Corporates and innovation


Why don’t we leave the internet platforms we dislike?

The internet is filled with sites and services we loathe yet it seems, to paraphrase Brokeback Mountain, we just don’t know how to quit them.

Consider the evidence: Facebook was widely reviled after its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, yet it still has over 3 billion monthly active users. Since Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter there has been huge public outcry about his actions and decisions, but the platform remains relevant. And, most recently, Bandcamp was bought by Songtradr which swiftly laid off 50% of its staff. But guess what? It’s still by far-and-away the leader in its category.

This points to an environment where big platforms can act in ways swathes of people find distasteful, yet still remain in dominant positions. The more things change, the more they stay the same. For companies trying to upend this hegemony and Silicon Valley’s grip on the tech world, it could feel disheartening.  

But here at TNW we had some questions: is all this necessarily true? Are certain sites really too big to fail? And could smaller companies use burgeoning tech like decentralisation to fight back against the might of Silicon Valley?

Well, we’re going to find out. Let’s begin by looking at a specific example: Bandcamp.

The battle for our ears: Bandcamp and Artcore

If you aren’t familiar with it, Bandcamp is a music retail platform. Think of it like an online record store where artists can sell their music and merchandise.

Widely beloved by fans and musicians alike, Bandcamp has a reputation for being artist-friendly. It offers good cuts on sales and runs schemes like Bandcamp Friday, where it waives commission fees. Long story short, Bandcamp is one of the few places in this current music environment where artists can actually make some money.

Yet like all good things on the internet, it couldn’t last. The platform was purchased by Epic Games in 2022 before being bought up by Songtradr this year. After getting rid of a gamut of staff, it became clear to many users that the days of Bandcamp as an artist-first haven are coming to a close

In many ways, the platform is ripe for a competitor. Its audience consists of people who value independence as a concept and it has a user base in the tens of millions rather than billions. Yet that hasn’t happened.

To dig into the reasons, I got in touch with one of these competitor platforms, the just launched London-based Artcore. In many ways, it offers a broadly comparable service to Bandcamp: a place to sell music with relatively manageable commissions fees (20% in this case).

I spoke with Tom Burnell, Artcore’s founder, about the challenges of trying to take on a much bigger platform. He tells me that “building any startup is a challenge,” but he wouldn’t be go into further detail about their battle with Bandcamp.

Despite a request, Burnell didn’t share users numbers or sales figures, but a quick check on Similarweb (which is only a rough estimate), put Artcore’s visitors to its website at around 30,000 in October of this year. While the site is growing, it’s not going to be challenging Bandcamp any time soon.

The question then is why? What would need to happen for Artcore and other such challenger platforms to usurp the current status quo?

David vs. Goliath: A tech tale

“Smaller companies and startups have to first cut through the noise to raise awareness of their offering, which takes time, effort, and considerable resources,” Matt Iliffe, CEO of Beyond tells me. Beyond has worked with businesses including Google, Snap, and YouTube in order to optimise product experiences.

Alongside this, Iliffe believes many smaller companies fail to compete is down to public perception. There’s “safety in established platforms,” he tells me. 

Effectively, better the devil you know than the one you don’t.

This explains why competitors to the likes of Twitter/X, Facebook, and Bandcamp struggle to gain traction: they need to spend huge amounts of money to capture an audience that’d rather keep using a product they’re familiar with.

The question, then, is beyond spending billions of euros, how can a smaller company compete with the might of established bodies?

“A new platform must be ten times better than the one it hopes to win users from. Or be radically new,” Nicki Sprinz, Global MD of ustwo tells me. Their business helps create and design new products, something it’s done with the Peloton Lanebreak and The Body Coach.

The problem is, Sprinz explains, that huge tech companies are “too big to fail” when the platforms trying to compete with them do a similar thing with a near identical business model.

What this means is a service attempting to be another version of Twitter or Bandcamp won’t succeed. It needs to look beyond being a copycat.

But there’s hope: “Technology is today’s agent of creative destruction,” Sprinz says.

Smaller companies can challenge huge business, but they need to be doing something noticeably different in order to take away market share, whether that’s offering a new user experience or utilising the latest technological advancements. 

It makes sense: Facebook didn’t upend MySpace by copying it, it did so by creating something that was noticeably different.

Now one of the technologies that’s offering a way of doing things differently is decentralisation. The question is whether it could be the remedy for smaller businesses to fight back against the biggest players?

The decentralisation question

To find out, I spoke with Martina Larkin, CEO of Project Liberty. This is a body spearheaded by billionaire Frank McCourt to build a new, decentralised internet.  

Larkin tells me that the goal of decentralisation is to take “the power and control of social media out of the hands of a few platform providers and [give] it to users and developers.”

The benefit of these types of systems is they give people ownership over their information, meaning they can “take their data such as their followers from one app to another” while also connecting with people across other apps.

I asked why this shift to decentralised platforms hasn’t happened yet, and Larkin says that the technology to create these sorts of systems — such as blockchain — is only just maturing.

“People are increasingly uneasy about the way social media influences and manipulates their online presence, especially how big tech controls their data,” she says, “decentralised technology systems provide the opportunity for companies to both operate sustainably and provide a fair and equitable economic value to all participants.”

The simple life

These are excellent points and is the way I hope platforms shift in the future, but there remain two broad issues for me.

The first is ease. It’s no coincidence that Apple has become the biggest company in the world when it could broadly sum up its approach as making previously fiddly things easy. Fundamentally, that’s what people want: a simple life.

While decentralised networks like Mastodon and Bluesky are growing, they are nowhere near as user-friendly as Twitter. Until they can adequately solve that complexity — which may never be entirely the case — I feel that huge amounts of the public will not opt in.

The second point is around payments. Decentralisation may work for social media, but when there’s a platform like Bandcamp on which money is swapping hands, most people would prefer there to be a reliable middle figure. 

You only need to look at how cryptocurrency has — so far at least — failed to become a de facto payment method despite huge pushes. There’s reliability in a middle man, and this is especially true when it comes to money.

