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The real risk of Facebook’s Libra coin is crooked developers

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, Cambridge Analytica, cryptocurrency, Developer, Facebook, Facebook Cryptocurrency, facebook platform, Facebook Policy, Libra Association, Libra Cryptocurrency, Mobile, Opinion, payments, Policy, Security, Social, TC | No Comments

Everyone’s worried about Mark Zuckerberg controlling the next currency, but I’m more concerned about a crypto Cambridge Analytica.

Today Facebook announced Libra, its forthcoming stablecoin designed to let you shop and send money overseas with almost zero transaction fees. Immediately, critics started harping about the dangers of centralizing control of tomorrow’s money in the hands of a company with a poor track record of privacy and security.

Facebook anticipated this, though, and created a subsidiary called Calibra to run its crypto dealings and keep all transaction data separate from your social data. Facebook shares control of Libra with 27 other Libra Association founding members, and as many as 100 total when the token launches in the first half of 2020. Each member gets just one vote on the Libra council, so Facebook can’t hijack the token’s governance even though it invented it.

With privacy fears and centralized control issues at least somewhat addressed, there’s always the issue of security. Facebook naturally has a huge target on its back for hackers. Not just because Libra could hold so much value to steal, but because plenty of trolls would get off on screwing up Facebook’s currency. That’s why Facebook open-sourced the Libra Blockchain and is offering a prototype in a pre-launch testnet. This developer beta plus a bug bounty program run in partnership with HackerOne is meant to surface all the flaws and vulnerabilities before Libra goes live with real money connected.

Yet that leaves one giant vector for abuse of Libra: the developer platform.

“Essential to the spirit of Libra . . . the Libra Blockchain will be open to everyone: any consumer, developer, or business can use the Libra network, build products on top of it, and add value through their services. Open access ensures low barriers to entry and innovation and encourages healthy competition that benefits consumers,” Facebook explained in its white paper and Libra launch documents. It’s even building a whole coding language called Move for making Libra apps.

Apparently Facebook has already forgotten how allowing anyone to build on the Facebook app platform and its low barriers to “innovation” are exactly what opened the door for Cambridge Analytica to hijack 87 million people’s personal data and use it for political ad targeting.

But in this case, it won’t be users’ interests and birthdays that get grabbed. It could be hundreds or thousands of dollars’ worth of Libra currency that’s stolen. A shady developer could build a wallet that just cleans out a user’s account or funnels their coins to the wrong recipient, mines their purchase history for marketing data or uses them to launder money. Digital risks become a lot less abstract when real-world assets are at stake.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook raced to lock down its app platform, restrict APIs, more heavily vet new developers and audit ones that look shady. So you’d imagine the Libra Association would be planning to thoroughly scrutinize any developer trying to build a Libra wallet, exchange or other related app, right? “There are no plans for the Libra Association to take a role in actively vetting [developers],” Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil surprisingly told me. “The minute that you start limiting it is the minute you start walking back to the system you have today with a closed ecosystem and a smaller number of competitors, and you start to see fees rise.”

That translates to “the minute we start responsibly verifying Libra app developers, things start to get expensive, complicated or agitating to cryptocurrency purists. That might hurt growth and adoption.” You know what will hurt growth of Libra a lot worse? A sob story about some migrant family or a small business getting all their Libra stolen. And that blame is going to land squarely on Facebook, not some amorphous Libra Association.

Image via Getty Images / alashi

Inevitably, some unsavvy users won’t understand the difference between Facebook’s own wallet app Calibra and any other app built for the currency. “Libra is Facebook’s cryptocurrency. They wouldn’t let me get robbed,” some will surely say. And on Calibra they’d be right. It’s a custodial wallet that will refund you if your Libra are stolen and it offers 24/7 customer support via chat to help you regain access to your account.

Yet the Libra Blockchain itself is irreversible. Outside of custodial wallets like Calibra, there’s no getting your stolen or mis-sent money back. There’s likely no customer support. And there are plenty of crooked crypto developers happy to prey on the inexperienced. Indeed, $1.7 billion in cryptocurrency was stolen last year alone, according to CypherTrace via CNBC. “As with anything, there’s fraud and there are scams in the existing financial ecosystem today . . .  that’s going to be true of Libra too. There’s nothing special or magical that prevents that,” says Weil, who concluded “I think those pros massively outweigh the cons.”

Until now, the blockchain world was mostly inhabited by technologists, except for when skyrocketing values convinced average citizens to invest in Bitcoin just before prices crashed. Now Facebook wants to bring its family of apps’ 2.7 billion users into the world of cryptocurrency. That’s deeply worrisome.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Regulators are already bristling, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown tweeted that “We cannot allow Facebook to run a risky new cryptocurrency out of a Swiss bank account without oversight.” And French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told Europe 1 radio that Libra can’t be allowed to “become a sovereign currency.”

Most harshly, Rep. Maxine Waters issued a statement saying, “Given the company’s troubled past, I am requesting that Facebook agree to a moratorium on any movement forward on developing a cryptocurrency until Congress and regulators have the opportunity to examine these issues and take action.”

Yet Facebook has just one vote in controlling the currency, and the Libra Association preempted these criticisms, writing, “We welcome public inquiry and accountability. We are committed to a dialogue with regulators and policymakers. We share policymakers’ interest in the ongoing stability of national currencies.”

That’s why as lawmakers confer about how to regulate Libra, I hope they remember what triggered the last round of Facebook execs having to appear before Congress and Parliament. A totally open, unvetted Libra developer platform in the name of “innovation” over safety is a ticking time bomb. Governments should insist the Libra Association thoroughly audit developers and maintain the power to ban bad actors. In this strange new crypto world, the public can’t be expected to perfectly protect itself from Cambridge Analytica 2.$.

Get up to speed on Facebook’s Libra with this handy guide:

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Anti-spam service Truecaller adds free voice calling feature

Posted by | Android, Apps, Asia, Facebook, Mobile, Mukesh Ambani, reliance jio, Truecaller, WhatsApp | No Comments

Truecaller, an app best known for helping users screen calls from strangers and spammers, is adding yet another feature to its service as it bolsters its super app status. The Stockholm-based firm said today that its app can now be used to place free VoIP-powered voice calls.

The company told TechCrunch on Tuesday that it has started to roll out the free voice calling feature to its Android users. It expects the rollout to reach all Android users in the coming days. The feature, which currently only supports calls between two users, will arrive on its iOS app soon.

In emerging markets such as India, where 100 million of Truecaller’s 140 million users live, free voice calls has been a long-sought after feature. Until late 2016, voice calls were fairly expensive in India, with telecom operators counting revenue from traditional calls as their biggest profit generator.

