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Daily Crunch: Waymo opens up driverless ride-hailing

Alphabet’s self-driving technology company hits a major milestone, Apple TV+ extends its free subscription period and Affirm files to go public. This is your Daily Crunch for October 8, 2020.

The big story: Waymo opens up driverless ride-hailing

Waymo hit a major milestone today: It’s offering fully driverless rides to (some) members of the public.

While the Alphabet-owned company has offered plenty of self-driving rides before, they usually came with a human in the driver’s seat for safety. Members of the early rider program who’d signed nondisclosure agreements were able to try out fully driverless rides — but again, they had to sign NDAs first.

Today, the company said members of its more open Waymo One program in Phoenix will be able to go fully driverless, and to take friends and family with them. And over the next few weeks, the program will open up to even more passengers.

The tech giants

Apple is extending some Apple TV+ subs through February 2021 for free — Apple gave away a free year of Apple TV+ to new device purchasers last year; now it’s bumping those subs out to February.

Amazon debuts its first fully electric delivery vehicle, created in partnership with Rivian — The van’s unique features include sensor-based highway driving and traffic assist features.

IBM plans to spin off infrastructure services as a separate $19B business — The company said this will allow it to focus on newer opportunities in hybrid cloud applications and artificial intelligence.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Instacart raises $200M more at a $17.7B valuation — It’s not hard to trace a connection between COVID-19 and Instacart’s business results.

Affirm files confidentially to go public — The news comes after the impending debut was reported in July.

Delivery startup goPuff raises $380M at a $3.9B valuation — GoPuff delivers products like over-the-counter medicine, baby food and alcohol (basically, the stuff you’d buy at a convenience store) in 30 minutes or less.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Investors, founders report hot market for API startups — Startups that deliver their service via an API are having a moment.

Tech’s role in the COVID-19 response: Assist, don’t reinvent — Speakers at Disrupt explained how technology companies have taken a backseat to frontline workers, rather than attempting to “solve” the issues on their own.

These 3 factors are holding back podcast monetization — Fundamental fixes could unleash the channel’s revenue potential.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

General Motors finally gets serious about in-car tech, taps Unreal Engine for next-gen interface — Matt Burns writes that GM’s current crop of in-car user interfaces is among the worst on the market.

Consumers spent a record $28B in apps in Q3, aided by pandemic — According to a new report from App Annie, consumers in the third quarter downloaded 33 billion new apps globally.

US Space Force is getting an immersive space sim training tool built in part by the VFX studio behind ‘The Mandalorian’ — The U.S. Space Force obviously won’t be able to train most of their service people in actual space, so the new arm of America’s defense forces has tasked Slingshot Aerospace to create a VR space sim.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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We need a new field of AI to combat racial bias

Since widespread protests over racial inequality began, IBM announced it would cancel its facial recognition programs to advance racial equity in law enforcement. Amazon suspended police use of its Rekognition software for one year to “put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology.”

But we need more than regulatory change; the entire field of artificial intelligence (AI) must mature out of the computer science lab and accept the embrace of the entire community.

We can develop amazing AI that works in the world in largely unbiased ways. But to accomplish this, AI can’t be just a subfield of computer science (CS) and computer engineering (CE), like it is right now. We must create an academic discipline of AI that takes the complexity of human behavior into account. We need to move from computer science-owned AI to computer science-enabled AI. The problems with AI don’t occur in the lab; they occur when scientists move the tech into the real world of people. Training data in the CS lab often lacks the context and complexity of the world you and I inhabit. This flaw perpetuates biases.

AI-powered algorithms have been found to display bias against people of color and against women. In 2014, for example, Amazon found that an AI algorithm it developed to automate headhunting taught itself to bias against female candidates. MIT researchers reported in January 2019 that facial recognition software is less accurate in identifying humans with darker pigmentation. Most recently, in a study late last year by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), researchers found evidence of racial bias in nearly 200 facial recognition algorithms.

In spite of the countless examples of AI errors, the zeal continues. This is why the IBM and Amazon announcements generated so much positive news coverage. Global use of artificial intelligence grew by 270% from 2015 to 2019, with the market expected to generate revenue of $118.6 billion by 2025. According to Gallup, nearly 90% Americans are already using AI products in their everyday lives – often without even realizing it.

