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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.”

Capital.com powers Currency.coms world first in tokenising government bonds

With the SEC recently releasing its long-awaited guidance on crypto token issuers, it’s becoming clear that the crypto world is edging closer to the traditional financial world. New players are joining the sector who hail from traditional finance and trading backgrounds.

Until this year, crypto exchanges focused on providing access to ICOs instead of providing access to traditional capital markets with real value and revenues.

When Currency.com launched its beta in January among influencers in the finance, trading and crypto space, it looked to address this deficit. The company says it attracted 150,000 people to the waiting list to test the platform and have since onboarded around 5,000 so far. Now the platform aims to take a further step.

Today it’s launching what it claims to be the world’s first tokenized government bond. This could be construed as a significant move, but it will come down to whether the market welcomes this or not.

Currency.com’s full launch will make 1,000 tokenized securities available to both private and institutional investors globally but will exclude the USA and those on the FATF list.

The underlying tech story here is that Currency.com leverages the technology of Capital.com, its sister platform regulated by the FCA and CySEC.

Capital.com is a fintech startup with an AI-enabled trading platform available on the web and on mobile, which works to detect clients’ trading biases and recommends personalized content to help them trade smarter. The startup is backed to the tune of $25 million by VP Capital, the vehicle of London-based investor Viktor Prokopenya, and Larnabel Ventures.

Currency.com will enable users to trade and invest in tokenized government bonds using fiat money, Bitcoin or Ethereum, and has issued a tokenized version of Belarusian government bonds and plans to include additional tokenized government and corporate bonds over time.

So, if you want to trade in Belarusian government bonds, this is the place for you.

However, there could be enormous regulatory hurdles ahead for something like this, internationally, and bond issuers may well look askance at such a project.

But for now, Ivan Gowan (pictured), Currency.com’s CEO who previous to this led IG Group’s IT function for over 15 years, says he is confident the move will be a big one.

“The arrival of tokenized securities will completely change how investors can use their cryptocurrencies. Linking crypto to the price of stocks and shares provides a tangible way for holders of Bitcoin and Ethereum to access traditional financial markets. Our beta launch proved the appetite is there globally for a service like this and Currency.com’s full launch marks a significant shift in the direction of crypto as it becomes more regulated and starts to move closer towards traditional markets,” he said.

Traditionally, government bonds offer the most secure assets alongside cash — however, they provide a better interest rate.

However, the bonds market and securities that can be tokenized is a market measured in trillions as opposed to billions, because the bond market is a much larger market than that for equities and is harder for retail customers to access.

Furthermore, the risk-adjusted returns and risk of default are totally different to ICOs.

Tokenizing bonds, therefore, could allow retail clients access to a less volatile market to help them grow their wealth without the ups and downs experienced by the normal equities market.

That, at least, is the theory.

What is in favor of Currency.com’s move is the fact that the LSE, Nasdaq and Swiss Stock Exchange are all looking to move into tokenized securities.

If Currency.com steals a march on them, all well and good. If government bond issues take umbrage, however… not so good.

Currency.com may at least benefit from its well-built mobile app, allowing crypto investors to trade more easily on mobile, featuring stops, limits and negative balance protection.

Now, while the platform will be regulated, it must be pointed out that the regulation isn’t coming from a traditional jurisdiction. Currency.com will be regulated by the High Tech Park in Minsk, Belarus.

This claims to be “one of the strictest set of regulations in the world,” covering “strict AML, KYC processes.”

Last year Belarus introduced “Decree 8,” which boosted the country’s laws around the tech sector and crypto.

So, in theory, the wind is at the back of such a launch, given a favorable regulator and government.

Time will tell whether this move will ultimately be a win for Capital.com, the underlying tech company behind this whole enterprise.

Onfido, which verifies IDs using AI, nabs $50M from SoftBank, Salesforce, Microsoft and more

Security breaches, where malicious hackers obtain snippets of information that then get used to impersonate individuals in order to gain access to individuals’ and businesses’ sensitive financial and other private information, have become par for the course in the world of digital services. More than 2.7 billion records were  breached in a single incident this year in the US, and overall the damage from incidents like these potentially runs into the trillions of dollars globally.

Today, a startup called Onfido, which uses AI techniques combined with human verifiers to efficiently verify people are who they say they are when using digital services — is today announcing $50 million in funding to help address that ongoing — and growing — problem.

The funding comes on the heels of some very strong growth for the startup, which was founded in London but now operates most of its business out of San Francisco. In an interview, co-founder and CEO Husayn Kassai said that more than half of its customers, and most of its new growth, is coming out of the US.

