Rainforest Connection enlists machine learning to listen for loggers and jaguars in the Amazon

The vastness that makes the Amazon rainforest so diverse and fertile also makes it extremely difficult to protect. Rainforest Connection is a project started back in 2014 that used solar-powered second-hand phones as listening stations that could alert authorities to sounds of illegal logging. And applying machine learning has supercharged the network’s capabilities.

The original idea is still in play: modern smartphones are powerful and versatile tools, and work well as wireless sound detectors. But as founder Topher White explained in an interview, the approach is limited to what you can get the phones to detect.

Originally, he said, the phones just listened for certain harmonics indicating, for example, a chainsaw. But bringing machine learning into the mix wrings much more out of the audio stream.

“Now we’re talking about detecting species, gunshots, voices, things that are more subtle,” he said. “And these models can improve over time. We can go back into years of recordings to figure out what patterns we can pull out of this. We’re turning this into a big data problem.”

White said he realized early on that the phones couldn’t do that kind of calculation, though — even if their efficiency-focused CPUs could do it, the effort would probably drain the battery. So he began working with Google’s TensorFlow platform to perform the training and integration of new data in the cloud.

Google also helped produce a nice little documentary about one situation where Guardians could help native populations deter loggers and poachers:

That’s in the Amazon, obviously, but Rainforest Connection has also set up stations in Cameroon and Sumatra, with others on the way.

Machine learning models are particularly good at finding patterns in noisy data that sound logical but defy easy identification through other means.

For instance, White said, “We should be able to detect animals that don’t make sounds. Jaguars might not always be vocalizing, but the animals around them are, birds and things.” The presence of a big cat then, might be easier to detect by listening for alarmed bird calls than for its near-silent movement through the forest.

The listening stations can be placed as far as 25 kilometers (about 15 miles) from the nearest cell tower. And because a device can detect chainsaws a kilometer away and some species half a kilometer away, it’s not like they need to be on every tree.

But, as you may know, the Amazon is rather a big forest. He wants more people to get involved, especially students. White partnered with Google to launch a pilot program where kids can build their own “Guardian,” as the augmented phone kits are called. When I talked with him it was moments before one such workshop in LA.

Topher White and students at one of the Guardian building workshops.

“We’ve already done three schools and I think a couple hundred students, plus three more in about half an hour,” he told me. “And all these devices will be deployed in the Amazon over the next three weeks. On Earth day they’ll be able to see them, and download the app to stream the sounds. It’s to show these kids that what they do can have an immediate effect.”

“An important part is making it inclusive, proving these things can be built by anyone in the world, and showing how anyone can access the data and do something cool with it. You don’t need to be a data scientist to do it,” he continued.

Getting more people involved is the key to the project, and to that end Rainforest Connection is working on a few new tricks. One is an app you’ll be able to download this summer “where people can put their phone on their windowsill and get alerts when there’s a species in the back yard.”

The other is a more public API; currently only partners like companies and researchers can access it. But with a little help, all the streams from the many online Guardians will be available for anyone to listen to, monitor and analyze. But that’s all contingent on having money.

“If we want to keep this program going, we need to find some funding,” White said. “We’re looking at grants and at corporate sponsorship — it’s a great way to get kids involved too, in both technology and ecology.”

Donations help, but partnerships with hardware makers and local businesses are more valuable. Want to join up? You can get at Rainforest Connection here.

Google makes it easier to run high-performance workloads on its cloud platform

Hyperscale cloud platforms from the likes of Amazon, Microsoft and Google are great for running the kind of high-performance computing (HPC) projects that scientists in academia and the industry need for their simulations and analyses. Many of the workloads they run are, after all, easily parallelized across hundreds or thousands of machines. Often, though, the challenge is about how to create these clusters and how to then manage the workloads that run on them.

To make this easier for the HPC community, Google today announced that it is bringing support for the open source Slurm HPC workload manager to its cloud platform (which is different from this Slurm). That’s the same piece of software that the many of the users in the TOP500 supercomputer list use, including the world’s biggest and fastest cluster to date, including the Sunway TaihuLight with its over 10 million computing cores.

