The Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute, the electrical engineering and computer science division of the esteemed German research organization, on Tuesday announced VVC, a new video codec standard that promises to bring around 50 percent efficiency gains in streaming video compression.
The codec’s full name is H.266/Versatile Video Coding, as Fraunhofer says it’s designed to be a successor to the industry-standard H.264/Advanced Video Coding (AVC) and H.265/High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) formats that combined make up about 90 percent of global digital video transmission and compression on the market today. While HEVC was first released in 2013, the codec has proved controversial due to aggressive patent disputes from its various stakeholders. That’s why AVC, the predecessor to HEVC, still remains the more dominant standard, despite first releasing back in 2003.
But Fraunhofer says VVC could be a path forward for the industry, as almost every major hardware and software company is currently tied up in a messy patent royalty system that dictates how much various stakeholders must pay to use different compression and transmission standards for devices, websites, and apps. With VVC, Fraunhofer says you can get something far better than AVC and HEVC without any of the licensing headaches.
“Through a reduction of data requirements, H.266/VVC makes video transmission in mobile networks (where data capacity is limited) more efficient. For instance, the previous standard H.265/HEVC requires 10 gigabytes of data to transmit a 90-min UHD video,” reads Fraunhofer’s press release. “With this new technology, only 5 gigabytes of data are required to achieve the same quality. Because H.266/VVC was developed with ultra-high-resolution video content in mind, the new standard is particularly beneficial when streaming 4K or 8K videos on a flat screen TV. Furthermore, H.266/VVC is ideal for all types of moving images: from high-resolution 360° video panoramas to screen sharing contents.”
Fraunhofer’s parent organization — the Fraunhofer Society, which is comprised of many smaller institutes like Fraunhofer HHI and others — is best known in the world of digital media standards as the creator of the MP3. It also contributed heavily to the creation of J.264 and H.265. So the research organization certainty has a storied and successful history working in data compression. But Fraunhofer does not mention in its press release the existence of AV1, an open-source and royalty-free competitor to the HEVC standard created by the Open Media Alliance, which includes all five major US tech giants after Apple signed on in early 2018. AV1 and its predecessor, VP9, are integral for streaming 4K content from platforms like YouTube, so it’s likely these standards will continue to compete for years to come.
It’s not clear to what extent AV1, AVC, HEVC, and VVC will all coexist in the future, but Fraunhofer claims the Media Coding Industry Forum — the industry consortium to which it belongs alongside Apple, Sony, and others — is currently working toward chip designs to support VVC at the hardware level. “This autumn Fraunhofer HHI will publish the first software (for both encoder and decoder) to support H.266/VVC,” Thomas Schierl, head of the Video Coding and Analytics department at Fraunhofer HHI, said in a statement.
After months of escalating pressure, leaders from the #StopHateForProfit boycott campaign met with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives today. But in a call with reporters after the meeting, organizers from Color of Change, Free Press, the NAACP, and the Anti-Defamation League described the meeting as frustrating.
“The meeting that we just left was a disappointment,” said Color of Change president Rashad Robinson. “At this point, we were expecting a very clear answer to the demands we are making, and we did not get that.”
Held on Zoom, the meeting was slightly over an hour, and it included a variety of policy team leads as well as chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and chief product officer Chris Cox. But while the company was eager to continue a dialogue with the groups, organizers say the company failed to make any firm commitments on the 10 demands made by boycott organizers, which include prohibiting calls to violence from politicians and removing groups focused on white supremacy or Holocaust denial.
“The only recommendation they even attempted to address is hiring a civil rights position but were unable to commit to the crucial piece of the position being at the C-suite level or what the requirements for the position will be,” Color of Change said in a follow-up statement. “However, they offered no attempt to respond to the other nine recommendations.”
Anti-Defamation League president Jonathan Greenblatt — a partner in the #StopHateForProfit coalition — shared those frustrations, describing the meeting as “long on time but short on commitments.” Greenblatt took particular issue with Facebook’s claim that it proactively removes 89 percent of hateful content that users attempt to post. “The Ford motor company can’t say that 89 percent of their seatbelts work,” he said.
“The answer we heard was, ‘We’re on a journey, we’re doing better, we’re almost there,’” Greenblatt continued. “That’s not good enough.”
