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Alphabet’s high-speed internet project Taara is making waves in Africa

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Taara’s wireless optical technology was able to beam nearly 700TB of data in 20 days across the Congo River.

Alphabet’s internet balloon project Loon may be a closed chapter, but the company is finding new ways to use some of this technology to bring high-speed internet to remote and underserved areas.

Project Taara is Alphabet’s attempt to harness wireless optical tech to make fast internet accessible and affordable. In a blog post yesterday (16 September), the project’s director of engineering, Baris Erkmen, said that its wireless optical communications links are now beaming light-speed connectivity across the Congo River.

“I’m delighted to share that working with Liquid Intelligent Technologies, we recently helped bridge a particularly stubborn connectivity gap between Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” he wrote.

Brazzaville and Kinshasa are only 4.8km apart, but because of the speed and depth of the Congo River, it wasn’t possible to establish fibre connection between the two cities. Instead, cables have to travel more than 400km to loop around the river.

Erkmen said that after installing links on both sides of the river, Taara’s technology was able to beam across nearly 700TB of data in 20 days with almost 100pc availability. While the connectivity won’t always be reliable in all weather conditions, he said he was confident it will “play a key role in bringing faster, more affordable connectivity” to the 17m people living in the two cities.

“Being able to deliver high-speed internet (up to 20Gbps) most of the time is a vastly better option than having millions of people miss out on the benefits of connectivity because the economics of laying hundreds of kilometres of cable in the ground simply don’t stack up.”

Project Taara’s predecessor Loon brought helium balloon-based internet to Kenya and delivered communications services to Puerto Rico and Peru following natural disasters in those countries.

Like Project Taara, it was part of Alphabet’s X research division that invests in ambitious but costly projects. However, Loon was shut down in January because it was unable to make a business case for the project and its path to commercial viability was “much longer and riskier than hoped”, according to X lab head Astro Teller.

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Grocery start-up Gorillas raises nearly $1bn in round led by Delivery Hero

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Just a few months after hitting unicorn status, Gorillas has raised another major round of funding from big-name investors.

German start-up Gorillas has raised nearly $1bn to expand its on-demand grocery delivery business.

The Series C funding round was led by Delivery Hero, the German food and grocery delivery giant that recently took a stake in Deliveroo.

Gorillas also received backing from existing investors including Coatue Management, DST Global and Tencent, as well as new investors G Squared, Alanda Capital, Macquarie Capital, MSA Capital and Thrive Capital.

The fresh funding comes just a few months after the company’s $290m Series B, which brought its valuation to more than $1bn.

Gorillas was founded in Berlin in 2020 by Kağan Sümer and Jörg Kattner, promising grocery deliveries in as little as 10 minutes.

It now operates more than 180 warehouses and has expanded to more than 55 cities in nine countries, including Amsterdam, London, Paris, Madrid, New York and Munich.

The company plans to use the latest funding for its next phase of development. This includes reinforcing its footprint in existing markets and investing in operations, technology and marketing.

“The size of today’s funding round by an extraordinary investment consortium underscores the tremendous market potential that lies ahead of us,” said Sümer, who is CEO of the start-up.

“With Delivery Hero, we have chosen a strong strategic support that is deeply rooted in the global delivery market, and is renowned for having unique experience in sustainably scaling a German company internationally.”

On-demand grocery delivery is a growing area in Europe that’s attracting investor attention.

Swedish start-up Kavall raised $5.8m in August, Czech player Rohlik hit unicorn status after its €100m Series C round in July, and Spain’s Glovo secured a €450m Series F round in April to expand in the grocery market.

Gorillas differentiates itself from other players in the market, such as Deliveroo, by employing its delivery drivers rather than relying on gig workers.

However, as the start-up has scaled rapidly over the past year, it has seen delivery workers protest over working conditions and pay, and been put under the spotlight for its treatment of employees.

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ICO to step in after schools use facial recognition to speed up lunch queue | Facial recognition

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The Information Commissioner’s Office is to intervene over concerns about the use of facial recognition technology on pupils queueing for lunch in school canteens in the UK.

