Cryptocurrency mining program Coinhive sparks controversy

Coinhive, a Javascript application that uses website visitors’ computing power to mine cryptocurrency, launched on September 14. Since, the program has generated controversy, as website owners and hackers alike insert it into a number of high-profile websites.

Coinhive markets itself as a legitimate way for websites to make money, but does not endorse the use of the script without user consent.

On September 16, The Pirate Bay, a popular torrent-downloading website, began using the program to mine Monero, a cryptocurrency similar to Bitcoin. Visitors to the site noticed spikes in their CPU usage and complained.

Later that day, The Pirate Bay issued a statement explaining that it was testing the program as an alternative to advertisements on the site.

“This is only a test. We really want to get rid of all the ads. But we also need enough money to keep the site running,” reads the statement.

Though all content on The Pirate Bay is free, the site needs to generate revenue to cover operating costs. Many of the ads that run on Pirate Bay are unseemly and/or contain malware.

The Pirate Bay’s statement says Coinhive “can be blocked by a normal ad-blocker”—AdBlock Plus and AdGuard now combat Coinhive, BleepingComputer notes. A typo in the embedded code originally caused the program to use more of visitors’ processing power than intended.

The Pirate Bay invited users to comment as to whether they would prefer advertisements or mining programs like Coinhive.

The majority of users who responded accepted mining as a viable way for the site to generate revenue, but many took issue with the site’s failure to inform users of the change.

“I think this is an interesting idea,” one user responded. “Keeping users informed is essential though. Giving registered users possibility of choosing between ads and mining might be also viable (though most of them probably block ads). Having more options how to contribute is a great idea! I will gladly contribute by providing part of my CPU when visiting TPB (as opposed to ads, I don’t like these especially due to privacy concerns).”

Other respondents acknowledged that those who downloaded free content had to pay in some way or another.

The Pirate Bay has removed the mining program from its site and has yet to say whether it plans to employ Coinhive in the future.

BleepingComputer reported Monday that it had detected the program in websites run by Showtime, a media company owned by CBS. Showtime’s main site, showtime.com, as well as its streaming domain, showtimeanytime.com, contained the Coinhive script.

It is not known whether a hacker implemented the script on the Showtime sites, or whether the company itself was testing the program. But BleepingComputer notes that the script had been set to “remain dormant” for 97 percent of the time. A hacker, that publication points out, would likely set the script to run far more often, so as to co-opt much processing power as possible before his scam was discovered.

Showtime declined to comment on the matter. The script disappeared from the sites early Monday afternoon.

Using victims’ CPU processing power to mine for cryptocurrency has long been a common practice amongst malware designers, but prior to the inception of programs like Coinhive, hackers had to download an application onto a victim’s hard drive in order to use his computer. Now, hackers can seize the processing power of any user running a Javascript-enabled browser (most browsers enable Javascript by default).

Malware developers have already embraced Coinhive. One embedded it in a Google Chrome extension, so that it ran in the background of the browser. Others have breached WordPress and Magneto sites and inserted the code there.

Some have registered commonly mistyped URLs, such as “twitter.com.com,” as domains, and run Coinhive on those sites. The program only runs until the user realizes he has input the wrong URL and leaves the page, but with enough traffic and enough domains, the engineers of the scam could generate a considerable profit.

EITest, one of the world’s most prominent malware operations, has also employed Coinhive for nefarious purposes.

Coinhive is not the first program of its kind. In 2013, Vice reports, MIT researchers developed a similar script called TidBit. But a court order shut the project down, ruling that using a person’s CPU processing power without his consent was unlawful.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Silicon Valley startup Aeva aims to give driverless cars better vision

In January, with funding from Lux Capital and other venture capital firms, two former members of Apple’s Special Projects Group, Soroush Salehian and Mina Rezk, started Aeva.

The company aims to improve the ability of self-driving cars to see their surroundings, according to New York Times report. Salehian and Rezk are reimagining Lidar—that is, Light Detection and Ranging—technology, which today’s self-driving cars use along with cameras, radar, GPS antennas, and other implements to create a picture of the world around them.

Aeva’s lidar, the company says, measures distances more accurately than other such systems. And, unlike other lidar systems, Aeva’s judges velocity. It is also smaller and less expensive than today’s lidar technology.

Aeva aims to have it on the market by 2018.

Traditional lidar devices emit pulses of light and measure their wavelength and return times to determine how far away a given object is. Then, computers use the data to construct three-dimensional models of the surrounding world.

But, today’s lidar systems can only detect objects that are relatively close, and cannot always differentiate between one object and another, the Times notes. As a result, they do not perform well in bad weather or when moving at high speeds.

Radar, which uses electromagnetic waves rather than light waves to map the world, can detect objects at greater distances, making it more suitable when traveling at high speeds, and cameras can “read” street signs and differentiate between, say, a pedestrian and a crosswalk.

So, cameras, radar, lidar and other devices work together to “drive” today’s autonomous vehicles. Driverless cars will likely continue to employ this combination for the foreseeable future, as multiple detection systems represent multiple layers of security.

Lidar devices, along with the rest of the ensemble, are expensive. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit a self-driving car with the necessary hardware. The prohibitive cost of production prevents companies from marketing self-driving cars to average consumers. So, the first self-driving cars are not privately owned; rather, they have debuted in the fleets of companies like Lyft and Uber.

But, the Times cites a report by the Boston Consulting Group that projects that the self-driving car market will be worth $42 billion by 2025. For that to happen, companies must find ways to produce the vehicles more affordably.

The Times equates Aeva’s system to a cross between lidar—which is ideal for judging distances—and radar, which is best at detecting speed. Rather than emitting a series of light pulses, the device sends out a constant wave of light. This approach, Rzek told the Times, allows Aeva lidar to produce a better resolution, work better in inclement weather, and handle reflective surfaces better than standard systems do.

“I don’t even think of this as a new kind of lidar,” Tarin Ziyaee, co-founder and chief technology officer at the self-driving taxi start-up Voyage, who has seen the Aeva prototype, told the Times. “It’s a whole different animal.”

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, developed a similar continuous-wave lidar system back in 2014, the Times notes. Other companies that develop lira technology, such as Velodyne and Oryx Vision, are exploring similar options, according to said publication.

Lidar’s applications go well beyond driverless cars. Law enforcement uses the technology to create automated speed traps. Lidar may one day track a user’s movements for virtual-reality environments.

Today, video game systems like the Xbox Kinect do not use Lidar, because Lidar devices are too expensive, too bulky, and too power-consumptive for the purpose. But, continuous-wave Lidar systems are cheaper and lighter than pulse-based ones.

Behnam Behroozpour of U.C. Berkeley told phys.org in 2014 that he envisions that Lidar can be used for “a host of new applications that have not even been invented yet.” For instance, cell phones could use the technology to recognize a user and detect his hand motions from across the room, allowing him to control the device with simple hand gestures.

BMW’s first level-5 self-driving offering, which the company plans to release by 2021, will allow human riders to use hand gestures to order Amazon packages, make a dinner reservation, and perform a range of other actions.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

High-tech retail startup Bodega raises $2.5 million in funding round

Bodega, a San Francisco-based startup that operates fully-automated kiosks roughly the size of vending machines, introduced itself to the world Wednesday. The company has raised $2.5 million in a funding round led by venture capital firms Homebrew and First Round Capital, TechCrunch reports.

