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Beijing wants tech giants to shoulder more social responsibilities – TechCrunch

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Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

This week, the gaming industry again became a target of Beijing, which imposed arguably the world’s strictest limits on underage players. On the other hand, China’s tech titans are hastily answering Beijing’s call for them to take on more social responsibilities and take a break from unfettered expansion.

Gaming curfew

China dropped a bombshell on the country’s young gamers. As of September 1, users under the age of 18 are limited to only one hour of online gaming time: on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between 8-9 p.m.

The stringent rule adds to already tightening gaming policies for minors, as the government blames video games for causing myopia, as well as deteriorating mental and physical health. Remember China recently announced a suite of restrictions on after-school tutoring? The joke going around is that working parents will have an even harder time keeping their kids occupied.

A few aspects of the new regulation are worth unpacking. For one, the new rule was instituted by the National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA), the regulatory body that approves gaming titles in China and that in 2019 froze the approval process for nine months, which led to plunges in gaming stocks like Tencent.

It’s curious that the directive on playtime came from the NPPA, which reviews gaming content and issues publishing licenses. Like other industries in China, video games are subject to regulations by multiple authorities: NPPA; the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s top internet watchdog; and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which oversees the country’s industrial standards and telecommunications infrastructure.

As analysts long observe, the mighty CAC, which sits under the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission chaired by President Xi Jinping, has run into “bureaucratic struggles” with other ministries unwilling to relinquish power. This may well be the case for regulating the lucrative gaming industry.

For Tencent and other major gaming companies, the impact of the new rule on their balance sheet may be trifling. Following the news, several listed Chinese gaming firms, including NetEase and 37 Games, hurried to announce that underage players made up less than 1% of their gaming revenues.

Tencent saw the change coming and disclosed in its Q2 earnings that “under-16-year-olds accounted for only 2.6% of its China-based grossing receipts for games and under-12-year-olds accounted for just 0.3%.”

These numbers may not reflect the reality, as minors have long found ways around gaming restrictions, such as using an adult’s ID for user registration (just as the previous generation borrowed IDs from adult friends to sneak into internet cafes). Tencent and other gaming firms have vowed to clamp down on these workarounds, forcing kids to seek even more sophisticated tricks, including using VPNs to access foreign versions of gaming titles. The cat and mouse game continues. 

Prosper together

While China curtails the power of its tech behemoths, it has also pressured them to take on more social responsibilities, which include respecting the worker’s rights in the gig economy.

Last week, the Supreme People’s Court of China declared the “996” schedule, working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, illegal. The declaration followed years of worker resistance against the tech industry’s burnout culture, which has manifested in actions like a GitHub project listing companies practicing “996.”

Meanwhile, hardworking and compliant employees have often been cited as a competitive advantage of China’s tech industry. It’s in part why some Silicon Valley companies, especially those run by people familiar with China, often set up branches in the country to tap its pool of tech talent.

The days when overworking is glorified and tolerated seem to be drawing to an end. Both ByteDance and its short video rival Kuaishou recently scrapped their weekend overtime policies.

Similarly, Meituan announced that it will introduce compulsory break time for its food delivery riders. The on-demand services giant has been slammed for “inhumane” algorithms that force riders into brutal hours or dangerous driving.

In groundbreaking moves, ride-hailing giant Didi and Alibaba’s e-commerce rival JD.com have set up unions for their staff, though it’s still unclear what tangible impact the organizations will have on safeguarding employee rights.

Tencent and Alibaba have also acted. On August 17, President Xi Jinping delivered a speech calling for “common prosperity,” which caught widespread attention from the country’s ultra-rich.

“As China marches towards its second centenary goal, the focus of promoting people’s well-being should be put on boosting common prosperity to strengthen the foundation for the Party’s long-term governance.”

This week, both Tencent and Alibaba pledged to invest 100 billion yuan ($15.5 billion) in support of “common prosperity.” The purposes of their funds are similar and align neatly with Beijing’s national development goals, from growing the rural economy to improving the healthcare system.



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Digital pensions platform Penfold raises $8.5M Series A led by Bridford Group – TechCrunch

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Penfold, a digital pensions platform, has closed a £7m ($8.49m) Series A funding round led by Bridford Group, an investment group.

Also participating in the round was Jeremy Coller, Chief Investment Officer and Chairman of Coller Capital. Penfold also raised additional funding via a crowdfund amongst its customer base. The cash will be used to expand Penfold’s workplace pension division.

Chris Eastwood, Co-Founder at Penfold, commented (in a statement): “It’s been a big year for Penfold – from launching our workplace pension offering, to reaching £100m AUA.”

