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Changpeng Zhao: tech chief in the eye of the cryptocurrency storm | Cryptocurrencies

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Changpeng Zhao does not like ambiguous words. Which is just as well: the crypto industry, in which he is a leading figure, is in turmoil and crying out for clarity.

The 45-year-old founder and chief executive of Binance, the world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange, meets the Observer in an upmarket London hotel after one of the most tumultuous weeks in the short history of digital money.

Binance was forced to suspend its bitcoin business on 13 June for a few hours. On the same day, a major crypto lender, Celsius, also paused withdrawals. Then a big crypto hedge fund admitted it was in trouble. Finally, last Saturday, in a symbolic moment, bitcoin fell below $20,000. The cornerstone of crypto has lost more than half its value this year, leaving both professional and amateur investors nursing steep losses.

Often referred to by the nickname CZ (see-zee), Zhao is dressed in the classic tech-tycoon mix of formal dark suit with a company T-shirt and trainers. He says he is travelling from country to country at the moment, meeting with “different government officials, regulators”.

Despite his softly spoken manner, he is on a mission to convince. The conversation gets hooked on semantics at times – perhaps a response to the level of scrutiny he and his business are under. Asked if he still considers the recent crypto market moves to be “normal”, as he described them this month, Zhao says: “Normal depends on how you look at it … everybody has a different definition of normal … fluctuations in price is normal.”

There is a similar focus on meaning when Zhao is asked about money laundering – “the word is very different in different countries” – although he says Binance can “for sure” do a “good enough job that the regulators are happy”.

Last June, the Financial Conduct Authority ordered Binance to stop all regulated activities in Britain, saying it was “not capable of being effectively supervised”. Zhao has not given up, however, and says he is seeking a licence to operate.

Last week, Bloomberg ran an interview with him that raised the prospect of a deep regulatory winter for his business. He responded by tweeting to his 6.5 million followers: “I will stop doing interviews with news outlets that do clickbait titles.”

He clearly has a deep interest in media. Binance has announced plans for a $200m (£160m) investment in Forbes, the business publisher, as well as investing $500m in Elon Musk’s $44bn bid for Twitter.

Born in the coastal province of Jiangsu, north of Shanghai, Zhao followed his academic father to Canada when he was 12. After graduating from Montreal’s McGill University with a degree in computer science he worked on programming systems for the Tokyo Stock Exchange and Bloomberg. Zhao then moved to Shanghai in 2005, where he founded a high-frequency trading platform.

It was there that he was drawn into a conversation about bitcoin during a poker game in 2013. Binance was founded four years later.


CV

Age 45
Family “I like to keep that private for security and privacy reasons.”
Education McGill University, Canada.
Last holiday Takes one- or two- day vacations a few times a year, but not long vacations.
Best advice he’s been given “Internally, keep your head down and build. Externally, learn risk management. If everything went to zero, are you still OK?”
Biggest career mistake Should have started Binance sooner.
Words he overuses “Who is responsible for this? Who?”
How he relaxes Books, hanging out with friends.


The impact of recent events on Zhao’s fortune has been precipitous, according to one source. The Bloomberg Billionaires Index estimates that his wealth – based on a 90% stake in Binance and his control of its related US exchange – has fallen by more than $75bn since January to $20.6bn, as the wider market has more than halved over the same period to about $900bn.

Zhao laughs that off. “I actually have no idea how they come up with those numbers. You need to understand that net worth are just estimates,” he says. “When I look at my wallet, I don’t have that much. I don’t have anywhere close to any of those numbers.”

If you are wondering how Zhao could find $20bn in his wallet anyway, he is referring to his crypto wallet – the encrypted account on a blockchain where digital money is stored. Although all blockchain activity is technically public, most large investors try to keep their wallets pseudonymous, and Zhao’s has not been publicly identified.

Binance makes money by connecting buyers with sellers, for a fee. It provides an exchange for a range of currencies, from bitcoin to dogecoin and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). The company also offers to store those assets in a crypto wallet, and there is a range of financial products, including derivatives. It has 120 million customers globally and processes $1tn worth of trades a month, with Italy and France among the countries it is allowed to operate in, although customers can access it through the unregulated, offshore binance.com platform.

