Verizon buys Skyward, a drone operations company

Forget about Yahoo for a minute. Verizon just announced it has acquired Skyward, a drone operations and management company based out of Portland, Oregon for an undisclosed amount. Verizon says Skyward will help developers and businesses better create and manage drones that also happen to utilize Verizon’s mobile network services and infrastructure.

Skyward had raised $8.15M since its founding in October 2012. Verizon Ventures was an investor in the company’s seed round. The company will operate under Verizon’s IoT portfolio.

“Last quarter we announced our strategy to drive innovation and widespread adoption for in-flight wireless connectivity through our Airborne LTE Operations (ALO) initiative, said Mike Lanman, Verizon SVP Enterprise Products and IoT, in a released statement, “a new service to simplify certification and connectivity of wireless drones. This acquisition is a natural progression of our core focus on operating in innovative, high-growth markets, leveraging our network, scale, fleet management, device management, data analytics and security enablement capabilities and services to simplify the drone industry and help support the adoption of IoT.”

This purchase helps Verizon better position its products in the IoT space. Skyward seems well suited to assist Verizon in selling its services. The company had previously developed a platform that was FAA compliant and able to scale to small and large operations. As drones become more prolific, safety is paramount and operations like Skyward will increasingly become more in demand as operators, and providers of operators, look to insure their operations.

Disclosure: TechCrunch is a property of Aol, a Verizon company.

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Watson Joins Cybersecurity Warriors’ Ranks

By John P. Mello Jr.
Feb 16, 2017 8:45 AM PT

IBM this week announced Watson for Cyber Security, a powerful new ally for organizations that want to protect their data from Net marauders.

The new offering bolsters the ability of information security pros to analyze the flood of information from the roughly 200,000 events that pour into their Security Operations Centers, or SOCs, every day.

About 20 percent of that flood is comprised of structured data that can be analyzed with database tools, but as much as 80 percent of it is unstructured data such as security blogs, white papers, Twitter feeds and forum threads. It’s data that contains valuable nuggets, but finding them is difficult.

“What Watson does is take all that information — structured, unstructured, as well as other information from the operations center — and put it in a cognitive system,” explained Denis Kennelly, vice president of development and technology at IBM Security.

“There it can be used to help the SOC operator to triage the security events,” he told TechNewsWorld.

While Watson can speed the analysis of data, its threat detection potential is limited, maintained Scott Miserendino, chief data scientist at BluVector.

“It’s primarily an enrichment service,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Betting on Cognitive Tools

“Today’s sophisticated cybersecurity threats attack on multiple fronts to conceal their activities, and our security analysts face the difficult task of pinpointing these attacks amongst a massive sea of security-related data,” noted Sean Valcamp, chief information security officer at Avnet, an early tester of the Watson for Cyber Security system.

“Watson makes concealment efforts more difficult by quickly analyzing multiple streams of data and comparing it with the latest security attack intelligence to provide a more complete picture of the threat,” he said.

“Watson also generates reports on these threats in a matter of minutes, which greatly speeds the time between detecting a potential event and my security team’s ability to respond accordingly,” Valcamp added.

Only 7 percent of security pros currently use cognitive tools in their workflow, but that is changing, according to IBM, which expects usage to triple in the next two to three years.

That’s because as more and more devices come online, they create a burden on security teams they won’t be able to handle without the help an AI like Watson.

“The attack surface for the attacker is mushrooming,” Kennelly said. “Tools like Watson can help defend against those expanding attack patterns.”

Voice-Powered Security Assistant

IBM also announced the Havyn Project, which is developing a new voice-powered security assistant to work with Watson’s data.

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The assistant will use Watson APIs, BlueMix, and IBM’s cloud to provide real-time responses to verbal requests and commands. It will draw on information from open source security intelligence, including IBM X-Force Exchange, as well as client-specific historic data and security tools.

Further, IBM introduced a Watson-powered chatbot to support its IBM Managed Security Services customers.