Bridford Group, lead investor, commented: “The pensions industry represents a huge market – with £8trn in savings in the UK alone. Despite this, many people remain uninterested and unengaged in their pensions. With so many people not saving enough, there’s a real opportunity for a new provider to step in.” 



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After the FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago, online threats quickly turn into real-world violence – TechCrunch

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Threats of violence reached a fever pitch — reminiscent of the days leading up to the Capitol attack — following the news that the FBI raided Trump’s Florida beach club to retrieve classified documents the former president may have unlawfully taken there.

After Trump himself confirmed Monday’s raid at Mar-a-Lago, pro-Trump pundits and politicians rallied around declarations of “war,” and Trump’s ever-fervent supporters called for everything from dismantling the federal law enforcement agency to committing acts of violence against its agents. The situation escalated from there in record time, with online rhetoric boiling over quickly into real-world violence.

By Thursday, an armed man identified as Ricky Shiffer attempted to force his way into an FBI office in Cincinnati, Ohio, brandishing a rifle before fleeing. Law enforcement pursued Shiffer and he was fatally shot during the ensuing standoff with police.

Analysts with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a nonprofit that researches extremism and disinformation, found evidence that Shiffer was driven to commit violence by “conspiratorial beliefs related to former President Trump and the 2020 election…interest in killing federal law enforcement, and the recent search warrant executed at Mar-a-Lago earlier this week.” He was also reportedly present at the January 6 attack — another echo between this week’s escalating online threats and the tensions that culminated in political violence at the Capitol that day.

Shiffer appears to have been active on both Twitter and Truth Social, the platform from Trump’s media company that hosts the former president and his supporters. As Thursday’s attack unfolded, Shiffer appeared to post to Truth Social about how his plan to infiltrate the FBI office by breaking through a ballistic glass barrier with a nail gun had gone awry. “Well, I thought I had a way through bullet proof glass, and I didn’t,” the account posted Thursday morning. “If you don’t hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the F.B.I., and it’ll mean either I was taken off the internet, the F.B.I. got me, or they sent the regular cops…”

In posts on Truth Social, the account implored others to “be ready to kill the enemy” and “kill the FBI on sight” in light of Monday’s raid at Mar-a-Lago. It also urged followers to heed a “call to arms” to arm themselves and prepare for combat. “If you know of any protests or attacks, please post here,” the account declared earlier this week.

By Friday, that account was removed from the platform and a search of Shiffer’s name mostly surfaced content denouncing his actions. “Why did you censor #rickyshiffer‘s profile? So much for #truth and #transparency,” one Truth Social user posted on Friday. Still, online conspiracies around the week’s events remain in wide circulation on Truth Social and elsewhere, blaming antifa for the attack on the Ohio FBI office, accusing the agency of planting documents at Mar-a-Lago and sowing unfounded fears that well-armed IRS agents will descend on Americans in light of Friday’s House passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.

“‘Violence against law enforcement is not the answer no matter what anybody is upset about or who they’re upset with,’ FBI director Christopher Wray said in light of emerging threats of violence this week. Trump appointed Wray to the role in 2017 after infamously ousting former FBI director James Comey.”

Friday is also the five-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally, which saw white nationalists clad in Nazi imagery marching openly through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. The ensuing events left 32-year-old protester Heather Heyer dead and sent political shockwaves through a nation that had largely grown complacent about the simmering threat of white supremacist violence.



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Diagnostic Robotics has AI catching health problems before they take you to the ER – TechCrunch

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A stitch in time saves nine, they say — and a blood thinner in time saves a trip to the emergency room for a heart attack, as Diagnostic Robotics hopes to show. The company’s machine learning-powered preventative care aims to predict and avoid dangerous (and costly) medical crises, saving everyone money and hopefully keeping them healthier in general —  and it’s raised $45 million to scale up.

It’s important to explain at the start that this particular combination of AI, insurance, hospital bills, and “predictive medicine” isn’t some kind of technotopian nightmare. The whole company is based on the fact that it’s both better for you and cheaper if you, for example, improve your heart health rather than have a heart attack.

That’s why your doctors tell you to cut down on red meat and maybe even take a cholesterol-maintenance medication instead of saying “well, if you have a heart attack just go to the ER.” It’s just common sense, and it also saves patients, hospitals, and insurance companies money. And don’t worry, this kind of prediction can’t be used to raise your premiums or deny care. They want you making monthly payments — they just don’t want to have to shell out for a $25,000 operation if they can help it.

The question is, what about less obvious conditions, or ones that patients haven’t had specific tests for? This is where machine learning models come in; they’re very good at teasing out a signal from a large amount of noise. And in this case what the AI was trained on is 65 million anonymized medical records.