Onfido uses computer vision and a number of other AI-based technologies to verify against some 4,500 different types of identity documents, using techniques like “facial liveness testing,” to see patterns invisible to the human eye, now has 1,500 businesses as customers, primarily in categories like marketplaces and communities, gaming and financial services, including companies like Remitly, Zipcar and Europcar; and in the last year, it had sales growth of 342 percent. Kassai said that it has to date verified “tens of millions” of IDs.

The money — a Series C2, technically — is coming from a group that includes top strategic tech investors. The round is being co-led by SoftBank Investment (SBI) and Salesforce Ventures, with M12 (the new name for Microsoft Ventures), FinVC and other unnamed new and previous investors are also participating. That’s a signal not just of how the biggest companies in that sector today are grappling with this problem, but also what approach they are using to solve it.

For SoftBank, the investment is separate from the Vision fund, founder and CEO Husayn Kassai noted, but it’s notable that a lot of the businesses that have been backed out of that fund — companies like Didi, Uber, Oyo, Lemonade, and others — fundamentally rely on people trusting that they are handling personal details securely while also carefully vetting suppliers on the platform (meaning, they need and use services like Onfido’s).

Meanwhile, both Microsoft and Salesforce have extensive enterprise businesses that could see multiple benefits from working with an identity verification provider, not just for their own purposes, but as a service that is sold on to its customers as part of a larger identity management and security offering.

The company is not revealing its valuation but has raised around $100 million to date and Kassai confirmed that it was an upround, with “a lot of happy investors.”

“We have strong metrics, and we have a long way to go in our growth,” he added.

There are a lot of companies today offering services to help offer secure services to authenticate users, for example, to help them log on to their work accounts or to access their online banking services. Onfido’s business focuses on the first step in all of this — customer onboarding — specifically around services geared towards consumers.

The opportunity that has opened up for it has been the result of more than just a rise in breaches. There’s also been a growing realization that a lot of the existing services that had been used for verification are simply not fit for purpose: either they too have been breached — as in the case of some of the bigger credit agencies like Equifax — or are not realistically efficient enough for how many online services run today, such as in the case of in-person verifications. (Onfido claims that its system can make a verification in as little as 15 seconds.)

Or, they are part of the new guard that has shifted its approach to the business of ID verificiation, either by choice or force. One would-be competitor from the past, Checkr, is now a partner of Onfido’s, Kassai noted. Others like Jumio — which is still grappling with the fallout from major illegal missteps from previous management — seem to still be trying to find their feet as standalone businesses.

“Fraud is rising and not going anywhere,” Kassai — who co-founded the company with Ruhul Amin and Eamon Jubbawy — said. “And the problem is that there are a dozen other companies that have not done a good enough job to detect it so far.” While no service is perfect — Onfido says that its “risk exposure” is 0.0195 percent — he says that the advantage of building its service on top of AI means that the algorithms use every experience to continue honing its accuracy. “What we learn from one client gets applied everywhere,” he notes.

“There has never been a more important time for companies to build trust with their customers by showing they are one step ahead of fraudsters,” said Frank van Veenendaal, the ex-vice chairman of Salesforce, who is joining the board with this round. “I believe Onfido has the unique opportunity to transform the digital identity market and deliver robust and scalable authentication-as-a-service, similar to how Salesforce transformed customer relationship management.”

Bitcoin’s Plunge in Volume Stirs Questions About Its Usage

Earlier this year, when Bitcoin’s price fell by more than 60 percent from its record close, a less-noticed Bitcoin figure also plunged: the number of daily transactions.

There are many explanations for the fall-off in trading, from software- to news-related. What’s less understood is why the level hasn’t recovered as Bitcoin’s price made a 50 percent comeback since Feb. 5. That’s left some investors wondering whether the cryptocurrency is waning in popularity.

The average number of trades recorded daily has roughly dropped in half from the December highs and touched its lowest in two years last month, even as Bitcoin became a household name and roared back to near $11,000.

The transaction data may be bad news for Bitcoin bulls, according to Charles Morris, chief investment officer of Newscape Capital Group in London, who invests in cryptocurrencies. Trading and purchases on the Bitcoin network, which can be measured by metrics like transaction volume, is indicative of price direction, he said.

Average transaction confirmation times have tumbled — though that may be in part because the technology that underlies Bitcoin has already been adapted to address some of these delays. For example, a software enhancement known as the SegWit protocol, changing the way data is stored on the blockchain, was activated last week by Coinbase Inc., the largest U.S. cryptocurrency exchange.

Not everyone agrees that lower volumes signal trouble for Bitcoin. It may be a healthy return to normality and signs that the market is maturing.

Should prices start rallying again, traders may well be coaxed back, according to David Drake, whose New York-based family office has more than $10 million in cryptocurrency and blockchain investments. He sees the currency soaring to $35,000 by the end of the year.