Focusing on Facebook’s moderation of hate groups, the #StopHateForProfit campaign has shown remarkable success in convincing advertisers to swear off the platform. Coca-Cola, Unilever, Diageo, and many other major advertisers have pledged not to purchase advertising on Facebook until the issues are addressed.
Facebook’s broadest response to the demands has been its long-pending civil rights audit. The company plans to release the final report from that audit tomorrow, conducted by an independent law firm, although activists remain concerned about how vigorously the company will implement the audit’s recommendations.
“We have worked for years to try to minimize the presence of hate on our platform,” Sandberg wrote in a blog post after the meeting. “We are working hard every day to enforce our policies with ever greater precision and speed. We are never going to be perfect, but we care about this deeply.”
A group of Formula One and Formula E drivers is starting a new racing series that will pit competitors against each other on ultra-fast custom-built electric scooters. The series — dubbed “Electric Scooter Championship,” or “eSkootr” — is set to launch in 2021, and the launch video shows riders whizzing through city streets on Tron-style vehicles and wearing matching neon-accented gear.
There are, unfortunately, few other details about the series, like how it’s being funded or who the competitors will be. All the organizers say is that the “category’s affordability removes the high barrier to entry seen in most other motorsport series, and its versatility means the series can recruit from a truly diverse cross-section of competitors – including racing drivers, cyclists, skaters, snowboarders, motorcyclists, and even esports racers.”
Whoever does compete will be putting themselves in a remarkably risky position, though, as the scooters are allegedly going to be capable of outrageous top speeds of around 100 kilometers per hour (about 62 miles per hour). They will feature large platforms, fat tires, and full suspensions in order to handle going that fast — at least, according to the launch video. But those kinds of speeds carry great risk even with a purpose-built vehicle and top-tier protective gear. As for where the scooters will come from, organizers say they have “already partnered with a recognised high-technology provider” to build them and will “reveal the prototype later this year,” though they don’t name the company.
The mission behind the series tracks very closely to that of Formula E, the all-electric racing series that launched in 2014. Formula E is not just about pushing the boundaries of electric vehicle performance. Almost all of its races are run on temporary street circuits in some of the world’s biggest cities, with the goal of promoting clean energy technology in the places where it’s most needed.
The same goes for eSkootr:
At each venue city, the series will bring together representatives from government, industry and civil society to help define policies and practices to build a more sustainable and deliverable vision of future urban transportation.
It will show how densely populated areas can efficiently build protected, sustainable city networks where escooters, ebikes and bicycles all share space together.
And it will introduce a fresh mobility landscape to city commuters who have spent decades travelling clogged and congested routes by motor car.
This shared vision should come as no surprise to Formula E fans, as one of eSkootr’s organizers is season 3 champion Lucas di Grassi. The Audi team driver was instrumental in getting Formula E off the ground, serving as its first test driver and later as its biggest brand ambassador. Now, he’s doing the same for this new scooter series.
Jaguar, which competes in Formula E, has organized a support series made up of I-Pace electric SUVs for the past two seasons. But that series is getting the axe this year, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moussouris has a long history in computer security, working at Microsoft and the Department of Defense creating their first bug bounty programs to incentivize catching and reporting security bugs and vulnerabilities in software systems.
Nilay and Katie discuss the history of bug bounty programs, from the early iterations to the current state of affairs, from good to bad. Though Moussouris says the concept of hiring hackers to help make organizations more secure has numerous positives, the commercialization of the practice has created blindspots and other unintended incentives.
Below is a lightly edited excerpt from that conversation.
Nilay Patel: Where are the failings of a bug bounty system?
Katie Moussouris: Well, right now, honestly, the failings, I’ve got to say, is in the commercial implementation of bug bounties. So my company basically goes in and assesses organizational maturity, like, “Are you ready for this? Can you handle the truth?”
And a lot of the questions we ask, organizations are like, “Yeah, but we want to do this industry best practice thing called a bug bounty. And we know that you make all these big bug bounties. You so just make us a bug bounty.”
And I’m like, “But you haven’t actually been able to keep up with patching the systems that you know are out of date. How can you actually deal with this additional volume?” And they say, “Oh, but we’ll just hire a bug bounty service provider, and they’ll take care of everything for us.” And I’m like, “Wait a minute. What part about your internal patch processing did you not understand from the rest of the questions?” Because they’re sitting there going, “We’ve been told we can outsource this.”