Thirty Bodega kiosks (which the company calls “bodegas”) are already operational in apartment buildings, gyms and office buildings throughout the Bay Area. The company will presumably use the seed money to expand.

Bodega users create an account on the company’s smartphone app and input their credit card information. As a customer approaches a kiosk, he/she inputs a three-digit, kiosk-specific code via the app. The code unlocks the kiosk so the customer can reach in and grab what he/she needs.

Cameras track the movement of the customer’s hand to determine what he has picked out, and then automatically charge the customer’s credit card.

Though the eight-square-foot cabinets may sound like high-tech vending machines (essentially, they are), Bodega kiosks stock a wider and more customized range of products than traditional vending machines do. The particular items stocked at a given kiosk are tailored to the demands of the customers who use that kiosk. A Bodega in an apartment building, for instance, may offer everything from toothbrushes to Solo cups. A kiosk located in a gym might have health food, sportswear, etc.

Depending on its location, a kiosk will come stocked with a “base set of products” (TechCrunch’s words). As customers begin to buy things, the Bodega system tracks the purchases to gauge which products are in demand at a given kiosk, and surveys repeat customers to ask what they would like to see added. The company refines the offerings accordingly.

The kiosks bring “the relevant slice of a store” to within 100 feet of a customer, the company’s website says

“Retailers are contouring their business around this fact that users want convenience,” said Paul McDonald, a thirteen-year Google veteran who now runs the startup. “There’s really only been two options: you can go to the store, or you can order something online. What we’re trying to do is introduce a third option, a new way of buying things. Shrink the store, bring the best parts in a smaller form factor and bring it to where you are.”

Some have criticized the “Bodega” name and its implication that the company intends to compete with local corner stores like the bodegas in New York and Los Angeles, which are often centerpieces in their communities.

“Bodega” is a Spanish word meaning, more or less, “local shop.” McDonald says, per GQ.com, that his company surveyed the Latin American community as to whether the name was a misappropriation of the term, and 97 percent of respondents said “no.”

“But it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people,” McDonald admits. 

“Despite our best intentions and our admiration for traditional bodegas, we clearly hit a nerve this morning, we apologize. Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores — or worse yet, a threat — we intended only admiration.”

McDonald said the company would review the criticism and consider changing the name.

Many are concerned Bodega, whatever it is called, will threaten traditional bodegas.  The company indicated Wednesday that it intends to offer the “same ease and convenience” the ubiquity of corner stores in places like New York City affords.

Bodega clarified that it does not intend to compete with tradition bodegas, which, McDonald says, stock more products than a Bodega kiosk ever could, and offer “integral human connection” between patrons and clerks. Rather than challenge established bodegas, the company says it wants to “bring commerce to places where commerce currently doesn’t exist.”

Still, it seems that, in the places where they do appear, the high-tech Bodegas might siphon a certain amount of business away from local shops. For instance, a person who generally goes to the local bodega when he/she needs milk at 2 a.m., might be inclined to get that milk at a Bodega kiosk were one available in his/her apartment building.

Bodega notes the grocery market is but one of many markets it is targeting. The company envisions itself a competitor more to huge chains like Wal-Mart than small, local shops.

“The market we’re going after is some combination of the grocery, gym market, and everyday essentials. Eventually, what we see is a world where you don’t have to go to the 30,000 square foot stores. Instead, we distribute the store based on products you buy once a week or month,” said McDonald.

The autonomy of Bodega kiosks may threaten retail jobs. “Retail in The U.S. is huge, 10% of Americans work in retail,” McDonald himself notes. “The folks who are retailers want technology to reduce their costs and bring products closer [to consumers].”

In reducing employers’ costs, one may infer, Bodega may take employees’ jobs.

But, McDonald says: “Rather than take away jobs, we hope Bodega will help create them. We see a future where anyone can own and operate a Bodega—delivering relevant items and a great retail experience to places no corner store would ever open.”

Featured image via http://observatoriodainternet.br

Deere & Co. to acquire Blue River Technology for $305 million

Deere & Co. announced Wednesday that it has signed a “definitive agreement” to acquire Blue River Technology, an agriculture technology company, in a $305 million deal, TechCrunch reports. The deal will likely be finalized next month.

Blue River specializes in “precision farming,” a technique that uses technology to streamline traditional farming methods. Precision farming is crucial to Deere’s future, the company said in its statement regarding the deal.

“As a leader in precision agriculture, John Deere recognizes the importance of technology to our customers. Machine learning [read: artificial intelligence] is an important capability for Deere’s future,” said John May, President, Agricultural Solutions, and Chief Information Officer at Deere.

Technology reduces labor costs—machines now perform tasks human beings used to have to do—and maximises yield.

Blue River’s flagship product, which it dubs “See and Spray,” uses computer vision to identify and exterminate weeds, thereby reducing herbicide waste. The system references a given plant against a massive image library to determine whether that plant is a weed. If it is, the machine sprays it with herbicide but leaves surrounding soil and crops untouched.

Another Blue Ridge offering, LettuceBot, thins lettuce crops. Farmers plant more lettuce seeds than they wish to cultivate to ensure that enough seeds sprout to create a proper yield. LettuceBot uses technology to evaluate the health, uniformity of size, and spacing of each lettuce plant and determine which plants need to be eliminated. Once LettuceBot identifies unwanted plants, it kills them with a concentrated dose of fertilizer.

“LettuceBot completes a labor-intensive task quickly and easily…and does so with far greater precision than a human hand,” according to Blue River’s website. The machine evaluates 5,000 plants per minute, sprays unwanted ones with quarter-inch precision, and covers 40 acres per day.

“Blue River is advancing precision agriculture by moving farm management decisions from the field level to the plant level,” said Jorge Heraud, co-founder and CEO of Blue River Technology in the aforementioned statement. “We are using computer vision, robotics, and machine learning to help smart machines detect, identify, and make management decisions about every single plant in the field.”

Blue River flies drones over fields to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of See and Spray, LettuceBot and other machines.

In November 2015, Deere & Co. reached an agreement with Monsanto Co. to purchase the latter firm’s Ag-Tech subsidiary, Precision Planting, LLC. But, the companies abandoned the deal in May after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to block it. The DOJ said the acquisition would have given Deere & Co. an 86 percent share of the “high-speed precision planting market,” TechCrunch’s words reports.

When it announced the Monsanto deal in 2015, Deere used the same language it is now using to describe the Blue River acquisition, saying the companies had reached a “definitive agreement.”

The Monsanto deal would have cost Deere $190 million, the DOJ estimated. The Blue River acquisition will be almost twice as expensive.

Founded in Sunnyvale, CA in 2011, Blue River remains privately held. TechCrunch cites CrunchBase as saying the company has raised a total of $30.5 million in funding. The firm employs 60 people, all of whom will remain in Sunnyvale even though Deere is based in Moline, Illinois.

Forbes reported in March that Deere has already developed a number of high-tech farming solutions. SeedStar Mobile, for instance, provides data on the performance of equipment in real time, allowing farmers to make immediate adjustments to maximize their machines’ efficiency.

Deere is also developing self-driving farm vehicles that can navigate themselves through the rows of a corn field without damaging crops, Forbes says.

The farming industry as a whole is increasingly embracing technological advancements. “The idea that agriculture is now a tech industry is firmly established,” Roger Royse, a Silicon Valley attorney who works with ag-tech startups, told Forbes. “The farming community knows they have to embrace this.”