Beyond a 12-month hiatus, we must acknowledge that while building AI is a technology challenge, using AI requires non-software development heavy disciplines such as social science, law and politics. But despite our increasingly ubiquitous use of AI, AI as a field of study is still lumped into the fields of CS and CE. At North Carolina State University, for example, algorithms and AI are taught in the CS program. MIT houses the study of AI under both CS and CE. AI must make it into humanities programs, race and gender studies curricula, and business schools. Let’s develop an AI track in political science departments. In my own program at Georgetown University, we teach AI and Machine Learning concepts to Security Studies students. This needs to become common practice.

Without a broader approach to the professionalization of AI, we will almost certainly perpetuate biases and discriminatory practices in existence today. We just may discriminate at a lower cost — not a noble goal for technology. We require the intentional establishment of a field of AI whose purpose is to understand the development of neural networks and the social contexts into which the technology will be deployed.

In computer engineering, a student studies programming and computer fundamentals. In computer science, they study computational and programmatic theory, including the basis of algorithmic learning. These are solid foundations for the study of AI – but they should only be considered components. These foundations are necessary for understanding the field of AI but not sufficient on their own.

For the population to gain comfort with broad deployment of AI so that tech companies like Amazon and IBM, and countless others, can deploy these innovations, the entire discipline needs to move beyond the CS lab. Those who work in disciplines like psychology, sociology, anthropology and neuroscience are needed. Understanding human behavior patterns, biases in data generation processes are needed. I could not have created the software I developed to identify human trafficking, money laundering and other illicit behaviors without my background in behavioral science.

Responsibly managing machine learning processes is no longer just a desirable component of progress but a necessary one. We have to recognize the pitfalls of human bias and the errors of replicating these biases in the machines of tomorrow, and the social sciences and humanities provide the keys. We can only accomplish this if a new field of AI, encompassing all of these disciplines, is created.

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IBM Cloud suffers prolonged outage

The IBM Cloud is currently suffering a major outage, and with that, multiple services that are hosted on the platform are also down, including everybody’s favorite tech news aggregator, Techmeme.

It looks like the problems started around 2:30pm PT and spread from there. Best we can tell, this is a worldwide problem and involves a networking issue, but IBM’s own status page isn’t actually loading anymore and returns an internal server error, so we don’t quite know the extent of the outage or what triggered it. IBM Cloud’s Twitter account has also remained silent, though we found a status page for IBM Aspera hosted on a third-party server, which seems to confirm that this is likely a worldwide networking issue.

IBM Cloud, which published a paper about ensuring zero downtime in April, also suffered a minor outage in its Dallas data center in March.

We’ve reached out to IBM’s PR team and will update this post once we get more information.

Update #1 (5:06pm PT): we are seeing some reports that IBM Cloud is slowly coming back online, but the company’s status page also now seems to be functioning again and still shows that the cloud outage continues for the time being.

Update #2 (5:25pm PT): IBM keeps adding additional information to its status page, though networking issues seem to be at the core of this issue.

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Daily Crunch: IBM is getting out of facial recognition

IBM’s CEO takes a stand on mass surveillance, Apple may soon make a big chip announcement and Google Maps gets new features to help users navigate transit safely.

Here’s your Daily Crunch for June 9, 2020.

1. IBM ends all facial recognition business as CEO calls out bias and inequality

IBM CEO Arvind Krishna announced that the company would no longer sell facial recognition services, calling for a “national dialogue” on whether it should be used at all. He also voiced support for a new bill aiming to reduce police violence and increase accountability.

In a letter written in support of the Justice in Policing Act introduced, Krishna said, “IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency.”

2. Apple could reportedly announce Mac shift to its own ARM-based chips this month

For years now, analysts and unconfirmed reports have suggested Apple was working on transitioning its Mac line of computers away from Intel-based chips and to its own, ARM-based processors. Now, Bloomberg reports that the company could make those plans official as early as later this month.

3. Google Maps updated with COVID-19 info and related transit alerts

Google Maps is introducing a series of new features to better inform travelers and commuters about how their trip may be impacted by COVID-19 — including travel restrictions, COVID-19 checkpoints or even just the crowdedness of public transport.

4. DNAnexus raises $100M for a cloud-based analytics platform aimed at genomics and other clinical big data

The idea is to use the funding to continue building out the company’s research platform, particularly as research has boomed around the current coronavirus global health pandemic.

5. Enterprise investors remain flexible as they navigate COVID-19

We asked a number of enterprise investors if they have changed their approach in light of the pandemic and its knock-on economic impacts, how the current environment has changed their relationship with existing portfolio clients and how well those clients are coping with the new reality. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Walmart’s Flipkart rolls out voice assistant to make shopping easier

The AI-powered voice assistant currently supports the grocery category, called Supermart, but a company spokesperson told TechCrunch that Flipkart will soon be extending it to other verticals. The feature began rolling out to Android users today, and the company says it is working on bringing these capabilities to its iOS app.

