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Sucks to be him! How Henry the vacuum cleaner became an accidental design icon | Life and style

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In March this year, photos of the government’s glitzy new briefing room, where Boris Johnson’s new media chief was set to host daily press conferences, leaked to the media. The centrepiece of a “presidential” approach to communications, it was already controversial for its cost to taxpayers of £2.6m. With its gaudy blue backdrop, giant union flags and imposing podium, it looked like the stage for a US political or legal TV show: The West Wing with a touch of Judge Judy.

What the briefing room needed was something to suck the pomposity out of it. What it needed, it turned out, was a cameo appearance from a 620-watt anthropomorphic vacuum cleaner. The stocky red and black appliance was barely visible in the wings, stage left, yet instantly recognisable. Turned away from the podium, his chrome wand propped casually against a varnished dado rail, the Henry vacuum cleaner looked almost as if he were rolling his eyes.

The image quickly went viral; there were gags about a “leadership vacuum”. “Can we put Henry in charge?” asked TV presenter Lorraine Kelly. Executives at Numatic International, based in a sprawling complex of giant sheds in Chard, a small town in Somerset, were delighted. “It’s amazing how little of Henry was in that picture, and how many people came through to us and said, ‘Have you seen it? Have you seen it?” says Chris Duncan, founder and sole owner of the firm where a Henry rolls off the production line every 30 seconds.

Downing Street’s new White-House style media briefing room, following criticism that more than £2.6 million had been spent on the renovations. Issue date: Monday March 15, 2021
Where’s Henry? The Downing Street briefing room image that went viral. Photograph: ITV News/PA

Duncan, who invented Henry 40 years ago this summer, is now 82, and worth an estimated £150m. Known as “Mr D” to his 1,000 employees at the factory, he still works full-time at a standing desk that he built himself. He is speaking to me, after months of persuasion, in his first proper interview.

Henry has become an accidental icon of British design and manufacturing. Equally at home in the hands of princes and plumbers (Charles and Diana received one of the first models as a wedding present in 1981), he is also an under-stairs stalwart in millions of ordinary homes. As well as the Downing Street cameos, Henry has been photographed hanging from a rope as abseilers cleaned Westminster Abbey. The week after my visit to Henry HQ, Kathy Burke spotted one while touring a palatial mansion in Money Talks, a Channel 4 series about wealth. “No matter how rich, everyone needs a Henry,” she says.

Henry is the anti-Dyson, rolling over the social codes of the household appliance market with a modesty and humour that escapes the bigger, more expensive brand and its billionaire creator. James Dyson has hoovered up a knighthood and more land than the Queen. He has faced criticism for outsourcing production and offices to Asia while also cheerleading for Brexit. His latest memoir is out this September, while his early vacuum cleaners are venerated in design museums. Henry? Not so much. But if Dyson brought aspiration, innovation and an air of exclusivity to Big Vacuum, Henry, the only mass-produced consumer vacuum cleaner still made in Britain, brought simplicity, reliability – and a cheerful lack of airs. “Bollocks to that!” is Duncan’s reaction when I suggest that he should also write a memoir.

Chris Duncan (MBE), Numatic's CEO and founder, and inventor of Henry the vacuum cleaner, photographed in his office
That’s my boy: Chris Duncan, Henry’s inventor. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian

The son of a London policeman, Duncan wears a short-sleeved shirt with open collar; his eyes glint behind gold-rimmed specs. He lives 10 minutes from the Chard HQ. His Porsche has a “Henry” numberplate, but he owns no other homes and eschews yachts and other baubles in favour of a 40-hour week and the company of Ann, his wife of 35 years (he has three sons from a previous marriage). Modesty permeates Numatic. The campus is more Wernham Hogg than Silicon Valley; the firm never advertises Henry and retains no PR agency. Yet it has a turnover of almost £160m and has now made more than 14m Henry vacuums, including a record 32,000 in the week before my visit, thanks to a pandemic-related surge in demand for household appliances.