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons

Carpooling service Via closes investment round, plans U.S. and oversea expansion

Carpooling service Via just completed a funding round, the proceeds of which the company intends to use to expand its service in the U.S. and to establish a presence in Europe, TechCrunch reports. Via will begin London operations in the near future, and Paris service soon after.

The amount of the funding round remains undisclosed, but a source told TechCrunch the number was $250 million.

Prior to the investment round, Zirra estimated the company’s value between $450 million and $500 million, TechCrunch notes. Following the round, then, Via could be worth as much as $750 million.

Via provides carpool service to riders seeking a cheaper alternative to operations like Uber and Lyft. A single Via vehicle carries up to five passengers at a time, so customers can book rides for as little as $5 plus tax. An algorithm determines routes in real-time as customers request rides, so unlike conventional public transit systems, Via is not constrained by a preset schedule. The company’s website says the average wait time is five minutes.

Today, Via runs 24-hour service in its hometown of New York City and also operates in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. TechCrunch says the service gives about one million rides per month.

In addition to running its own operation, Via licenses its platform to other transportation companies, including Arriva—a subsidiary of German-based railway company Deutsche Bahn AG—which operates buses, trains, and other mass transit options across 14 countries in Europe, and Keolis, a subsidiary of France-based SNCF, which offers similar service worldwide.

Daimler AG, which owns Mercedes-Benz, led Via’s most recent funding round, and the two companies plan to intensify their partnership. In addition to its contribution to the funding round, Daimler will provide $50 million towards a joint venture project with Via.

The two companies have been collaborating for years, TechCrunch notes. In late 2015, Via joined forces with Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America, Inc. to launch a pilot program in Orange County, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles. Mercedes provided Via with Metris passenger vans for that trial program.

Daimler and Mercedes will likely provide vehicles for Via’s European expansion as well. The partnership with Via will give Daimler a ready-made sales connection and will provide a platform through which Daimler can develop and test vehicles optimized for carpooling.

As tech-based transportation start-ups change the way consumers approach moving around, automakers are seeking the most efficient ways to adapt to the changes in the industry.

“One big question is, ‘what is the right vehicle?’” Via CTO and co-founder Oren Shoval told TechCrunch “There are the seating arrangements, how you connect the sensors, what kind of door it should have. This is a big piece of mobility.”

Shoval adds that the Via-Mercedes partnership will streamline and solidify Via’s service. “We also believe that the vehicles in the network, at the end of the day, it’s not just an app but a whole service that you are getting. It makes sense to have these things converge,” said Shoval.

Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans, echoed Shoval’s sentiment that the partnership would improve Via’s service, and added that the collaboration was important to Daimler’s long-term strategy in the changing transportation sector.

“Via is one of the most successful providers in the growing ride-sharing sector while Mercedes-Benz Vans has the perfect vehicles that are being continuously optimized for this job,” he said. “By deepening our cooperation with Via, we are thus taking the next logical step in the context of our strategy for the future and are expanding our range of new mobility services.”

Daimler launched Car2Go, which allows users to rent cars parked in various places around a city and then return those cars to one of many drop zones around town, in 2008. Now, Car2Go operates in 26 cities across North America, Europe and Asia, and serves 2.5 million registered members.

Daimler, in tandem with Audi and BMW, bought GPS mapping service Here in late 2015 and has independently acquired a number of ride-sharing companies, including Germany’s MyTaxi, the U.K.’s Hailo, and Taxibeat in Greece. All three of those services have merged under the MyTaxi umbrella since Daimler acquired them.

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons

Chinese authorities crackdown on cryptocurrency ICOs

Monday, the Chinese government banned the practice of creating and selling new cryptocurrencies, Reuters reports

With the rise of Blockchain technology, initial coin offerings (ICOs)—which give investors the opportunity to buy newly-created cryptocurrencies—have gained popularity. In total, Reuters says, ICOs have raised $2.32 billion since the inception of the cryptocurrency market; $2.16 billion of that amount has come in 2017.

In China this year, 65 ICOs have raised a combined 2.62 billion yuan ($394.6-million) and attracted 105,000 investors, according to Reuters.

The value of Ethereum, the cryptocurrency in which most ICOs are transacted, has plummeted on the news. On Sunday, one Ethereum token was worth $349.93. Late Monday, that figure had fallen 14.3 percent to $299.72. As of 1:33 p.m. Eastern Tuesday, Ethereum has recovered slightly; the USD-Ethereum exchange rate sits at 307.56 to one.

The Bitcoin-USD exchange rate has dropped 5.9 percent since midnight Monday morning on China’s news. Late Sunday night, one bitcoin was worth $4,632.46. As of 1:39 Eastern Tuesday, the value of a single bitcoin token is $4,359.07.

The market capitalization of the cryptocurrency industry as a whole dropped 11.66 percent Monday, from $165.095 billion to $145.833 billion. Since midnight Tuesday morning, though, the industry’s market cap has gained 1.7 percent. As of 1:55 p.m. Eastern, the industry is worth $148.358 billion.

“The large price falls can be attributed to panic amongst traders and profit-taking,” said Cryptocompare founder Charles Hayter, per Reuters.

Indeed, China’s announcement had many investors across the internet predicting doom and gloom. A participant in one chatroom set up for an upcoming ICO said “the music has stopped” for the cryptocurrency boom, Reuters reports.

“Sell all your bitcoins now,” another advised, again per Reuters.

The organizer of the ICO to which the chatroom was dedicated, which was meant to launch a new cryptocurrency called SelfSell, has suspended the project.

Regulators around the world are struggling to understand cryptocurrency investment and the risks associated with it, said Zennon Kapron, director of the Shanghai-based financial technology consultancy Kapronasia, per Reuters.

Prior to China’s announcement, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as similar agencies in Singapore and Canada, warned that regulations would likely be needed to control the cryptocurrency market.

The lack of regulation governing cryptocurrency and investment in it is unprecedented. Blockchain, the backbone of cryptocurrency transactions, functions without a centralized overseer.

The nature of investment in cryptocurrency is also unconventional. When one contributes to a fundraiser for a traditional company, one generally receives a share in the company and/or a security. ICO investors, Reuters notes, receive neither.

Therefore, Reuters points out, an investment in a cryptocurrency is little more than a bet that demand for that currency will exceed supply, driving up value. It is a risky bet, considering the volatility of cryptocurrencies.

With risks to investors so high, government regulators are purportedly taking strides to protect their citizens. Cryptocurrency expert and Blockchain proponent Oliver Bussman said, per Reuters, that the lack of private financial advice firms in China obligates the government to be especially vigilant in protecting the finances of its constituents.

Of course, many would argue that it is an investor’s own responsibility to protect him/herself.

Despite some predictions that China’s move spells the beginning of the end of the cryptocurrency boom, many experts believe the regulatory shutdown is but a temporary measure designed to give the country’s government time to develop a strategy by which to handle cryptocurrencies.

“China, in many ways, is no different than the U.S. or Singapore in saying, ok, we need to push back on these for now until we figure out how to deal with them,” Kapron said, per Reuters, adding that he expected regulators in China to eventually ease the ICO ban.

Bussman says, per Reuters, that cryptocurrency technology is too revolutionary, too integral to the future of global economics, to be shutdown. Cryptocurrency, he says, has already worked itself into the fabric of modern investment.

“The initial coin offering is a new business model leveraging blockchain technology and it will remain. This is not the end of the ICO – absolutely not,” he said.