“I hope that doesn’t mean you go into a chat channel and you talk to someone you think is an IBM security analyst who’s actually Watson,” said Misha Govshteyn, chief security officer at Alert Logic.

“I don’t think that’s a viable approach,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Customers want to talk to a human being.”

Cybersecurity Essential

Although artificial intelligence has advanced rapidly in some areas — self-driving cars, for example — it has lagged in security.

“In terms of what can be accomplished, we’re just scratching the surface,” Govshteyn said. “In the next 10 years, AI will be used at every level of the security industry.”

AI is a necessary thing for security, added BluVector’s Miserendino.

“As threats become more complex, you need more advanced human analysts to analyze them,” he explained. “They’re a very limited resource, so being able to apply machine learning and automation to that process is going to be critical moving forward.”

AI is relevant for cybersecurity, but it will have limited impact if applied only to a specific solution, vendor or silo, maintained Tony Ayaz, CEO of Gemini.

“The way we need to leverage AI is across security silos and existing investments. The ability to extract meaning for analysts to conduct faster investigations is by connecting dots between all solutions,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“IBM Watson is a great business intelligence play, but adding an app or lightweight bot on top of QRadar to collect event data and leverage patch management with open source threat intelligence are methods that are in play already with other solutions,” Ayaz said. “I think IBM is attempting to leverage Watson to integrate their solutions, and that is something that is probably needed,” he added, “but this not a game changer.”

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

PS Dept makes shopping for clothes as simple as sending a message

The fashion industry isn’t necessarily racing into the future, but some startups and even some big brands are taking steps toward technology that not only help end-users but also help the brands and retailers themselves.

One such startup is PS Dept, founded here in New York.

PS Dept turns the idea of personal shopping into something as simple as a text conversation.

When it comes to high value items like designer bags, clothes and shoes, many customers want immediate and accurate information across a number of brands and retailers.

PS Dept allows these customers to ask questions about availability, price and even purchase directly from the app.

But it’s not just about specific requests. PS Dept wants to replace the personal shopper section of retail stores, letting users ask broad questions to get recommendations from actual human stylists.

PS Dept does this by hooking into inventory/back-end systems for brands and retailers, offering PS Dept stylists a massive database of information around items. This could be as simple as finding the right size in the right shoe, or as complicated as matching the exact color thread in a dress to a customer’s existing matching shoes.

With the help of AI/bot technology, PS Dept is able to answer questions quickly. But the company believes that actual recommendations based on broad information should always be checked by an actual human.

Last year alone, PS Dept served up 45,000 items with a staff of just 5 stylists.

Alongside the conversation part of the app, PS Dept also offers a home feed featuring the most popular items currently being searched for on the app.

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The idea for PS Dept came to cofounder Michelle Goad when she worked in merchandising at large fashion brands, watching sales associates struggle through the recession to earn commission without any customers in the store. Online shopping picked up steam, but the experience (while convenient) didn’t hold a candle to having a dedicated sales associate walking you through specific items you might like.

“I saw the decline of retail happening before my eyes and the lack of tools out there provided for the traditional sales force and wanted to power them to service the future,” said Goad. “Being super knowledgable about products your store carries doesn’t do customers any good if you’re stuck in a store and not accessible from a screen these days.”

PS Dept was built to connect the dots between the convenience of shopping online and the quality of service of shopping with a qualified associate at your side. Plus, PS Dept offers an awesome employment opportunity to sales associates working at struggling fashion retailers.

PS Dept makes money through an affiliate model, taking a slice of transactions made through the platform.

The company has 1.4 million products on the platform across hundreds of brands and retailers, and stylists from PS Dept have achieved an average conversion rate of 30 percent.

PS Dept has raised a total of $6.4 million thus far.

You can check out the platform here.