For this project, Google teamed up with the experts at SchedMD, the company behind Slurm, to make it easier to run Slurm on Compute Engine. Using this integration, developers can easily launch an auto-scaling Slurm cluster on Compute Engine that runs based on the developers’ specifications. One interesting feature here is that users can also federate jobs from their on-premise cluster to the cloud when they need a bit of extra compute power.

Compute Engine currently offers machines with up to 96 cores and 624 GB of memory, so if you have the need (and money), building a massive compute cluster on GCP just got a little bit easier.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft, too, offers a template for deploying Slurm on Azure and that the tool has long supported AWS, too.

The NEEO universal remote is a modern Logitech Harmony alternative

The advanced universal remote market is not a very crowded market. In fact, for a while now, Logitech’s Harmony line has been pretty much the only game in town. Newcomer NEEO wants to upset that monopoly with its new NEEO Remote and NEEO Brain combo ($369), which is a system that can connect just about any AV system, along with a smorgasbord of connected smart devices including Nest, Philips Hue, Sonos and more.

NEEO’s two-part system includes the Brain, which, true to its name, handles all of the heavy lifting. This is a puck-shaped device with 360-degree IR blasters dotting its outside perimeter, and which has one IR extender out (there’s one in the box) for connecting devices held within a closed AV cabinet, for instance. This central hub also connects to your Wi-Fi network, and setup requires plugging it into your router via Ethernet to get everything squared away, similar to how you initially set up Sonos speakers, if you’re familiar with that process.

Most of the setup work you need to do to get NEEO working happens on your phone, and that’s where it becomes apparent that this smart remote was designed for a modern context. Logitech’s Harmony software has come a long way, and now you can do everything you need to do from the iOS and Android app, but it’s still somewhat apparent that its legacy is as something you initially setup using a desktop and somewhat awkward web-based software. The NEEO feels at home on mobile, and it makes the setup and configuration process much better overall.

The other core component of the NEEO system is the NEEO Remote. This is a fantastic piece of industrial design, first of all. It’s a sleek rectangle crafted from aerospace-grade aluminum that oozes charm, in a way that nothing in the current Logitech Harmony lineup can come close to matching. The minimalist design still doesn’t suffer from the ‘which way is up?’ problem that the Apple Remote faces, because of subtle design cues including bottom weighting and the presence of ample physical buttons.

A NEEO Remote isn’t necessary for the system to work – you can just use the Brain along with the companion app for iPhone or Android, but the remote is a joy to hold and use, thanks to its unique design, and it features a super high density display that’s extremely responsive to touch input and pleasingly responsive to touch. NEEO took a lot of time to get this touchscreen experience right, and it pays off, delivering a clear and simple control interface that shifts to suit the needs of whatever activity you’re running at the time.

The NEEO Remote also has an “SOS” feature so that you can locate it if you happen to misplace it, and it can even be configured to recognize different hands if you want to set profiles for distinct members of the household, or set parental control profiles limiting access to certain content or devices. This kind of thing is where NEEO’s feature set exceeds the competition, and shows a particular attention to modern device use cases.

One NEEO Remote can also control multiple NEEO Brains, which is another limitation of the completion. That means you can set up NEEO Brains in each room where you have devices to control, and carry your remote from place to place instead of having to have multiple. The NEEO Brain is still $200 on its own, however, so it’s definitely still a barrier to entry.

NEEO otherwise does pretty much everything you’d expect a smart remote to do in 2018: You can set recipes on the deice itself, including with triggers like time-based alarms or motion detection (without using IFTTT). You can connect it to Alexa, though that functionality is limited at the moment, with more updates promised in future to make this better.

The bottom line is that NEEO offers a competent, intelligent alternative the big dog on the block, Logitech’s Harmony system. Logitech’s offering is still more robust and mature in terms of delivering Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility, as well as rock solid performance, but NEEO has some clever ideas and unique takes that will serve more patient and tech-forward users better over time.

As the CLOUD Act sneaks into the omnibus, big tech butts heads with privacy advocates

As the House advances a 2,232 page spending bill meant to avert a government shutdown, privacy advocates and big tech companies aren’t seeing eye to eye about a small piece of legislation tucked away on page 2,212.

The Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act, a.k.a. the CLOUD Act (H.R.4943S.2383) aims to simplify the way that international law enforcement groups obtain personal data stored by US-based tech platforms, but the changes to that process are controversial.

As it stands, if a foreign government wants to obtain that data in the course of an investigation, a series of steps are necessary. First, that government must have a Mutual Legal Assistant Treaty (MLAT) with the U.S. government in place, and those treaties are ratified by the Senate. Then it can send a request to the U.S. Department of Justice, but first the DOJ needs to seek approval from a judge. After those requirements are met, the request can move along to the tech company hosting the data that the foreign government is seeking.

The debate around the CLOUD Act also taps into tech company concerns that foreign nations may move to pass laws in favor of data localization, or the process of storing users’ personal data within the borders of the country they are a citizen of. That trend would prove both costly for cloud data giants and difficult, upending the established model of cloud data storage that optimizes for efficiency rather than carefully sorting out what data is stored within the borders of which country.

In a February 6 letter, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook and Oath (TechCrunch’s parent company) co-authored a letter calling the CLOUD Act “notable progress to protect consumers’ rights.”

In a late February blog post, Microsoft Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith addressed the issue. “The CLOUD Act creates both the incentive and the framework for governments to sit down and negotiate modern bi-lateral agreements that will define how law enforcement agencies can access data across borders to investigate crimes,” Smith wrote. “It ensures these agreements have appropriate protections for privacy and human rights and gives the technology companies that host customer data new statutory rights to stand up for the privacy rights of their customers around the world.”

In a recent opinion piece, ACLU legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani argues that the CLOUD Act sidesteps oversight from both the legislative and judicial branches, granting the attorney general and the state department too much discretion in choosing which governments the U.S. will enter into a data exchange agreement with.

The Center for Democracy and Technology also opposes the CLOUD Act on the grounds that it fails to protect the digital privacy of American citizens and the Electronic Frontier Foundation dismissed the legislation as “a new backdoor around the Fourth Amendment.” The Open Technology Institute also denounced the CLOUD Act’s provision to “allow qualifying foreign governments to enter into an executive agreement to bypass the human rights protective Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) process when seeking data in criminal investigations and to seek data directly from U.S. technology companies.”

Both organizations acknowledge that improvements to the bill do partially address some of the human rights concerns associated with not requiring a MLAT in a data sharing agreement.

“While this version of the CLOUD Act includes some new safeguards, it is still woefully inadequate to protect individual rights,” OTI Director of Surveillance & Cybersecurity Policy Sharon Bradford Franklin said of the changes.

“Critically, the bill still would permit foreign governments to obtain communications data held in the United States without any prior judicial review, and it would allow foreign governments to obtain U.S.-held communications in real time without applying the safeguards required for wiretapping by the U.S. government. ”

The Consumer Technology Association voiced its support of the altered bill in a press release issued Thursday. “CTA thanks the House of Representatives for taking steps to empower America’s digital infrastructure for the 21st century. The inclusion of the CLOUD Act and RAY BAUM’S Act in today’s legislation ensures Americans can safely create, share and collect electronic data while providing them the resources to do so.”

While some changes made aspects of the bill more palatable to digital privacy watchdogs, some are objecting to the choice to tack it onto the omnibus spending bill.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul spoke out Thursday against passing the CLOUD Act by attaching it to the spending bill.

“Tucked away in the omnibus spending bill is a provision that allows Trump, and any future president, to share Americans’ private emails and other information with countries he personally likes. That means he can strike deals with Russia or Turkey with nearly zero congressional involvement and no oversight by U.S. courts,” Wyden said. “This bill contains only toothless provisions on human rights that Trump’s cronies can meet by merely checking a box. It is legislative malpractice that Congress, without a minute of Senate debate, is rushing through the CLOUD Act on this must-pass spending bill.”

While the content of the CLOUD Act has evolved away from controversy with some modifications, the choice to pass it as part of the omnibus plan without further opportunity for public debate to examine its potential far-reaching implications is proving just as controversial as earlier forms of the legislation.

Video suggests huge problems with Uber’s driverless car program

There’s something very wrong with Uber’s driverless car program.

On Wednesday night, police released footage of Sunday night’s deadly car crash in Tempe, Arizona, where an Uber self-driving car crashed into 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg. The details it reveals are damning for Uber.