It doesn’t matter whether these beliefs are logical, it’s simply the state we’re in.

Power from the platforms

What we’ve discovered isn’t rocket science: it is not easy to dislodge pre-existing online platforms with large user bases. In fact, if you’re trying to do pretty much the same thing as them, it’s nigh-on impossible to overcome that market share and attract the product.

This gives huge companies a certain amount of licence to do whatever the hell they want, users be damned. I’m certain there is a tipping point somewhere, but the fact Facebook hasn’t already found it suggests it’s pretty dark.

But don’t get disheartened — this doesn’t mean there’s no hope for change.

For upstart platforms to alter the current system, the key is they need to do something different. Whether that’s offering a new way of engaging with content (think of how TikTok reimagined YouTube) or incorporating a burgeoning technology like decentralisation.

Looking to compete with Instagram or Twitter or Bandcamp isn’t going to work. Companies need to look beyond them, to think of a new way of delivering what those platforms are striving to.

Yet this isn’t all, as simplicity and ease-of-use is king. New platforms need to show people that it is not only much better than the previous one, but it’s also just as easy to use. 

Without that? Well, we probably won’t be quitting them any time soon.

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Google’s Gemini AI won’t be available in Europe — for now

Yesterday, Google launched its much anticipated response to OpenAI’s ChatGPT (the first release of Bard didn’t really count, did it?). However, the new set of generative AI models that Google is dubbing “the start of the Gemini era” will not yet be available in Europe — due to regulatory hurdles. 

The tech giant is calling Gemini the “most capable model ever” and says it has been trained to recognise, understand, and combine different types of information including text, images, audio, video, and code. 

According to Demis Hassabis, CEO of Google DeepMind, it is as good as the best human experts in the 50 different subject areas they tested the model on. Furthermore, it scored more than 90% on industry standard benchmarks for large language models (LLMs). 

The three models of the Gemini AI family

The Gemini family of models will be available in three sizes. Gemini Ultra is the largest (but also slowest), intended to perform highly complex tasks; Gemini Pro the best-performing for a broad range of tasks; and Gemini Nano for on-device tasks.

Google says it has trained Gemini 1.0 on its AI-optimised infrastructure using the company’s in-house Tensor Processing Units (TPUs) v4 and v5e. Along with unveiling the Gemini family, Google also announced the Cloud TPU v5p, which is specifically designed for training cutting-edge AI models. 

The Google TPU v5p supercomputer processors
Google’s TPU v5p is designed especially from training advanced AI models. Credit: Google

What is truly an evolution in LLM application is perhaps the Nano, optimised for mobile devices. As told to the Financial Times, Nano will allow developers to build AI applications that can also work offline — with the additional benefits of enhanced data privacy options.

Explained in greater detail by the company in a blog post, Google is also providing the AI Studio — a free, web-based developer tool to prototype and launch apps using an API key. It will make Gemini Pro available to developers and enterprise customers from December 13. 

Just as for Bard, Europe will need to wait for Gemini

A “fine-tuned” version of Gemini Pro launched for Google’s existing Bard chatbot yesterday in 170 countries and territories. The company says it will also be available across more of its services, such as Search, Ads, and Chrome, in the coming months. 

However, users in the EU and the UK eager to test the mettle of Google’s “new era” of AI will have to wait a little longer. Google did not give extensive details, but said it is planning to “expand to different modalities and support new languages and locations in the near future.” 

Indeed, Google is reportedly planning a preview of “Bard Advanced,” powered by the multimodal Gemini Ultra next year. Google first released Bard in March 2023, but due to concerns around compliance with the GDPR, it did not reach European users until June. Let’s see how long we will have to wait for Gemini. 

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Europe’s battle against the rising media power of Silicon Valley

It’s a question as old as the tech industry itself: can Europe compete with Silicon Valley?

This reared up again in my mind for two main reasons. The first is the recent(-ish) shift of Big Tech into being media entities. And the second? That’s Spotify’s struggles as a European stalwart in this field.

Let’s consider the first point.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen Silicon Valley shift its strategy and start investing heavily in media. You only need to look at Apple’s launch of the Apple TV+ and Apple Music streaming services, or Amazon’s foray into movies and TV series. I mean, the latter was behind The Rings Of Power, the most expensive television show ever made.

There are, of course, a myriad of reasons why Big Tech is investing in media, but one of the biggest is using it as a tool to hook people into their ecosystems.

“In the case of Amazon, due to its various revenue channels and methods of connecting with customers, it has a greater understanding of its users and their preferences through data,” Stephen Hateley says. He’s the head of product and partner marketing at DigitalRoute, a business that helps streaming companies understand their customer data.

He tells me that because Amazon “is not primarily or solely a media company, it can combine its customer accounts and upsell to them via its ecommerce, TV, film and music streaming, consumer electronics, and grocery delivery channels.”

For example, the company is able to spend money on shows and encourage people to subscribe to Amazon Prime Video. This comes bundled with Amazon Prime itself, meaning users have an incentive to use the platform to shop on.

Apple takes a similar approach.

In recent years, the company has realised that it’s close to hitting the ceiling of how many devices it can sell. From this point, growth will be tougher. Knowing this, it has shifted focus to services, effectively aiming to upsell software to its existing customers — and it’s working.

Apple not only gives customers free trials of its streaming services with new hardware purchases, but also bundles them together in its Apple One package. And again, like Amazon, it spends big on shows in order to attract people to enter its services ecosystem — with Ted Lasso being a prime example of this working successfully.

“This provides it with more opportunities to monetise its customers as well as collect a great amount of data on their preferences,” Hateley says. 

Spotify’s struggles: An industry signpost

The thing is, all of the above isn’t particularly profitable — and especially not when it comes to the media side of things. In many ways, US tech companies are using streaming as a loss leader. They’re pumping billions into shows and movies with the aim of making money elsewhere, not through the media itself.

This is a huge problem to both media companies in general and European businesses in the same field. And guess who sits in both these categories? Yep, you guessed it: Spotify.