But in last two and a half years, things have changed dramatically for hundreds of millions of people in India after Reliance Jio, a telecom operator owned by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, launched its network with free voice calls and low-priced data services. Reliance Jio has already amassed over 300 million users to become one of the top three telcos in the nation.

Yet, the quality of network still leaves much to be desired in India as traditional calls drop abruptly and run into quality issues more often than one would like. Truecaller said that its voice calls rely on data services — mobile data and Wi-Fi — and claimed that they can work swiftly even on patchy network.

The addition of voice calling functionality comes as Truecaller aggressively looks to expand its business. The service, which offers both ad-support free tier and subscription bundle, has added messaging, mobile payments, and call recording features in recent years. Earlier this year, it also added a crediting option, allowing users in India to borrow a few hundred dollars.

A representative with the company said Truecaller began exploring the free voice calling feature a few months ago. It began testing the new functionality with alpha and beta test group users four weeks ago. It now plans to introduce group voice calling support soon, the company said.

With the new feature, Truecaller now competes even more closely with WhatsApp . The Facebook-owned app has become ubiquitous in India with more than three-quarters of India’s smartphone base using the app. WhatsApp added voice calling feature to its app in 2015. Last year, Facebook said users around the world were spending 2 billion minutes per day on WhatsApp video and audio calls.

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Facebook announces Libra cryptocurrency: All you need to know

Posted by | Anchorage, Andreessen Horowitz, Apps, blockchain, coinbase, cryptocurrency, Developer, eBay, eCommerce, Facebook, Farfetch, Finance, funding, Libra Association, Libra Cryptocurrency, Lyft, Mobile, Move coding language, payments, PayPal, Policy, privacy, Ribbit Capital, Social, Spotify, stablecoin, stripe, TC, Thrive Capital, Uber, Union Square Ventures, visa | No Comments

Facebook has finally revealed the details of its cryptocurrency, Libra, which will let you buy things or send money to people with nearly zero fees. You’ll pseudonymously buy or cash out your Libra online or at local exchange points like grocery stores, and spend it using interoperable third-party wallet apps or Facebook’s own Calibra wallet that will be built into WhatsApp, Messenger and its own app. Today Facebook released its white paper explaining Libra and its testnet for working out the kinks of its blockchain system before a public launch in the first half of 2020.

Facebook won’t fully control Libra, but instead get just a single vote in its governance like other founding members of the Libra Association, including Visa, Uber and Andreessen Horowitz, which have invested at least $10 million each into the project’s operations. The association will promote the open-sourced Libra Blockchain and developer platform with its own Move programming language, plus sign up businesses to accept Libra for payment and even give customers discounts or rewards.

Facebook is launching a subsidiary company also called Calibra that handles its crypto dealings and protects users’ privacy by never mingling your Libra payments with your Facebook data so it can’t be used for ad targeting. Your real identity won’t be tied to your publicly visible transactions. But Facebook/Calibra and other founding members of the Libra Association will earn interest on the money users cash in that is held in reserve to keep the value of Libra stable.

Facebook’s audacious bid to create a global digital currency that promotes financial inclusion for the unbanked actually has more privacy and decentralization built in than many expected. Instead of trying to dominate Libra’s future or squeeze tons of cash out of it immediately, Facebook is instead playing the long-game by pulling payments into its online domain. Facebook’s VP of blockchain, David Marcus, explained the company’s motive and the tie-in with its core revenue source during a briefing at San Francisco’s historic Mint building. “If more commerce happens, then more small businesses will sell more on and off platform, and they’ll want to buy more ads on the platform so it will be good for our ads business.”

The risk and reward of building the new PayPal

In cryptocurrencies, Facebook saw both a threat and an opportunity. They held the promise of disrupting how things are bought and sold by eliminating transaction fees common with credit cards. That comes dangerously close to Facebook’s ad business that influences what is bought and sold. If a competitor like Google or an upstart built a popular coin and could monitor the transactions, they’d learn what people buy and could muscle in on the billions spent on Facebook marketing. Meanwhile, the 1.7 billion people who lack a bank account might choose whoever offers them a financial services alternative as their online identity provider too. That’s another thing Facebook wants to be.

Yet existing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum weren’t properly engineered to scale to be a medium of exchange. Their unanchored price was susceptible to huge and unpredictable swings, making it tough for merchants to accept as payment. And cryptocurrencies miss out on much of their potential beyond speculation unless there are enough places that will take them instead of dollars, and the experience of buying and spending them is easy enough for a mainstream audience. But with Facebook’s relationship with 7 million advertisers and 90 million small businesses plus its user experience prowess, it was well-poised to tackle this juggernaut of a problem.

Now Facebook wants to make Libra the evolution of PayPal . It’s hoping Libra will become simpler to set up, more ubiquitous as a payment method, more efficient with fewer fees, more accessible to the unbanked, more flexible thanks to developers and more long-lasting through decentralization.

“Success will mean that a person working abroad has a fast and simple way to send money to family back home, and a college student can pay their rent as easily as they can buy a coffee,” Facebook writes in its Libra documentation. That would be a big improvement on today, when you’re stuck paying rent in insecure checks while exploitative remittance services charge an average of 7% to send money abroad, taking $50 billion from users annually. Libra could also power tiny microtransactions worth just a few cents that are infeasible with credit card fees attached, or replace your pre-paid transit pass.

…Or it could be globally ignored by consumers who see it as too much hassle for too little reward, or too unfamiliar and limited in use to pull them into the modern financial landscape. Facebook has built a reputation for over-engineered, underused products. It will need all the help it can get if wants to replace what’s already in our pockets.

How does Libra work?

By now you know the basics of Libra. Cash in a local currency, get Libra, spend them like dollars without big transaction fees or your real name attached, cash them out whenever you want. Feel free to stop reading and share this article if that’s all you care about. But the underlying technology, the association that governs it, the wallets you’ll use and the way payments work all have a huge amount of fascinating detail to them. Facebook has released more than 100 pages of documentation on Libra and Calibra, and we’ve pulled out the most important facts. Let’s dive in.

The Libra Association — crypto’s new oligarchy

Facebook knew people wouldn’t trust it to wholly steer the cryptocurrency they use, and it also wanted help to spur adoption. So the social network recruited the founding members of the Libra Association, a not-for-profit which oversees the development of the token, the reserve of real-world assets that gives it value and the governance rules of the blockchain. “If we were controlling it, very few people would want to jump on and make it theirs,” says Marcus.

Each founding member paid a minimum of $10 million to join and optionally become a validator node operator (more on that later), gain one vote in the Libra Association council and be entitled to a share (proportionate to their investment) of the dividends from interest earned on the Libra reserve into which users pay fiat currency to receive Libra.