I see it as failures of both sides of the marketplace. I used to work for a bug bounty company. I believed in this model as, “Hey, why don’t we make it easier to connect companies with hackers and make it safer for everybody? And eventually, the companies and the governments will become more secure, and eventually, the hackers will also not only stay out of jail and make a living, but they’ll scale up.” Because ideally, what you want to see in the whole world is no low-hanging fruit anymore. You want to see people actually addressing those bugs themselves — preventing them, ideally. But even if they accidentally coded up some low-hanging fruit bugs, to be able to detect them themselves. Not rely on third-party randos on the internet to come tell you about this low-hanging fruit.
So where I’ve seen this failing is that commercial bug bounty platforms, basically their business model is you stay bad at security so that there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to be found and the relatively low-skilled labor that hangs out on the bug bounty platforms — with very few exceptions, there are highly skilled folks on these bug many platforms. But I think I read the latest report from one of the leading bug bounty platforms, out of 600,000 registered users, 146 of them have never made more than $100,000 in their entire lifetime on the platform. You know, a professional penetration tester, even 15 years ago when I did this, already, the starting salary was over $100,000.
So we’re not seeing actually a good evolution of the state of security as a result of these programs. We’re also not seeing a good evolution of the state of cybersecurity workforce. We see a huge bottom of the pyramid, which is kind of the folks who are able to run free or nearly free scanning tools and kind of give you the low-hanging fruit reports. And they’re making up the majority of bug bounty hunters. And this tiny little top-of-the-pyramid of highly skilled workers — that is, literally less than 200 people — are at the very, very top. And that’s despite these companies being in existence for the last eight years.
It’s so funny that you are describing an economic model for cybersecurity for hacking that looks an awful lot like a user-generated content platform economic model. You could have just described YouTube or Instagram or any of these other platforms that promise lots of people access but only rewards a tiny fraction of the folks. Is that an accurate analogy?
Absolutely. I mean, the rules of bug bounty are only the first one to report a unique bug gets paid for it. So think of all the low-hanging fruit. You could be spraying and praying your scanning tools, but to even make money on something that was very easy to find, you just have to be the first one in. So there’s a whole lot of unpaid labor that goes into these platforms.
And then let’s say even if you’re operating at sort of higher technical levels and finding more esoteric bugs, we hear complaints left and right of companies saying, “Oh, we knew about that bug already, so we’re not going to pay you. It’s already in process of getting fixed.” So there’s a whole bunch of stuff where people are not getting what they signed up for. I look at it as yet another failed implementation of the gig economy marketplace right now.
We all had a lot of high hopes that the gig economy would help a lot of people. And it’s not been turning out great for certainly the labor side of things. But in the case of bug bounty, it’s not turning out great for the buying side, the hiring side, either. They’re not able to access huge new labor workforce. That tiny number of people who are fairly highly skilled and making good money on these platforms, they maybe don’t want to give up their lifestyle. A few of them have decided to work in-house at companies, but they’re kind of preserving their bug bounty moonlighting abilities on the side and everything. So we’re just not seeing the whole gig economy as expressed in bug bounty platforms working out for either side of the equation.
So to keep this analogy going maybe past its breaking point, when we were critical of a YouTube or Instagram, a thing that is real there is that’s working out great for YouTube and Instagram. They have no incentives to fix it because they’re reaping all the rewards. I would imagine at least there’s more actual money flowing through the bug bounty ecosystem and there is the very real threat of “Hey, there’s vulnerabilities in our software.” So it does seem like there’s some incentive to change it, to change that model. What changes have you seen coming, or does that incentive just not exist?
Well, after leaving one of the bug bounty companies, I stayed on as an adviser for pretty close to a year and worked with them on various mutual customers. I’ve had customer overlaps with a lot of the bug bounty companies, if not all of the major US ones. And the thing I keep seeing in their business model is that I would like to help organizations get more mature. So fewer low-hanging fruit bugs, more esoteric bugs. But all of their business models depend on there being chum in the water all the time of low-hanging fruit.