Featured Image via Flickr/BTC Keychain

Prisma’s artificially-intelligent machine vision tech is on the market

The company behind the photo filter app Prisma is shifting its focus away from the app and towards selling its technology to other companies, as reported by the Verge. You know, that app that can trick you into thinking bad phone photos are paintings?

You know, that app that can trick you into thinking bad phone photos are paintings? That’s Prisma.

It turns out the AI machine vision tech behind those cute painter filters is actually pretty versatile. That’s why Prisma Labs is trying to sell it to other companies for a number of diverse applications. They’re moving beyond simply courting smartphone app users.

Prisma calls itself a “mobile technology company specializing in deep learning related products,” and it claims to have “the fastest AI-powered on-device image processing with great quality.” The app boasts between five and 10 million active users.

Computer vision technology can be used for many applications. Obviously, there is quite a market for photo filter services, but that market is largely eaten up by giant social media companies such as Facebook and Snapchat. Prisma specializes in offering such abilities locally on-device. That means that mobile users chew up less data and battery life than they would by using web-based services.

Other applications of machine vision include such technologies as object detection, scene recognition, and facial landmark mapping, which can be used to beautify or alter faces in photos. In image processing, the technology can also be used to divorce objects in the foreground from the background.

The new service Prisma Platform offers software engineers the ability to apply Prisma’s deep learning technology within their programs with the addition of only a few lines of code.

As Prisma’s cofounder and CEO told the Verge:  “Even Google is buying companies for computer vision. We can help companies put machine vision in their app because we understand how to implement the technology.”

Featured image via Flickr/Gary Ullah.

Lyft to Deploy Autonomous Cars by End of 2017

Ride-hailing company Lyft announced Friday that self-driving vehicles will be picking up customer  by the end of the year, Brian Fung of The Washington Post reports. The first autonomous Lyft cars will drive on the streets of Boston, but Lyft ultimately aims to create a network of hundreds of thousands of autonomous vehicles, which it will deploy across the country.

A litany of factors, including route, traffic, and weather, will determine whether an autonomous car arrives to pick up a Lyft user. The company’s website promises the dispatching algorithm will send a self-driving car only when there is “the highest confidence in routes and conditions.”

Lyft is leaving most of the development work to its numerous partners, which include Nutonomy, a software firm specializing in self-driving car technology; GM, which has already developed and tested 130 autonomous Chevy Bolts; and Jaguar Land Rover. Still, Lyft itself will “build sensor packages and other hardware on a limited basis.”

The partnership will allow automakers like GM who are developing autonomous vehicles to employ and hone their new technology amidst Lyft’s network of almost one million daily riders.

“We’re building a way for third parties to plug their self-driving cars into our network,” Luc Vincent, vice president of engineering at Lyft, told The Washington Post.

On its website, Lyft claims to offer “the most efficient way to bring…autonomous technology to the market.” The service will give autonomous cars “millions of weekly miles,” the website says, and work to “accelerate the growth of self-driving technology.”

The sensors on autonomous Lyft cars will collect and store data partners can use to develop safer, more reliable, and more efficient self-driving cars. Lyft will have propriety over said data, and will only share it with those it chooses.

Lyft is positioning itself as a pioneer in the autonomous car space, and betting that by getting in early, it can stake a claim and remain a focal point of the industry for years to come.

Kelly Blue Book analyst Karl Brauer pointed out to The Washington Post that years down the road, auto manufacturers will “still want [Lyft] to jumpstart their network of users that’ll be using the self-driving cars.”

In the short term—and perhaps also the long term—Lyft, along with ride-hailing companies like it, who will presumably follow suit (Uber already uses a few self-driving cars), will be the only avenue by which self-driving technology is available to consumers. That exclusivity could precipitate a boom in the ride-haling industry, and ultimately a concomitant drop in private vehicle ownership

Many analysts see a future of safer streets and more comfortable transportation. Some predict autonomous technology will ultimately reduce traffic accidents caused by human error by 95%, Fung says. Moreover, passengers in self-driving cars will have access to luxuries they could not afford as drivers: they can read the paper, have a business meeting, even toss back a beer or two.

Lyft does not plan to let go of its human employees. As autonomous cars become ubiquitous, today’s Lyft drivers will become “in-car baristas” and/or assistants for passengers requiring physical aid. Getting a ride may turn into a full-service entertainment experience.

But there are a number of kinks to work out, both regulatory and technological. Self-driving cars have never been tested on such a wide scale before, and many of those that have hit public streets have encountered issues. There is no better way to hone technology than to test it in real-world situations, but trusting nascent technology to handle a grave responsibility like driving a car is worrisome. To help alleviate safety concerns, a Lyft engineer will be stationed in the front seat of each autonomous vehicle, to monitor the car’s performance and keep everything running smoothly.

At present, rules and regulations governing development and testing of self-driving vehicles are drafted at the state level, which means such vehicles may be prohibited from crossing state lines, Fung says.  These restrictions make a company like Lyft an appropriate testing ground for the technology: Lyft can deploy a huge fleet of vehicles in a single city or state, and those vehicles can drive millions upon millions of miles, without having to leave that city or state.

Fung also notes that a house subcommittee approved a bill Wednesday that could “establish the first federal laws governing self driving cars.”

Whatever the obstacles, Lyft has set forth a bold timetable for the introduction of autonomous cars onto the streets and into the culture of America.

“You’re going to see it,” Lyft’s senior director of product, Taggert Mathiesen, told the Post. You’re going to see these vehicles on the street.”

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Amazon Meal Kit Plans

Amazon is proceeding with its expansion plan to diversify into surrounding markets and innovate in order to establish a dominant position. In recent news, Amazon expressed its intent to redesign and push the boundaries in the prepared meal kit world that is currently dominated by Blue Apron Holdings Inc.

Amazon is throwing itself in the deep end by competing with an already established IPO by challenging to compete with its major project. However, Amazon’s research team is well-experienced and confident that they can in fact provide a competitive edge in the food industry.

This announcement comes after Amazon filed a trademark for the phrase: “We do the prep. You be the chef,” which is closely related to prepared food kits similar to what Blue Apron provides. Meal kits provide the customer with recipes and the corresponding ingredients that enable the customers to prepare fresh food while having most of the preparations already being completed. This service caters well to an audience that is more time-starved but still looking to eat more fresh food.

With their intentions revealed, Amazon has helped elaborate the reasoning behind its recent acquisition of Whole Foods, which would act as a supply base for the meal kits while also generating income through its retail locations. Amazon is trying to incorporate more incentive into being a loyal customer instead of trying to attract new customers, capitalizing on the similar consumer base of customers who are young, urban and affluent.

The focus on having loyal customers spend more instead of attracting new customers is supported by the fact that about 81 percent of customers who have visited Whole Foods on more than one occasion are already Amazon customers. Furthermore, about just over half of all Whole Foods shoppers are Amazon Prime members, customers who are willing to pay $99 for free two-day shipping amongst other member benefits.

Due to the supposed correlation between Amazon and Whole Foods customers, Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods is estimated to increases its customer base by 5 percent. While this does have a large enough impact on Amazon’s revenue stream, as Amazon will accrue all revenue generated by customers of both, this shows that increasing its customer base was not Amazon’s prime concern.

The customers that do consistently shop at Whole Foods while also being Amazon Prime members spend average about $306 more, looking at an average of $1,371 spent during six visits during a 12-month period. But what has the most impact is the percentage of shoppers who online as compared to other food retailers, with 10 percent of Wholes Foods customers shopping online compared to the 6 percent for Albertsons and 5 percent for Kroger.