The Daily Show’s MakeTrumpTweetsEightAgain is political commentary at its geekiest

Whether you agree or disagree with his policies, one thing is certain: making someone’s Tweets look like they were written by a third-grader is really funny. The folks at the Daily Show proved this with their Chrome/Firefox plugin MakeTrumpTweetsEightAgain.

The extension is pretty simple: any Trump Tweet is automatically turned from a measured, well-crafted response to a pressing geopolitical issue into the scribblings of Walker, your 8-year-old nephew who is really into The Force Awakens. It works on Chrome and Firefox only – Safari users are SOL – and you can turn it off in case you need a dose of seriousness in your political discourse.


This isn’t the first political Chrome extension and I doubt it will be the last. Obama had his share and and there’s even a whole-hog filter that removes the entire political spectrum from your browsing experience. Technology, it seems, is as good at filtering our experience as it is dumping a firehose of data down our gullets.

In the end Chrome extensions won’t sway popular opinion in either direction – I’m sure there are some readers who are itching to tell me off for suggesting that our president has the mind of someone who watches Just Add Magic un-ironically. My advice? Write a Chrome extension that turns off Twitter completely. We’ll all feel a lot better.

Riders paying in cash have caused Uber drivers in Brazil more harm than good

Why it matters to you

This serves as a reminder that driver safety, and not just rider safety, needs to be prioritized by ridesharing services.

Uber has caught plenty of heat in Brazil, but not over misleading drivers about wages or #DeleteUber. Rather, the ridesharing service has been criticized for not doing enough to address the increasing number of murders and robberies that Uber drivers in the country face, reports Reuters.

What makes Uber relatively more convenient than traditional taxis is the ability for riders to register their credit and debit cards to their profile. Not only does this make transactions more secure, but it allows an easier way to verify passengers and track them down if need be.

More: Uber Flat: Ridesharing service offers rides in NYC for cheap fees

At the end of July 2016, however, Uber allowed riders to pay with cash as a means to increase growth in Brazil. The idea is that, since credit cards are less common in poorer countries, being able to pay for your Uber ride with cash would be the catalyst for increased growth in such regions. So far, that business strategy has worked for Uber, which saw 15 percent growth in its São Paulo operations throughout 2016. The company also saw at least 30 percent of rides in Brazil paid in cash, with reportedly higher rates in poor areas in the country.

However, cash payments might also be the reason for increased assaults against Uber drivers in the country. According to numbers gathered by Reuters, the average number of attacks involving Uber drivers increased from 13 per month from January to July 2016 to 141 per month from August through December of that year. By comparison, assaults involving regular taxi drivers increased by a third during the same period.

Even worse, there have been six confirmed murders of Uber drivers in Brazil since September 2016, with local outlets reporting that over twice as many murders have taken place.

More: Uber offers $1 per driver to resolve labor questions, drivers’ attorney agrees

Reuters acknowledges there is a margin of error in these statistics, since the statistics potentially include assaults on passengers. Even so, these are grim, but not entirely surprising, numbers — Brazil features 21 of the 50 most violent cities in the world, according to The Economist.

Uber responded to queries and confirmed that “additional safety measures” are in the works. One such measure involves a rider verification feature that requires riders who opt for a cash payment to enter their Brazilian national ID number before they can request a ride. Some cities also feature a pilot program that allows a driver to opt out of cash payments.

Brightwheel raises $10 million to keep parents in-the-know about their kids’ day at school

You may have seen the startup Brightwheel scoring an investment from Mark Cuban and Chris Sacca on Sharktank last year. Or you may know Brightwheel if you have kids in preschool, daycare, or other early education programs these days.

Brightwheel’s mobile app helps pre-K teachers and care providers to manage their business, while sending parents updates about their kids throughout the school day. The app handles payments, and records sign-in and sign-out data when parents drop off or pick up kids at school. Caregivers can also use it to share photos and information with parents through a secured platform rather than giving them notes on paper, or sending them ad hoc through text messages, or social networks like Facebook.