“We see how people look before the problems — everything we do is preventative care,” said Kira Radinsky, CEO and co-founder of Diagnostic Robotics. “It’s all about offering the right intervention, at the right time, to the right patient.”

She noted that providers often focus on the most expensive patients in order to reduce costs — for example, someone with advanced heart disease. But while acute and maintenance care continues to be important for them, that money has already gone out the door. On the other hand, if you diagnose someone with early signs of congestive heart failure, you can stop it from advancing and save money and possibly even a life. And the technique applies beyond things that can be detected in labs.

“Say the challenge is to find patients suffering from depression or anxiety, but aren’t taking any medications,” Radinsky proposed. “How do you identify someone with depression or anxiety based on medical records? We identify the entropy of their visits — lots of providers, lots of complaints — that’s a strong signal. Then you do specific questions, a medical triage, and you get them connected to a psychologist or psychiatrist, and they’re no longer deteriorating.”

The company claims it can reduce ER visits by three quarters, which is important beyond the immediate benefits for a person and their provider; ERs and urgent cares are overwhelmed in the U.S., paradoxically due to the pervasive fear of incurring huge medical expenses.

Example of a tablet interface showing a patient’s info as sorted by Diagnostic Robotics’ models.

In many cases, she said, medical providers or insurers will offer medications or treatment for free or at nominal cost, since they know they’re saving themselves a bigger bill down the line. Sure, it’s all out of self-interest, but that means you can trust them.

The Tel Aviv-based Diagnostic Robotics just raised a big $45 million B round, led by StageOne investors, with participation from Mayo Clinic, Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) and Bradley Bloom. Radinsky said this will help the company start working more directly with providers, taking on more holistic health goals in addition to specific high-risk conditions. (The company currently tracks around 20.)

A pilot test of this broader approach was recently validated in a study of a few hundred patients, in which the AI-prepared health plan was statistically indistinguishable from a clinician’s. The company is already serving millions of patients in some capacity, in Israel, South Africa, and in the U.S., with Blue Cross Rhode Island.

If they expand to your provider, don’t expect some kind of robotic examination, though the name obviously suggests this.

“You’ll get phone calls from care managers offering additional treatments, for free or almost for free,” Radinsky said. The AI will already have done its work, and maybe your test results and location suggest you’re at risk for something — and you’d do well to take these recommendations seriously. AI may have a lot of room to grow still but it’s good at sniffing out statistical correlations.

She was careful to add that they are also actively working on finding, defining, and mitigating bias in the algorithms, whether it results from biased data or human error somewhere else along the lines. “What the algorithm is trying to do is see who will benefit the most,” Radinsky explained, but as with other forms of AI and machine learning, only careful monitoring will tell whether its idea of who benefits matches the real world.



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Amazon-owned MGM makes a viral video show with surveillance footage from Amazon-owned Ring – TechCrunch

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MGM (which is owned by Amazon) is making a viral video show based on footage from Ring security cameras (also owned by Amazon). The syndicated television show, “Ring Nation,” is poised to be a modern-day, surveillance-tinged spin on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” with Wanda Sykes as host.

According to a report in Deadline, the show will feature Ring footage of “neighbors saving neighbors, marriage proposals, military reunions and silly animals.” Ring is also known for activities like accidentally leaking people’s home addresses and handing over footage to the government without users’ permission.

Between January and July of this year, Amazon shared ring doorbell footage with U.S. authorities 11 times without the device owner’s consent. Ring has been critiqued for working unusually closely with at least 2,200 police departments around the United States, allowing police to request video doorbell camera footage from homeowners through Ring’s Neighbors app. Like Citizen and Nextdoor, the Neighbors app tracks local crime and allows users to comment anonymously — plus, Ring’s police partners can publicly request video footage on the app.

An Amazon-owned police surveillance network is bad enough, but Neighbors users have also faced repeated safety and security issues.

An executive at MGM, Barry Poznick, praised the new show: “From the incredible, to the hilarious and uplifting must-see viral moments from around the country every day, Ring Nation offers something for everyone watching at home.”

But perhaps what viewers at home really want is data privacy.

Ring only started disclosing its connections with law enforcement after fielding demands for transparency from the U.S. government. In a 2019 letter, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said that the company’s relationship with police forces raise civil liberties concerns.

“The integration of Ring’s network of cameras with law enforcement offices could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities,” Sen. Markey wrote. “In light of evidence that existing facial recognition technology disproportionately misidentifies African Americans and Latinos, a product like this has the potential to catalyze racial profiling and harm people of color.”