“The idea that she ‘just stepped out’ or ‘came out in a flash’ into the car path is clearly false,” said Tara Goddard, an urban planning professor at Texas A&M University, after seeing the video. “It seems like the system should have responded.”

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Google Assistant on phones now lets you send and receive money

“Hey Google, send Brian $15 for breakfast today.” Starting today, you can use this command to tell the Google Assistant on your phone to send money to people with Google Pay, the re-branded version of what you may still think of as Android Pay. And if Brian, as usual, forgets to pay you back, you can also say: “Hey Google, request $20 from Brian for breakfast today.”

For now, this feature is only available on phones, but Google tells us that it plans to offer the same functionality through its Google Home speakers in the coming months. One of the reasons for this is probably the fact that the phone offers a more secure process for authenticating who you are. On the phone, Google will ask for either a password or a fingerprint to make sure who are who you say you are. Google Home can already recognize different speakers, but for now, it’s unclear how Google will securely authenticate users there.

Since quite a few people probably don’t have Google Pay set up yet, the Assistant will walk you through the setup process when you first try this feature. Sending and receiving money through Google Pay is free.

AI game trainer Gosu.ai raises $1.9M to give gamers a virtual assistant

If you play hardcore and competitive games, you want to win, so it would be useful to have someone leaning over your shoulder giving you tips on how to play better. Someone who knows all your moves and behaviors, for instance.

That’s the thinking behind Gosu.ai, which has developed an AI assistant to help gamers play smarter and improve their skills. It’s now raised a $1.9M funding round led by Runa Capital, with participation from Ventech and existing investor, Sistema_VC. Previously, the startup was backed by Gagarin Capital, a new Silicon Valley-based early-stage VC firm focusing on AI investments, which invested in Prisma and MSQRD, which exited to Facebook and Google, respectively.

Gosu.ai provides tools and guidance for users to improve their skills in competitive games. It analyzes their matches and makes personal recommendations. It also helps players prep, suggesting gear sets, starting items and offering ideas on how to take on a particular opponent. The platform currently works with Dota 2, with plans to support CS:GO and PUBG in the near future.

The company was founded by Alisa Chumachenko (pictured), who was the creator and former CEO of Game Insight, a big gaming world player. She says: “There are 2 billion gamers in the world now and 600 million of them play hardcore games, such as MOBAs, Shooters and MMOs. We can help those players reach their full potential with our AI assistants.”

Gosu.ai’s main competitors are Mobalytics, Dojomadness and Moremmr. But the main difference is that these competitors make analytics of raw statistics, and find the generalized weak spots in comparison with other players, giving general recommendations. Gosu.ai analyzes the specific actions of each player, down to the movement of their mouse, to cater direct recommendations for the player. So it’s more like a virtual assistant than a training platform.

In addition, Gosu works in the B2B field, as well, by offering gaming companies a variety of AI tools, for example a predictive analytics.

Mobile gaming is having a moment, and Apple has the reins

It’s moved beyond tradition and into the realm of meme that Apple manages to dominate the news cycle around major industry events all while not actually participating in said events. CES rolls around and every story is about HomeKit or its competitors, another tech giant has a conference and the news is that Apple updated some random subsystem of its ever-larger ecosystem of devices and software .

This is, undoubtedly planned by Apple in many instances. And why not? Why shouldn’t it own the cycle when it can, it’s only strategically sound.

This week, the 2018 Game Developer’s Conference is going on and there’s a bunch of news coverage about various aspects of the show. There are all of the pre-written embargo bits about big titles and high-profile indies, there are the trend pieces and, of course, there’s the traditional ennui-laden ‘who is this event even for’ post that accompanies any industry event that achieves critical mass.

But the absolute biggest story of the event wasn’t even at the event. It was the launch of Fortnite and, shortly thereafter, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds on mobile devices. Specifically, both were launched on iOS and PUBG hit Android simultaneously.

The launch of Fortnite, especially, resonates across the larger gaming spectrum in several unique ways. It’s the full and complete game as present on consoles, it’s iOS-first and it supports cross-platform play with console and PC players.

