.S. charges that China is stealing technology, unfairly subsidizing its own companies and forcing U.S. companies to hand over trade secrets if they want access to the Chinese market.

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to discuss the standoff at a meeting of the Group of 20 major economies in Osaka, Japan, next month. There are no current plans for talks to occur before then.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Trump suggested that he might be willing to make the embattled Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei part of the trade talks with China. His administration last week put Huawei, which it has called a threat to national security, on a blacklist that effectively barred U.S. firms from selling the Chinese company computer chips and other components without government approval. The move could cripple Huawei, the world’s largest manufacturer of networking gear and second-biggest smartphone maker.

“I can imagine Huawei being included in some form of a trade deal,” Trump said. He offered no details but said any arrangement “would look very good for us, I can tell you that.”

Briefing reporters on the farm aid package, Perdue said he doubted that “a trade deal could be consummated before” the first payments to farmers in July or August.

The second payment will be made around November and the third likely in early 2020, USDA officials said, unless a trade deal has been reached by then.

The direct payments will make up $14.5 billion of the $16 billion package and will be handed out on a county-by-county basis. The amounts will be determined by how much each county has suffered from the retaliatory duties imposed by China, as well as previous tariffs put in place by the European Union and Turkey.

The rest of the package includes $1.4 billion to purchase surplus food commodities from farmers and distribute them to U.S. schools and food banks, and $100 million to help develop new export markets overseas.

The payments will go to farmers producing roughly two dozen crops, including soybeans, corn, canola, peanuts, cotton and wheat. Dairy and hog farmers are also eligible.

“Farmers want trade, not aid, but this will be helpful,” said Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

U.S. soybean exports to China have been hit particularly hard, falling from $12.3 billion in 2017 to just $3.2 billion last year.

The aid offsets some of the losses. But farmers are worried about the future and whether they can win back lost sales in China, a market they’ve spent years breaking into. “I don’t think any kind of bailout package, even if it was permanent, would substitute for the loss markets,” said Rufus Yerxa, president of the National Foreign Trade Council and a former U.S. trade official.

Trump has said that China is footing the bill for the farm bailout by paying the tariffs. But tariffs are taxes paid by U.S. importers, and studies have shown that American consumers and businesses usually end up absorbing the higher costs.

Perdue acknowledged that the tariffs, regardless of who pays them, are sent to the Treasury Department and not earmarked for the relief program. But he said that China is “indirectly” paying for the aid.

“The president feels that China is paying for this program through the tariffs,” Perdue said.

Trump has imposed 25% tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese imports and is planning to hit another $300 billion worth, a move that would extend import taxes to just about everything China ships to the United States.

Among those bracing for higher costs if the new tariffs kick in is Jay Foreman, CEO of Basic Fun!, a Boca Raton, Florida, toy company that imports from China.

“The thought of the government taking my money and giving it to farmers as subsidies to support their loses doesn’t sit well,” Foreman said by email. “It’s not fair to take money from a Florida company to support an Iowa farmer! Farmers don’t want welfare. I’m sure they, like us, just want open free markets to trade in!”

Marcy Gordon, Darlene Superville and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this story.

At Collision 2019, technology finds its purpose in doing good

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Collision is ostensibly a startup show, with nearly 1,100 startups, 26,000 attendees, and conference tracks for pitching venture capitalists called Growth Summit and MoneyConf. But in 2019, another theme was clear: Fixing the world.

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