The Swedish company, which is broadly independent, is struggling to keep up with Big Tech. It pays its artists less than its biggest competitors, yet still hasn’t made a profit: 

Chart of Spotify's earnings
This graph from Carbon Finance shows that although Spotify has incredible growth, it’s consistently losing money.

This shows in its behaviour. For example, it made a huge bet on podcasts, investing over a billion dollars in an attempt to bring a wider range of users onto its platform. While this had the clear benefit of making it a podcast leader, the company struggled to turn it into profit, leading to layoffs and a paring back of the approach.

This pattern is being played out across the entire European media landscape. 

“US dominance can prove challenging for European companies attempting to claim their share of the market in any industry, and media is no different,” Hateley says, pointing towards how even organisations like the BBC are struggling in this environment.

This paints a picture of a sector being blasted away by Big Tech’s ability to spend and raises some important questions for the future of media.

Can European countries fight back? And do they need to?

“One way European media companies can compete with the big budgets of US firms is re-evaluating the type of content they’re putting out to audiences,” Marty Roberts tells me. He’s the SVP, Product Strategy & Marketing, at Brightcove, a streaming technology company.

Effectively, Roberts believes that US streaming giants create too many shows to market effectively. This is an opportunity for smaller entities to do “an amazing job at promoting a couple of new shows a month.”

Alongside this, he thinks that “[a] key strength for European media companies is hyper-localisation in niche markets.” He points towards either non-English language content, or getting particularly good at a specific genre, such as the success of Nordic detective dramas.

Jesse Shemen — the CEO of Papercup, a company that delivers AI dubbing for media companies — is similarly positive about prospects for European media.

“The current trend of bundling is opening up chances for unprecedented collaboration between European companies and US rivals,” he says. “We’re already seeing this in action, with Paramount Global’s partnerships with Sky and Canal+ just one recent example.”

This paints a rosier picture than I was expecting. The doom-and-gloom of European companies not competing doesn’t seem to trouble many experts, with them generally believing the businesses can thrive by not fighting US Big Tech, but instead working alongside it.

Yet is this unified, global approach a good thing?

One element that was brought up during my conversations was that the interconnected and worldwide focus of media now makes borders broadly irrelevant, meaning this focus on the success of European media specifically isn’t helpful.

“When it comes to investment capital, we live in a global village, where giant investors from the US, EU, UK, APAC, and anywhere can pour substantial capital into companies they believe in,” Maor Sadra says. He’s CEO and co-founder of INCRMNTAL, a data science platform.

This blurring of geographic lines, Sadra contends, is true of Spotify too. He points out that the company’s largest institutional investors include the UK’s Baillie Gifford, US-based Morgan Stanley, and Tencent Holidays, a Chinese company.

“The location of key management and employees in a connected world seems almost an irrelevant point of consideration in today’s age,” he tells me.

There’s no doubt that what Sadra and other experts say is true: we live in a global media environment and, for companies to survive, they need to accept that. Looking for outside investment or partnering with bigger organisations like Apple or Amazon is part-and-parcel of existing in this modern world.

This though doesn’t mean it’s not vital for Europe to maintain powerful media bodies.

You only need to look at how Hollywood and TV has benefitted America. It has expanded its cultural influence worldwide, becoming a form of soft power. Just consider, as one micro example, the global footprint of Halloween and Thanksgiving. For Europe to remain an attractive place, for it to carve out its own identity, it requires strong media.

Yes, it’s important to work together with these huge American organisations, yet European businesses in the same sector have to make their own mark too — and one way of achieving that is with tech.

Staying ahead of the wave

There was one theme that came up across many of my conversations on this topic of using tech to remain relevant: artificial intelligence.

“Localisation is one area where technology’s influence, especially generative AI, is being felt,” Shemen from Papercup tells me.

This is being trialled in a number of places already, with Spotify planning on cloning podcast hosts’ voices and then translating them into different languages. This trend will be hugely important for European media creators, especially if they’re making content in non-English. It almost goes without saying how much this could benefit smaller creators and media companies that fall into this category, as their potential reach can skyrocket.

Artificial intelligence will also be a vital part of the puzzle for European businesses when it comes to analysing data. If they can get access to forms of insights currently only available to gargantuan tech companies, they can alter their content to appeal and reach the masses, levelling the playing field.

The European route to success

If European media is going to survive Big Tech’s thrust into the space one thing’s for certain: it can’t stay stationary. Instead, the European industry needs to take advantage of its positive attributes and use them as best it can.

This should involve embracing its ability to create niche content, clever content partnerships, and investing in technologies that can help European content hit a wider audience.

Ultimately, the future of media streaming in Europe is one of balance. While there’s a lucrative future available by partnering with bigger organisations, it can’t risk losing itself in the process. Currently, there’s no real way European media bodies can compete with the bottomless wallets of Silicon Valley. What they can do though is ensure they stay relevant.

The secret to achieving this isn’t all that secret — being nimble and open minded.

Don’t act so shocked: age-old questions often have age-old answers, after all.

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New AI tool aims to democratise high-res image generation

In the world of AI image generation, tools like DALL-E and Midjourney are holding the crown — and not simply because of their high-resolution performance. The training of these models requires such substantial investment and resources that it inevitably leads to centralised services and pay-per-use access.

A new AI tool developed by the University of Surrey aims to reverse this trend and democratise the technology, by opening up high-res image generation to a wider audience.

Dubbed DemoFusion, the model allows users to generate high-quality images without the need to subscribe to a service, or own a very powerful computer. In fact, the system only requires consumer-grade RTX 3090 GPU that can be found in any mid-range gaming PC or a Mac M1.

The AI is essentially a plug-and-play extension to the Stable Diffusion XL (SDXL) open-source model, which generates images at a resolution of 1024×1024. DemoFusion enables 4x, 16x, or even higher increase in resolution — with a few simple lines of code and without any additional training. The only trade-off according to the team is “a little more patience.” We tried it at TNW and it’s about six minutes.