CEO and founder of Brightwheel, Dave Vasen, said, “It’s crazy to drop your kid off and have basically no connection to them for the rest of the day. And on the other side of things, it’s crazy for teachers to have so much paperwork to manage on a regular work day that they’d have to spend time away from kids filling out forms.”

Brightwheel has gained traction among child care providers ranging from small, in-home day cares with just a handful of kids, to multi-state chains that have 50 schools and hundreds of kids. Its product is available on a “freemium” or paid premium basis, meaning preschools can use a version of it with a limited feature set for as long as they wish without having to pay anything.

Maintaining a freemium approach makes Brightwheel accessible to lower income communities, Vasen said. That matters to his for-profit, for-good startup. “Something like 85% of brain development happens in the first 3 years of life. Quality, pre-K education is a major factor in overall childhood development, of course, but it even makes an impact on crime reduction and economic growth. Access to good pre-K care is low in the US, we’re ranked 26th globally. And we want think tech can help to change that,” Vasen explained.

Today, Brightwheel revealed that it has raised $10 million in a Series A round of venture funding. GGV Capital led the round, joined by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, ICONIQ, and Brightwheel’s earlier backers: Eniac Ventures, Golden Venture Partners, Lowercase Capital, Mark Cuban Companies, and RRE Ventures along with several angel investors.

While education tech has drawn serious venture funding in recent years, much of the investment has gone towards companies that provide corporate or employee training, or education tools and content to the college or K-12 market. What little has gone towards early childhood development has been primarily invested in educational toys and games.

GGV Managing Partner Jeff Richards says, “Brightwheel’s basic thesis is universal. Everyone cares about their kids! But we don’t see what they’re doing as ‘edtech.’ It’s a vertical SaaS play. They’re going after an industry relatively untouched by software. And they’re going to small and medium sized businesses with a tool that can help them deliver better service to their customers.”

Nursery schools, daycares and businesses that take care of infants and toddlers are highly regulated. That means they can be more complicated to please with a tech product, and that companies venturing into the pre-K market must invest in expertise around compliance to all local, state and federal laws even from their earliest days.

Some typical administrative requirements they face include: keeping a log of when kids check in and leave with a physical signature from the parent or guardian dropping off the child, annotating how kids are developing, and sending notes home to parents around payments, vacation days, field trips, or supplies that their kids will need.

Brightwheel intends to use its funding to double in size from about 12 employees to probably 25 over the next year, Vasen says, and to build out its product. It looks to create new features to help daycare providers and early childhood educators plan out lessons and activities for their kids. It may also provide some curriculum or activity ideas to parents so that they can continue to reinforce what kids learn at school over the weekends and at home.

FaceApp uses neural networks to change your look, now available on Android

Why it matters to you

It’s still rough around the edges, but FaceApp demonstrates the scary future of neural network-based image editing.

Neural networks are revolutionizing computing, and image editing is one area that will experience drastic changes. Already, apps like Prisma are demonstrating this power, but a new company is using neural networks in a different way with an app called FaceApp. Unlike Prisma, which keeps the content of a source photo but changes the style, FaceApp looks to change the content while maintaining photorealism.

Available now as a free download for iOS and Android, FaceApp currently offers six filters: Smile, Hot, Young, Old, Male, and Female. Tired of all those duck-face selfies? Replace them with a toothy grin with just one tap. Wonder how you’ll look in twenty years? Use the Old filter to age-progress your face — or the Young filter to do the opposite. And if you’ve ever wondered what you’d look like as the opposite sex (I mean, who hasn’t?), the Male and Female filters will show you. In theory.

MoreAdobe Project WetBrush and Project StyLit could be game changers for painters and animators

Since the filters use AI to analyze the image, the results should match the look of your face. This isn’t some simple copy-and-paste Photoshop job. That said, it’s impossible to know things like what your smile actually looks like if you’re not smiling in the original photo. Therefore, in practice, the output may be loosely realistic, but it is far from real (see our example below).