Last year, Zhao told the AP news agency that he only held bitcoin and his firm’s own crypto-asset, BNB.

One issue puzzling regulators is the lack of clarity about Binance’s structure. The holding company is registered in the Cayman Islands but the company describes itself as having “decentralised” ownership, with its terms and conditions referring to an “ecosystem”. For instance, its US exchange is separate from the main binance.com platform, whose operating base is not disclosed.

Some of the other questions over Binance are more serious. Reuters published a report in June that alleged it had served as a conduit for the laundering of at least $2.35bn in illicit funds from hacks, investment frauds and illegal drug sales.

Zhao says he disputes the claims “very heavily”, adding the public record afforded by blockchains should have enabled Binance to trace the transactions. “We ask for a list of transactions, not just a list of names. They provided zero.”

Reuters said: “We stand by our reporting on Binance, which has been consistent with the Trust Principles [its in-house guidelines] of accuracy and freedom from bias.”

The conversation moves on to those who have had savings wiped out by the crypto rout. “We absolutely have sympathy for anyone who has lost money in trading in any market, including stock markets,” says Zhao. He says financial literacy is key, and mentions his company’s own Binance Academy.

He concedes there could be more failures in the crypto market. But he is unambiguous that there will be survivors. “There may be other failures. But crypto will stay, bitcoin will stay, ethereum will stay, BNB will stay. That part is quite certain.”

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.NET 6 comes to Ubuntu 22.04 • The Register

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Ubuntu and Microsoft have brought .NET 6 to the Ubuntu repositories, meaning that you can install it without adding any extra sources to the OS.

The announcement means that Ubuntu 22.04 is catching up with the Red Hat Linux family. As per Microsoft’s online docs, you could already do this on Fedora 36 as well as the more business-like variants: RHEL 8, CentOS Stream 8 and 9, and via scl-utils on RHEL 7.

Microsoft’s blog post about the news also mentions the ability to install the runtime, or the full SDK, into Ubuntu containers. Canonical also has new versions of these. It describes Ubuntu ROCKs as “new, ultra-small OCI-compliant appliance images, without a shell or package manager,” smaller than existing Ubuntu container images thanks to a new tool called chisel.

.NET 6 is Microsoft’s cross-platform toolchain for building apps to run on multiple platforms, including Windows, Linux, macOS, and mobile OSes. Essentially, it’s Microsoft’s answer to Oracle’s JVM – the increasingly inaccurately named Java Virtual Machine, which now supports multiple languages, including Clojure, Kotlin, Scala, and Groovy.

Microsoft’s own list of .NET languages is relatively short – C#, F#, and Visual Basic – although there are many others from outside the company. The list arguably should include PowerShell, but that already has its own Linux version.

Since 2014 or so, .NET primarily means what was formerly called .NET Core. According to Microsoft’s own diagram, that means the .NET Common Language Runtime, the bit which allows “managed code” to execute, and Microsoft’s web app framework ASP.NET.

There are three separate packages: dotnet-sdk-6.0, the SDK; dotnet-runtime-6.0, the CLR runtime; and aspnetcore-runtime-6.0, the runtime for ASP.NET. All three can be installed at once via the dotnet6 metapackage.

The notable bits of .NET that aren’t included in Core are the venerable Windows Forms framework or the slightly more modern Windows Presentation Framework, WPF.

Compare and contrast: .NET Framework versus .NET Core

Diagram showing .NET Core design

Click to enlarge

So don’t get excited and think that the inclusion of .NET in Ubuntu means that graphical .NET apps, such as Windows Store apps, can now be built and run natively on Linux. Limit your expectations to server-side stuff. This is a mainly a way to deploy console-based C# and ASP.NET apps into Ubuntu servers and Ubuntu containers.