So they don’t want the process delays of [when] my company usually goes in and says, “Are you ready for this? Have you invested internally on finding the bugs yourself? Did you know it’s up to 45 times cheaper if you actually identify security bugs in the design phase?” And that basically ends up delaying the adoption of bug bounty, which isn’t appropriate for everyone and certainly not appropriate if you can’t even patch the bugs you already know about.
So I think the inherent conflict that’s come up with the different business models — bug bounty versus the advisory services that my company provides — is bug bounties can help with a tiny fraction of what you already need to do for vulnerability management, but it’s being positioned as the easy button for it. We’re seeing a lot of companies come to grips with the fact that they’re having breaches still even if they have a bug bounty or they can’t bounty everything.
There’s one airline who has had a bug bounty for a little over four years. That’s United Airlines. Is it on the planes? No, it’s on the websites. It’s against the website. So how are we safer in the skies? Well, we’re not. But the appearance of looking like you’re doing diligence when it comes to vulnerability management, I think that’s where commercial bug bounty enablement platforms have been pushing, like, “Look, you know, just look really busy.” Yeah, you’re playing whack-a-bug and everything and this is super inefficient, but you can say that you take security very seriously and you’re fixing all these low-hanging fruit bugs and whatnot. We won’t call them that. We’ll just say that, you know, there are all these bugs and that it’s super valuable. And then when you get breached. Maybe you won’t get in trouble because you can say, “Well, we tried. We had a bug bounty and just nobody reported that particular issue to us.”
So I don’t know. I mean, I would love to say that this is all evolving in the right direction, but frankly, I’ve seen it devolving, especially in the last couple of years of the commercialization of bug bounties.
Today, the House Appropriations Committee released its latest funding bill for fiscal year 2021, detailing the budgets for all commerce, justice, and science agencies in the US. The bill would give NASA a total budget of $22.63 billion for next year, the same amount the agency received for 2020. However, it’s nearly $3 billion less than the $25.2 billion the Trump administration called for in the president’s budget request — a hefty amount intended to fund an ambitious lunar return.
NASA has been very vocal about its goal to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon as part of the agency’s Artemis program. And NASA has a very tight deadline to make that happen. In early 2019, Vice President Mike Pence challenged the agency to put people back on the Moon by 2024. Many experts have been skeptical of NASA’s ability to meet the fast-approaching goal, given the sheer amount of technology development, testing, and funding required to make it happen.
In the president’s budget request released in February, the Trump administration laid out its desired budget plan for the next five years to help fund the Artemis program. The proposal called for NASA’s budget to increase to around $26 or $27 billion each year, potentially getting up to $28.6 billion in 2023. Today’s House appropriations bill signals that Congress is reluctant to provide that full amount.
Perhaps the biggest sleight in funding involves the development of a human lunar lander, a crucial piece of technology needed to transport astronauts to the Moon’s surface. In April, NASA awarded three primary companies — Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Dynetics — with contracts to further study lunar lander concepts. The president’s budget request asked that a whopping $3.4 billion be set aside for human lunar lander development. Instead, the House Appropriations Committee only provided $1.56 billion for exploration research and development, which includes money for the human lunar landing system. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine indicated that only $628.2 million of that would be allotted for the landers — nearly $3 billion less than what the agency had hoped for.
Despite this major discrepancy, Bridenstine expressed optimism about the bill. “The $628.2 million in funding for the human landing system (HLS) is an important first step in this year’s appropriations process,” Bridenstine said in a statement. “We still have more to do and I look forward to working with the Senate to ensure America has the resources to land the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024.”
This year, in particular, it was going to be difficult to get such a big boost for NASA, according to Casey Dreier, the chief advocate and senior space policy adviser for the Planetary Society. Congressional spending caps increased but not by a substantial amount, he says. Additionally, the funding that House appropriators come up with for NASA is derived from one big set amount of money that the House allocates for agencies within science, justice, and commerce. And this year, the House gave a substantial increase to the Justice Department — close to $1 billion — to help address police reform, in response to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police.
“Congress redistributed that funding to their priorities,” Dreier tells The Verge. He says that congresspeople are reacting to what is happening on the ground right now, including recent protests and “an increasing awareness of racial injustice.” He also speculates that the Trump administration’s increasing embrace of human spaceflight imagery may not help the Democratic-led House be favorable to NASA’s budget increase. Recently, the Trump campaign created a political ad, using footage from NASA of SpaceX’s recent crewed launch to the International Space Station. After receiving backlash, the campaign took down the ad.