Amazon is using the opportunity that Whole Foods shoppers provide by offering more online food delivery services, and in doing so they ensure they have the largest consumer base for their new meal kit plans. Research firm NPD Group shows that while only 5 percent of consumers have purchased a meal kit over the past 12 months, 60 percent of millennials have purchased something from Amazon over the same time frame. Amazon’s priority is discovering a way to transition its customers into using meal kits, increasing its revenue stream by creating a greater dependence on online food delivery services.

Usually the meal kits have a high entry barrier, with Blue Apron requiring about $94 to acquire a new customer. Amazon advantages comes in the form of its Prime membership fees which should act as a reliable and effective way of managing its costs. Furthermore, Amazon already has a strong supply chain that can easily adapt to ensuring that customers receive their meal kit in the timeliest and efficient manner.

Amazon’s expansion plan proves troublesome to its competitors in the food industry, as its meal kit plans narrows the opportunities for other smaller food retailers to enter the meal kit market. Amazon has considerable experience with retail, and that might translate in food, which is by far the largest category in retail. If Amazon is successful in establishing a market leader position in food, then the possibilities for its growth into other markets will be that much easier.

Featured Image via Flickr/simone.brunozzi

Nevada’s Marijuana Shortage Might End Soon

The marijuana shortage which befell Nevada’s dispensaries after they sold over $3 million worth of marijuana in the first weekend of sales will be eased by a measure passed by the state’s tax commission Thursday to increase the number of entities who can distribute weed, Grace Donnelly of Fortune reports.

After hearing arguments from dispensary owners and alcohol wholesalers concerning whether the alcohol industry was equipped to handle the distribution of marijuana, the commission voted unanimously to pass legislation that will permit businesses outside of the liquor industry to apply for distribution licenses. Presumably, the state’s former medical marijuana distributors, some of whom have been operating for upwards of a decade, will be the first to apply.

But Neal Gidvani, who works in finance and cannabis law at Greenspoon Marder, a law firm that handles marijuana related cases, warns that the legal battles between the alcohol industry and the cannabis industry are just beginning.

“Early indications are that alcohol distributors will challenge the decision,” Gidvani told Fortune. The alcohol distributors really want exclusive rights, not just the ability to apply and compete in an open marketplace.”

Whatever they may want, though, alcohol companies must prove they are capable of delivering a massive supply of marijuana to dispensaries striving to fill an even more massive demand. The first weekend of pot sales in Nevada saw 40,000 retail transactions, Donnelly says. That means over 850 deals took place at each of the state’s 47 dispensaries, on average. In other words, a lot of Nevadans want to exercise their newly-gained legal right to purchase and use marijuana.

But at the moment, only two alcohol companies in Nevada are licensed to distribute weed. One of them, Crooked Wine Co., has contracted day-to-day distribution operations out to Blackbird, a company that distributed medical marijuana before the recreational legislation transferred all distribution responsibilities—medical and recreational—to the alcohol sellers.

Rebel One, a wholesale liquor distributor based in Las Vegas, received the second license. The company has made no public comment as to how it intends to perform distribution, but it would do well to emulate Crooked Wine and hand the duties over to a former medical marijuana distributor.

Most alcohol distributors, it seems, are uninterested in distributing marijuana. The Nevada Tax Commission garnered only “lukewarm interest” when it began inquiring as to whether alcohol distributors would be willing and able to distribute weed, Colton Lochhead of the Las Vegas Review Journal reports. On May 31, the original deadline by which distributors were expected to apply, Nevada Tax commission spokeswoman Stephanie Klapstein told Lockheed just one alcohol company had sought for a marijuana distribution license.

Lochhead points out that alcohol distributors are “licensed on the federal level, where marijuana remains illegal,” and that by engaging in the distribution of weed, the alcohol companies might jeopardize their alcohol distribution licenses. Nevada Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ opposition to marijuana legalization—despite overwhelming support for both recreational and medicinal marijuana use amongst his state’s voters—does not help anybody’s confidence.

“It definitely still worries me at night that we’re doing something our Department of Justice and our Attorney General says is illegal,” Nick Shook, who runs a dispensary in Las Vegas, told Donnelly. “I lose sleep over it.”

And with the dispensary shelves drying up, anxious marijuana sellers like Shook cannot afford to dip into their own product to alleviate the worries.

Still, there is plenty of support for Shook’s business within the Nevada government. Governor Brian Sandoval, who declared a state of emergency to help open legislative pathways toward increased marijuana supply, has budgeted $70 million in anticipated tax revenue from marijuana sales to the state’s public school system.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure that we’ve licensed enough people in our market, that’s what we have to do. Our job is to license folks and to bring in the tax dollars,” Klapstein told Jenny Kane of The Reno-Gazette Journal.

Campbell Acquires Pacific Foods

In order to expand its consumer base while also shifting to adapt to the needs of its customer base, Campbell Soup announced today that it would acquire Pacific Food for $700 million. While this acquisition does expand its market, this move still plays to the strengths of Campbell as Pacific Food makes organic broth, soup, and other products like plant-based beverages including almond milk.

Pacific Foods has an income of more than $200 million in annual income sales, and should the business maintain its quality, Campbell may be seeing an increase in its consumer base and projected revenue stream. Pacific Foods has reported that the consumer desires have coincided with the direction of Pacific Foods’ product, noting that the evolution of the need for nutritious products has played right into Pacific Foods’ ballpark.

Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison made a statement remarking the position of Pacific Foods as a “natural foods industry pioneer that has strong health and well-being and organic credentials, particularly with younger consumers.” This remark reveals that Campbell Soup was looking to expand its consumer base to include younger customers that could grow with the company, ideally remaining loyal customers while also providing more advertisements based on social media practices. Furthermore, considering that Pacific Foods is a strong company, the acquisition is both a move to improve Campbell’s own capabilities while simultaneously removing a competitor.

The emphasis now will be on converting Pacific Foods’ previous customer base, and to do so would be to ensure that nothing with the product changes despite a change in the producing company. Improving the product was an added plus, and it may be a worthy investment in drawing more customers, considering the appreciation for organic foods.

Pacific Foods CEO and founder Chuck Eggert plans to stay on as a supplier through his farm’s operations that were started by his family 17 years ago. One of the reasons given by Eggert as to why the company was sold was his intention to focus on expanding the organic supply chain. Eggert comments that the supply chain is more complicated than selling when it comes to organic food, as there is an added aspect of ensuring the product remains fresh and has a long enough shelf life despite the lack of preservatives.

The deal is not the first of its kind, considering the current transitional climate of the food industry. In recent years Campbell and its industry-leading competition have been acquiring smaller natural food companies in response to their customers. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food is one of the few places the consumer packaged goods industry and experienced growth. Organic food managed about $43 billion in sales and has managed a growth rate of about 8.4 percent last year. The manner in which these goods are being sold is also in flux, with innovation being pushed mostly by the two main markets leads in organic foods: Amazon and Whole Foods Market.

Campbell in response has made five acquisitions in the past five years including their current deal with Pacific Foods in an aggressive pursuit to reshape the company portfolio in response to changing consumer demand. The other four companies have been Bolthouse Farms, organic baby food company Plum Organics, biscuit maker Kelsen, and salsa and hummus producer Garden Fresh Gourmet. The company also backs a venture capitalist fund that helps facilitate the growth of startups.