Neural network-based photo manipulation may not quite be there yet, but it’s not hard to see where the future lies. Beyond simple apps, companies like Adobe are pouring resources into research and development of neural nets to create professional tools. If you’re interested in getting a peek at that future, then head over to the App Store or Google Play to give FaceApp a try. It’s free, and at the very least it’s worth a good laugh with your friends.

Download for iOS Download for Android

Article originally published January 2017. Updated on 02-16-2017 by Kyle Wiggers: Added link to the Android app.

Tinder acquires Wheel, an app for creating Snapchat-like video stories

Dating app Tinder is looking to get into video. The company announced today it’s acquiring an L.A.-based startup called Wheel, which had developed a social network for sharing “video stories” that were said to closely resemble Snapchat’s Stories. Deal terms were not revealed, but Tinder says that it will integrate video features into its app in the future.

Wheel was originally founded in 2015, when it was then called Ferris. The idea at the time was to offer a way for people to make mobile videos that were easy, fun and watchable, as well as to collaborate on videos with family and friends.

While Wheel offered some clever automation in terms of video editing, the ability to mix together videos with friends was its main focus. Users would make their own video public, then invite others to add to it.

The company had raised $2 million from Upfront Ventures in 2015, along with Machinima founder Allen DeBevoise and others.

However, Wheel did not became a breakout success. According to data from analytics firm App Annie, the app was ranked #574 in the Photo & Video category on the App Store, and didn’t place on either the Top Charts or the Social Networking section.

Collaborative video apps have been tried numerous times, but it wasn’t until Snapchat that they gained much attention. Yet even Snapchat found the format wasn’t as popular as expected. Last fall, it laid off employees who were tasked with curating its collaborative “Live Stories” from cities around the world, as it shifted its focus to live events.

Following the acquisition, Wheel’s founding team will join Tinder, including CEO Paul Boukadakis, CTO Chris Shaheen, Joey Boukadakis and Brian Daugherty, according to Variety. Boukadakis will be VP of Special Initiatives at Tinder, and Shaheen will be a senior engineer.

Special Initiatives is a vague title. Asked for details, Boukadakis said: “It’s a new role at Tinder. I’m very involved with the product team, working closely with Brian Norgard, Tinder’s Head of Product and Revenue. I’ll also be interfacing regularly with the marketing team on select initiatives.”

“We are always exploring new ways to innovate while helping our users make connections on Tinder,” Brian Norgard, Head of Product and Revenue at Tinder, also said in a statement. “I’m excited Paul is joining our product team to drive special initiatives that leverage his experience connecting people around innovative content.”

Tinder did not share what specific plans it had for video, but it would make sense that the dating app would consider integrating video into user profiles, or perhaps messaging.

This is not Tinder’s first acquisition. The company acquired mobile messenger Tappy a couple of years prior, and it picked up Humin – an acqui-hire – just last year.

Apple reportedly looks to Chinese supplier for iPhone displays amid OLED shortage

Why it matters to you

OLED displays are popular for their impressive contrast and energy-saving capabilities, but supply issues may dictate whether Apple can use the tech on its next iPhone.

Apple has been assembling a team of suppliers to satisfy demand for OLED displays in future iPhones, and it appears one of those suppliers could be China’s BOE Technology Group, according to Bloomberg.

The switch from LCD technology, which has powered every previous iPhone, to OLED has been one of the major changes predicted for the upcoming iPhone 8. Trouble is, OLED panels are more costly and difficult to produce, and Samsung, which was initially tipped to be Apple’s exclusive OLED supplier for this year’s batch of smartphones, is not confident it will be able to produce enough. This has caused Apple to look elsewhere, and one of the companies it is reportedly courting is BOE.