The 28 soon-to-be founding members of the association and their industries, previously reported by The Block’s Frank Chaparro, include:

  • Payments: Mastercard, PayPal, PayU (Naspers’ fintech arm), Stripe, Visa
  • Technology and marketplaces: Booking Holdings, eBay, Facebook/Calibra, Farfetch, Lyft, Mercado Pago, 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

Facebook says it hopes to reach 100 founding members before the official Libra launch and it’s open to anyone that meets the requirements, including direct competitors like Google or Twitter. The Libra Association is based in Geneva, Switzerland and will meet biannually. The country was chosen for its neutral status and strong support for financial innovation including blockchain technology.

Libra governance — who gets a vote

To join the association, members must have a half rack of server space, a 100Mbps or above dedicated internet connection, a full-time site reliability engineer and enterprise-grade security. Businesses must hit two of three thresholds of a $1 billion USD market value or $500 million in customer balances, reach 20 million people a year and/or be recognized as a top 100 industry leader by a group like Interbrand Global or the S&P.

Crypto-focused investors must have more than $1 billion in assets under management, while Blockchain businesses must have been in business for a year, have enterprise-grade security and privacy and custody or staking greater than $100 million in assets. And only up to one-third of founding members can by crypto-related businesses or individually invited exceptions. Facebook also accepts research organizations like universities, and nonprofits fulfilling three of four qualities, including working on financial inclusion for more than five years, multi-national reach to lots of users, a top 100 designation by Charity Navigator or something like it and/or $50 million in budget.

The Libra Association will be responsible for recruiting more founding members to act as validator nodes for the blockchain, fundraising to jump-start the ecosystem, designing incentive programs to reward early adopters and doling out social impact grants. A council with a representative from each member will help choose the association’s managing director, who will appoint an executive team and elect a board of five to 19 top representatives.

Each member, including Facebook/Calibra, will only get up to one vote or 1% of the total vote (whichever is larger) in the Libra Association council. This provides a level of decentralization that protects against Facebook or any other player hijacking Libra for its own gain. By avoiding sole ownership and dominion over Libra, Facebook could avoid extra scrutiny from regulators who are already investigating it for a sea of privacy abuses as well as potentially anti-competitive behavior. In an attempt to preempt criticism from lawmakers, the Libra Association writes, “We welcome public inquiry and accountability. We are committed to a dialogue with regulators and policymakers. We share policymakers’ interest in the ongoing stability of national currencies.”

The Libra currency — a stablecoin

A Libra is a unit of the Libra cryptocurrency that’s represented by a three wavy horizontal line unicode character ≋ like the dollar is represented by $. The value of a Libra is meant to stay largely stable, so it’s a good medium of exchange, as merchants can be confident they won’t be paid a Libra today that’s then worth less tomorrow. The Libra’s value is tied to a basket of bank deposits and short-term government securities for a slew of historically stable international currencies, including the dollar, pound, euro, Swiss franc and yen. The Libra Association maintains this basket of assets and can change the balance of its composition if necessary to offset major price fluctuations in any one foreign currency so that the value of a Libra stays consistent.

The name Libra comes from the word for a Roman unit of weight measure. It’s trying to invoke a sense of financial freedom by playing on the French stem “Lib,” meaning free.

The Libra Association is still hammering out the exact start value for the Libra, but it’s meant to be somewhere close to the value of a dollar, euro or pound so it’s easy to conceptualize. That way, a gallon of milk in the U.S. might cost 3 to 4 Libra, similar but not exactly the same as with dollars.

The idea is that you’ll cash in some money and keep a balance of Libra that you can spend at accepting merchants and online services. You’ll be able to trade in your local currency for Libra and vice versa through certain wallet apps, including Facebook’s Calibra, third-party wallet apps and local resellers like convenience or grocery stores where people already go to top-up their mobile data plan.

The Libra Reserve — one for one

Each time someone cashes in a dollar or their respective local currency, that money goes into the Libra Reserve and an equivalent value of Libra is minted and doled out to that person. If someone cashes out from the Libra Association, the Libra they give back are destroyed/burned and they receive the equivalent value in their local currency back. That means there’s always 100% of the value of the Libra in circulation, collateralized with real-world assets in the Libra Reserve. It never runs fractional. And unliked “pegged” stable coins that are tied to a single currency like the USD, Libra maintains its own value — though that should cash out to roughly the same amount of a given currency over time.

When Libra Association members join and pay their $10 million minimum, they receive Libra Investment Tokens. Their share of the total tokens translates into the proportion of the dividend they earn off of interest on assets in the reserve. Those dividends are only paid out after Libra Association uses interest to pay for operating expenses, investments in the ecosystem, engineering research and grants to nonprofits and other organizations. This interest is part of what attracted the Libra Association’s members. If Libra becomes popular and many people carry a large balance of the currency, the reserve will grow huge and earn significant interest.

The Libra Blockchain — built for speed

Every Libra payment is permanently written into the Libra Blockchain — a cryptographically authenticated database that acts as a public online ledger designed to handle 1,000 transactions per second. That would be much faster than Bitcoin’s 7 transactions per second or Ethereum’s 15. The blockchain is operated and constantly verified by founding members of the Libra Association, which each invested $10 million or more for a say in the cryptocurrency’s governance and the ability to operate a validator node.

When a transaction is submitted, each of the nodes runs a calculation based on the existing ledger of all transactions. Thanks to a Byzantine Fault Tolerance system, just two-thirds of the nodes must come to consensus that the transaction is legitimate for it to be executed and written to the blockchain. A structure of Merkle Trees in the code makes it simple to recognize changes made to the Libra Blockchain. With 5KB transactions, 1,000 verifications per second on commodity CPUs and up to 4 billion accounts, the Libra Blockchain should be able to operate at 1,000 transactions per second if nodes use at least 40Mbps connections and 16TB SSD hard drives.

Transactions on Libra cannot be reversed. If an attack compromises over one-third of the validator nodes causing a fork in the blockchain, the Libra Association says it will temporarily halt transactions, figure out the extent of the damage and recommend software updates to resolve the fork.

Transactions aren’t entirely free. They incur a tiny fraction of a cent fee to pay for “gas” that covers the cost of processing the transfer of funds similar to with Ethereum. This fee will be negligible to most consumers, but when they add up, the gas charges will deter bad actors from creating millions of transactions to power spam and denial-of-service attacks. “We’ve purposely tried not to innovate massively on the blockchain itself because we want it to be scalable and secure,” says Marcus of piggybacking on the best elements of existing cryptocurrencies.