When Duncan received his MBE at Buckingham Palace in 2013, Ann was led into the auditorium to witness the honour. “A guy in uniform said, ‘What does your husband do?’” he recalls. “She said, ‘He makes Henry vacuum cleaners.’ He nearly shit himself! He said: ‘When I get home and tell my wife I’ve met Mr Henry, she is going to be so livid she wasn’t here.’ And it’s stupid, but those sorts of stories are worth their weight in gold. We don’t need a publicity machine because it’s self-generating. Every Henry goes out there with a face on it.”


I will at this stage admit to a slight Henry obsession. I didn’t think about my girlfriend Jess’s Henry a great deal when I moved in with her 10 years ago, or when he moved with us to a new home after our marriage. It was only after the arrival of our son in 2017 that he began to occupy a bigger place in our family.

Jake, who is nearly four, was one when he first met Henry. It was early one morning, before dawn, and Henry had been left out of the cupboard the night before. Jake wore a striped babygrow and, placing his milk bottle on the wooden floor, crouched to inspect a curious object that was as big as he was. It was the start of a great romance. Jake insisted that Henry be liberated from his dark cupboard; for months, he was the first thing Jake went to in the morning, and the last thing he thought of at night. “I love you,” Jess said above his cot one evening before lights out. “I love Henry,” came the reply.

When Jake discovered my mum had an upstairs Henry and a downstairs Henry, to save on lifting, he was beside himself. For days, the imaginary stories he demands after his book at bedtime were about Granny’s Henrys. They would call out to each other at night, meeting for domestic adventures. In an effort to return Henry to the cupboard, I bought Jake a toy Henry. He could now hug little Henry as he fell asleep, his “trunk” entwined in his fingers.

The affair peaked with the onset of the pandemic. In the first lockdown, big Henry became the closest thing Jake had to a friend of his own size. When he accidentally bumped into the vacuum with his mini pushchair, he reached into his toy doctor’s kit for his wooden stethoscope. He began to watch Henry content on YouTube, including earnest reviews by vacuum influencers. His infatuation is not surprising; Henry looks like a giant toy. But the strength of the bond, which rivals only Jake’s love of his stuffed dog, Doggy, got me wondering about Henry’s backstory. I realised I knew nothing about him. I began firing off emails to Numatic, a company I had not even known was British.


Back in Somerset, Henry’s creator fills me in on his origin story. Duncan, who was born in 1939, spent much of his childhood in Vienna, where his father had been posted after the war to help build a police force. He moved back to Somerset at 16, got some O-levels and joined the merchant navy. A naval friend then got him a job at Powrmatic, a company in east London that made oil-fired heaters. Duncan, a natural salesman, ended up running the business until he left to launch Numatic in 1969. He had spotted a gap in the market for a sturdy, reliable cleaner to suck soot and muck out of coal- and gas-fired boilers.

The vacuum industry had been growing since the early 1900s, when British engineer Hubert Cecil Booth designed a horse-drawn machine whose long hoses would wind through the doors and windows of posh houses. In a 1906 advert, a hose is coiled on a thick carpet like a benevolent snake, imaginary eyes attached to its steel mouth gazing up at a housemaid. “Friends” is the slogan.

A robot attaching a lid to a Henry vacuum cleaner on the assembly line.
A robot attaches Henry’s lid. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian

Meanwhile in Ohio, an asthmatic department store cleaner called James Murray Spangler created a handheld vacuum using a fan motor in 1908. When he made one for his cousin Susan, her husband, a leather goods manufacturer named William Hoover, decided to buy the patent. The Hoover was the first successful domestic vacuum cleaner and – in the UK – a trademark that became synonymous with a product category (“hoover” is now in the dictionary as a verb). But it wasn’t until the 50s that the cleaners sucked their way into the homes of the masses. Dyson, a privately educated art student, began developing his first bagless cleaner in the late 70s, eventually shaking up the industry.

Duncan had no interest in the consumer market, nor did he have the money to make parts. He started with a small oil drum. In need of a lid in which to house the motor, he wondered if an upturned washing-up bowl might do the trick. “I took the drum round all the shops until I found a bowl that fitted,” he recalls. “Then I called the company to order 5,000 black washing-up bowls. They said, ‘No, no, you can’t have it in black – that will show the tidemark, it will look terrible.’ I told them I didn’t want them for washing up.” This Henry ancestor now collects dust in a corridor that serves as Numatic’s museum. The oil drum is red, and the black bowl is clamped on top. It has furniture castors for wheels. “The thread on the front today, where you put your hose, is still a two-inch oil drum thread,” Duncan says.