When we asked Canonical about this, a spokesperson responded: “WPF is not currently supported in .NET 6 on Ubuntu. So, you’re correct that .NET 6 on Ubuntu is aimed at developers building text/server apps rather than graphical/GUI apps.”

We’ve also asked Microsoft if they have any additional information or details, and will update when they respond.

There are cross-platform graphical frameworks for .NET, including the open-source Avalonia and as well as Uno, which got on board in .NET 5. There is also Microsoft’s own Multi-platform App UI, or MAUI, which evolved out of Xamarin Forms.

The origins of .NET lie in Microsoft’s 1996 acquisition of Colusa Software for its OmniWare tool, which Colusa billed as “a universal substrate for web programming.” As Microsoft faced off against the US Department of Justice and European Commission, and the possibility of being broken into separate apps and OS divisions, it came up with Next Generation Windows Services, which then turned into .NET: a way to use Microsoft tools to build apps for any OS.

There is still controversy over exactly how open .NET really is, as exemplified by the aptly named isdotnetopen site. ®

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How cognitive science can be used to bring AI forward

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Dr Marie Postma spoke to SiliconRepublic.com about misconceptions around AI as well its relationship with human consciousness.

AI and robots are getting ‘smarter’ all the time. From Irish-made care robot Stevie to Spot the robot dog from Boston Dynamics, these tech helpers are popping up everywhere with a wide range of uses.

The tech beneath the hardware is getting smarter too. Earlier this year, Researchers at MIT developed a simpler way to teach robots new skills after only a few physical demonstrations. And just this week, Google revealed how its combining large language models with its parent company’s Everyday Robots to help them better understand humans.

However, the advances in these areas have led to recent discussions around the idea of sentient AI. While this idea has been largely rebuffed by the AI community, an understanding of the relationship between cognitive science and AI is an important one.

Dr Marie Postma is head of the department of cognitive science and artificial intelligence at Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences in the Netherlands.

The department is mainly financed by three education programmes and has around 100 staff and between 900 and 1,000 students.

‘Technology is not the problem; people are the problem’
– MARIE POSTMA

The team focuses on different research themes that combine cognitive science and AI, such as computational linguistics with a big focus on deep learning solutions, autonomous agents and robotics, and human-AI interaction, which is mainly focused on VR and its use in education.

Postma was a speaker at the latest edition of the Schools for Female Leadership in the Digital Age in Prague, run by Huawei’s European Leadership Academy.

Postma spoke to the 29 students about cognitive science and machine learning, starting with the history of AI and bringing it up to the modern-day challenges, such as how we can model trust in robots and the role empathy could play in AI.

“We have research where we are designing first-person games where people can experience the world from the perspective of an animal – not a very cuddly animal, it’s actually a beaver. That’s intentional,” she told me later that day.

Sentient AI

Her talk brought about a lot of discussion around AI and consciousness, a timely discussion following the news that Blake Lemione, a Google engineer, published an interview with the AI chatbot and claimed that it had become sentient.

Postma said much of the media coverage around this story had muddied the waters. “The way it was described in the media was more focused on the Turing test – interacting with an AI system that comes across as being human-like,” she said.

“But then at some point they mention consciousness, and consciousness is really a different story.”

Postma said that most people who research consciousness would agree that it’s based on a number of factors. Firstly it’s about having a perceptual basis, both the ability to perceive the world around us but also what’s happening inside us and being self-aware.

Secondly, the purpose of consciousness is being able to interpret yourself as someone who has feelings, needs, actionability in the world and a need to stay alive. “AI systems are not worried about staying alive, at least the way we construct them now, they don’t reflect on their battery life and think ‘oh no, I should go plug myself in’.”

Possibilities and limitations

While AI and robots don’t have consciousness, their ability to be programmed to a point where they can understand humans can be highly beneficial.

For example, Postma’s department has been conducting research that concerns brain-computer interaction, with a focus on motor imagery. “[This is] trying to create systems where the user, by focusing on their brain signal, can move objects in virtual reality or on computer screens using [electroencephalography].”

This has a lot of potential applications in the medical world for people who suffer from paralysis or in the advancements of prosthetic limbs.