Currently, the Libra Blockchain is what’s known as “permissioned,” where only entities that fulfill certain requirements are admitted to a special in-group that defines consensus and controls governance of the blockchain. The problem is this structure is more vulnerable to attacks and censorship because it’s not truly decentralized. But during Facebook’s research, it couldn’t find a reliable permissionless structure that could securely scale to the number of transactions Libra will need to handle. Adding more nodes slows things down, and no one has proven a way to avoid that without compromising security.

That’s why the Libra Association’s goal is to move to a permissionless system based on proof-of-stake that will protect against attacks by distributing control, encourage competition and lower the barrier to entry. It wants to have at least 20% of votes in the Libra Association council coming from node operators based on their total Libra holdings instead of their status as a founding member. That plan should help appease blockchain purists who won’t be satisfied until Libra is completely decentralized.

Move coding language — for moving Libra

The Libra Blockchain is open source with an Apache 2.0 license, and any developer can build apps that work with it using the Move coding language. The blockchain’s prototype launches its testnet today, so it’s effectively in developer beta mode until it officially launches in the first half of 2020. The Libra Association is working with HackerOne to launch a bug bounty system later this year that will pay security researchers for safely identifying flaws and glitches. In the meantime, the Libra Association is implementing the Libra Core using the Rust programming language because it’s designed to prevent security vulnerabilities, and the Move language isn’t fully ready yet.

Move was created to make it easier to write blockchain code that follows an author’s intent without introducing bugs. It’s called Move because its primary function is to move Libra coins from one account to another, and never let those assets be accidentally duplicated. The core transaction code looks like: LibraAccount.pay_from_sender(recipient_address, amount) procedure.

Eventually, Move developers will be able to create smart contracts for programmatic interactions with the Libra Blockchain. Until Move is ready, developers can create modules and transaction scripts for Libra using Move IR, which is high-level enough to be human-readable but low-level enough to be translatable into real Move bytecode that’s written to the blockchain.

The Libra ecosystem and the Move language will be completely open to use and build, which presents a sizable risk. Crooked developers could prey on crypto novices, claiming their app works just the same as legitimate ones, and that it’s safe because it uses Libra. But if consumers get ripped off by these scammers, the anger will surely bubble up to Facebook. Yet still, Calibra’s head of product tells me, “There are no plans for the Libra Association to take a role in actively vetting [developers],” Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil tells me.

Even though it’s tried to distance itself sufficiently via its subsidiary Libra and the association, many people will probably always think of Libra as Facebook’s cryptocurrency and blame it for their woes.

Read our full story on the dangers of Libra’s unvetted developer platform

Libra incentives — rewarding early businesses

The Libra Association wants to encourage more developers and merchants to work with its cryptocurrency. That’s why it plans to issue incentives, possibly Libra coins, to validator node operators who can get people signed up for and using Libra. Wallets that pull users through the Know Your Customer anti-fraud and money laundering process or that keep users sufficiently active for over a year will be rewarded. For each transaction they process, merchants will also receive a percentage of the transaction back.

Businesses that earn these incentives can keep them, or pass some or all of them along to users in the form of free Libra tokens or discounts on their purchases. This could create competition between wallets to see which can pass on the most rewards to their customers, and thereby attract the most users. You could imagine eBay or Spotify giving you a discount for paying in Libra, while wallet developers might offer you free tokens if you complete 100 transactions within a year.

“One challenge for Spotify and its users around the world has been the lack of easily accessible payment systems – especially for those in financially underserved markets,” Spotify’s Chief Premium Business Officer Alex Norström writes. “In joining the Libra Association, there is an opportunity to better reach Spotify’s total addressable market, eliminate friction and enable payments in mass scale.”

This savvy incentive system should massively help ratchet up Libra’s user count without dictating how businesses balance their margins versus growth. Facebook also has another plan to grow its developer ecosystem. By offering venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures a portion of the reserve interest, they’re motivating to fund startups building Libra infrastructure.

Using Libra

So how do you actually own and spend Libra? Through Libra wallets like Facebook’s own Calibra and others that will be built by third-parties, potentially including Libra Association members like PayPal. The idea is to make sending money to a friend or paying for something as easy as sending a Facebook Message. You won’t be able to make or receive any real payments until the official launch next year, though, but you can sign up for early access when it’s ready here.

None of the Libra Association members agreed to provide details on what exactly they’ll build on the blockchain, but we can take Facebook’s Calibra wallet as an example of the basic experience. Calibra will launch alongside the Libra currency on iOS and Android within Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and a standalone app. When users first sign up, they’ll be taken through a Know Your Customer anti-fraud process where they’ll have to provide a government-issued photo ID and other verification info. They’ll need to conduct due diligence on customers and report suspicious activity to the authorities.

From there you’ll be able to cash in to Libra, pick a friend or merchant, set an amount to send them and add a description and send them Libra. You’ll also be able to request Libra, and Calibra will offer an expedited way of paying merchants by scanning your or their QR code. Eventually it wants to offer in-store payments and integrations with point-of-sale systems like Square.

The Libra Association’s e-commerce members seem particularly excited about how the token could eliminate transaction fees and speed up checkout. “We believe blockchain will benefit the luxury industry by improving IP protection, transparency in the product life cycle and — as in the case of Libra — enable global frictionless e-commerce,” says FarFetch CEO Jose Neves.

Privacy — at least from Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained some of the philosophy behind Libra and Calibra in a post today. “It’s decentralized — meaning it’s run by many different organizations instead of just one, making the system fairer overall. It’s available to anyone with an internet connection and has low fees and costs. And it’s secured by cryptography which helps keep your money safe. This is an important part of our vision for a privacy-focused social platform — where you can interact in all the ways you’d want privately, from messaging to secure payments.”

By default, Facebook won’t import your contacts or any of your profile information, but may ask if you wish to do so. It also won’t share any of your transaction data back to Facebook, so it won’t be used to target you with ads, rank your News Feed, or otherwise earn Facebook money directly. Data will only be shared in specific instances in anonymized ways for research or adoption measurement, for hunting down fraudsters or due to a request from law enforcement. And you don’t even need a Facebook or WhatsApp account to sign up for Calibra or to use Libra.

“We realize people don’t want their social data and financial data commingled,” says Marcus, who’s now head of Calibra. “The reality is we’ll have plenty of wallets that will compete with us and many of them will not be in social, and if we want to successfully win people’s trust, we have to make sure the data will be separated.”

In case you are hacked, scammed or lose access to your account, Calibra will refund you for lost coins when possible through 24/7 chat support because it’s a custodial wallet. You also won’t have to remember any long, complex crypto passwords you could forget and get locked out from your money, as Calibra manages all your keys for you. Given Calibra will likely become the default wallet for many Libra users, this extra protection and smoother user experience is essential.