“The alignment of one party with kind of a soft ideological activity of government like that actually induces opposition just naturally by the opposing party, and it becomes a symbol,” says Dreier.
As Bridenstine alluded to in his statement, the House bill is not a done deal. House lawmakers will review the proposed bill, and eventually, the Senate Appropriations Committee will release its own bill laying out funding for NASA. If all goes to plan, Congress will then reconcile the two bills, ultimately coming up with the finalized budget for NASA for next year. That means there’s still a long way to go before NASA finds out just how much money it will receive for 2021.
Employees at Away are calling for founder and co-CEO Steph Korey to immediately resign, after a photo of her dressed as a Native American surfaced on Twitter last Friday.
In an anonymous letter to Korey’s co-founder Jen Rubio, and her co-CEO Stuart Haselden, employees wrote: “How many times will we have our jobs disrupted by this woman who clearly has a history of poor judgement? We all have financial stakes in this business and she is putting that into jeopardy for all of us. She is turning Away into an embarrassment. We cannot be complicit any longer. Steph Korey must go.”
It’s the second anonymous letter Away executives have received in recent weeks. The first came after Korey posted a series of Instagram stories attacking the media over how it covers female founders. In response to employee concerns, Rubio and Haselden said Korey would be stepping down as co-CEO in 2020. But after the photo surfaced, employees demanded it happen immediately, and that Korey stop being the public face of the company.
On Monday, Korey met with a group of executives to address employee concerns. She admitted she was embarrassed about the photo and understood she’d lost trust with her staff. But she also said she wouldn’t be resigning. “All I want to do is make this company successful and help support our people, and I don’t think I’m doing this company or our people a service by throwing in the towel,” she said in an audio recording of the meeting reviewed by The Verge.
Away’s vice president of brand marketing, Alexis Pagis, stressed to Korey that the situation was about more than just a photo. “You talk about maybe losing trust. But I feel, and it’s what I heard from the teams, that the trust was maybe lost not last week, but maybe back in January when you decided to come back,” he said. “I have a feeling what happened last week was just a match under something that was bigger.”
The January incident Pagis referred to came in the wake of two investigations by The Verge whereemployees voiced concern over Korey’s management style. Korey apologized and stepped down shortly after these investigations, then announced she was retaking her post in an article in TheNew York Times — a decision that blindsided her own staff and many members of the executive team. She has also since deleted her apology on Twitter.
Brendan Lewis, Away’s vice president of communications and corporate affairs, said the move didn’t sit well with employees. “I think another elephant in the room here is why you deleted your first apology,” he said during the executive meeting. “I’m hearing feedback that that apology going up and quietly being deleted at a later time calls into question any subsequent apology that happens there. Direct feedback from my team, and I share this sentiment, is that our jobs are now infinitely harder as a result of the past week. You might be tackling a very important subject, that is media bias against female founders. But inherently, the words you chose, the actions that you did, make it harder for us to talk about the company in any manner that will help drive the business forward.”
Korey’s plan for regaining employee trust, which she shared with the other executives, includes meeting with people one-on-one to talk about how she can be a better leader. She also said she would sit down with members of Away’s employee resource groups to hear about their priorities.
A member of the leadership team who spoke to The Verge anonymously for fear of professional retaliation voiced doubts that this strategy would be successful. “Steph has created a culture of fear. The fact that she thinks virtual coffees and listen and learns will create an environment where junior members of the team will voice the way they feel is crazy and she knows that. This again will help her justify no direct action plan because she’ll be able to say, ‘I met with employees, and everyone had a chance to share their thoughts.’”
Korey and other members of the executive team were scheduled to address the company directly during an all-staff meeting on Tuesday morning. Now, that meeting has been pushed to Friday.
The future of video chat will look more like Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update than it will Zoom. That’s the bet being made by Phil Libin, who led Evernote as CEO during its glory days and has returned to the intersection of consumer and enterprise software with a virtual camera that could reshape video communication. The product has a name that is ridiculous even by the standards of Silicon Valley — it’s called Mmhmm — and the company said today that it had raised $4.5 million led by Sequoia Capital.
