The Justice Department is investigating TikTok over journalist spying incident
The Biden administration has recently ramped up pressure on TikTok over national security concerns stemming from its ties to China, and apparently the Justice Department and the FBI are also applying pressure of their own.
Forbes first reported that the agencies are actively investigating ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company. The investigation was reportedly initiated after some employees leveraged the app to spy on U.S.-based journalists — an incident corroborated by an internal investigation late last year.
Now, The New York Times and other outlets have matched Forbes’ reporting, confirming that the Fraud Section of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division is coordinating with the FBI and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia to investigate the breach of user privacy.
In the internal investigation, ByteDance found that some employees accessed data on American journalists’ TikTok accounts in order to investigate who at the company was leaking information to reporters. Of employees involved in the incident — who were fired after the fact — two were part of the company’s operations in China.
The latest revelations come a week before TikTok’s CEO is scheduled to testify before Congress — an appearance that’s likely to be met with deep suspicion, even by tech hearing standards. In the days leading up to the hearing, the Biden administration has stiffened its posture toward the company considerably, threatening to ban the app in the U.S. if TikTok’s Chinese owners don’t sell the company.
TikTok rebuffed the White House’s new demand for divestiture, arguing that selling the company won’t address the government’s concerns. TikTok pointed to its own proposed solution instead, though convincing the U.S. government that a China-based company operating in the U.S. should be allowed to self-regulate is a difficult sell. To mitigate concerns about the app’s relationship with China, TikTok launched a $1.5 billion initiative known as “Project Texas” that would store U.S. user data domestically and subject the company to an auditing process conducted by American tech giant Oracle.
Zoom is adding new features to compete with Slack, Calendly, Google and Microsoft
Weeks after laying off 1,300 people (or 15% of the staff), Zoom is introducing new features to compete with numerous companies including Slack, Calendly, Google, and Microsoft. These features include AI-powered meeting summaries, prompt-based email responses, and whiteboard generation along with video “Huddles” and a meeting scheduler.
The company wants you to shift more of your work tasks to its tools. To that end, Zoom is opening up its email and calendar clients to everyone. The video conferencing company started testing these tools last year in a big explore area beyond meetings. There are also hosted email and calendar services on offer with end-to-end encryption protection and custom domains for paid users. Companies could use these services as an alternative to Microsoft Exchange and Google Workspace.
These days it’s difficult to spend a few hours without a company announcing generative AI features. Zoom is expanding its Zoom IQ assistant to provide AI-powered summaries and “ask further questions” even when you join a meeting midway. Once the meeting ends, the bot will post a summary to Zoom’s team chat feature. The assistant can also summarize the chat threads in the team chat.
Until now, Zoom IQ had the ability to record highlights, divide a meeting into chapters, and list action items automatically. Last year, the company also launched Zoom IQ for Sales aiming to provide insights from video calls for sales teams.
Zoom is promising a generative future with Zoom IQ helping users compose chats, emails, and whiteboard sessions, creating meeting agendas. The company is inviting users next month to try these features out with plans for a wider rollout later. The company said it is partnering with OpenAI for the AI features, but it didn’t specify if the partnership includes just API usage or more.
The company introduced some non-AI-focused products as well. It launched Zoom Scheduler in public beta — a Calendly-like tool to share availability to book appointments. Zoom also introduced virtual coworking spaces called Zoom Huddles where people can drop in or drop out at any time. This feature is similar to the Slack Huddles feature, which was introduced in 2021 to have a quick voice or video-based real-time conversations.
Zoom seems to be fighting many battles here. On one hand, it is introducing generative AI features to create emails, meeting agendas, and whiteboards to fight the onslaught of Microsoft and Google. Both of which have announced new generative AI features for workplaces. On the other hand, it is fighting a battle to be a relevant workplace tool beyond meetings that rivals Slack, Calendly, and Otter.