By the mid-70s, after Numatic had found some success, Duncan was on a British stand at a Lisbon trade show. “It was as boring as sin,” he recalls. One evening, Duncan and one of his salesmen idly began to dress up their latest vacuum cleaner, first with a bit of ribbon, then with a union flag badge on what started to look a bit like a hat. They found some chalk and drew a crude smile under the hose outlet, which suddenly looked like a nose, then some eyes. Searching for a nickname that felt suitably British, they settled on Henry. “We put it over in the corner with all the other equipment and the next day people were laughing and pointing,” Duncan says. Back at Numatic, which then had a few dozen employees, Duncan asked his advertising guy to design a proper face for the cleaner. “Henry” remained an in-house nickname; the product still had Numatic printed above its eyes.

A Henry vacuum cleaner having its wheels and face attached on the assembly line.
Humans far outnumber robots at the factory in Chard, Somerset. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian

At the next trade show, in Bahrain, nurses from the nearby Aramco oil company hospital asked to buy one for the children’s ward, to encourage recovering children to help with the cleaning (a strategy I may attempt at home at some point). “We were getting all these little reports and we thought, there’s something in this,” Duncan says. He increased production and, in 1981, Numatic added the Henry name to the black lid, which had begun to resemble a bowler hat. Duncan was still focused on the commercial market, but Henry was taking off; they heard that office cleaners were talking to Henry as a way to break up the grind of night shifts. “They took him to heart,” Duncan says.

Soon, big retailers started contacting Numatic: customers had seen Henry in schools and on building sites, and his reputation as a hardy friend of the trades had created a word-of-mouth cachet. Some also smelled a deal (Henry today costs a good £100 less than the cheapest Dyson). Henry hit the high street in 1985. Despite attempts by Numatic to discourage use of the word “hoover”, which is banned at company HQ, Henry quickly informally became known by the public as “Henry hoover”, marrying the brands in an alliterative union. Sales are growing at a rate of roughly a million each year, and now include Hettys and Georges, among other siblings, in a range of colours. “We turned an inanimate object into an animate object,” Duncan says.

Andrew Stephen, a professor of marketing from the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, is initially stumped when I ask him to assess Henry’s popular appeal. “I think there’s something about the product and branding that draws people to it rather than them getting caught up in what is normal, which is using price as a proxy signal for quality,” Stephen says.

“Timing might be part of it,” says Luke Harmer, an industrial designer and lecturer at Loughborough University. Henry arrived a few years after the first Star Wars film, with its hapless robots, including R2-D2. “I wonder if there was a connection to this product that provides a service and is slightly robotic and you forgive its foibles because it’s doing a useful job.” When Henry topples over, it’s hard to get cross with him. “It’s almost like walking a dog,” Harmer says.

Topples are not the only frustration for Henry owners. He gets caught on corners and has occasionally fallen down the stairs. Cramming his ungainly hose and wand into an overstuffed cupboard can feel like wrestling a snake into a bag. There are also average reviews for performance among the generally positive ones (though he gets the job done in my house).

Jake, meanwhile, is far from alone in his infatuation, presenting Numatic with passive marketing opportunities that suit its modesty – and save millions in advertising. In 2018, a Cardiff University student was forced by the council to cancel a Henry picnic when 37,000 people signed up to attend with their vacuum cleaners. Henry’s appeal has gone global; Numatic increasingly exports its products. Duncan passes me a copy of “Henry in London”, a professionally produced photo book in which Henry tours famous sites. Three young Japanese women flew from Tokyo with a Henry to take the shots.