SDXL vs DemoFusion AI image generator
Credit: University of Surrey
On the left side: the result by SDXL. On the right side, the result by DemoFusion. Credit: University of Surrey

To achieve these high-res results, the scientists first generated low-res images and then enhanced them using a process called progressive upscaling. This improves the SDXL’s detail and resolution by working across images in patches.

“For the first time, our unique technique lets users enhance their AI-generated images without the need for vast computing power, or any re-training of the model,” said Professor Yi-Zhe Song.

“Digital art and imagery is a powerful medium which everyone should have access to — not just a handful of wealthy corporations. That’s why we made DemoFusion publicly available. We believe it can enrich our lives, and everyone should be able to use it.”

The new technique is available online in the paper “DemoFusion: Democratising High-Resolution Image Generation with No $$$.”

Whether DemoFusion will gain enough traction to compete with giants like OpenAI’s DALL-E remains to be seen, but its creation is an important step to opening up AI’s image-generation potential to the public and the wider tech community.


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GTA VI trailer leak linked to Rockstar dev’s son

Shady behaviour might be part of the Grand Theft Auto DNA, but leaking video game trailers on TikTok before launch is probably not what developers had in mind. Especially not when it can be traced back to a senior Rockstar developer’s son. 

The fact that fans will need to wait more than a year for the next instalment in the GTA saga (or, as one viewer close to the author expressed this morning, “2025 just means not 2024”) did not diminish the enthusiasm when Rockstar Games released the GTA VI trailer in the early hours of Tuesday CET.

Our trailer has leaked so please watch the real thing on YouTube:

— Rockstar Games (@RockstarGames) December 4, 2023

Vice City looks slicker than ever indeed. However, Rockstar released the trailer to the public some hours earlier than intended. The reason? The leaking of an off-cam clip of the footage to TikTok over the weekend and a subsequent leak of the trailer on X on Monday. Plot twist — the TikTok user in question has reportedly been identified as the son of a senior Rockstar North employee. 

Incriminating evidence?

Rockstar North, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, has been part of the Rockstar Games family since 1999 and is responsible for the development of the Grand Theft Auto series. The evidence that the seven-second TikTok leak came from a developer’s family member has been labelled by some social media users as “fairly convincing.”

Reportedly, it involves the TikTok user posing with the Rockstar employee and calling them “dad.” But as the TikTok (it is a noun, right?) has been deleted, this shall have to remain second-hand speculation on our part. Of course, it could all be a part of a deceitful ruse to deflect culpability, in keeping with the spirit of the game. 

The evidence to suggest the video has come from someone related to the employee in question is fairly convincing.

Again, if this is true it’s extremely disappointing that this has occurred so close to the official reveal.

— (@GTABase) December 2, 2023

In another noteworthy turn of events, the trailer revealed that GTA VI will feature the game’s first female protagonist (Bonnie and Clyde storylines FTW). Rockstar Games says it will be released on PS5 and Xbox Series X / S.

Other notable vide game leaks

Leaks to social media are not unusual in the gaming world. A prototype of Horizon Forbidden West was leaked to Twitter one week before its release. A Russian website published a version of the script to Mass Effect 3 before the game’s official release in March 2012 (although we cannot see the appeal of reading it — it would be like sneaking a peek at your Christmas presents before they are wrapped). 

However, it is unusual for leaks to come from such intimate sources, and so close to the official release. Whoever may prove to be behind the leaks, let’s hope the repercussions are more akin to being grounded than ending up in jail, like the last teenagers who messed with Rockstar and GTA.


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Klarna freezes hiring, citing AI ‘productivity gains’

In a hiring freeze that CEO Sebastian Siemiatkowski attributes to the rise of AI, Swedish fintech unicorn Klarna is no longer recruiting staff beyond its engineering department.

“There will be a shrinking of the company,” Siemiatkowski told the Telegraph. “We’re not currently hiring at all, apart from engineers.”

The chief exec of the buy now, pay later app said that the productivity gains from using tools like ChatGPT meant the company now needs “fewer people to do the same thing.”

Klarna is not planning layoffs. But as people depart voluntarily, the CEO said he expects the size of the company to shrink over time. AI is “a threat to a lot of jobs” across the economy, he added.

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The news comes as employees — from writers to artists — are becoming increasingly worried about the impact that AI could have on their livelihoods. Comments like these from the Klarna boss will no doubt exacerbate these anxieties. 

Klarna isn’t the first to make such moves either, and surely not the last. In May, the CEO of IBM told Bloomberg that the company was pausing hiring for roles that it believed could be replaced by AI in coming years. While in April, Dropbox announced it was slicing its workforce by 16%, or 500 employees, blaming AI for forcing a shift in strategies.   

Elon Musk, for one, thinks that AI will replace all jobs in the future. However, some believe AI won’t replace jobs, but simply make us more productive at what we already do, while a few think it will create more jobs.

Whatever your stance, the reality is that big tech companies across the world are implementing hiring freezes or laying off employees at a worrying rate — for reasons pertaining to AI or other matters.

Just today, Spotify, another Swedish tech giant, announced that it will lay off around 1,500 employees, or 17% of its workforce, to bring down costs.


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Ariane 6 rocket set to restore Europe’s space access next year

The European Space Agency’s Ariane 6 rocket is scheduled for its debut launch in mid-2024, its director Josef Aschbacher announced yesterday.

The news follows a successful hot-fire test on November 23 at Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana. The term ‘hot-fire’ refers to the fact that the engine is fired with its propellants, producing actual combustion and exhaust. The only difference from an actual launch is that the boosters are not ignited — keeping the rocket firmly planted to the ground.

“With the latest test complete, Ariane 6 has been through the essential rehearsals required for qualification,” said Aschbacher on X, formerly Twitter. “We have validated our models, increased our knowledge of operations and are now confident for our first launch period for Europe’s new heavy-lift launcher.” 

While the inaugural flight won’t carry major payloads in orbit, it will transport several smaller satellites. If that launch is successful, Arianespace, the company who developed the rocket, will aim for a second launch later in the year. That second launch would carry the CSO-3 reconnaissance satellite for the French military, said the company’s CEO Stéphane Israël in a press briefing.