While all of these companies have been acquired by Campbell Soup, Morrison’s strategy allows Campbell’s acquisitions to continue its operation, believing in the case of Pacific Foods that it is an Oregon success story. This is good news to customers that may have been hesitant concerning the quality of the product.

Featured Image via Flickr/Jungle Jim’s International Market

Passengers Outraged Over Paying Uber Fare

Wisconsin couple Keith and Audra Tubin will need to pay almost $900 for an Uber fare on Monday. The Tubins used Uber to ride to a music festival last week and found out afterward that they would be needing to pay a tremendous bill. The Tubins believe themselves to have been overcharged, while Uber has responded by saying that the bill matches the expected price per mile, and therefore the Tubins must pay the fare.

Summerfest is a popular event that attracts thousands of people, and considering the nature of the event and how busy it is, many participants travel there by others means than their own vehicles. Uber is one option for transportation, and a service the Tubins have used regularly in the past.

After driving to their first spot, which was priced at around $200, Keith Tubin asked their Uber driver to drive to a couple more places. Multiple destinations with a single Uber driver is a commonly used feature, which has the customer enter in a new address once the first destination is reached. The price is matched according to the set price per miles at a time, which may be subject to change based on time and need. After reaching their final destination, the total accumulation of miles is priced, and the fare price is charged to the bank that owns the customer’s inputted credit card number.

Keith Tubin reports that upon waking up the next morning he faced a fraud alert on his credit card due to a charge of $898. Needless to say, the Tubins were shocked and did not understand how the fare had reached such a high price. Keith Tubin recounts how the initial fare was priced at $215 to an address on 55th Street in Milwaukee, and that they then added a stop on the East Side and two more stops in Brookfield. Keith Tubin firmly stated that the driver never told them how much the journey was going to cost.

Communications through e-mail with Uber reveal that the surge price was 8.6 times the normal cost, which means there was a high demand for Uber drivers at the time, which naturally drives up the price. Uber further states that the upfront price is no longer relevant once the new stops were added. Uber’s ruling of the bill was that after review the fare was in line with their estimates for a journey from the pickup location to the destination at the surge price. The fare has not been adjusted, much to the dismay of the Tubins.

When we think of corporate social responsibility, naturally the burden of responsibility lies on the corporations. There is often a contractual agreement implied that the corporations have taken the necessary steps to ensure that a product or service is safe, properly maintained and that all information regarding the product or service is accurate and represented. More often than not, corporations will take responsibility by paying the relevant legal fees and any refundable depending on context, because it is in their best interest to maintain a positive relationship with their customers. Without customers, businesses are unable to function, and given that customers usually have the power of choice, businesses would go above and beyond to ensure their relationship and reputation with customers is positive.

However, there are occasions when the customer is responsible, and these are times when it is necessary to accept the consequences of the implied social contract. If one fails to read the fine print such as surge prices or how the upfront price changes once stops are added, and this information is readily available for the customer to see, then the passenger is responsible for paying the price even if they do not like it. Customers make a contract with Uber drivers that they will be transported to their destination for a complimentary price, meaning that the Tubins need to pay the bill. If corporations were always responsible for every issue, then corporations would be open to being taken advantage of, resulting in a far greater loss than if they paid compensation.

While the Tubins “could have rented a limo for the whole night and had room for other people” while still saving money, they decided to take an Uber ride to four separate destinations during a high surge price. Now the Tubins need to pay their Uber bill.

Blue Apron Goes Public With an IPO of $10/share

Blue Apron, the $1 billion dollar online food delivery startup that sells “meal kits” containing everything the customer needs to make a meal at home, opened on the New York Stock Exchange Thursday at $10 a share.

The company initially anticipated pricing its IPO in the range of $15-17 per share. The decision to enter the public market at just $10/share is likely a reaction to Amazon’s June 17 announcement that it will acquire Whole Foods in a $13.7 billion deal. Since 2010, only 4% of internet companies have dropped their expected IPO range.

The value of Blue Apron’s shares increased by 9% as trading opened Thursday, but fell back by noon and hovered around the opening price for the rest of the day. The stock closed at exactly $10 a share.

The flatness of the stock is somewhat disappointing, considering the success of some of Blue Apron’s fellow “unicorns,” or technology startup companies whose market values exceed $1 billion dollars, who have gone public. When Snap, Inc., owner of Snapchat and a few other social media services, rolled out its IPO on the NYSE in March, the prices of its shares rose 44% on the first day of trading.

Blue Apron CEO Matthew Salzberg is quick to point out that a single day does not make or break a company. “We’re focused on the long term, quite frankly…This wasn’t a special moment where we needed to go public right now,” he said.

Salzberg says he has always wanted Blue Apron “to be the kind of company that could be a public company. The kind of caliber of company that’s going after a big enough opportunity, with a long enough orientation, and ambitious enough business plan.”

Following the IPO, Blue Apron’s value is estimated to be $1.89 billion. When held privately, the company was worth about $2 billion. Blue Apron shares sold for about $13.33 apiece on the private market in the company’s Series D investment round.

The startup’s revenue has skyrocketed by over 1000% since 2014. That year, the company brought in $77.8 million in revenue; in 2016, it reported $795.4 million in revenue. Blue Apron generates about $300 per customer per year. Nonetheless, the company’s net losses have increased every year since 2014.

Blue Apron is selling 30 million shares and expects to bring $300 million as a result of its IPO. The proceeds will go toward enhancing automation and supply chain technology, and toward creating meal kits that accommodate specialty diets and special occasions.

The food delivery industry is changing rapidly as technology progresses. Last year, 12% of shoppers in the US purchased groceries online at least once. Many expect that percentage to continue to grow.

Still, Blue Apron is reporting losses, and many of its competitors are folding or gasping for breath. SpoonRocket, a startup that delivered prepared meals to its Bay Area customers, folded in March. Umi kitchen, an app which allowed chefs to prepare food in their homes and then sell it to people nearby, shut down its New York City operations after a mere four months.

Moreover, Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods probably signals the tech giant’s intention to expand not only its traditional grocery stores but its online food delivery service, Amazon Fresh, as well. Needless to say, it may prove difficult for startups like Blue Apron to carve out niches for themselves with a behemoth like Amazon throwing its weight around in the market.

Despite sharing space in the online food delivery sector, though, Amazon and Blue Apron may not be direct competitors. Blue Apron kits come with unique recipes, and contain ingredients sourced from Blue Apron’s own farms. Thus, a Blue Apron meal is proprietary in the same way a meal one might buy in a farm-to-table restaurant is proprietary.

Blue Apron’s proprietorship over its ingredients and its recipes may make it something like an “online restaurant,” whereas Amazon Fresh is an online grocery store. If Amazon and Blue Apron each take a unique corner of the online food market, the success of one company may help the other. If people get used to buying their groceries online, they may become more inclined to spend their restaurant budget online, and vise versa.

Blue Apron’s future is uncertain. Now, thousands of traders will bet on it in the New York Stock Exchange.

Alphabet Accuses Uber of Cover Up

Alphabet have accused Uber of covering up the theft of trade secrets from Alphabet. Uber drew Alphabets attention after it acquired the self-driving startup Otto, a business founded by Anthony Levandowski, who previously led Alphabet’s autonomous vehicle business. Alphabet claims that Levandowski stole 14,000 proprietary files before leaving to start Otto, and are now suing Uber over allegations the ride-hailing startup misappropriated that technology.