7. The future ain’t what it used to be in first Bill & Ted Face the Music trailer

Finally, something to look forward to.

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

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Kenya’s Apollo Agriculture raises $6M Series A led by Anthemis

Apollo Agriculture believes it can attain profits by helping Kenya’s smallholder farmers maximize theirs.

That’s the mission of the Nairobi based startup that raised $6 million in Series A funding led by Anthemis.

Founded in 2016, Apollo Agriculture offers a mobile based product suit for farmers that includes working capital, data analysis for higher crop yields, and options to purchase key inputs and equipment.

“It’s everything a farmer needs to succeed. It’s the seeds and fertilizer they need to plant, the advice they need to manage that product over the course of the season. The insurance they need to protect themselves in case of a bad year…and then ultimately, the financing,” Apollo Agriculture CEO Eli Pollak told TechCrunch on a call.

Apollo’s addressable market includes the many smallholder farmers across Kenya’s population of 53 million. The problem it’s helping them solve is a lack of access to the tech and resources to achieve better results on their plots.

The startup has engineered its own app, platform and outreach program to connect with Kenya’s farmers. Apollo uses M-Pesa mobile money, machine learning and satellite data to guide the credit and products it offers them.

The company — which was a TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018 finalist — has served over 40,000 farmers since inception, with 25,000 of those paying relationships coming in 2020, according to Pollak.

Apollo Agriculture co-founders Benjamin Njenga and Eli Pollack

Apollo Agriculture generates revenues on the sale of farm products and earning margins on financing. “The farm pays a fixed price for the package, which comes due at harvest…that includes everything and there’s no hidden fees,” said Pollak.

On deploying the $6 million in Series A financing, “It’s really about continuing to invest in growth. We feel like we’ve got a great product. We’ve got great reviews by customers and want to just keep scaling it,” he said. That means hiring, investing in Apollo’s tech, and growing the startup’s sales and marketing efforts.

“Number two is really strengthening our balance sheet to be able to continue raising the working capital that we need to lend to customers,” Pollak said.

For the moment, expansion in Africa beyond Kenya is in the cards but not in the near-term. “That’s absolutely on the roadmap,” said Pollak. “But like all businesses, everything is a bit in flux right now. So some of our plans for immediate expansion are on a temporary pause as we wait to see things shake out with with COVID.”

Apollo Agriculture’s drive to boost the output and earnings of Africa’s smallholder farmers is born out of the common interests of its co-founders.

Pollak is an American who who studied engineering at Stanford University and went to work in agronomy in the U.S. with The Climate Corporation. “That was how I got excited about Apollo. I would look at other markets and say “wow, they’re farming 20% more acres of maize, or corn across Africa but farmers are producing dramatically less than U.S. farmers,” said Pollak.

Pollak’s colleague, Benjamin Njenga, found inspiration in his experience in his upbringing. “I grew up on a farm in a Kenyan village. My mother, a smallholder farmer, used to plant with low quality seeds and no fertilizer and harvested only five bags per acre each year,” he told the audience at Startup Battlefield in Africa in Lagos in 2018.

Image Credits: Apollo Agriculture

“We knew if she’d used fertilizer and hybrid seeds her production would double, making it easier to pay my school fees.” Njenga went on to explain that she couldn’t access the credit to buy those tools, which prompted the motivation for Apollo Agriculture.

Anthemis Exponential Ventures’ Vica Manos confirmed its lead on Apollo’s latest raise. The UK based VC firm — which invests mostly in the Europe and the U.S. — has also backed South African fintech company Jumo and will continue to consider investments in African startups, Manos told TechCrunch.

Additional investors in Apollo Agriculture’s Series A round included Accion Venture Lab, Leaps by Bayer, and Flourish Ventures.

While agriculture is the leading employer in Africa, it hasn’t attracted the same attention from venture firms or founders as fintech, logistics, or e-commerce. The continent’s agtech startups lagged those sectors in investment, according to Disrupt Africa and WeeTracker’s 2019 funding reports.

Some notable agtech ventures that have gained VC include Nigeria’s Farmcrowdy, Hello Tractor — which has partnered with IBM and Twiga Foods, a Goldman backed B2B agriculture supply chain startup based in Nairobi.

On whether Apollo Agriculture sees Twiga as a competitor, CEO Eli Pollak suggested collaboration. “Twiga could be a company that in the future we could potential partner with,” he said.