Last year, researchers at Stanford University successfully implanted a brain-computer interface (BCI) capable of interpreting thoughts of handwriting in a 65-year-old man paralysed below the neck due to a spinal cord injury.

However, Postma said there is still a long way to go with this technology and it’s not just about the AI itself. “The issue with that is there are users who are able to do that and others who are not, and we don’t really know what the reasons are,” she said.

“There is some research that suggests that being able to do special rotation might be one of the factors but what we’re trying to discover is how we can actually train users so that they can use BCI.”

And in the interest of quelling any lingering fears around sentient AI, she also said people should not worry about this kind of technology being able to read their thoughts because the BCI is very rudimentary. “For the motor imagery BCI, it’s typically about directions, you know, right, left, etc.”

Other misconceptions about AI

Aside from exactly how smart the robots around us really are, one of the biggest falsehoods that Postma wants to correct is that the technology itself is not necessarily what causes the problems that surround it.

“What I repeat everywhere I go, is that the technology is not the problem, people are the problem. They’re the ones who create the technology solutions and use them in a certain way and who regulate them or don’t regulate them in a certain way,” she said.

“The bias in some AI solutions is not there because some AI solutions are biased, they’re biased because the data that’s used to create the solutions is biased so there is human bias going in.”

However, while bias in AI has been a major discussion topic for several years, Postma has an optimistic view on this, saying that these biased systems are actually helping to uncover biased data that would have previously been hidden behind human walls.

“It becomes explicit because all the rules are there, all the predictive features are there, even for deep learning architecture, we have techniques to simplify them and to uncover where the decision is made.”

While Postma is a major advocate for all the good AI can do, she is also concerned about how certain AI and data is used, particularly in how it can influence human decisions in politics.

“What Cambridge Analytica did – just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. And I don’t think they’re the only company that are doing that,” she said.

“I’m [also] concerned about algorithms that make things addictive, whether it’s social media or gaming, that really try to satisfy the user. I’m concerned about what it’s doing to kids.”

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

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‘I’m buying Manchester United’: Elon Musk ‘joke’ tweet charges debate over struggling club’s future | Elon Musk

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Tesla billionaire Elon Musk briefly electrified the debate about the future of Manchester United by claiming on Twitter that he is buying the struggling Premier League club – before saying that the post was part of a “long-running joke”.

He did not make clear his views on new coach Eric ten Hag’s controversial insistence on passing out from the back, or whether unhappy star striker Cristiano Ronaldo should be allowed to leave, but he did say that if he were to buy a sports team “it would be Man U. They were my fav team as a kid”.

With the team rooted to the bottom of the league after a humiliating 4-0 away defeat to Brentford, the outspoken entrepreneur’s tweet offered hope – however –briefly – to fans who want to see the back of current owners, the Florida-based Glazer family.

Also, I’m buying Manchester United ur welcome

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 17, 2022

Musk has a history of making irreverent tweets, and he later clarified the post by saying he was not buying sports teams.

No, this is a long-running joke on Twitter. I’m not buying any sports teams.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 17, 2022

Buying United, one of the biggest football clubs in the world, would have cost Musk at least £2bn, according to its current stock market valuation.

Manchester United’s recent on-pitch woes have led to increased fan protests against the Glazers, who bought the club in a heavily leveraged deal in 2005 for £790m ($955.51m).

The anti-Glazer movement gained momentum last year after United were involved in a failed attempt to form a breakaway European Super League.

But a takeover by Musk would have been a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for the club, given the billionaire’s tendency for off-the-cuff remarks and falling foul of market regulators.

Many were quick to point out that Musk had also promised to buy Twitter for $44bn before the deal collapsed in July, and has also boasted about colonising Mars and boosting birthrates on Earth.

That’s what you said about Twitter.

— Sema (@_SemaHernandez_) August 17, 2022

Fans responded with a mixture of bafflement and optimism given the lowly status of a club used to occupying the top places in the league rather than the bottom.

Manchester United did not immediately respond to a request for comment.



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