This has, essentially, never happened before. There have been stabs at one or more of those conditions on experimental levels but it really marks a watershed in the games industry that could serve to change the psychology around the platform discussion in major ways. 

For one, though the shape of GDC has changed over the years as it relates to mobile gaming – it’s only recently that the conference has become dominated by indie titles that are mobile centric. The big players and triple-A console titles still take up a lot of air, but the long tail is very long and mobile is not synonymous with “casual gamers” as it once was.

I remember the GDC before we launched Monument Valley,” says Dan Gray of Monument Valley 2 studio ustwo. “We were fortunate enough that Unity offered us a place on their stand. Nobody had heard of us or our game and we were begging journalists to come say hello, it’s crazy how things have changed in four years. We’ve now got three speakers at the conference this year, people stop you in the street (within a two block radius) and we’re asked to be part of interviews like this about the future of mobile.”

Zach Gage, the creator of SpellTower, and my wife’s favorite game of all time, Flip Flip Solitaire, says that things feel like they have calmed down a bit. “It seems like that might be boring, but actually I think it’s quite exciting, because a consequence of it is that playing games has become just a normal thing that everyone does… which frankly, is wild. Games have never had the cultural reach that they do now, and it’s largely because of the App Store and these magical devices that are in everyones pockets.”

Alto’s Odyssey is the followup to Snowman’s 2015 endless boarder Alto’s Adventure. If you look at these two titles, three years apart, you can see the encapsulation of the growth and maturity of gaming on iOS. The original game was fun, but the newer title is beyond fun and into a realm where you can see the form being elevated into art. And it’s happening blazingly fast.

“There’s a real and continually growing sense that mobile is a platform to launch compelling, artful experiences,” says Snowman’s Ryan Cash. “This has always been the sentiment among the really amazing community of developers we’ve been lucky enough to meet. What’s most exciting to me, now, though, is hearing this acknowledged by representatives of major console platforms. Having conversations with people about their favorite games from the past year, and seeing that many of them are titles tailor-made for mobile platforms, is really gratifying. I definitely don’t want to paint the picture that mobile gaming has ever been some sort of pariah, but there’s a definite sense that more people are realizing how unique an experience it is to play games on these deeply personal devices.”

Mobile gaming as a whole has fought since the beginning against the depiction that it was for wasting time only, not making ‘true art’, which was reserved for consoles or dedicated gaming platforms. Aside from the ‘casual’ vs. ‘hardcore’ debate, which is more about mechanics, there was a general stigma that mobile gaming was a sidecar bet to the main functions of these devices, and that their depth would always reflect that. But the narratives and themes being tackled on the platform beyond just clever mechanics are really incredible.

Playing Monument Valley 2 together with my daughter really just blew my doors off, and I think it changed a lot of people’s minds in this regard. The interplay between the characters and environment and a surprisingly emotional undercurrent for a puzzle game made it a breakout that was also a breakthrough of sorts.

“There’s so many things about games that are so awesome that the average person on the street doesn’t even know about,” says Gray. “As small developers right now we have the chance to make somebody feel a range of emotions about a video game for the first time, it’s not often you’re in the right place at the right time for this and to do it with the most personal device that sits in your pocket is the perfect opportunity.”

The fact that so many of the highest profile titles are launching on iOS first is a constant source of consternation for Android users, but it’s largely a function of addressable audience.

I spoke to Apple VP Greg Joswiak about Apple’s place in the industry. “Gaming has always been one of the most popular categories on the App Store,” he says. A recent relaunch of the App Store put gaming into its own section and introduced a Today tab that tells stories about the games and about their developers.

That redesign, he says, has been effective. “Traffic to the App Store is up significantly, and with higher traffic, of course, comes higher sales.”

“One thing I think smaller developers appreciate from this is the ability to show the people behind the games,” says ustwo’s Gray about the new gaming and Today sections in the App Store. “Previously customers would just see an icon and assume a corporation of 200 made the game, but now it’s great we can show this really is a labour of love for a small group of people who’re trying to make something special. Hopefully this leads to players seeing the value in paying up front for games in the future once they can see the craft that goes into something.”