Following that, Ariane 6 would be put to work conducting as many flights as possible. The long-term objective is to launch the rocket into space 9-10 times per year, said Israël. These would include 18 launches for Amazon’s Kuiper broadband megaconstellation project.  

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Ariane 6 was first scheduled to launch four years ago. However, the rocket suffered a series of delays, attributed to technical issues, COVID-19, and design changes. 

With Ariane 6’s predecessor, Ariane 5, officially decommissioned and Italy’s Vega C rocket grounded following launch failure in December, Europe is currently without independent access to space satellites. 

So it is welcome news that Ariane 6 is on track for launch in around 6 months’ time — if all goes to plan that is. 


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TikTok pledges €12B European investment as Norway data centre nears completion

TikTok has promised to invest €12bn as part of an ongoing push to appease European regulators, who have raised suspicions that the app’s user data is being monitored by the Chinese government.

In response to repeated allegations of this nature, the short-form video app launched Project Clover in March. While it might sound like a secret military sting operation, the programme is pretty mundane. 

Essentially, Project Clover aims to build three massive data centres on the continent to keep European user data in Europe — and “within reach” of local authorities.   

Yesterday, TikTok pledged €12bn over the next 10 years for the project. The first data centre, a facility in Dublin, Ireland, was completed in September. The second one is currently under construction in the frosty climes of Hamar, Norway. 

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TikTok this week announced it took possession of the first of three buildings at the site, and will begin migrating European data to the servers housed there from mid-2024. It said the centre will run solely on renewable energy and will be the largest facility of its kind in Europe once complete. The third and final data centre will also be built in Ireland. 

tiktok's new data centre under construction in norway
A worker walks outside TikTok’s largest data centre in Europe, currently under construction in Hamar, Norway, November 30, 2023. REUTERS/Victoria Klesty

TikTok’s mammoth investment also covers the consultancy fee of British cybersecurity firm NCC, whom the social media firm hired to audit its data controls and provide third-party accountability. 

“All of these controls and operations are designed to ensure that the data of our European users is safeguarded in a specially-designed protective environment, and can only be accessed by approved employees subject to strict independent oversight and verification,” said Theo Bertram, TikTok’s VP of Public Policy in Europe.

A series of institutions including the EU Commision, the UK Parliament, and the French government have banned use of TikTok on work-related devices, over fears that the app has been infiltrated by the Chinese government — allegations which the company has vehemently denied.

The full migration of TikTok’s 150 million European users in the region is expected by the end of 2024. Currently, the company stores its global user data in Singapore, Malaysia, and the US.


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Uber seeks unlikely alliance with London’s iconic black cabs

Starting early next year, commuters in London will be able to hail the capital’s iconic black cabs via Uber, the American ride-hailing giant has announced.  

London’s black taxi drivers — famous for their uncanny knowledge of the city’s thousands of streets — have long been at odds with Uber, who they say threatens their livelihoods. Frustrated drivers even blocked London streets in 2014 in protest against the tech company’s famously aggressive expansion tactics, and relations still remain tense.

Black cabs are currently the only taxis in London licensed to pick up passengers from the streets in the city and are already available for bookings through apps like Gett, Taxiapp, and FreeNow.

While Uber is playing off the new deal as a partnership, the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA), which represents more than 10,000 taxi drivers, said it was not consulted ahead of Uber’s “unilateral announcement”.

Steve McNamara, a spokesperson for the organisation, said it has no interest in “sullying the name of London’s iconic, world-renowned black cab trade by aligning it with Uber, its poor safety record and everything else that comes with it.”

Uber, however, claims a “small number” of taxi drivers have already signed up to the service and it hopes to recruit “several hundred” by January. The company said it would not charge new drivers commission for their first six months but didn’t reveal what the fee would be after that period.

While it remains to be seen whether Uber will woo London’s black cab drivers, it wouldn’t be the first time it has turned former foes into friends. 

The ride-hail giant recently signed on taxi fleets in Los Angeles, New York City, Paris, and Rome to list drivers on the app. Uber says in Europe and the Middle East, over 10% of Uber trips are now completed by taxi drivers.


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DeepMind’s AI has found more new materials in a year than scientists have in centuries

Google DeepMind researchers have trained a deep learning model to predict the structure of over 2.2 million crystalline materials — 45 times more than the number discovered in the entire history of science.

Of the two million-plus new materials, some 381,000 are thought to be stable, meaning they wouldn’t decompose — an essential characteristic for engineering purposes. These new materials have the potential to supercharge the development of key future technologies such as semiconductors, supercomputers, and batteries, said the British-American company.

Modern technologies, from electronics to EVs, can make use of just 20,000 inorganic materials. These were largely discovered through trial and error over centuries. Google DeepMind’s new tool, known as Graph Networks for Materials Exploration (GNoME), has discovered hundreds of thousands of stable ones in just a year.

Of the new materials, the AI found 52,000 new layered compounds similar to graphene that could be used to develop more efficient superconductors — crucial components in MRI scanners, experimental quantum computers, and nuclear fusion reactors. It also found 528 potential lithium ion conductors, 25 times more than a previous study, which could be used to boost the performance of EV batteries. 

To achieve these discoveries, the deep learning model was trained on extensive data from the Materials Project. The programme, led by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US, has used similar AI techniques to discover about 28,000 new stable materials over the past decade. Google DeepMind has expanded this number eight-fold, in what the company calls an “order of magnitude expansion in stable materials known to humanity.” 

While the new materials are technically just predictions, DeepMind researchers say independent experimenters have already made 736 of the materials, verifying their stability. And a team from the Berkeley Lab has already been using autonomous robots to synthesise materials it discovered through the Materials Project as well as the new treasure trove unearthed by DeepMind. As detailed in this study, the autonomous AI-powered robot was able to bring 41 of 58 predicted materials to life, in just 17 hours. 

“Industry tends to be a little risk-averse when it comes to cost increases, and new materials typically take a bit of time before they become cost-effective,” Kristin Persson, director of the Materials Project, told Reuters. “If we can shrink that even a bit more, it would be considered a real breakthrough.” 