Mmhmm — “it’s important to have a name you can say while eating,” Libin jokes — is a virtual camera that can be used with Zoom, Google Meet, YouTube, and other video streaming services. Turn it on, and the app transforms your room into a virtual stage. Like other videoconferencing tools, Mmhmm offers a variety of still and animated virtual backgrounds to enliven your conversations.
But that’s just the start: the real power of Mmhmm comes in the way it lets you easily manipulate slides, backgrounds, and your own image — either for fun or for business reasons. With a simple gesture on a trackpad, you can move your face around the screen, shrink or enlarge your image, or disappear completely. (You can also turn a grainy, opaque blue in a touch modeled after Jedi holograms.) You can post slides that appear over your shoulder and advance them with a tap. And you can team up with another Mmhmm user to create a collaborative presentation, with each of you able to manipulate images on the screen and advance the show.
The app also allows you to create interactive presentations. A recorded Mmhmm video can be played back as a movie, but the viewer can also click on slides to advance the presentation, toggle the presenter and their audio on and off, or pause the presentation to zoom in on a notable slide.
The result is a product that could be equally of interest to YouTubers, salespeople, and friends who are goofing off during Zoom happy hours. Mmhmm is available today as an invite-only beta for macOS Catalina, with mobile and Windows versions expected in the coming months.
The app is the product of AllTurtles, a digital studio that Libin founded in 2017 after leaving Evernote and doing a stint as a venture capitalist. The idea for it originated as the COVID-19 pandemic forced Libin and his teammates into full-time remote work, where their videoconferencing options left them feeling uninspired.
Libin is among many in Silicon Valley who believe that remote work will prove popular even after the pandemic subsides and that videoconferencing will be the connective tissue between people and companies. “Everyone has to have a video presence now,” Libin says. “We all have to do this now some of the time, forever.”
That has created an opening for what Libin calls “personal video presence” — a software-enhanced version of yourself that appears whenever you’re on (web) camera. The idea is to bring some style to your video chats that Zoom and its many clones have so far failed to deliver.
The alpha version of Mmhmm, which I’ve tested over the past couple of weeks, is clearly early in that vision. But it’s also promising. The Verge colleagues to whom I have shown Libin’s demo all asked me when they would be able to start using it.
Some prominent backers have also taken notice. Libin has attracted a host of big names in consumer software to Mmhmm as angel investors, including Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, and Eventbrite co-founders Julia and Kevin Hartz.
As with Evernote, Libin says that Mmhmm will likely adopt a “freemium” business model, offering some features for free and others on a paid tier. He imagines guitar teachers using Mmhmm to play while showing the song’s tablature in a slide; doctors practicing telemedicine with X-rays appearing above their shoulders, and financial planners walking clients through their taxes with the relevant numbers floating nearby.
It’s intended to be the go-to app for “people who want to stream PowerPoint instead of Fortnite,” he says. “Depressingly, there are very many of us.”
As for the name, Libin says he finds the oddness of it compelling. “A thing I like about Mmhmm is that it’s hard to say,” he says. “You can inflect it in so many different ways … You have to perform it.”
Performance is the heart of Mmhmm, and it explains why, in addition to more mundane matters like building a Windows app, the company is also working on a feature that will let presenters disappear from the screen by throwing a virtual smoke bomb.
From the moment Zoom announced it had surged from 10 million daily meeting participants in December to more than 300 million participants today, something like Mmhmm was probably inevitable. It seems likely to inspire a wave of clones, as other streaming solutions come to the same conclusion Mmhmm did — that if this is the way life is going to be, the time we spend in videoconferencing software ought to look and feel a lot more fun.
It could take decades before cuts to greenhouse gases actually affect global temperatures, according to a new study. 2035 is probably the earliest that scientists could see a statistically significant change in temperature — and that’s only if humans take dramatic action to combat climate change.
Specifically, 2035 is the year we might expect to see results if we switch from business-as-usual pollution to an ambitious path that limits global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius — the target laid out in the Paris climate agreement. The world isn’t on track to meet that goal, so we might not see the fruits of our labor until even later. That means policymakers need to be ready for the long haul, and we’re all going to need to be patient while we wait for the changes we make now to take effect.
“I foresee this kind of train wreck coming where we make all this effort, and we have nothing to show for it,” says lead author of the study, Bjorn Samset. “This will take time.”