Nine schools in North Ayrshire began taking payments for school lunches this week by scanning the faces of their pupils, according to a report in the Financial Times. More schools are expected to follow.

The ICO, an independent body set up to uphold information rights in the UK, said it would be contacting North Ayrshire council about the move and urged a “less intrusive” approach where possible.

An ICO spokesperson said organisations using facial recognition technology must comply with data protection law before, during and after its use, adding: “Data protection law provides additional protections for children, and organisations need to carefully consider the necessity and proportionality of collecting biometric data before they do so.

“Organisations should consider using a different approach if the same goal can be achieved in a less intrusive manner. We are aware of the introduction, and will be making inquiries with North Ayrshire council.”

The company supplying the technology claimed it was more Covid-secure than other systems, as it was cashless and contactless, and sped up the lunch queue, cutting the time spent on each transaction to five seconds.

Other types of biometric systems, principally fingerprint scanners, have been used in schools in the UK for years, but campaigners say the use of facial recognition technology is unnecessary.

Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, told the Guardian the campaign group had written to schools using facial recognition systems, setting out their concerns and urging them to stop immediately.

“No child should have to go through border-style identity checks just to get a school meal,” she said. “We are supposed to live in a democracy, not a security state.

“This is highly sensitive, personal data that children should be taught to protect, not to give away on a whim. This biometrics company has refused to disclose who else children’s personal information could be shared with and there are some red flags here for us.”

The technology is being installed in schools in the UK by a company called CRB Cunninghams. David Swanston, its managing director, told the FT: “It’s the fastest way of recognising someone at the till. In a secondary school you have around about a 25-minute period to serve potentially 1,000 pupils. So we need fast throughput at the point of sale.”

Live facial recognition, technology that scans crowds to identify faces, has been challenged by civil rights campaigners because of concerns about consent. CRB Cunninghams said the system being installed in UK schools was different – parents had to give explicit consent and cameras check against encrypted faceprint templates stored on school servers.

A spokesperson for North Ayrshire council said its catering system contracts were coming to a natural end, allowing the introduction of new IT “which makes our service more efficient and enhances the pupil experience using innovative technology”.

They added: “Given the ongoing risks associated with Covid-19, the council is keen to have contactless identification as this provides a safer environment for both pupils and staff. Facial recognition has been assessed as the optimal solution that will meet all our requirements.”

The council said 97% of children or their parents had given consent for the new system.

A Scottish government spokesperson said that local authorities, as data controllers, had a duty to comply with general data protection regulations and that schools must by law adhere to strict guidelines on how they collect, store, record and share personal data.

Hayley Dunn, a business leadership specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “There would need to be strict privacy and data protection controls on any companies offering this technology.

“Leaders would also have legitimate concerns about the potential for cyber ransomware attacks and the importance of storing information securely, which they would need reassurances around before implementing any new technology.”

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Apple debuts MacBook Pro with M1 Pro and M1 Max Arm chips • The Register

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Apple on Monday announced 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro models armed with its Arm-compatible Apple Silicon chips, extending its platform architecture transition, and Intel exodus, for its high-end notebooks.

Cupertino’s web-streamed presentation, which also featured new music products and services, was highly anticipated by Apple customers because, as expected, it addressed long-standing complaints about recent MacBook Pro models, namely its failure-prone keyboard, its unasked-for TouchBar, and its finicky USB-C power connector.

Though Apple’s disastrous Butterfly-design keyboard has already been dealt with, the first aspect of the new MacBook Pro models that product manager Shruti Haldea discussed was the keyboard.

“The new MacBook Pro has been reimagined in every way,” said Haldea during the streaming video presentation. “Let’s start with the keyboard. Users value the full height function row on the standalone Magic Keyboard, And we brought it to the MacBook Pro. The physical keys replaced the TouchBar, bringing back the familiar tactile feel of mechanical keys that Pro users love.”