DeepMind researchers say they will immediately release data on the 381,000 compounds predicted to be stable and make the code for its AI publicly available. By giving scientists the full catalogue of the promising ‘recipes’ for new candidate materials, the company said it hopes to speed up discovery and drive down costs.

The unveiling of GNoME comes on the heels of several impressive developments at Google DeepMind, which was formed in April when UK-based DeepMind and US-headquartered Google Brain merged into a single AI research unit. The latest being the launch of the world’s most accurate 10-day global weather forecasting system.

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Can you ‘deGoogle’ a phone? Murena tried — and added a kill switch

My ancient Samsung Galaxy is ready for retirement. Cracks expand across the screen, photos are hazy blurs, and the battery barely survives a day. It’s time to buy a replacement.

The initial contenders for my cash were the usual mix: Androids and iPhones with old names, incremental upgrades, and eye-watering price tags. While mulling over the options, a serendipitous email arrived in my inbox. A budding phonemaker called Murena was building a new handset with a bullish promise: “the ultimate pro-privacy smartphone.” 

To substantiate the slogan, the company flaunted two compelling features: a physical “kill switch” to disconnect the device and an anti-tracking operating system. Consider me intrigued. 

The announcement of the phone — named the Murena 2 — was timely. Just hours later, a news story provided an inadvertent advertisement for the product.

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Several US government agencies had been illegally using location data taken from mobile apps. In one case, an official had tracked coworkers for personal reasons.

Such scandals have become commonplace.

Photo of the Murena 2 on green wooden boards
The Murena 2 introduces new privacy features for both hardware and software. Credit: Murena

In the past few weeks alone, politicians have accused the Indian government of phone tapping, big box repair stores have snooped on customer devices, and Motorola users have sued the company for “surreptitiously” taking data from their selfies. Prince Harry has also won the latest stage in his lawsuit over alleged phone hacking by newspapers.

The frequency of the offences has a numbing effect. In the decade since Edward Snowden exposed rampant surveillance of our devices, eavesdropping has become just another boring dystopia. 

Our nonchalance is reinforced by a sense that ordinary folk aren’t impacted — but that may be wishful thinking. Just a fortnight ago, reports emerged that British police are requesting data from menstrual tracking apps after “unexplained” pregnancy losses. 

Average Janes and Joes face a further threat from big tech’s push into health insurance. Any company that sets insurance rates will find enormous value in the personal data on our phones. 

There’s also a more pressing danger lurking.

“You have no guarantee that the data is never going to be hacked,” Alexis Noetinger, Murena’s COO, tells TNW. “For us, this is the biggest issue. The more data that is collected, the more risk there is that this data can fall into the wrong hands.”

The Murena 2 aims to mitigate this risk. Set to launch in December, the handset promises “unparalleled” levels of privacy. To test the claim, we got our hands on a prototype of the device.

Our trial doesn’t have the most encouraging start. After turning on the phone, a warning message appears on the screen: “Orange state: Your device has been unlocked and can’t be trusted.”

It’s an inauspicious welcome, but Murena assures us that it’s just a teething issue with the pre-release model. From that point on, the software ran smoothly — which we had expected from Murena.

The French startup emerged from /e/OS, a “deGoogled” operating system. A privacy-focused fork of Android, /e/OS is an anti-tracking, democratised version of its progenitor. 

The operating system is open-source, which means anyone can probe the privacy protections. By default, it doesn’t send any data to Google or third parties.  

On launch, the Big G’s apps and services have been replaced by open-source versions. If you do install more familiar alternatives, the tracking can be restricted.

“The idea we had was to tilt the status quo on its head, and instead of promoting proprietary and closed solutions, to develop an alternative based on open-source software,” Noetinger says.

That status quo is a duopoly that’s dominated the sector for over a decade. 

The /e/os operating system on the Munera 2
The similarity to Android makes adapting to /e/OS pretty quick. Credit: Munera

After Blackberry plummeted from the industry’s pinnacle, Android and Apple devoured the smartphone market between them. Regular consumers now only have two real choices: go with Android and its voracious data collection, or opt for the iPhone’s closed ecosystem, which may provide more privacy, but still gobbles up ample user information.

In 2021, researchers at Trinity College Dublin found that both operating systems share data with their motherships every 4.5 minutes on average — even when the handsets aren’t being used. 

The data that they send is diverse and detailed. It includes your location, phone number, cookies, local network, and even information about other devices nearby. Some of this is shared when the phone is sitting idle in a pocket or bag. 

According to the Trinity team, it could allow location tracking when location services are disabled. They found that both Apple’s iOS and Android transmit telemetry — despite users explicitly opting out of this.

The researchers also contested Apple’s claims of superior protection. They argued that iOS offered “no greater privacy than Google devices.”

“I think most people accept that Apple and Google need to collect data from our phones to provide services such as iCloud or Google Drive,” said study author Professor Douglas Leith.

“But when we simply use our phones as phones — to make and receive calls and nothing more — it is much harder to see why Apple and Google need to collect data.”

There is one obvious reason why it’s necessary: advertising.

Online ads provide the bulk of Google’s revenues, and data provides the biggest selling point. It creates detailed profiles of our real-world tastes, demographics, and behaviours, which advertisers use to target us with ads. 

This personalised marketing can be convenient for consumers. But it can also turbocharge political propaganda, disinformation, echo chambers, and exploitation of the vulnerable.

Another bugbear for privacy advocates is government access. Authorities can request the data with a warrant — and they do. Google regularly gives law enforcement agencies search and location data.

Sundar Pichai at the World Economic Forum
Google CEO Sundar Pichai has tried to reassure the US Congress that his company is responsive to law enforcement requests. Credit: Greg Beadle

These issues extend from operating systems to apps. Facebook, for instance, tracks you across all its apps and sites — even after you log off the social network. The social network requests a dizzying array of permissions, from your contacts, calls, and messages to your camera, microphone, and storage. To use Facebook, you must give the company almost full control of your device. 