More: More leaks suggest wireless charging for the iPhone 8, as well as better battery life

BOE, which Bloomberg cites as the world’s largest producer of LCD displays by market value, is constructing one plant in Chengdu specifically for OLED manufacturing purposes, scheduled to be completed in the summer, and will start up on another in Mianyang soon after. Apple has been testing BOE’s displays for months, according to the report, and is still unsure if it will enlist the company’s services. While BOE seems likely to miss the cutoff for the iPhone 8, the companies might partner on Apple’s 2018 smartphones, and BOE is ramping up capacity in response.

The upshot of all of this is that Apple still may not have enough OLED displays on hand by the end of the year to equip the entire iPhone range — something the Cupertino, California, company was reportedly considering. Even with production from LG, Japan Display, and Sharp, in addition to Samsung, some analysts say Apple might be forced to restrict OLED to the flagship iPhone 8, or just shelve the new screens entirely until next year.

OLED displays are favored for their impressive contrast ratio and frugal energy consumption compared to conventional LCD. Previous sources have suggested the iPhone 8’s implementation could be curved and run from side to side, similar to Samsung’s Galaxy Edge series.

IBM and The Weather Company launch mesh-powered app for internet-poor regions

Why it matters to you

IBM and The Weather Company’s mesh networking tech can deliver storm alerts without the need for a cellular network.

Having a wealth of up-to-the-minute climate data at our fingertips is something most of us take for granted. Thanks to a reliable cell connection, our smartphones, and the work of hundreds of meteorologists and climatologists around the globe, keeping abreast of an incoming storm isn’t so much a matter of how, but how quickly. Unfortunately, though, that isn’t the case for everyone.

In developing countries, cellular connectivity is congested, intermittent, and in the worst cases inaccessible. That’s why IBM, in collaboration with developers at The Weather Company, introduced Mesh Network Alerts, a new technology that provides a peer-to-peer means of facilitating communications between residents of underserved nations.

More: Songza, Weather Channel team up to tailor your tunes to the weather

“The combination of the innovative Mesh Network Alerts and global reach of The Weather Channel mobile app can help deliver a new level of emergency awareness to underserved populations,” Bijan Davari, IBM Fellow and vice president at IBM research, said in a press release. “We’re proud to be able to quickly offer a critical and potentially lifesaving capability to hundreds of millions of people around the world.”

Mesh Network Alerts work by linking mobile devices directly to one another, daisy-chaining handsets in a sort of node network. Using a combination of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, each connected smartphone stores and propagates messages to devices within a 300- to 500-foot radius, creating a mesh that can effectively reach more devices.

Normally, government-issued messages are broadcast via cell towers. IBM’s network steps in as a fallback — when central networks go down, the mesh activates. And it works off the grid in remote areas and disaster zones without impacting battery “any more than an ordinary app.”

More: IBM creates Internet of Things division, announces deal with The Weather Company

IBM’s mesh works in a version of The Weather Channel app for Android specially designed for emerging markets. At 3.2MB, it’s significantly smaller than The Weather Channel app and so easier on unreliable connections and pricey data plans. It’s optimized for low-powered devices, and can launch within two seconds on 2G. And it sports built-in options allow users to store weather data offline for up to 24 hours or choose to update on Wi-Fi, cellular, or on request.

The Weather Channel says that many of the new app’s features will launch broadly in the coming months.

IBM, which bought The Weather Company in 2016, has made significant investments in the data-forward company. Last year, it expanded the site to 62 languages and 178 countries. And on mobile devices, it launched global weather forecast notifications that provide severe weather information in the form of real-time notifications.

More: IBM’s Deep Thunder gives weather forecasters an injection of tech

“IBM once again shows its leadership in edge computing capabilities, and this next important milestone will help bring the value of edge compute to life. Mesh Network Alerts extend the ability to receive a potentially lifesaving alert to a global audience, even with limited connectivity,” Cameron Clayton, general manager and CEO of The Weather Company, said. “With IBM collaboration, investment, and research, we can now reach users in previously underserved areas and better deliver the information they need.”