“We have a legacy of transactions being too slow and expensive, and it will take some time for people to forget,” Drake said by phone. “But they’ll come back.”

The decline in prices may itself be to blame for lower trading volumes in Bitcoin. And websites that once only allowed payment in Bitcoin now accept a much wider range of digital currencies, according to Kyle Samani, managing partner at crypto hedge fund Multicoin Capital. That makes alternative currencies more appealing than the first-mover in the space. A year ago, bitcoin’s market capitalization was about 85 percent of the total sector. It’s now around 40 percent, according to website Coinmarketcap.com.

“Merchants, payment processors and online gambling are moving off of Bitcoin,” Samani, who has $50 million allocated to the space, said in an email. “Our Bitcoin position as a fund is small — I believe Bitcoin is in the process of failing.”

    Worlds Biggest Ad Agency Suffers Worst Stock Drop Since 1999

    Martin Sorrell knows a few things about disruption, having built a global advertising empire from scratch from a shell of a company that made wire baskets. 

    But the tectonic shifts now shaking the industry have put the world’s largest advertising group and its 73-year-old chief on the defensive. On Thursday, WPP Plc announced a bleak outlook, following two cuts to its sales forecast last year that Sorrell called embarrassing. Shareholders anticipating a rebound from the company’s worst annual performance since the financial crisis were left disappointed.

    Sorrell’s pledge to simplify the sprawling 200,000-employee company and control costs wasn’t enough to stem an investor exodus: the stock fell as much as 15 percent, the most intraday since 1999, prompting a four-minute trading suspension. 

    “There’s a real sense of shock and awe at what’s happened to his business model,” said Alex DeGroote, media analyst at Cenkos Securities. “This is a stark reminder of the significant challenges WPP faces.”

    Sorrell is far from alone in an industry beset by a retreat from major customers along with the online competition eroding the core business. Global giant and WPP client Unilever Plc is holding back ad spending to cut costs, while web companies cut out advertising agencies that act as middle men and consultants like Accenture Plc and Deloitte LLP poach digital marketing work.

    Steep Drop

    Thursday’s stock slump deepens WPP’s already poor performance

    Intraday times are displayed in ET.

    WPP said 2018 would be flat and long-term earnings growth will be as little as 5 percent and twice that at best, compared with a prediction of as much as 15 percent previously. The year got off to a “slow start,” WPP said, continuing a trend from 2017 that saw flat margins and sales. Sorrell said the outlook is deliberately cautious.

    “Obviously we were sort of embarrassed by what happened in the last three quarters of the year where we were over-optimistic,” he said in a presentation to analysts in London.

    Thursday’s stock drop deepens an already poor market performance of WPP, which lost more than a quarter of its value over the course of last year, or about 6 billion pounds ($8 billion). The stock dropped as much as 207 pence in London to 1,187 pence, the worst performer on the FTSE 100 Index, sending its market capitalization to 15.4 billion pounds. Having founded the company in the 1980s, Sorrell is the biggest individual shareholder at WPP, with a stake of about 1.4 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

    The fallout hammered French rival Publicis Groupe SA, which last month struck a more optimistic tone. The Paris-based company dropped as much as 6.1 percent.

    Sorrell, who has bought hundreds companies in the past 30 years to form his sprawling ad network, highlighted better management as key to a turnaround: WPP is trying to break down silos among its various creative, ad buying, strategy and public relations businesses to improve its offerings to clients. It’s appointing country managers and sub-regional leaders to try to integrate at a country level.

    Sorrell said he’s focused on reacting to the challenging outlook, rather than “moaning” about it.

    WPP’s advertising sales have long been seen as a bellwether of strength in the global economy, as companies’ marketing budgets typically track business performance. But consumer-goods companies that have long been WPP’s bread and butter are growing more slowly than those in the technology and health-care sectors. Their reduced ad spending is the biggest headwind facing WPP, Sorrell said.

    Advertising clients are also moving more marketing dollars toward digital to fend off the likes of Amazon.com Inc. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. WPP has struggled to shift its services to help businesses transform their business-to-consumer platforms, an area where Accenture, Deloitte and International Business Machines Corp. have stepped in.

    Other rivals have adjusted quicker. Publicis in 2015 paid $3.7 billion for Sapient, which advises brands, energy and commodity traders and governments on technology and online strategies.

    Sorrell downplayed the threat from Google and Facebook, citing a recent comment from a Google executive who said the tech company doesn’t want to shut out advertising agencies. He also talked down the challenge from the consultancies, saying that WPP is winning more accounts than it is losing to those competitors.

    “Units of WPP are significantly involved in digital transformation with clients,” Sorrell said.

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