Archive

Twitter bags deep learning talent behind London startup, Fabula AI

Twitter has just announced it has picked up London-based Fabula AI. The deep learning startup has been developing technology to try to identify online disinformation by looking at patterns in how fake stuff vs genuine news spreads online — making it an obvious fit for the rumor-riled social network.

Social media giants remain under increasing political pressure to get a handle on online disinformation to ensure that manipulative messages don’t, for example, get a free pass to fiddle with democratic processes.

Facebook, Google and Twitter told to do more to fight fake news ahead of European elections

Twitter says the acquisition of Fabula will help it build out its internal machine learning capabilities — writing that the UK startup’s “world-class team of machine learning researchers” will feed an internal research group it’s building out, led by Sandeep Pandey, its head of ML/AI engineering.

This research group will focus on “a few key strategic areas such as natural language processing, reinforcement learning, ML ethics, recommendation systems, and graph deep learning” — now with Fabula co-founder and chief scientist, Michael Bronstein, as a leading light within it.

Bronstein is chair in machine learning & pattern recognition at Imperial College, London — a position he will remain while leading graph deep learning research at Twitter.

Fabula’s chief technologist, Federico Monti — another co-founder, who began the collaboration that underpin’s the patented technology with Bronstein while at the University of Lugano, Switzerland — is also joining Twitter.

“We are really excited to join the ML research team at Twitter, and work together to grow their team and capabilities. Specifically, we are looking forward to applying our graph deep learning techniques to improving the health of the conversation across the service,” said Bronstein in a statement.

“This strategic investment in graph deep learning research, technology and talent will be a key driver as we work to help people feel safe on Twitter and help them see relevant information,” Twitter added. “Specifically, by studying and understanding the Twitter graph, comprised of the millions of Tweets, Retweets and Likes shared on Twitter every day, we will be able to improve the health of the conversation, as well as products including the timeline, recommendations, the explore tab and the onboarding experience.”

Terms of the acquisition have not been disclosed.

We covered Fabula’s technology and business plan back in February when it announced its “new class” of machine learning algorithms for detecting what it colloquially badged ‘fake news’.

Its approach to the problem of online disinformation looks at how it spreads on social networks — and therefore who is spreading it — rather than focusing on the content itself, as some other approaches do.

Fabula has patented algorithms that use the emergent field of “Geometric Deep Learning” to detect online disinformation — where the datasets in question are so large and complex that traditional machine learning techniques struggle to find purchase. Which does really sound like a patent designed with big tech in mind.

Fabula likens how ‘fake news’ spreads on social media vs real news as akin to “a very simplified model of how a disease spreads on the network”.

One advantage of the approach is it looks to be language agnostic (at least barring any cultural differences which might also impact how fake news spread).

Back in February the startup told us it was aiming to build an open, decentralised “truth-risk scoring platform” — akin to a credit referencing agency, just focused on content not cash.

It’s not clear from Twitter’s blog post whether the core technologies it will be acquiring with Fabula will now stay locked up within its internal research department — or be shared more widely, to help other platforms grappling with online disinformation challenges.

The startup had intended to offer an API for platforms and publishers later this year.

But of course building a platform is a major undertaking. And, in the meanwhile, Twitter — with its pressing need to better understand the stuff its network spreads — came calling.

A source close to the matter told us that Fabula’s founders decided that selling to Twitter instead of pushing for momentum behind a vision of a decentralized, open platform because the exit offered them more opportunity to have “real and deep impact, at scale”.

Though it is also still not certain what Twitter will end up doing with the technology it’s acquiring. And it at least remains possible that Twitter could choose to make it made open across platforms.

“That’ll be for the team to figure out with Twitter down the line,” our source added.

A spokesman for Twitter did not respond directly when we asked about its plans for the patented technology but he told us: “There’s more to come on how we will integrate Fabula’s technology where it makes sense to strengthen our systems and operations in the coming months.  It will likely take us some time to be able to integrate their graph deep learning algorithms into our ML platform. We’re bringing Fabula in for the team, tech and mission, which are all aligned with our top priority: Health.”