Henry vacuum cleaner lids having the finishes touches done, including a quick polish.
All of the 75 parts that make up the latest model could be used to repair ‘Number one’, the 1981 original Henry. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian

In 2019, Erik Matich, a five-year-old fan from Illinois who was being treated for leukaemia, flew 4,000 miles to Somerset with the Make-A-Wish charity. It had been his dream to see Henry’s home [Erik is now doing well and is due to complete his treatment this year]. Duncan says dozens of children with autism have made the same trip. “They seem to relate to Henry because he never tells them what to do,” he says. He has tried to work with autism charities, and recently found an illustrator to help create Henry & Hetty books that the charities could sell (they are not for general sale). In Henry & Hetty’s Dragon Adventure, the dust-busting duo are cleaning a zoo when they discover a dragon enclosure. They fly with a dragon to a castle where a wizard has lost his crystal ball – until some more vacuuming uncovers it. It wouldn’t win awards, but when I read the book to Jake that evening, he is rapt.

Henry’s appeal to children has also brought challenges, as I discover during a factory tour with Paul Stevenson, 55, a production manager who has worked at Numatic for more than 30 years. Paul’s wife, Suzanne, and their two grownup children also work at Numatic, which still makes other commercial products, including cleaning trolleys and rotary floor scrubbers. The factory has chugged along despite the pandemic and Brexit-related delays to parts; Duncan, who quietly backed Brexit, is prepared to ride out what he sees as teething problems.

In a series of giant sheds, rich with the smell of hot plastic, 800 workers in hi-vis jackets feed plastic pellets into 47 injection moulding machines to create hundreds of parts, including Henry’s red bucket and black hat. A reeling team adds Henry’s coiled power cord. The cord reel sits on top of the “hat”, transferring power to the motor below via two lightly sprung metal prongs that spin against a greased receptor ring. The motor powers a fan in reverse, drawing air up through the hose and red bucket, to which another team adds a filter and dust bag. In the metal section, steel tubes are fed into a pneumatic bender to create the signature kink in Henry’s wand. It’s quite mesmeric.

Freshly moulded and printed Henry the vacuum cleaner faces ready to be assembled
Freshly moulded and printed Henry faces, ready to be attached. Photograph: Ben Quinton/The Guardian

Humans far outnumber robots, one of which is employed every 30 seconds to lift an assembled Henry into a box for dispatch. “We do a different job every hour,” says Stevenson, who started out making Henry in around 1990. The Henry line is the busiest in the factory. Elsewhere I meet Paul King, 69, who is about to retire after 50 years at Numatic. Today he’s making attachments for a ride-on floor scrubber. “I worked on Henry years ago but they’re too fast for me on that line these days,” he says after turning down his radio.

Henry’s face used to be printed straight on to the red bucket. But health and safety laws in some international markets forced a change. Despite there being no recorded incidents in 40 years, the face was deemed a danger because it might encourage children to play with a household appliance. New Henrys now have a separate faceplate. In the UK, it is snapped on in the factory. In more fearful markets, consumers may attach it themselves, “at their own risk”.


Regulations are not the only headache. As I continued to feed Jake’s Henry habit via the internet, a less wholesome side of his dust cult emerged. There are flame-throwing Henrys, fighting Henrys, X-rated fan fiction and a music video in which a man takes in an abandoned Henry only for it to strangle him while he sleeps. Some take things further. In 2008, one fan was sacked from his job as a builder after being caught in flagrante with a Henry in a works canteen. He claimed that he had been vacuuming his underpants.

“The Russell Howard video is the one that won’t go away,” says Andrew Ernill, Numatic’s head of marketing. He’s referring to a 2010 episode of Russell Howard’s Good News. After riffing on a story about a policeman who had been arrested for stealing a Henry during a drugs bust, the comedian cuts to a video in which Henry snorts a huge line of “cocaine” from a coffee table.

Ernill is keener to talk about Henry’s future, as is Duncan. This year he added Emma McDonagh, Numatic’s first chief technical officer, to the board, as part of wider plans to prepare the company “in case I get hit by a truck”. A veteran poached from IBM, she will help the company grow, and make more Henrys, more sustainably. There are also plans for more automation, and increased local employment. Henry and his siblings now come in various sizes and colours; there is even a cordless model.

Yet Duncan is determined that his vacuum stay true to its roots: it remains a remarkably simple machine. Duncan beams with pride as he tells me almost all of the 75 parts that make up the latest model could be used to repair “Number one”, as he calls the 1981 original; Henrys are made to last – and to be easily repaired – in the landfill age of rapid obsolescence. When my own Henry’s hose popped off his nose a couple of years ago, I trimmed an inch off it and screwed it back in place with a bit of glue.