“We’re partnering with farmers to produce lots of high quality crops, and they could potentially be a great partner in helping those farmers access stable prices for those…yields.”

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IBM and Red Hat expand their telco, edge and AI enterprise offerings

At its Think Digital conference, IBM and Red Hat today announced a number of new services that all center around 5G edge and AI. The fact that the company is focusing on these two areas doesn’t come as a surprise, given that both edge and AI are two of the fastest-growing businesses in enterprise computing. Virtually every telecom company is now looking at how to best capitalize on the upcoming 5G rollouts, and most forward-looking enterprises are trying to figure out how to best plan around this for their own needs.

As IBM’s recently minted president Jim Whitehurst told me ahead of today’s announcement, he believes that IBM (in combination with Red Hat) is able to offer enterprises a very differentiated service because, unlike the large hyper clouds, IBM isn’t interested in locking these companies into a homogeneous cloud.

“Where IBM is competitively differentiated, is around how we think about helping clients on a journey to what we call hybrid cloud,” said Whitehurst, who hasn’t done a lot of media interviews since he took the new role, which still includes managing Red Hat. “Honestly, everybody has hybrid clouds. I wish we had a more differentiated term. One of the things that’s different is how we’re talking about how you think about an application portfolio that, by necessity, you’re going to have in multiple ways. If you’re a large enterprise, you probably have a mainframe running a set of transactional workloads that probably are going to stay there for a long time because there’s not a great alternative. And there’s going to be a set of applications you’re going to want to run in a distributed environment that need to access that data — all the way out to you running a factory floor and you want to make sure that the paint sprayer doesn’t have any defects while it’s painting a door.”

BARCELONA, CATALONIA, SPAIN – 2019/02/25: The IBM logo is seen during MWC 2019. (Photo by Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

He argues that IBM, at its core, is all about helping enterprises think about how to best run their workloads software, hardware and services perspective. “Public clouds are phenomenal, but they are exposing a set of services in a homogeneous way to enterprises,” he noted, while he argues that IBM is trying to weave all of these different pieces together.

Later in our discussion, he argued that the large public clouds essentially force enterprises to fit their workloads to those clouds’ service. “The public clouds do extraordinary things and they’re great partners of ours, but their primary business is creating these homogeneous services, at massive volumes, and saying ‘if your workloads fit into this, we can run it better, faster, cheaper etc.’ And they have obviously expanded out. They’ve added services. They are not saying we can put a box on-premise, but you’re still fitting into their model.”

On the news side, IBM is launching new services to automate business planning, budgeting and forecasting, for example, as well as new AI-driven tools for building and running automation apps that can handle routine tasks either autonomously or with the help of a human counterpart. The company is also launching new tools for call-center automation.

The most important AI announcement is surely Watson AIOps, though, which is meant to help enterprises detect, diagnose and respond to IT anomalies in order to reduce the effects of incidents and outages for a company.

On the telco side, IBM is launching new tools like the Edge Application Manager, for example, to make it easier to enable AI, analytics and IoT workloads on the edge, powered by IBM’s open-source Open Horizon edge computing project. The company is also launching a new Telco Network Cloud manager built on top of Red Hat OpenShift and the ability to also leverage the Red Hat OpenStack Platform (which remains to be an important platform for telcos and represents a growing business for IBM/Red Hat). In addition, IBM is launching a new dedicated IBM Services team for edge computing and telco cloud to help these customers build out their 5G and edge-enabled solutions.

Telcos are also betting big on a lot of different open-source technologies that often form the core of their 5G and edge deployments. Red Hat was already a major player in this space, but the acquisition has only accelerated this, Whitehurst argued. “Since the acquisition […] telcos have a lot more confidence in IBM’s capabilities to serve them long term and be able to serve them in mission-critical context. But importantly, IBM also has the capability to actually make it real now.”

A lot of the new telco edge and hybrid cloud deployments, he also noted, are built on Red Hat technologies but built by IBM, and neither IBM nor Red Hat could have really brought these to fruition in the same way. Red Hat never had the size, breadth and skills to pull off some of these projects, Whitehurst argued.

Whitehurst also argued that part of the Red Hat DNA that he’s bringing to the table now is helping IBM to think more in terms of ecosystems. “The DNA that I think matters a lot that Red Hat brings to the table with IBM — and I think IBM is adopting and we’re running with it — is the importance of ecosystems,” he said. “All of Red Hat’s software is open source. And so really, what you’re bringing to the table is ecosystems.”