Amazon bought the smart video doorbell company in 2018 for $1 billion, then bought MGM for $8.5 billion earlier this year. Now, these two investments — which seemingly have nothing to do with each other — are merging to create a late-capitalist dystopian spectacular that we couldn’t have imagined in our worst nightmares. Amazon also just spent $1.7 billion on iRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum, but we will not dare to imagine how that acquisition may one day inspire a horrifying TV show.



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Teens have abandoned Facebook, Pew study says – TechCrunch

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Gen Z internet use is on the rise, but the rate at which teens use Facebook is rapidly declining. A Pew Research Center study on teens, technology and social media found that only 32% of teens aged 13-17 use Facebook at all, but in a previous survey from 2014-2015, that figure was 71%, beating out platforms like Instagram and Snapchat.

Jules Terpak, a Gen Z content creator covering digital culture, told TechCrunch that teens just don’t find value in Facebook anymore.

“There are now well over five strongly positioned social media platforms to endlessly scroll through, and it isn’t sustainable for our minds to compartmentalize nor prioritize our relationship with all of them,” Terpak said via email. “For the sake of time and sanity, people have to eliminate platforms that begin to lack a value-add incentive.”

Terpak thinks that Facebook, which teens often associate with their parents, has little to offer Gen Z.

“The culture cultivated by the average Facebook user is very disconnected from what attracts Gen Z to a platform today, instead exuding the energy of a spam email,” she said.

Even in 2013, when 77% of online teens used Facebook, young users still felt negatively about the platform.

“While Facebook is still deeply integrated in teens’ everyday lives, it is sometimes seen as a utility and an obligation rather than an exciting new platform that teens can claim as their own,” Pew’s report from 2013 said. In that nine-year-old study, Pew found that teens expressed more enthusiasm for other platforms, even if they weren’t using them as much as Facebook. That trend has remained constant — as new generations of teens join social media, they’ve almost abandoned Facebook altogether.

Pew’s new findings are also consistent with Facebook’s own internal reporting, according to documents leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen. A Facebook researcher found in early 2021 that teenage users on Facebook’s app had declined 13% since 2019 and projected that the figure would continue to plummet 45% over the next two years. Overall, Facebook usership has remained somewhat stagnant, but this drop-off in a key demographic is bad news for Facebook’s ads business, which makes up the bulk of its revenue.

“Most young adults perceive Facebook as a place for people in their 40s and 50s,” said the 2021 internal Facebook document obtained by The Verge. “Young adults perceive content as boring, misleading, and negative.”

Instagram is not far behind TikTok

Even if teens are tired of Facebook, they haven’t given up on Instagram, another Meta platform. Sixty-two percent of teens use Instagram, up from 52% in the 2014-2015 survey. But TikTok, which wasn’t even released at the time of the last study, is now used by 67% of U.S. teens. Ninety-five percent of teens say they use YouTube, which may make it seem like it’s the dominant social platform — but many users interact with the platform simply to watch videos, rather than as a place to connect with others online. For example, a teen who uses YouTube to listen to music would be included in that 95%.

But as TikTok inches above Instagram and Snapchat — which are used by 62% and 59% of American teens, respectively — it makes sense why these older platforms are so desperate to mimic their newer competitor.

Pew also asked the 1,316 surveyed teens about the frequency with which they use these apps. But TikTok still earned a greater share of teens’ attention than any platform aside from YouTube, which 19% of teens say they use “almost constantly.” TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat earned this “almost constant attention” from 16%, 10% and 15% of teens respectively. Only 2% said this about Facebook.

These “almost constant” admissions might seem alarming, but teens are aware that social media usage may not always provide the social connection they hope for. Thirty-six percent of teens think that they spend too much time on social media. Conversely, only 8% of teens said that they think they don’t use social media enough.

If you think Gen Z is full of phone-addicted zombies, though, you might be wrong. Forty-five percent of teens said that they wouldn’t have trouble giving up social media. More power to them.



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Google Meet’s new feature lets users consume YouTube and Spotify together – TechCrunch

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As Google continues the great merger between its Duo and Meet video communications apps, the company today announced that it’s introducing new Apple SharePlay-like live-sharing features to Meet, making it easier for call-participants to engage with content together in real time.

It’s worth noting that Google already introduced some live-sharing features (e.g. watching YouTube videos together) to Duo back in February, and now it’s bringing them to Meet as the part of the merger.

The live-sharing feature will let users watch YouTube videos together, for example, and listen to songs on Spotify or play games such as Heads Up!, UNO! Mobile or Kahoot!.