Once you open the app, the Meta behemoth monitors when you log in, what you browse, where you go, which products you buy, and how long you’re on the platform. All of this determines the ads we receive. Sometimes, it also serves more nefarious purposes.

Personal data has been stolen from Facebook by hackers, misused by third-party apps, publicly exposed, and shared without permission. Most infamously, the data of up to 87 million users was harvested without permission by Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 US Presidential election.

It was a damning breach for Facebook. But the platform is far from the only app that puts our data at risk. Murena’s pitch for /e/OS is protection from them all.

On /e/OS, every tracker is removed by default. Extra privacy protections are also installed, while connections to Google are cut.

The deGoogling is extensive. The Google default search engine is replaced by a Murena system, Google apps are switched for open source equivalent, no Google servers are used to check connectivity, geolocation uses Mozilla services, and the Google Play Store is ditched for Murena’s App Lounge.

The full extent of the deGoogling is too broad to catalogue here — although some still wish it was wider. More on that later.

Alexis Noetinger (right) next to Murena founder Gaël Duval
Noetinger (right) alongside Murena founder Gaël Duval, who also created /e/OS. Credit: Murena

The OS is paired with an advanced privacy module. Once inside, you can monitor each app’s permissions, as well as the hidden trackers, which collect your data and follow your activity. You can then cut the tracking.

“We give the user the visibility on which app is trying to access the data — and which tracker is trying to access the data,” Noetinger says.

You can also find privacy scores for each app, which contains some big surprises. Facebook, for instance, got a whopping nine out of 10 for privacy — the same as Signal. LinkedIn and Spotify, meanwhile, were both given zero out of 10. TikTok, a bogey app for many in the Western world, received a middling four.

Facebook’s apparent superiority has a simple explanation: the app doesn’t use trackers. Yet it obviously still collects copious user data. As Murena told TNW, Facebook doesn’t need a tracker “because it is already one big tracker.” Unfortunately, this somewhat devalues the privacy scores.

Thankfully, you can still fortify your defences against these snooping apps. /e/OS users can fake their location to random and specific places, use a dummy email, or even hide their IP address.

Four of the advanced privacy features depicted on Murena 2's screen: monitor app trackers, hide your IP address, fake your location, and check your privacy status at a glance
The advanced privacy and anti-tracking features are unusual in consumer smartphones. Credit: Murena

Alongside the operating system and privacy features, /e/OS provides a default set of open-source apps and online services. Among them is the Murena Cloud, which includes an email account, cloud storage,  and an online office suite.

In our experience, the software performed pretty well. Like the operating system, the apps are fairly intuitive, functional, and familiar to Android users — although they lack the slickness and style of the Google versions.

Then there is the app store — which is where the deGoogling gets contentious.

Additional applications for the Murena 2 are downloaded from the /e/OS App Lounge, an open-source system that connects directly to the Google Play Store.

The App Lounge combines common apps, open-source apps, and progressive web apps (PWAs) — which work directly from a browser — in one single repository.  According to Murena, there’s no other app store that does this today. 

To access Google products, the system has a compatibility layer. This means that you can still access Android apps. The free ones are accessible via anonymous browsing to circumvent trackers, but the paid apps still require a Google account.

These concessions have irked early adopters. Murena wants to create a deGoogled world, but won’t fully cut connections to the tech giant.

It’s struck a balance that won’t satisfy every privacy advocate, but the business case is clear. An absence of Play Store apps and Google services would likely send the device to an early grave. It would certainly be a dealbreaker for me.

The compromise evokes the “privacy paradox.” This phenomenon arises when people claim to highly value their privacy, but readily disregard the protection of their personal data. Noetinger sympathises with their plight.

“We know that people need to access some applications because they don’t have the choice,” he says.

“This way, you can still use the applications you need. If they feature trackers, you can block them, and we have additional features that can be quite aggressive.”

Users can still download popular consumer apps and then review their trackers
After searching for apps, users can find their privacy scores. Credit: Murena

Another issue with the Google link is the App Lounge. When the Murena One launched last year, the developer community XDA claimed that the App Lounge is in a legal “grey area,” because it pulls apps from Google’s servers while bypassing the requirement for a Google account. 

Murena acknowledges that there’s an issue here. The company told TNW that Google has hardened its account usage policy this year. Murena said that it proactively warns users about the potential curbs, but that it hadn’t received any reports of restrictions related to the App Lounge. The company assures users that the App Lounge’s terms and conditions are compatible with those of Google.

After finding a foothold in smartphone software, Murena ventured into hardware with last year’s launch of the Murena 1. Its successor adds several compelling features.

One that really caught our eye is the new physical kill switch. This disables all the device’s microphones and cameras, which many apps use for unspecified reasons. They’re also vulnerable to hacking.

During our trial, the button worked seamlessly. With the flick of a finger, a circuit block instantly deactivated the mic and cams. To reconnect them for a call, we just hit the switch again. 

It’s a feature that should impress even Mark Zuckerberg. The Meta boss was once photographed next to a laptop with a physical cover over its webcam and microphone. And if anyone should know about privacy threats, it’s the founder of Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg smiling while the camera picks up in the background a cover on his laptop webcam and microphone
Zuckerberg’s protective tape technique isn’t ideal for phones.

A second new addition is a disconnection switch. With a tap, the button disables all network activity and mutes the phone.

This one is primarily a “do not disturb” feature. The concept taps into the growing demands for distraction-free environments and digital detoxes. In the future, Murena may add an option to customise the switch’s purpose.

As for the conventional specs, they’re comparable to typical mid-range devices. There’s a 6.43″ high-resolution display, 128GB of storage, 8GB of RAM, a 4000mAh battery, and a 2.1GHz octa-core processor. 

For photos, you get a 25mp front selfie camera and a rear triple camera (5mp, 13mp, 64mp). Undoubtedly, the pictures dramatically outclassed those from my decrepit Samsung — although that’s pretty faint praise. If you want the finest photos and the leading specs, you’ll need a top-end phone. 