It’s maybe no surprise then that the telco initiatives are backed by partners like Cisco, Dell Technologies, Juniper, Intel, Nvidia, Samsung, Packet, Equinix, Hazelcast, Sysdig, Turbonomics, Portworx, Humio, Indra Minsait, EuroTech, Arrow, ADLINK, Acromove, Geniatech, SmartCone, CloudHedge, Altiostar, Metaswitch, F5 Networks and ADVA.

In many ways, Red Hat pioneered the open-source business model and Whitehurst argued that having Red Hat as part of the IBM family means it’s now easier for the company to make the decision to invest even more in open source. “As we accelerate into this hybrid cloud world, we’re going to do our best to leverage open-source technologies to make them real,” he added.

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Ginni Rometty leaves complex legacy as she steps away as IBM CEO

When Ginni Rometty steps down as CEO at IBM in April and her replacement Arvind Krishna takes the helm, more than eight years will have passed since she took the reins at Big Blue. The executive helped lead a massive transformation, but IBM has had a bumpy financial ride throughout her tenure — at one time recording an astonishing 22 straight quarters of declining revenue.

To be fair, Rometty took over at a tumultuous time when technology was shifting from on-prem software stacks to the cloud. She saw what was coming and used the company’s considerable cash position to buy what she needed to make that switch while taking advantage of IBM’s extensive R&D to build other pieces in-house. But the transition took time, which resulted in some financial missteps.

She deserves credit for trying to move the battleship in a new direction — culminating with the $34 billion purchase of Red Hat — even if the results were ultimately mixed.

Leading the way

Rometty was the first woman to lead IBM in an industry where female CEOs are scarce. When she came on board in 2012, there were just 21 women running Fortune 500 companies; last year, that number had risen to 33, still a paltry 6.6%. Along with Safra Catz at Oracle and Lisa Su of Advanced Micro Devices, Rometty has been part of a small group of female CEOs at large technology companies.

Source: TechCrunch

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Arvind Krishna will replace Ginni Rometty as IBM CEO in April

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst to be president

IBM announced today that the board of directors has elected IBM senior vice president for Cloud and Cognitive Software Arvind Krishna to replace current CEO Ginni Rometty. He will take over on April 6th after a couple of months of transition. Rometty will remain with the company as chairman of the board.

Krishna reportedly drove the massive $34 billion acquisition of Red Hat at the end of 2018, and there was some speculation at the time that Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst was the heir apparent, but the board went with a more seasoned IBM insider for the job, while naming Whitehurst as president.

In a statement Rometty called Krishna the right man for the job, as she steps back after more than eight years on the job. “Through his multiple experiences running businesses in IBM, Arvind has built an outstanding track record of bold transformations and proven business results, and is an authentic, values-driven leader. He is well-positioned to lead IBM and its clients into the cloud and cognitive era,” she said in a statement.

She added that in choosing Krishna and Whitehurst, the board chose a technically and business savvy team to lead the company moving forward. It’s clear that the board went with two men who have a deep understanding of cloud and cognitive computing technologies, two areas that are obviously going to be front and center of technology for the foreseeable future, and areas where IBM needs to thrive.

Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research, sees the CEO-president model as a sound approach. “It’s and inside-outside model. To truly understand IBM, you have to come from the inside [like Krishna], but to truly innovate you need someone on the outside [like Whitehurst] and that CEO-president model is helping,” he said.

Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategies, says that he was surprised by the timing of the announcement, which seemed to come out of nowhere. “I am a bit surprised at the speed of this announcement as I don’t believe there was a formal succession plan with a named successor. IBM has always had these and it was always apparent who the next CEO would be,” he said. That was not the case this time.

But like Wang, Moorhead likes the approach of having an “outsider” and long-time IBMer working in tandem. “Krishna spearheaded many of the next-generation IBM initiatives like the Red Hat acquisition, blockchain and quantum. I am also very pleased to see Whitehurst appointed president as now there’s an outsider and a long-time IBMer running the company in the number one and two spots,” he said.

Wang believes the new leaders have to honestly assess the company’s strengths and weaknesses and find ways to compete with today’s cloud companies for the hearts and minds of the enterprise customers.

“Today IBM is in an interesting position where the world has changed, and people go to Amazon or Salesforce or they go to Google or Workday or Microsoft. Companies still have a lot of IBM, they still trust IBM, but the new leadership team needs to figure out where the technology gaps are, which ones they need to build, which ones they need to partner, and in some cases say, this is not our market,” he said.

Source: TechCrunch