These new features will be available under a new Activities tab — which also hosts Q&A and polls options — and is accessible through the three-dot menu. From there, users can start a shared activity — for instance, if they want to listen to a Spotify track together, they would tap on the Spotify icon and Meet redirects them to the Spotify app where they can join a group session. Notably, the group session feature is only available for Spotify Premium customers, with support for two to five participants.

Last week, Google took the next step of merging both video calling apps by updating the icon for Duo and renaming it Google Meet. As for Google Meet, it will be now called “Google Meet (original),” with a green icon — yes, it’s all very confusing. The tech giant has been adding other new features to Meet, too, such as instant and schedule meeting options, in-meeting chat, and virtual backgrounds.

While these latest updates work well for Meet calls across different platforms, consumers embedded in Apple’s ecosystem will already be familiar with this type of social content consumption through SharePlay, which works across a broader array of apps such as Apple TV+, TikTok, Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, NBA, Twitch, TikTok, MasterClass, ESPN+, Paramount+, Pluto TV, Apple Fitness+, and Apple Music.



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This Yale alum wants to build a telemedicine platform expressly for Alzheimer’s disease – TechCrunch

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Nikhil Patel is the kind of founder who investors adore. He’s a brainiac who, before studying computer science at Yale, spent three years in high school working as a research associate at the University of Central Florida. “I started working there before I could drive, and it was the most embarrassing thing to get dropped off by my mom at the office,” he says with a laugh.

Patel also has a personal connection to the problem he is trying to solve, that of trying to diagnose and address Alzheimer’s disease as early as possible. Watching his grandmother lose ground to Alzheimer’s, and understanding, from a young age, that an early diagnosis and intervention can delay the onset of dementia, he centered his research on building Alzheimer’s-related computerized diagnostics — which wasn’t easy to pull off as a teenager.  (He says he finally found one professor who was willing to publish his findings under the auspices of the lab after more than 100 others turned him down.)

Patel did get a wee bit distracted. After graduating from college, he logged time at a “couple of different hedge funds” and at Goldman Sachs where he worked on trading algorithms. But by early last year, as another relative was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he returned to earlier work, founding Craniometrix, which is today a tiny, three-person operation with sizable ambitions.

So far, the team has raised $6 million in seed funding for a HIPAA-compliant app that, according to Patel, can help identify Alzheimer’s disease — even years before symptoms appear — after just 10 minutes of gameplay on a cellphone. It’s not purely a tech offering. Patel says the results are given to an “actual physician” affiliated with Craniometrix who “reviews, verifies, and signs that diagnostic” and returns it back to a patient.

But the company’s backers —  including Quiet Capital, Defy.vc, Olive Tree Capital, Rebel Fund, J Ventures, Cathexis Ventures and Y Combinator — and really betting on Patel and his bigger vision to create a one-stop, direct-to-consumer tele-medicine platform that not only helps with early Alzheimer’s detection but that also provides ongoing support to patients and their caregivers.

It’s a concept that Neil Sequeira of Defy says he rallied around easily, given his firm’s interest in startups that use tech to improve upon legacy healthcare businesses. (Others of Defy’s bets include a cloud-based lab management startup called Genemod and Apploi, a healthcare hiring platform.)

But Sequeira suggests that he might back anything Patel worked on. In fact, he says he met Patel through another CEO whose stealth startup Defy has funded and who, when asked about the smartest person he has ever met, pointed to Patel.

Only time will tell whether those smarts will successfully bolster a big business, but unsurprisingly, Patel already has a roadmap.

While step one centers on people who are concerned about developing Alzheimer’s, want to self-screen at home, and will receive a doctor-reviewed diagnostic report from the company within 48 hours, Craniometrix expects to soon offer real-time doctor access to customers who may have questions and concerns after receiving their report.

Craniometrix also plans to create bundled monthly subscriptions that will include point-in-time screenings, access to live doctor assistance, and other tools to address symptom management and caregiver support.

It’s a big market, Patel argues. He asserts that caregivers today spend $3,000 a year out of pocket on the types of services that Craniometrix will eventually offer online. He also notes that while the direct-to-consumer market alone is a big opportunity, he is already having “interesting conversations” with health plans about using tools like those that Craniometrix is developing to cut down on unnecessary patient visits.

Says Patel, “a lot of today’s visits could easily be served by a chat service or an offline communication service.”

Ultimately, Patel says, the idea is to eliminate the need to go to a medical office. But it’s also to “keep people on better footing” when it comes to managing the disease.

Considering that Alzheimer’s currently afflicts 6 million Americans alone and that those numbers are growing fast as the overall population ages, the company could well be one to watch. Stay tuned.



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