In the end, Downing Street Henry was surplus to requirements. A month after his cameo, No 10 binned the idea of daily press conferences: the briefing room has been used mainly for the prime minister’s pandemic announcements. Henry has not been seen again. Was his unscheduled appearance to blame for the communications U-turn? “Henry’s work behind the scenes has been greatly appreciated,” is all a government spokesperson will say.

My own Henry spends more time under the stairs these days, but his bond with Jake remains strong. Jake can talk for England now, if not always coherently. When I attempt to interview him, it’s clear he sees nothing unusual in loving a vacuum cleaner. “I love Henry hoover and Hetty hoover because they’re both hoovers,” he tells me. “Because you can hoover with them.

“I just love hoovers,” he goes on, getting a little exasperated. “But, Daddy, I only like hoovers with a name.”

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Molly Russell inquest: social media ‘almost impossible’ to keep track of, says teacher | UK news

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The headteacher of Molly Russell’s secondary school has told an inquest into the teenager’s death it is “almost impossible” to keep track of the risks posed to pupils by social media.

North London coroner’s court heard of the “complete and terrible shock” at Molly’s school after the 14-year-old killed herself in November 2017. Molly, from Harrow in north-west London, killed herself after viewing extensive amounts of online content related to suicide, depression, self-harm and anxiety.

Sue Maguire, the headteacher at Hatch End high school in Harrow, was asked how difficult it was for a school to stay on top of dangerous social media content.

She said: “There is a level where I want to say it is almost impossible to keep track of social media but we have to try, and we have to respond to the information as we receive it.”

Describing the school’s “shock” at Molly’s death, Maguire added that teachers had warned students about the “dangers of social media for a long time”.

She said: “Our experience of young people is that social media plays a hugely dominant role in their lives and it causes no end of issues. But we don’t present a stance that they should not use it. But it presents challenges to schools that we simply didn’t have 10 or 15 years ago.”

Oliver Sanders KC, representing the Russell family, asked Maguire whether the school was aware of the suicide and self-harm-related content available to students on sites such as Instagram.

Maguire said: “At the time, we were shocked when we saw it. But to say that we were completely shocked would be wrong because we had been warning young people about the dangers of social media for a long time.”

The deputy headteacher, Rebecca Cozens, who is also head of safeguarding at the school, told the inquest once young people had gone “down the rabbit hole” on social media, it was a “deep one”.

Asked by Sanders whether there was an awareness of the type of material Molly had engaged with, Cozens said: “I don’t think at that time an awareness of the depth of it and how quickly it would snowball … and the intensity then, when you’re going down that rabbit hole it is a deep one.”

On Monday a senior executive at Meta, the owner of Instagram, apologised after acknowledging that Molly had viewed content that breached the platform’s content guidelines. Elizabeth Lagone, the head of health and wellbeing policy at Meta, said: “We are sorry that Molly saw content that violated our policies, and we don’t want that on the platform.”

Last week an executive at Pinterest, another platform Molly interacted with heavily before her death, said the site was not safe when the teenager used it.

The senior coroner, Andrew Walker, told the Russell family he would deliver his conclusions by the end of the week.

  • In the UK, the youth suicide charity Papyrus can be contacted on 0800 068 4141 or email pat@papyrus-uk.org, and in the UK and Ireland Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counsellor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org

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Microsoft to kill off old access rules in Exchange Online • The Register

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Microsoft next month will start phasing out Client Access Rules (CARs) in Exchange Online – and will do away with this means for controlling access altogether within a year.

CARs are being replaced with Continuous Access Evaluation (CAE) for Azure Active Directory, which can apparently in “near-real time” pick up changes to access controls, user accounts, and the network environment and enforce the latest rules and policies as needed, according to a notice this week from Microsoft’s Exchange Team.

That might be useful if suspicious activity is detected, or a user account needs to be suspended, and changes to access need to be immediate.

“Today, we are announcing the retirement of CARs in Exchange Online, to be fully deprecated by September 2023,” the advisory read. “We will send Message Center posts to tenants using client access rules to start the planning process to migrate their rules.”