“Our standpoint is not to compete on the specs, because if you want to compete on specs, it never ends,” Noetinger says. “At the end of the day, even if the device is not premium, it will most likely be enough for most people out there for day-to-day use.”

Murena hopes the smartphone’s privacy edge attracts these regular consumers. But the mass market remains a formidable target.

Side view of the Murena kill switch
The kill switch adds a rare innovation to a stagnant sector. Credit: Murena

The mobile industry is mired in a historic downturn. Stocks have slumped, sales have slowed, and innovation has stagnated. In 2023, global smartphone shipments are projected to decline by 4.7% to 1.15 billion units — a ten-year low. These are challenging times for new entrants to the market — but they also present opportunities. 

A key problem for the sector is consumer apathy. With massive price tags for minor upgrades to interchangeable devices, the big brands no longer provide a big bang for our buck. The latest iPhones and Androids simply aren’t as special as they used to be.

In these uninspiring times, the Munera 2 stands out. By combining inventive hardware, privacy-centric software, and an alternative to the Android/iPhone duopoly, the device has a unique appeal. 

Those charms, however, won’t attract everyone. Without the familiar Android interface, a recognisable name, and default Google service, the device will struggle to reach the mainstream.

But for privacy enthusiasts, early adopters, and big tech boycotters, the release date is worth adding to the calendar. Until that day comes, my ageing Samsung will have to survive a few more charges. 

The Murena 2 is now available for preorder on Indiegogo. The retail price is $499 in the US, €499 in the EU, £429 in the UK, $679 in Canada, $829 in Australia, and 479 CHF in Switzerland. Shipments are estimated to start in December 2023. The official public launch is planned for early 2024.

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Research shows job seekers really do care about a CEO’s ethics and values

In today’s job market, where highly skilled workers are scarce and specialized skills are in high demand, employers are facing the challenge of filling job positions.

This situation has sparked intense competition — often referred to as the “war for talent” — among companies to attract and keep the best employees.

To stand out in this battle for new talent, organizations have to appeal to job seekers. One way of doing this is for employers to effectively communicate their ethical values to outsiders.

This is key because the younger generation of workers values social responsibility, transparency and ethical behaviour from their potential employers.

Skepticism about CSR

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Companies have historically demonstrated their commitment to ethical values through corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts.

Examples of these efforts include Starbucks’ commitment to ethically sourcing its coffee, tentree’s tree planting and community projects, Patagonia’s pledge to give one per cent of sales to environmental organizations and BNP Paribas’ volunteering program.

However, the public is growing increasingly skeptical about CSR. Many view CSR initiatives as misleading attempts to appear ethical.

Research has found a number of reasons for this, including: the disparity between the business and the cause they support, the company’s prior reputation and the use of reactive versus proactive approaches to CSR.

So how can firms best showcase their morals to outsiders? What would send a stronger message than CSR acts?

In our forthcoming research, we studied these questions and found something surprising — CEO ethical leadership is more important to job seekers than the company’s CSR initiatives, even after considering typical factors such as salary and fit.

Why candidates care about CEO ethics

Our research shows that when CEOs demonstrate their personal ethical values, they inspire individuals to want to work for their organizations.

We conducted three different studies and found a few reasons for this. First, job seekers are likely to believe that the ethical CEO’s company treats its employees fairly. Second, job seekers are likely to believe that the CEO’s company cares about society and the environment.

Lastly, job seekers tend to experience feelings of awe, admiration and inspiration when they learn about the CEO or founder’s ethical goodness. This lead to something called moral elevation. Moral elevation are positive feelings that arise when someone witnesses another person act in an uncommonly moral way.

Not surprisingly, we found that, because of the above reasons, job candidates who strongly identify as moral persons are more attracted to the ethical CEO’s organization.

Cisco: A case study

Some CEOs have already figured out the importance of CEO ethical leadership in the workplace and are using it to effectively attract top workers. For example, during his tenure as CEO of Cisco, John Chambers focused on building a diverse and inclusive workforce through strategic recruitment initiatives.

Chambers pursued partnerships with universities, participated in career fairs and established programs to attract underrepresented groups, including women and minorities, to the tech industry.

He also emphasized the importance of creating an inclusive culture where employees could thrive and contribute their unique perspectives.

Chambers aimed to make Cisco an employer of choice for a diverse range of talented individuals, helping the company expand its talent pool and strengthen its position in the market.

Strategies for attracting workers

Based on our research findings, we suggest a number of ways organizations can effectively use their CEO’s ethical leadership to attract good workers.

1. Avoid overemphasizing CSR initiatives. While it’s important to highlight a company’s commitment to ethical values and practices, it’s also important to avoid overemphasizing CSR initiatives to the point where it can be seen as “greenwashing.” Instead, managers should focus on genuine and impactful initiatives that align with the company’s values and mission.

2. Leverage social media. Managers can leverage social media platforms to advertise the ethical values of their CEOs. This can be done by regularly posting about any awards, accomplishments, blogs, presentations or other relevant content that specifically highlight the CEO’s ethical leadership.

3. Use video content. Recruitment strategies can include videos of CEOs speaking about their personal ethical values and how they shape their companies’ values. This content can be used on the company’s website, social media platforms and during recruitment events to provide a visual representation of the CEO’s ethics.

4. Highlight the link between CEO ethics and CSR initiatives. This can be achieved by sharing stories or case studies showcasing how the CEO’s personal ethical convictions guide the company’s CSR decisions and initiatives. Job candidates will see how the CEO’s ethics and the organization’s values are reflected in its CSR initiatives and be inspired to join the company to make a positive impact.

By implementing these strategies and effectively communicating the ethical values of their CEOs, organizations can differentiate themselves in the market and attract top candidates that share similar values.The Conversation

Meena Andiappan, Associate Professor of Human Resources and Management, McMaster University; Madelynn Stackhouse, Assistant Professor, Bryan School of Business and Economics, University of North Carolina – Greensboro, and Tunde Ogunfowora, Associate Professor, Organizational Behavior and Human Resources, University of Calgary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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