Fresh off a $530M round, Aurora acquires lidar startup Blackmore

Aurora, the self-driving car startup backed by Sequoia Capital and Amazon, is in an acquiring mood. The company, founded in early 2017 by Chris Urmson, Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell, announced Thursday that it acquired lidar company Blackmore.

The Blackmore purchase follows another smaller, and previously unknown, acquisition of 7D Labs that occurred earlier this year, TechCrunch has learned. 7D, founded by former software engineer from Pixar animation Magnus Wrenninge, is a simulation startup that makes photorealistic synthetic data sets for street scenes. Aurora confirmed the acquisition.

Aurora’s larger Blackmore acquisition comes on the heels of its $530 million Series B funding round led by Sequoia Capital and “significant investment” from Amazon and T. Rowe Price Associates. Aurora did not disclose the terms of the deal.

Lidar, or light detection and ranging radar, measures distance. It’s considered by many in the emerging automated driving industry — with the exception of Tesla CEO Elon Musk and a handful of others — as a critical and necessary sensor for self-driving vehicles.

Blackmore, which has 70 employees, might not be a household name. And its base of operations in Bozeman, Mont. makes it a seeming oddball amongst the Silicon Valley scene.

But in the world of autonomous vehicles (and in military circles), Blackmore is well-known and has been considered an acquisition target for some time. Two funding rounds in 2016 and 2018 that brought in backers like BMW i Ventures and Toyota AI Ventures raised Blackmore’s profile. (The company has raised $21.5 million). Cruise, GM’s self-driving unit, was looking at the company last year, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.

But it’s the company’s tech, which has been under development for nearly a decade, that got Aurora CEO Chris Urmson’s attention.

Blackmore CEO Randy Reibel noted in a recent interview a highlight was getting a chance to see the look on Urmson’s face when he first saw the lidar in action.

Not all lidar is the same, both Urmson and Reibel noted. The vast majority of the 70-odd companies that exist in the industry today are developing and trying to sell AM lidar sensors, which send out pulses of light outside the visible spectrum and then track how long it takes for each of those pulses to return. As they come back, the direction of, and distance to, whatever those pulses hit are recorded as a point and eventually forms a 3D map.

Blackmore is one of the few companies developing Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) lidar, which emits a low-power and continuous wave, a bit like keeping a flashlight on, the company’s CTO and co-founder Stephen Crouch explained. The upshot is FMCW lidar can measure distance with a higher dynamic range and instant velocity, meaning it can gauge the speed of the objects coming to or moving away from them. It’s also “immune” to interference from sun or other other sensors, Crouch added.

The big win, Urmson and Reibel echoed, is that it is optimized with the perception stack. In other words, this lidar is technically compatible in a way that will improve perception of Aurora’s “driver.”

The acquisition of Blackmore is just one example in the past two years of lidar startups either announcing large equity and debt rounds or being snapped up by companies developing autonomous vehicle technology. In 2017, Cruise acquired Strobe and Argo AI bought Princeton Lightwave.

That kind of consolidation will likely continue, Reibel predicted, in part because it’s challenging for lidar companies to “go it alone.” AV companies are particularly protective of their tech and opening the door to an outside lidar company takes convincing.

Despite the acquisition, Urmson reiterated, as he has in the past, that Aurora is not interested in manufacturing hardware, whether it’s cars or lidars. The company will work with automotive Tier 1 suppliers and other partners as it scales.

For now, Aurora is focused on integrating Blackmore’s lidar into its self-driving stack and isn’t necessarily planning to sell lidar sensors as a standalone product. But, Urmson added, “We’re open-minded about the future.”

Close

CONTACT US

Complete the form below and we will get back to you shortly.

  • Subscribe error, please review your email address.

    Close

    You are now subscribed, thank you!

    Close

    There was a problem with your submission. Please check the field(s) with red label below.

    Close

    Your message has been sent. We will get back to you soon!

    Close