For now, Calibra won’t make money. But Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil tells me that if it reaches scale, Facebook could launch other financial tools through Calibra that it could monetize, such as investing or lending. “In time, we hope to offer additional services for people and businesses, such as paying bills with the push of a button, buying a cup of coffee with the scan of a code or riding your local public transit without needing to carry cash or a metro pass,” the Calibra team writes. That makes it start to sound a lot like China’s everything app WeChat.

A global coin

Facebook got one thing right for sure: Today’s money doesn’t work for everyone. Those of us living comfortably in developed nations likely don’t see the hardships that befall migrant workers or the unbanked abroad. Preyed on by greedy payday lenders and high-fee remittance services, targeted by muggers and left out of traditional financial services, the poor get poorer. Libra has the potential to get more money from working parents back to their families and help people retain credit even if they’re robbed of their physical possessions. That would do more to accomplish Facebook’s mission of making the world feel smaller than all the News Feed Likes combined.

If Facebook succeeds and legions of people cash in money for Libra, it and the other founding members of the Libra Association could earn big dividends on the interest. And if suddenly it becomes super quick to buy things through Facebook using Libra, businesses will boost their ad spend there. But if Libra gets hacked or proves unreliable, it could cost lots of people around the world money while souring them on cryptocurrencies. And by offering an open Libra platform, shady developers could build apps that snatch not just people’s personal info like Cambridge Analytica, but their hard-earned digital cash.

Facebook just tried to reinvent money. Next year, we’ll see if the Libra Association can pull it off. It took me 4,000 words to explain Libra, but at least now you can make up your own mind about whether to be scared of Facebook crypto.

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Calendar influencers? Event social network IRL raises $8M

Posted by | abe shafi, Apps, calendar, event discovery, evite, Facebook, funding, Fundings & Exits, gettalent, irl, Mobile, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC | No Comments

Why is there no app where you can follow party animals, concert snobs or conference butterflies for their curated suggestions of events? That’s the next phase of social calendar app IRL that’s launching today on iOS to help you make and discuss plans with friends or discover nearby happenings to fill out your schedule.

The calendar, a historically dorky utility, seems like a strange way to start the next big social network. Many people, especially teens, either don’t use apps like Google Calendar, keep them professional or merely input plans made elsewhere. But by baking in an Explore tab of event recommendations and the option to follow curators, headliners and venues, IRL could make calendars communal like Instagram did to cameras.

“There’s Twitter for ‘follow my updates,’ there’s SoundCloud for ‘follow my music,’ but there’s no ‘follow my events’ ” IRL CEO Abe Shafi tells me of his plan to turbocharge his calendar app. “They’re arguably the best product that’s been built for organizing what you’re doing, but no one has Superhuman’d or Slack’d the calendar. Let’s build a super f*cking dope calendar!” he says with unbridled excitement. He’ll need that passion to persevere as IRL tries to steal a major use case from SMS, messaging apps and Facebook .

Finding a new opportunity for a social network has attracted a new $8 million Series A funding round for IRL led by Goodwater Capital and joined by Founders Fund and Kleiner Perkins. That builds on its $3 million seed from Founders Fund and Floodgate, whose partner Mike Maples is joining IRL’s board. The startup has also pulled in some entertainment and event CEOs as strategic investors, including Warner Bros. president Greg Silverman, Lionsgate Films president Joe Drake and ClassPass CEO Fritz Lanman to help it recruit calendar influencers users can follow.

Filling your social calendar

In Shafi, investors found a consummate extrovert who can empathize with event-goers. He dropped out of Berkeley to build out his recruitment software startup getTalent before selling it to HR platform Dice, where he became VP of product. He started to become disillusioned by tech’s impact on society and almost left the industry before some time at Burning Man rekindled his fever for events.

IRL CEO Abe Shafi

Shafi teamed up with PayPal’s first board member Scott Banister and early social network founder Greg Tseng. Shafi’s first attempt Gather pissed off a ton of people with spammy invites in 2017. By 2018, he’d restarted as IRL, with a focus on building a minimalist calendar where it was easy to create events and invite friends. Evite and Facebook Events were too heavy for making less formal get-togethers with close friends. He wisely chose to geofence his app and launch state by state to maximize density so people would have more pals to plan with.

IRL is now in 14 states, with a modest 1.3 million monthly active users and 175,000 dailies, plus 3 million people on the waitlist. “Fifty percent of all teens in Texas have downloaded IRL. I wanted to focus on the central states, not Silicon Valley,” Shafi explains. Users log in with a phone number or Google, two-way sync their Google Calendar if they have one, and can then manage their existing schedule and create mini-events. The stickiest feature is the ability to group chat with everyone invited so you can hammer out plans. Even users without the app can chime in via text or email. And unlike Facebook, where your mom or boss are liable to see your RSVPs, your calendar and what you’re doing on IRL is always private unless you explicitly share it.

The problem is that most of this could be handled with SMS and a more popular calendar. That’s why IRL is doubling-down on event discovery through influencers, which you can’t do anywhere else at scale. With the new version of the app launching today, you’ll be recommended performers, locations and curators to follow. You’ll see their suggestions in the Explore tab that also includes sub-tabs of Nearby and Trending happenings. There’s also a college-specific feed for users that auth in with their school email address. Curators and event companies like TechCrunch can get their own IRL.com/… URL people can follow more easily than some janky list of events of gallery of flyers on their website. Since pretty much every promoter wants more attendees, IRL’s had little resistance to it indexing all the events from Meetup.com and whatever it can find.

IRL is concentrating on growth for now, but Shafi believes all the intent data about what people want to do could be valuable for directing people to certain restaurants, bars, theaters or festivals, though he vows that “we’re never going to sell your data to advertisers.” For now, IRL is earning money from affiliate fees when people buy tickets or make reservations. Event affiliate margins are infamously slim, but Shafi says IRL can bargain for higher fees as it gains sway over more people’s calendars.

Unfortunately, without reams of personal data and leading artificial intelligence that Facebook owns, IRL’s in-house suggestions via the Explore tab can feel pretty haphazard. I saw lots of mediocre happy hours, crafting nights and community talks that weren’t quite the hip nightlife recommendations I was hoping for, and for now there’s no sorting by category. That’s where Shafi hopes influencers will fill in. And he’s confident that Facebook’s business model discourages it moving deeper into events. “Facebook’s revenue driver is time spent on the app. While meaningful to society, events as a feature is not a primary revenue driver so they don’t get the resources that other features on Facebook get.”