Apple MacBook Pro keyboard

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But that reassurance took a back seat to Apple’s execs crowing about the company’s artisanal silicon. The new MacBook Pro models bring new chips: the M1 Pro and the M1 Max, Apple’s followup to the Apple Silicon M1 chip that debuted last year.

“Building a pro laptop has meant using a power-hungry CPU and discrete GPU,” said Johny Srouji, SVP of hardware technologies at Apple. “But a two-chip architecture requires more power and cooling. It also means the CPU and GPU have separate pools of memory, so they have to copy data back and forth over a slow interface.

“Not one has ever applied a system-on-a-chip design to a pro system, until today. And we did this by scaling up M1’s groundbreaking architecture to create a far more powerful chip with M1 Pro.”

The M1 Pro relies on 5nm process technology. It sports 33.7bn transistors, twice as many as the M1. The chip has a 10-core CPU – eight high-performance cores and two high efficiency cores. Apple claims it’s up to 70 per cent faster than M1, depending on the workload, delivers up to 1.7x better CPU performance than the latest 8-core PC laptop chip when using comparable amounts of power, and at equal performance levels uses 70 per cent less power than the PC chip.

Apple M1 Pro/Mac performance chart

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The M1 Pro has an up-to-16 core GPU that’s said to be twice as fast as the M1 and 7x faster than an 8-core PC with integrated graphics. It’s available with up to up to 32GB of memory and up to 200GB/s of memory bandwidth.

The M1 Max is what you get when you take the M1 Pro’s 10-core CPU and double its GPU cores to 32. The result is 4x better GPU performance and the original M1, which debuted last year. Built with 57bn transistors, it supports up to 64GB of memory – compare that to the 16GB of video memory commonly available to PC laptops – and offers 400GB/s of memory bandwidth.

Apple claims the 14-inch model gets 17 hours of video playback while the 16-inch model gets 21 hours – 10 more than on prior Mac notebooks.

The other gubbins

The M1 Max also has an enhanced media engine capable of editing up to 30 4K ProRes video streams or up to seven 4K ProRes video streams in Final Cut Pro. The M1 Pro supports up to two Pro Display XDRs (Apple’s $5K monitor) while the M1 Max can handle up to three ProDisplay XDRs and a 4K TV at once.

Both the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro models come with macOS Monterey, three Thunderbolt 4 ports, an SDXC card slot, an HDMI port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Apple’s magnetic power connection system MagSafe has returned under the name MagSafe 3. Both sport a Liquid Retina XDR display and a built-in anodized black Magic Keyboard and have two fans for chip chilling, unlike the fanless M1-based MacBook Air, but Cupertino claims Apple Silicon is so efficient most users will never hear them.

“With this introduction, we’ve taken another huge step forward in the Mac’s transition to Apple Silicon,” said John Ternus, VP of hardware engineering at Apple.

Apple did not respond to a request to say whether the M1 Pro and M1 Max resolve the M1RACLES oversight reported for the M1 chip in May, 2021, and a reported second blunder identified over the weekend.

In a message to The Register, Hector Martin, founder and project lead of Ashai Linux and the finder of the initial M1 flaw and of the supposed second one, said Apple cannot address the M1 design error except through new silicon. He said he didn’t know whether Apple has done so in the M1 Pro and M1 Max. And he declined to provide further details about his second alleged bug, which has not yet been publicly disclosed.

Apple also announced its third-generation AirPods, “new bold and expressive colors” for its Home Pod mini mic-speaker thingy, the Apple Music Voice Plan (a $4.99 Siri-focused starter plan for Apple Music), and updates to Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro so that they can take advantage of Apple’s latest chips.

Apple is now taking orders for the new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro models and they’re expected to be available on Tuesday, October 26, or sometime thereafter if customized with more memory and SSD storage. The 14-inch MacBook Pro model starts at $1,999, and $1,849 for education custoemrs. The 16-inch MacBook Pro model starts at $2,499, and $2,299 for the student market. ®



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