Snowman’s Cash agrees. “It’s often hard to communicate the why behind the games you’re making — not just what your game is and does, but how much went into making it, and what it could mean to your players. The stories that now sit on the Today tab are a really exciting way to do this; as an example, when Alto’s Odyssey released for pre-order, we saw a really positive player response to the discussion of the game’s development. I think the variety that the new App Store encourages as well, through rotational stories and regularly refreshed sections, infuses a sense of variety that’s great for both players and developers. There’s a real sense I’m hearing that this setup is equipped to help apps and games surface, and stayed surfaced, in a longer term and more sustainable way.”

In addition, there are some technical advantages that keep Apple ahead of Android in this arena. Plenty of Android devices are very performant and capable in individual ways, but Apple has a deep holistic grasp of its hardware that allow it to push platform advantages in introducing new frameworks like ARKit. Google’s efforts in the area with AR Core are just getting started with the first batch of 1.0 apps coming online now, but Google will always be hamstrung by the platform fragmentation that forces developers to target a huge array of possible software and hardware limitations that their apps and games will run up against.

This makes shipping technically ambitious projects like Fortnite on Android as well as iOS a daunting task. “There’s a very wide range of Android devices that we want to support,” Epic Games’ Nick Chester told Forbes. “We want to make sure Android players have a great experience, so we’re taking more time to get it right.“

That wide range of devices includes an insane differential in GPU capability, processing power, Android version and update status.

“We bring a very homogenous customer base to developers where 90% of [devices] are on the current versions of iOS,” says Joswiak. Apple’s customers embrace those changes and updates quickly, he says, and this allows developers to target new features and the full capabilities of the devices more quickly.

Ryan Cash sees these launches on iOS of ‘full games’ as they exist elsewhere as a touchstone of sorts that could legitimize the idea of mobile as a parity platform.

“We have a few die-hard Fortnite players on the team, and the mobile version has them extremely excited,” says Cash. “I think more than the completeness of these games (which is in of itself a technical feat worth celebrating!), things like Epic’s dedication to cross-platform play are massive. Creating these linked ecosystems where players who prefer gaming on their iPhones can enjoy huge cultural touchstone titles like Fortnite alongside console players is massive. That brings us one step closer to an industry attitude which focuses more on accessibility, and less on siloing off experiences and separating them into tiers of perceived quality.”

“I think what is happening is people are starting to recognize that ios devices are everywhere, and they are the primary computers of many people,” says Zach Gage. “When people watch a game on Twitch, they take their iPhone out of their pocket and download it. Not because they want to know if there’s a mobile version, but because they just want the game. It’s natural to assume that these games available for a computer or a playstation, and it’s now natural to assume that it would be available for your phone.”

Ustwo’s Gray says that it’s great that the big games are transitioning, but also cautions that there needs to be a sustainable environment for mid-priced games on iOS that specifically use the new capabilities of these devices.

“It’s great that such huge games are transitioning this way, but for me I’d really like to see more $30+ titles designed and developed specifically for iPhone and iPad as new IP, really taking advantage of of how these devices are used,” he says. “It’s definitely going to benefit the AppStore as a whole, but It does need to be acknowledged however that the way players interact with console/PC platforms and mobile are inherently different and should be designed accordingly. Session lengths and the interaction vocabulary of players are two of the main things to consider, but if a game manages to somehow satisfy the benefits of all those platforms then great, but I think it’s hard.”

Apple may not be an official sponsor of GDC, but it is hosting two sessions at the show including an introduction to Metal 2, its rendering pipeline, and ARKit, its hope for the future of gaming on mobile. This presence is exciting for a number of reasons, as it shows a greater willingness by Apple to engage the community that has grown around its platforms, but also that the industry is becoming truly integrated, with mobile taking its rightful place alongside console and portable gaming as a viable target for the industry’s most capable and interesting talent.

“They’re bringing the current generation of console games to iOS,” Joswiak says, of launches like Fortnite and PUBG and notes that he believes we’re at a tipping point when it comes to mobile gaming, because mobile platforms like the iPhone and iOS offer completely unique combinations of hardware and software features that are iterated on quickly.

“Every year we are able to amp up the tech that we bring to developers,” he says, comparing it to the 4-5 year cycle in console gaming hardware. “Before the industry knew it, we were blowing people away [with the tech]. The full gameplay of these titles has woken a lot of people up.”