Yet the biggest challenge will be rearranging how people organize their lives. A lot of us are too scatterbrained, lazy or instinctive to make all our plans days or weeks ahead of time and put them on a calendar. The beauty of mobile is that we can communicate on the fly to meet up. “Solving for spontaneity isn’t our focus so far,” Shafi admits. But that’s how so much of our social lives come together.

My biggest problem isn’t finding events to fill my calendar, but knowing which friends are free now to hang out and attend one with me. There are plenty of calendar, event discovery and offline hangout apps. IRL will have to prove they deserve to be united. At least Shafi says it’s a problem worth trying to solve. “I know for a fact that the product of a calendar will outlive me.” He just wants to make it more social first.

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Apollo raises $22M for its GraphQL platform

Posted by | Andreessen Horowitz, Android, api, computing, data management, database, Developer, Enterprise, Facebook, graph database, graph databases, Javascript, Matrix Partners, meteor, Recent Funding, relational database, San Francisco, SQL, Startups, TC, Trinity Ventures | No Comments

Apollo, a San Francisco-based startup that provides a number of developer and operator tools and services around the GraphQL query language, today announced that it has raised a $22 million growth funding round co-led by Andreessen Horowitz and Matrix Partners. Existing investors Trinity Ventures and Webb Investment Network also participated in this round.

Today, Apollo is probably the biggest player in the GraphQL ecosystem. At its core, the company’s services allow businesses to use the Facebook -incubated GraphQL technology to shield their developers from the patchwork of legacy APIs and databases as they look to modernize their technology stacks. The team argues that while REST APIs that talked directly to other services and databases still made sense a few years ago, it doesn’t anymore now that the number of API endpoints keeps increasing rapidly.

Apollo replaces this with what it calls the Data Graph. “There is basically a missing piece where we think about how people build apps today, which is the piece that connects the billions of devices out there,” Apollo co-founder and CEO Geoff Schmidt told me. “You probably don’t just have one app anymore, you probably have three, for the web, iOS and Android . Or maybe six. And if you’re a two-sided marketplace you’ve got one for buyers, one for sellers and another for your ops team.”

Managing the interfaces between all of these apps quickly becomes complicated and means you have to write a lot of custom code for every new feature. The promise of the Data Graph is that developers can use GraphQL to query the data in the graph and move on, all without having to write the boilerplate code that typically slows them down. At the same time, the ops teams can use the Graph to enforce access policies and implement other security features.

“If you think about it, there’s a lot of analogies to what happened with relational databases in the ’80s,” Schmidt said. “There is a need for a new layer in the stack. Previously, your query planner was a human being, not a piece of software, and a relational database is a piece of software that would just give you a database. And you needed a way to query that database, and that syntax was called SQL.”

Geoff Schmidt, Apollo CEO, and Matt DeBergalis, CTO

GraphQL itself, of course, is open source. Apollo is now building a lot of the proprietary tools around this idea of the Data Graph that make it useful for businesses. There’s a cloud-hosted graph manager, for example, that lets you track your schema, as well as a dashboard to track performance, as well as integrations with continuous integration services. “It’s basically a set of services that keep track of the metadata about your graph and help you manage the configuration of your graph and all the workflows and processes around it,” Schmidt said.

The development of Apollo didn’t come out of nowhere. The founders previously launched Meteor, a framework and set of hosted services that allowed developers to write their apps in JavaScript, both on the front-end and back-end. Meteor was tightly coupled to MongoDB, though, which worked well for some use cases but also held the platform back in the long run. With Apollo, the team decided to go in the opposite direction and instead build a platform that makes being database agnostic the core of its value proposition.

The company also recently launched Apollo Federation, which makes it easier for businesses to work with a distributed graph. Sometimes, after all, your data lives in lots of different places. Federation allows for a distributed architecture that combines all of the different data sources into a single schema that developers can then query.

Schmidt tells me the company started to get some serious traction last year and by December, it was getting calls from VCs that heard from their portfolio companies that they were using Apollo.

The company plans to use the new funding to build out its technology to scale its field team to support the enterprises that bet on its technology, including the open-source technologies that power both the services.

“I see the Data Graph as a core new layer of the stack, just like we as an industry invested in the relational database for decades, making it better and better,” Schmidt said. “We’re still finding new uses for SQL and that relational database model. I think the Data Graph is going to be the same way.”

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Facebook plans June 18th cryptocurrency debut. Here’s what we know

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, cryptocurrency, eCommerce, Facebook, Facebook Blockchain, Facebook Crypto, Mobile, payments, Social, stablecoin, TC | No Comments

Facebook is finally ready to reveal details about its cryptocurrency codenamed Libra. It’s currently scheduled for a June 18th release of a white paper explaining its cryptocurrency’s basics, according to a source who says multiple investors briefed on the project by Facebook were told that date.

Meanwhile, the company’s Head of Financial Services & Payment Partnerships for Northern Europe Laura McCracken told German magazine WirtschaftsWoche‘s Sebastian Kirsch that the white paper would debut June 18th, and that the cryptocurrency would indeed be pegged to a basket of currencies rather than a single one like the US dollar to prevent price fluctuations. Kirsch tells me “I met Laura at Money2020 Europe in Amsterdam on Tuesday” after she watched fellow Facebook payments exec Paulette Rowe’s talk. “She told me that she wasn’t involved in what David Marcus’ [Facebook Blockchain] team was doing. But that I’d have to wait until June 18th when a whitepaper was supposed to be published to get more details.” She told him she thought the date was already a publicly known fact, which it wasn’t.

Then, yesterday TechCrunch received a request for a June 18th news embargo from one of the communications managers for Facebook’s blockchain team. The Information’s Alex Heath and Jon Victor also reported yesterday that Facebook’s cryptocurrency project would launch later this month.

Facebook declined to comment on any news regarding its cryptocurrency project. There is always a chance that the announcement date could fluctuate if snafus with partners or governments arise. One source says Facebook is targeting a 2020 formal launch of the cryptocurrency

The debut of Libra or whatever Facebook decides to call it could unlock a new era of commerce and payments for the social network. It could be used to offer low or no-fee payments between friends or remittance of earnings to familys from migrant workers abroad who are often gouged by money transfer services.

Sidestepping credit card transaction fees could also allow Facebook’s cryptocurrency to offer a cheaper way to pay merchants for traditional ecommerce, or facilitate microtransactions for a la carte news articles or tipping of content creators. And a better understanding of who buys what or which brands or popular could aid Facebook in ad measurement, ranking, and targeting to amplify its core business.