Uber has responded by laying out their case to prove Alphabet’s allegations of the theft of trade secrets are false. Uber claims that Levandowski neither told anyone at Uber that he had downloaded any proprietary information from Alphabet, nor was asked to do so by Uber executives. Uber reinforces their position by stating the great lengths they took to deter Levandowski from bringing any information over from Alphabet, including a clause in Levandowski’s employment agreement that prohibited from doing so.

Uber further states that Alphabet has no evidence that any of the 14,000 proprietary files came to Uber, and that Alphabet is resorting to accusations of a cover-up theory that has been rejected by a Court ruling.

Alphabet continues to claim that Uber are covering up the theft of trade secrets by firing Levandowski only after their actions were exposed in litigation. The case’s presiding judge, William Alsup, hypothesized Uber likely knew or should have known that Levandowski had taken the files, considering the inclusion of a clause in Levandowski’s employment agreement preventing him from sharing the information. On the other hand, Alsup has said that Alphabet has failed to provide strong evidence that Levandowski brought the files to Uber for the express purpose of utilizing the technology.

Uber’s response has been slightly controversial, as two released statements seemingly contradict one another. In the first statement, Uber argued that it had no reason to suspect Levandowski of having deliberately downloading any files for improper use. The files that Levandowski did have on his person at the time of his hiring were just random files he had obtained incidentally over the course of his employment at Alphabet. On the other hand, Uber’s second statement highlights that Levandowski was holding onto files as leverage to obtain a bonus Alphabet had been slow to pay out.

Alphabet argues there was a conspiracy considering that Levandowski downloaded files from Waymo on the same day he met with Uber executives, reporting that after Levandowski’s meeting he downloaded the 14,000 files.

Uber’s position on this issue is unsteady because on one hand, they had no idea that Leveandowski had downloaded the 14,000 files, and that any files he had were random files that were not directly related to the autonomous vehicle technology Waymo uses. But Uber have reported that they specifically stated in the employment agreement that Levandowski was not to use any information illegally obtained from Alphabet, and that they knew Levandowski was planning to use the files as leverage.

But there is also a third option possible: Levandowksi as an individual was responsible for downloading the files in the hopes of either establishing employment with Uber, or as leverage over Alphabet. Uber is not responsible for the theft of trade secrets, as long as they acquiring of Otto was a business venture and not a means to access the trade secrets. In this situation, the burden of responsibility lies of Levandowski, who has been fired for not agreeing to cooperate with the suit.

Alphabet’s reaction and persistent dispute with Uber could also be seen as the seizing of an opportunity to reap benefits from a company that is already has a damaged public perception. In this case, the accusation of a cover up is only a means to reduce competition, and it therefore not justified in terms of ethical business practice.

Featured Image via Wikimedia

Sit Back and Relax: Autonomous Shuttles on UM Campus

The University of Michigan will be introducing two fully autonomous vehicles to its campus to shuttle students and faculty this fall. University officials announced the pilot program at the MCity test facility for autonomous and connected cars. The goal is to field test the vehicles while also observing both passenger and driver public perception.

This endeavor joins the recent increased attention autonomous vehicles has received lately as tangible steps to hopefully implement in the future on a grander scale. Two 15 passenger self-driving shuttles will travel along a two-mile loop through Michigan’s North Campus during normal business hours. This ensures that the conditions under which the shuttles are tested attempt to remain as fixed as possible, allowing for more accuracy.

Researchers have installed additional cameras on the exterior to examine how both drivers and pedestrians respond to autonomous vehicles on the road, and vice versa. Mcity Director and University of Michigan professor Huei Peng wishes to also utilize interior cameras to also examine passenger responses in order to gauge public perspectives regarding this new technology. The vehicles are also equipped with sensors and accurate GPS in order to accurately determine the operation of the vehicles as well as their location. University officials have stated that the autonomous shuttles will complete their 2-mile circuits roughly every ten minutes.

Peng also addresses the intent to track rider and usage pattern while also directly interviewing passengers regarding their experience. With constructive feedback Peng hopes the data gathered will help improve future designs in regards to safety and efficient operation. Furthermore, there are expectations to expand the operational hours beyond normal business hours, depending on the success of the pilot program, positive data provided. In order to maximize usage and potential data, the shuttle services will be free to all students, faculty and staff.

Mcity is a public-private partnership led by the University of Michigan directed at the speedy development of vehicle technology. The vehicles themselves were manufactured by French autonomous car start up Navya, an affiliate of MCity. While this is Navya’s first program in the U.S., there are Navya autonomous models operational in numerous countries around the world.

The success of this pilot program does not only impact Navya, MCity and the University of Michigan, but also future endeavors for autonomous vehicles. Success could revolutionize both public and private transport, with goals on improving the security and efficiency of future models in performance and production. Transportation plays a key role in culture paradigm shifts, and should autonomous cars become successful, opportunities for other forms of autonomous transportation also open up.

The success of the pilot program on a university campus also allows students to directly experience change, providing a more practical and tangible example of current efforts to reevaluate our daily lives instead of the more theoretical. Hopefully these programs cater to student participation beyond that of merely a data point, in order to inspire and educate future research.

Featured Image via Flickr/DoNotLick

Uber Reaches Tipping Point

In light of recent events concerning Uber, most significant of which is Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, taking a leave of absence in order to quell corporate behavior news reports, Uber has reported a series of changes that it has named the 180 days of change in order to help re-brand and help redesign Uber’s business model. Among the intended changes is the introduction of tipping Uber drivers, a practice that has not for the first time been met with controversy.

Uber’s stance on tipping has for the longest time rejected including tipping based on the consequences affecting both drivers and riders that may occur, including but not limited to drivers discriminating against poorer neighborhoods in favor of wealthier neighborhoods and higher tips, or drivers being rewarded different tipping amounts for the same work due to the personal preference of riders. It is clear that including tipping changes both the business model as well as the quality of service, and not necessarily for the better. This leads to the question, why include tipping, especially considering the tension that resulted in Kalanick taking a leave of absence?

Financial gain is the driving stimulator behind introducing tipping. Despite having a significantly stronger first quarter this year compared to the first quarter of 2016, the poor publicity since has had a detrimental effect, with a lower annual growth of 40 percent compared to 2016’s 55 percent, and a decreased market share throughout the first quarter. Tipping helps compensate driver salaries without extra cost of behalf of Uber, as these will be covered by the customer instead. In doing so Uber can increase its profit margin, but is contingent on the riders adequately compensating the drivers. If done correctly, Uber will greatly benefit from tipping and help stabilize itself against its competition, and the drivers will see more flexibility and potential earnings.

Speaking of competition, Uber’s current market competitor Lyft, a similar company on a smaller scale that provides the same services. Lyft already includes tipping in their business model, providing riders with predetermined tipping amounts or the ability to choose their own. The fact that Uber’s main competitor already utilizes tipping, and that has been utilized effectively, suggests another reason for why Uber wishes to introduce tipping into their own business model. Uber is essentially missing out on a large amount of potential revenue on the expectations that it would prove too controversial and prove a detriment. But if another company can use it effectively, then it is understandable that Uber re-evaluates their stance on tipping, considering the benefits that can arise out of tipping.

One concern that needs to be addressed is the loss of a competitive edge that lacking tipping provides. Riders have expressed disdain for tipping, often preferring to opt for an upfront, fair amount, rather than need to adjust tips based on the performance of drivers. One can argue that it provides riders with more control over the quality of services rendered, as a low performance results in a poor tip. However, this is not necessarily true, based on the considerations previously mentioned concerning neighborhoods. Furthermore, Uber already has an established service rating system, and the inclusion of tipping either makes the former redundant, or prove that it is ineffective.