CARs is used by Microsoft 365 administrators to allow or block client connections to Exchange Online based on a variety of characteristics set forth in policies and rules.

“You can prevent clients from connecting to Exchange Online based on their IP address (IPv4 and IPv6), authentication type, and user property values, and the protocol, application, service, or resource that they’re using to connect,” according to a Microsoft document from earlier this year.

For example, access can be granted to Exchange resources from specific IP address, and all other clients blocked. Similarly, the system can filter access to Exchange services by department or location, or based on usernames.

Microsoft announced the replacement CAE in January, touting its ability to act fast on account revocation, disablement, or deletion; password or user location changes; the detection of nefarious activity; and other such updates, according to a blog post at the time by Alex Simons, corporate vice president of product management for the Windows giant’s identity and network access division.

“On receiving such events, app sessions are immediately interrupted and users are redirected back to Azure AD to reauthenticate or reevaluate policy,” Simons wrote. “With CAE, we have introduced a new concept of zero trust authentication session management that is built on the foundation of zero trust principles – verify explicitly and assume breach.”

With this zero-trust focus, session integrity – rather than a set session duration – is what dictates a user’s authentication lifespan, we’re told.

CAE not only aims to give enterprises greater and more immediate control over access and events, but users and managers may appreciate the speed at which changes are adopted, Microsoft claims.

“Continuous access evaluation is implemented by enabling services, like Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, and Teams, to subscribe to critical Azure AD events,” Microsoft added earlier this month. “Those events can then be evaluated and enforced near real time. Critical event evaluation doesn’t rely on Conditional Access policies so it’s available in any tenant.”

Critical events can include a user account being deleted or disabled, a user password is changed or reset, or multifactor authentication is enabled for a user. There also are other events, such as when an administrator explicitly revokes all refresh tokens for a user or a rogue insider is detected by Azure AD Identity Protection.

Finally, for workload identities, CAE enforces token revocation for workloads, among other things, according to Microsoft. ®

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EU proposes new liability rules around AI tech to protect consumers

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The current EU rules around product liability are more than 40 years old, meaning they do not cover harm caused by drones and other AI tech.

The European Commission has outlined a set of new proposals to enable people who are harmed by AI tech products to seek and receive compensation.

The proposals were published today (28 September). They are designed to comply with the EU’s 2021 AI Act proposal, which set out a framework for trust in AI-related technology.

Today’s AI Liability Directive aims to provide a clear and comprehensive structure for all Europeans to claim compensation in the event they are harmed by AI tech products, such as drones and robots.

The EU’s directive includes rules for businesses and consumers alike to abide by. Those who are harmed by AI products or tech can seek compensation just as they would if they were in harmed any other way.

The rules will make it easier for people who have been discriminated against by AI technology as part of the recruitment process, for example, to pursue legal action.

An example of harm that may be caused by tech products is data loss. Robots, drones, smart-home systems and other similar digital products must also comply with cybersecurity regulations around addressing vulnerabilities.

The directive builds on existing rules that manufacturers must follow around unsafe products ­– no matter how high or low-tech they are.

It is proposing a number of different strategies to modernise and adapt liability rules specifically for digital products. The existing rules around product liability in the EU are almost 40 years old, and do not cover advanced technologies such as AI.

European commissioner for internal market, Thierry Breton, said that the existing rules have “been a cornerstone of the internal market for four decades”.

“Today’s proposal will make it fit to respond to the challenges of the decades to come. The new rules will reflect global value chains, foster innovation and consumer trust, and provide stronger legal certainty for businesses involved in the green and digital transition.”

Vice-president for values and transparency, Věra Jourová, said that for AI tech to thrive in the EU, it is important for people to trust digital innovation.

She added that the new proposals would give customers “tools for remedies in case of damage caused by AI so that they have the same level of protection as with traditional technologies”. The rules will also “ensure legal certainty” for the EU’s internal market.

As well as consumer protection, the proposals are designed to foster innovation. They have laid down guarantees for the AI sector through the introduction of measures such as the right to fight a liability claim based on a presumption of causality.

The AI Liability Directive will need to be agreed with EU countries and lawmakers before it can become law.

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