How Facebook’s cryptocurrency works

Here’s what we know about Facebook’s blockchain project:

Name: Facebook will likely use the Libra codename as the public facing name for its cryptocurrency, which The Information reports won’t be called GlobalCoin as the BBC had claimed. Facebook has registed a company called Libra Networks in Switzerland for financial services, Reuters reported. Libra could be a play on the word LIBOR, an abbreviation for the London Inter-bank Offered Rate that’s used as a benchmark interest rate for borrowing between banks. LIBOR is for banks, while Libra is meant to be for the people.

Token: The cryptocurrency will be a stablecoin — a token designed to have a stable price to prevent discrepancies and complications due to price fluctuations during a payment or negotiation process. Facebook has spoken with financial institutions regarding contributing capital to form a $1 billion basket of multiple international fiat currencies and low-risk securities that will serve as collateral to stabilize the price of the coin, The Information reports. Facebook is working with various countries to pre-approve the rollout of the stablecoin.

The head of Facebook’s Blockchain team David Marcus (left) speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt 2016

Usage: Facebook’s cryptocurrency will be transferrable with zero fees via Facebook products including Messenger and WhatsApp. Facebook is working with merchants to accept the token as payment, and may offer sign-up bonuses. The Information also reports Facebook also wants to roll out physical devices for ATMs so users can exchange traditional assets for the cryptocurrency.

Team: Facebook’s blockchain project is overseen by former PayPal President and VP of Facebook Messenger David Marcus. His team includes former Instagram VP of product Kevin Weil, Facebook’s former corporate head of treasury operations Sunita Parasuraman who The Information reports will oversee the token’s treasury, and many elite engineers cherrypicked from Facebook’s ranks. They’ve been working in a dedicated part of Facebook’s headquarters off-limits to other employees to boost secrecy, though the nature of the partnerships needed for launch have led to many leaks.

Governance: Facebook is in talks to create an independent foundation to oversee its cryptocurrency, The Information reports. It’s asking companies to pay $10 million to operate a node that can validate transactions made with its cryptocurrency in exchange for a say in governance of the token. It’s possible that node operators could benefit financially too. By introducing a level of decentralization to the governance of the project, Facebook may be able to avoid regulation related to it holding too much power over a global currency.

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Delane Parnell’s plan to conquer amateur esports

Posted by | accelerator, Alexis Ohanian, Amazon, Apps, Brian Wong, Canada, coach, delane parnell, detroit, esports, Facebook, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, league of legends, Los Angeles, Ludlow Ventures, Matt Mazzeo, Media, national basketball association, north america, Personnel, Peter Pham, playvs, Riot Games, rocket fiber, Rocket League, science, serial entrepreneur, Sports, Spotify, Startups, Talent, TC, Twitch, United States, Venture Capital, video game | No Comments

Most of the buzz about esports focuses on high-profile professional teams and audiences watching live streams of those professionals.

What gets ignored is the entire base of amateurs wanting to compete in esports below the professional tier. This is like talking about the NBA and the value of its sponsorships and broadcast rights as if that is the entirety of the basketball market in the US.

Los Angeles-based PlayVS (pronounced “play versus”) wants to become the dominant platform for amateur esports, starting at the high school level. The company raised $46 million last year—its first year operating—with the vision that owning the infrastructure for competitions and expanding it to encompass other social elements of gaming can make it the largest gaming company in the world.

I recently sat down with Founder & CEO Delane Parnell to talk about his company’s formation and growth strategy. Below is the transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):

Founding PlayVS

Eric P: You have a fascinating background as a serial entrepreneur while you were a teenager.

Delane P.: I grew up on the west side of Detroit and started working at the cell phone store of a family friend when I was 13. When I turned 16 or so, I joined two guys in opening our own Metro PCS franchise. And then two additional franchises. And I was on the founding team of a car rental company called Executive Rental Car.

Eric P: And this segued into tech startups after meeting Jon Triest from Ludlow Ventures?

Delane P: He got me a ticket to the Launch conference in SF, and that experience inspired me to start a Fireside Chat series in Detroit that brought in people like Brian Wong from Kiip and Alexis Ohanian from Reddit to speak. Starting at 21, I worked at a venture capital firm called IncWell based in Birmingham, Michigan then joined a startup called Rocket Fiber.

We were focused on internet infrastructure – this is 2015-ish – and I was appointed to lead our strategy in esports. So I met with many of the publishers, ancillary startups, tournament organizers, and OG players and team owners. Through the process, I became passionate about esports and ended up leaving Rocket Fiber to start a Call of Duty team that I quickly sold to TSM.

Eric P: What then drove you to found PlayVS? Did it seem like an obvious opportunity or did it take you a while to figure it out?

Delane P.: What esports means is playing video games competitively bound to governance and a competitive ruleset. As a player, what that experience means is you play on a team, in a position, with a coach, in a season that culminates in some sort of championship.

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Oculus Quest and Rift S now shipping

Posted by | Facebook, Gadgets, Gaming, Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift, Oculus Rift S, Oculus VR, Virtual reality, VR | No Comments

Facebook -owned Oculus is shipping its latest VR headgear from today. Pre-orders for the PC-free Oculus Quest and the higher end Oculus Rift S opened up three weeks ago.

In a launch blog, Oculus touts the new hardware’s “all-in-one, fully immersive 6DOF VR” — writing: “We’re bringing the magic of presence to more people than ever before — and we’re doing it with the freedom of fully untethered movement.”

For a less varnished view on what it’s like to stick a face-computer on your head, you can check out our reviews by clicking on the links below…

Oculus Quest

TC: “The headset may not be the most powerful, but it is doubtlessly the new flagship VR product from Facebook”

Oculus Rift S

TC: “It still doesn’t feel like a proper upgrade to a flagship headset that’s already three years old, but it is a more fine-tuned system that feels more evolved and dependable”

The Oculus blog contains no detail on pre-order sales for the headsets — beyond a few fine-sounding words.

Meanwhile, Facebook has, for months, been running native ads for Oculus via its eponymous and omnipresent social network — although there’s no explicit mention of the Oculus brand unless you click through to “learn more.”

Instead, it’s pushing the generic notion of “all-in-one VR,” shrinking the Oculus brand stamp on the headset to an indecipherable micro-scribble.

Here’s one of Facebook’s ads that targeted me in Europe, back in March, for e.g.:

For those wanting to partake of Facebook-flavored face gaming (and/or immersive movie watching), the Oculus Quest and Rift S are available to buy via oculus.com and retail partners including Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg, Walmart and GameStop in the U.S.; Currys PC World, FNAC, MediaMarkt and more in the EU and U.K.; and Amazon in Japan.

Just remember to keep your mouth shut.

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Why is Facebook doing robotics research?