Recently, Slack announced a ChatGPT bot in collaboration with OpenAI. Meanwhile, the transcription tool Otter launched the OtterPilot assistant that automatically summarizes meetings. But that’s not it. Plenty of other meeting-related tools have been launching AI-powered summarization features in different formats.
Zoom’s stock has tanked more than 40% in the last 12 months. The company faced its first quarterly loss of $108 million since 2018 in the fourth quarter results for the 2023 financial year. It expects slowed growth of 1.1% this fiscal year with expected revenue between $4.435 billion to $4.455 billion.
Venti raises $29M for autonomous vehicle tech designed for industrial and logistics hubs
We are still likely many years away from wide-scale deployment — let alone adoption — of fully autonomous vehicles on our streets, but in the meantime autonomous vehicle companies focusing on closed-campus environments continue to raise funding and make headway in building self-driving on a smaller scale. In the latest, a startup called Venti Technologies is announcing that it has raised $28.8 million, a Series A that it plans to use to continue building out its software, partner with third parties for hardware (that is, vehicles), and to secure more deals.
Its target customer comes from the wide range of supply chain businesses that operate across warehouses, ports and other shipping and logistics environments where vehicles — currently driven by humans — are central to operations. Venti’s bet is that even with the high prices associated with self-driving vehicles, industrial customers will pay because longer term it will pay off for them.
“If you have a big logistics facility where you run vehicles, the largest cost is human capital — drivers,” Heidi Wyle, Venti’s founder and CEO, said in an interview. “Our customers are telling us that they expect to save over 50% of their operations costs with self-driving vehicles. Think they will have huge savings.”
LG Technology Ventures, the VC arm of the LG Group, is leading this round, with Safar Partners, UOB Venture Management, and previous investors Alpha JWC and LDV Partners also participating. Venti last raised $8 million, in the summer of 2021. Valuation is not being disclosed.
Venti is coming at the industrial market having had its fingers burned a little from its initial ambitions in the consumer market, where it worked on SUVs and a robo-taxi strategy, among other things, but discovered that the complexity of the scenarios was ultimately insurmountable.
“What I’ve seen is that “robo-taxi” is an extremely difficult problem to solve,” she said. “All of the chaos of the world is sitting in those city streets. Industrial environments are utterly different. It’s not a sexy space but the global supply chain is huge and it got whacked in Covid. They are still digging themselves out of that and we enable them to work better [now], and if another thing like Covid comes along.”
LG — an industrial giant itself both as a primary business and as a supplier to industrial businesses — is not a strategic partner currently, but Wyle said that this is the long-term hope.
“Venti is solving real-world problems for large customers in huge markets with technology that has proven safe, mature and capable of near-term driverless deployment,” said Anshul Agarwal, MD at LG Technology Ventures, in a statement. “We are impressed not only by the technology, which is more complete and rapidly able to provide value to end customers, but also by the world-class team.”
Fusion startup Type One Energy gets $29M seed round
The oversubscribed round is yet another sign of fusion’s maturity
One fusion startup is betting that a 70-year-old idea can help it leapfrog the competition, so much so that it’s planning to skip the experimental phase and hook its prototype reactor up to the grid.
The decades-old concept, known as a stellarator, is deceptively simple: design a fusion reactor around the quirks of plasma, the superheated particles that fuse and generate power, rather than force the plasma into an artificial box. Easier said than done, of course. Plasma can be fickle, and designing “box” around the fourth state of matter is fiendishly complex.
That’s probably why stellarators spent years in the fusion-equivalent of the desert while the simpler doughnut-shaped tokamak ate everyone’s lunch, and nearly all of their research funding.
But not all of it. Type One Energy is the brainchild of a handful of physicists steeped in the stellarator world. One built the HSX stellarator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, two more performed experiments on it, and a fourth worked on the Wendelstein 7-X reactor, the world’s largest stellarator.
Together, they founded Type One in 2019 and nudged forward their approach to fusion at a steady pace. The company wasn’t in stealth — TechCrunch+ identified it as a promising fusion startup last year — but it was operating on a slim budget.
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