Uber has highlighted that the tipping service will be rolled out slowly, starting in several cities including Seattle, Minneapolis and Houston, to test the benefits and reception of tipping, and only if the results are positive will Uber then implement a larger scale of the tipping function. Tipping is currently considered the most impactful of Uber’s prospective changes; let us see whether Uber changes will prove beneficial.

Featured Image via Wikimedia

Spotify-Backed Music Startup Raised $22 Million For Expansion

Stockholm-based startup Soundtrack Your Brand has raised $22 million in funding for global expansion and tech build-up. The company, started by an ex-Spotify executive and a co-founder of Beats, has already seen significant growth on its aim to provide music streaming services to businesses.

The company’s client list includes McDonald’s, TAG Heuer, and Toni & Guy along with operations for chains like Starbucks as well as thousands of other smaller businesses. It also operates Spotify Business in Sweden, Norway, and Finland. While not providing specific revenue or customer numbers, the company reports that revenue and customer base have both grown by more than 400% overall.

Soundtrack Your Brand uses its technology to select and play licensed music in stores and other retail locations. It was first founded in 2014 by Andreas Liffgarden, former head of business development at Spotify, and Ole Sars, co-founder of Beats. Liffgarden and Sars both tried to hire the other at different times in their previous tenure and discovered a shared view on what they saw as the untapped opportunity in the music-streaming world.

The goal Liffgarden and Sars put together filled a specific gap in the market for businesses who faced a limited, boring, or potentially illegal music choices. The most common practice was for businesses to use their own sets of CDs or mix tapes, or, alternatively to subscribe to services that send these items to them, However, those services are costly and tedious to refresh, and satellite radios don’t offer much control over music choice. Using streaming services like Spotify would be against the law since those types of services are only licensed for non-commercial, individual use.

While there are other competitors, like Mood Media, Play Network, and ImageSound, Soundtrack Your Brand differentiates itself in music selection and a simple sign up process. The service can be set up without any additional hardware besides a store’s speaker system and WiFi.

The latest round of funding brought in Balderton Capital, Industrifonden, Telia, and the H&M’s family investment fund HMP, bringing the total raised by the startup to about $40 million. Previous investors include Spotify, PlayNetwork, and Wellington.

Eminem Invests in StockX

Eminem, who is also known as Slim Shady and is a Grammy award winning rapper, recently invested in a startup sneaker company called StockX. The Detroit native invested money in the startup company before now. He was one of the former investors to add additional funds to StockX, which is dabbling in the global sneaker resell business. StockX does this by connecting buyers with sellers using a live bidding system.

Eminem is only one out of a group of investors that has put in more than $6 million for StockX. Other investors alongside the Detroit rapper are Wale, Mark Wahlberg, DJ Skee, and even Joe Haden of the Cleveland Browns. StockX plans to stretch its products to things like watches and handbags.

While Eminem may have a cool head when it comes to investing in stock brands, his patience in the studio was recently tested. Stat Quo had a fallout with the rap legend. Eminem wrote lyrics that Stat Quo didn’t think quite fit the song. Yet angering Eminem hindered his career and Stat Quo didn’t get to drop a solo album while he was signed with Eminem’s label Shady Records. Only two years after he left Eminem’s company was his album Statlanta LP released.

Amazon’s Plan for a Robotic Supermarket

Some estimate that in the future Amazon could be the first to utilize the robotic technology that continues to develop over the years. Amazon’s new high-tech supermarket might possibly be operated by only three humans. Three workers is even less than most supermarkets around today. In fact, according to Amazon the maximum number of employees required to work in its supermarket is only ten.

Amazon’s future supermarket is estimated to be a three-story building that has an expansion of 10,000 to 40,000 square feet. Aside from the shoppers and the minimum number of human workers, the supermarket would be heavily dependent on robots.

Back in December, Amazon launched a prototype supermarket, which it called Amazon Go. Since then Amazon has expanded the smaller Amazon Go stores into larger facilities. However, Amazon Go wasn’t a smash hit for those grocery store workers who stood to lose their jobs if consumers turned to the new Amazon Go store instead of other supermarkets.

Either Amazon’s grocery store or the supermarket will be completely dependent on robotic technology. There will be no lines, registers, or even cashiers. Rather than go through all that, customers will rely on an app on their phones. The app would know which items were removed from the shelf for purchase.

The robots that would basically run the store would be stationed on the upper level. The robots would be able to find and pack items for customers on the lower level. The lower level of the supermarket would contain products that customers tend to touch and want to see before purchase like fruit, meat, vegetables, and eggs. There is also the possibility of an Amazon Pharmacy according to a source form the New York Post who also states that Amazon is considering entering into the business.

However, despite all the talk about this futuristic robotic supermarket, Amazon has denied ever considering the plan. A spokesperson said, “As we’ve said previously, it’s not correct. We have no plans to build such a store.”

However, even though Amazon says this, robots are already present in warehouses. Amazon warehouses have begun popping up all over the country. Amazon even announced that it would be building a new one in Baltimore which proved some 180,000 full-time jobs.

Robots, though, are a large presence in the warehouse where millions of products listed on the company’s website are stored. Amazon even bumped up its robot use back in 2016 when it brought on 45,000 to about 20 of its facilities.

The idea sounds fascinating and exiting as we step further into a new age of technological dependence. Yet it was reported by the World Economic Forum that robots and AI would be replacing an estimated 5 million human jobs by the year 2020.

 

Microsoft Acquires an A.I. Start-Up

Microsoft announced on a blog post from Friday morning that it has acquired Maluuba, a start-up based out of Toronto that focuses on using deep machine learning for natural language processing. Deep learning is the current popular approach to artificial intelligence, based on a set of algorithms that attempt to model high-level abstractions in data. In the post, Microsoft said, “We’ve recently set new milestones for speech and image recognition using deep learning techniques, and with this acquisition we are, as Wayne Gretzky would say, skating to where the puck will be next—machine reading and writing.”

In the summer of 2016, Mauluuba shared the results of an AI system that could read and comprehend text in an almost human-like capacity on The Verge. These result easily outperformed those of similar systems shared by Google and Facebook. Microsoft has also recently developed closer ties to Yoshua Bengio, a former advisor to Maluuba and soon-to-be advisor of Microsoft’s AI department. Benigo is a pioneer in the field of deep learning.

Maluuba’s AI system presents unique possibilities for Microsoft, such as integration with the company’s digital assistant Cortana. With a system that can read and comprehend as well as Maluuba’s, the endless chore of sorting through emails can be made much more efficient and less time consuming.

Microsoft echoed this idea in its blog post, “Imagine a future where, instead of frantically searching through your organization’s directory, documents or emails to find the top tax-law experts in your company, for example, you could communicate with an AI agent that would leverage Maluuba’s machine comprehension capabilities to immediately respond to your request.”

The post continued to explain how this AI system differentiates itself from the pack, “The agent would be able to answer your question in a company-security-complaint manner by having a deeper understanding of the contents of your organization’s documents and emails, instead of simply retrieving a document by keyword matching, which happens today.”

Microsoft hints at a plethora of other uses, “This is just one of hundreds of scenarios we could imagine as Maluuba pushes the state-of-the-art technology of machine literacy.”