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Facebook, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, robots, science, Social, TC | No Comments

It’s a bit strange to hear that the world’s leading social network is pursuing research in robotics rather than, say, making search useful, but Facebook is a big organization with many competing priorities. And while these robots aren’t directly going to affect your Facebook experience, what the company learns from them could be impactful in surprising ways.

Though robotics is a new area of research for Facebook, its reliance on and bleeding-edge work in AI are well known. Mechanisms that could be called AI (the definition is quite hazy) govern all sorts of things, from camera effects to automated moderation of restricted content.

AI and robotics are naturally overlapping magisteria — it’s why we have an event covering both — and advances in one often do the same, or open new areas of inquiry, in the other. So really it’s no surprise that Facebook, with its strong interest in using AI for a variety of tasks in the real and social media worlds, might want to dabble in robotics to mine for insights.

What then could be the possible wider applications of the robotics projects it announced today? Let’s take a look.

Learning to walk from scratch

“Daisy,” the hexapod robot

Walking is a surprisingly complex action, or series of actions, especially when you’ve got six legs, like the robot used in this experiment. You can program in how it should move its legs to go forward, turn around, and so on, but doesn’t that feel a bit like cheating? After all, we had to learn on our own, with no instruction manual or settings to import. So the team looked into having the robot teach itself to walk.

This isn’t a new type of research — lots of roboticists and AI researchers are into it. Evolutionary algorithms (different but related) go back a long way, and we’ve already seen interesting papers like this one:

By giving their robot some basic priorities like being “rewarded” for moving forward, but no real clue how to work its legs, the team let it experiment and try out different things, slowly learning and refining the model by which it moves. The goal is to reduce the amount of time it takes for the robot to go from zero to reliable locomotion from weeks to hours.

What could this be used for? Facebook is a vast wilderness of data, complex and dubiously structured. Learning to navigate a network of data is of course very different from learning to navigate an office — but the idea of a system teaching itself the basics on a short timescale given some simple rules and goals is shared.

Learning how AI systems teach themselves, and how to remove roadblocks like mistaken priorities, cheating the rules, weird data-hoarding habits and other stuff is important for agents meant to be set loose in both real and virtual worlds. Perhaps the next time there is a humanitarian crisis that Facebook needs to monitor on its platform, the AI model that helps do so will be informed by the auto-didactic efficiencies that turn up here.

Leveraging “curiosity”

Researcher Akshara Rai adjusts a robot arm in the robotics AI lab in Menlo Park (Facebook)

This work is a little less visual, but more relatable. After all, everyone feels curiosity to a certain degree, and while we understand that sometimes it kills the cat, most times it’s a drive that leads us to learn more effectively. Facebook applied the concept of curiosity to a robot arm being asked to perform various ordinary tasks.

Now, it may seem odd that they could imbue a robot arm with “curiosity,” but what’s meant by that term in this context is simply that the AI in charge of the arm — whether it’s seeing or deciding how to grip, or how fast to move — is given motivation to reduce uncertainty about that action.

That could mean lots of things — perhaps twisting the camera a little while identifying an object gives it a little bit of a better view, improving its confidence in identifying it. Maybe it looks at the target area first to double check the distance and make sure there’s no obstacle. Whatever the case, giving the AI latitude to find actions that increase confidence could eventually let it complete tasks faster, even though at the beginning it may be slowed by the “curious” acts.

What could this be used for? Facebook is big on computer vision, as we’ve seen both in its camera and image work and in devices like Portal, which (some would say creepily) follows you around the room with its “face.” Learning about the environment is critical for both these applications and for any others that require context about what they’re seeing or sensing in order to function.

Any camera operating in an app or device like those from Facebook is constantly analyzing the images it sees for usable information. When a face enters the frame, that’s the cue for a dozen new algorithms to spin up and start working. If someone holds up an object, does it have text? Does it need to be translated? Is there a QR code? What about the background, how far away is it? If the user is applying AR effects or filters, where does the face or hair stop and the trees behind begin?

If the camera, or gadget, or robot, left these tasks to be accomplished “just in time,” they will produce CPU usage spikes, visible latency in the image and all kinds of stuff the user or system engineer doesn’t want. But if it’s doing it all the time, that’s just as bad. If instead the AI agent is exerting curiosity to check these things when it senses too much uncertainty about the scene, that’s a happy medium. This is just one way it could be used, but given Facebook’s priorities it seems like an important one.

Seeing by touching

Although vision is important, it’s not the only way that we, or robots, perceive the world. Many robots are equipped with sensors for motion, sound and other modalities, but actual touch is relatively rare. Chalk it up to a lack of good tactile interfaces (though we’re getting there). Nevertheless, Facebook’s researchers wanted to look into the possibility of using tactile data as a surrogate for visual data.

If you think about it, that’s perfectly normal — people with visual impairments use touch to navigate their surroundings or acquire fine details about objects. It’s not exactly that they’re “seeing” via touch, but there’s a meaningful overlap between the concepts. So Facebook’s researchers deployed an AI model that decides what actions to take based on video, but instead of actual video data, fed it high-resolution touch data.

Turns out the algorithm doesn’t really care whether it’s looking at an image of the world as we’d see it or not — as long as the data is presented visually, for instance as a map of pressure on a tactile sensor, it can be analyzed for patterns just like a photographic image.

What could this be used for? It’s doubtful Facebook is super interested in reaching out and touching its users. But this isn’t just about touch — it’s about applying learning across modalities.

Think about how, if you were presented with two distinct objects for the first time, it would be trivial to tell them apart with your eyes closed, by touch alone. Why can you do that? Because when you see something, you don’t just understand what it looks like, you develop an internal model representing it that encompasses multiple senses and perspectives.

Similarly, an AI agent may need to transfer its learning from one domain to another — auditory data telling a grip sensor how hard to hold an object, or visual data telling the microphone how to separate voices. The real world is a complicated place and data is noisier here — but voluminous. Being able to leverage that data regardless of its type is important to reliably being able to understand and interact with reality.

So you see that while this research is interesting in its own right, and can in fact be explained on that simpler premise, it is also important to recognize the context in which it is being conducted. As the blog post describing the research concludes:

We are focused on using robotics work that will not only lead to more capable robots but will also push the limits of AI over the years and decades to come. If we want to move closer to machines that can think, plan, and reason the way people do, then we need to build AI systems that can learn for themselves in a multitude of scenarios — beyond the digital world.

As Facebook continually works on expanding its influence from its walled garden of apps and services into the rich but unstructured world of your living room, kitchen and office, its AI agents require more and more sophistication. Sure, you won’t see a “Facebook robot” any time soon… unless you count the one they already sell, or the one in your pocket right now.

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