It will be time well spent if we manage to cut emissions — even if we have to wait to see results. Humans have so far warmed up the planet by about 1 degree Celsius. That’s already come with more devastating superstorms and wildfires and has forced people from Louisiana to Papua New Guinea to abandon their homes as rising sea levels flood their lands. Even keeping the planet to the 2 degree goal would result in the near annihilation of the world’s coral reefs. Taking into consideration all of the commitments from world leaders to work together on climate change, we’re currently careening toward global warming of about 3 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
To avoid burnout and keep aspirations high when it comes to tackling climate change, scientists and policymakers will need to be realistic about what’s ahead. The first line of the new study, published today in the journal Nature Communications, reads: “This paper is about managing our expectations.”
The study looks at the effects of cutting down on carbon dioxide, black carbon, and methane emissions. Carbon dioxide is the toughest greenhouse gas to tackle because so much of the world economy still relies on burning fossil fuels.
Methane (a more potent greenhouse that comes from agriculture and natural gas production) and black carbon (a big component of soot) are, in theory, easier to cut back. Using climate models and statistical analysis,Samset and his colleagues wanted to know whether addressing these other pollutants might lead to faster results. Their analysis isolated the effects that reducing methane and black carbon might have. They found that temperatures might respond quicker to axing these pollutants, but it wouldn’t have as big of an effect in the long term as pushing down our carbon emissions. The best bet is to tackle all three at once.
“We kind of break this apart and try to see, is there a shortcut? Is there anything we can do to give people the impression that things are having an effect? And unfortunately, the answer is no,” says Samset. “There’s no quick fix to this.”
Part of the problem is that carbon dioxide can persist in the atmosphere for hundreds of years after being released by burning coal, oil, and gas. Natural variations in climate can also delay the impact that cutting down greenhouse gases has on global temperatures.
“There is this fundamental misunderstanding of the climate system by non climate scientists trying to use trends on a 10 year time scale for climate change, when [with] climate change a 100 or 200-year timescale is relevant,” explains Natalie Mahowald, a climate scientist at Cornell University who was not involved in the study.
“All our hard work today, we will not be able to see for 20 or 30 years — this is the crux of the problem,” Mahowald says. “Humans have a really hard time doing something for future generations.”
Alphabet’s Loon division, which uses floating balloons to provide internet, has today launched its first commercial service in Kenya. In a blog post announcing the news, Loon’s CEO Alastair Westgarth said that the 4G LTE service will be provided to Telkom Kenya subscribers via a fleet of around 35 balloons, covering an area of around 50,000 square kilometers across western and central areas of the country, including its capital, Nairobi.
It’s a significant step for Loon, which started as a moonshot project in Alphabet’s X division before being spun out into its own company in 2018. The company’s balloons have already provided internet connectivity in the wake of disasters, like in Puerto Rico in 2017 after Hurricane Maria or in Peru after an earthquake in 2019, but never as part of a large-scale commercial deployment.
Loon has been testing its balloons in Kenya for several months now, and it says that in that time, it’s already connected 35,000 unique users to the internet, “although most didn’t realize it.” The company says that it achieved a downlink speed of 18.9Mbps back in June, along with an uplink speed of 4.74Mbps and a latency of 19ms, and that it’s tested a range of services — including email, voice and video calls, web browsing, WhatsApp, and YouTube viewing — on its service.
The company’s balloons (or “flight vehicles” as it calls them) hover at a height of roughly 20 km, analyzing the weather to ride around on stratospheric winds. Individual balloons can alternate between providing internet connectivity directly and acting as a link in the mesh network. The New York Times notes that they stay up in the air for over 100 days before coming back down to earth. Loon says the aim of its balloons isn’t to replace satellite connectivity or ground-based technologies like cell towers or fiber optic cables, but to offer a “third layer” of connectivity to help get more people connected to the internet worldwide.
However, the Times reports that the company has been criticized for launching its balloons in parts of the country that already have developed internet infrastructure and that some people in poorer areas of Kenya can’t afford the phones needed to connect to its 4G service.
Going forward, Loon says it hopes to offer internet connectivity as part of more commercial services around the world. It also has several other projects in the pipeline. It plans to offer internet access to remote parts of the Amazon this year via a partnership with Internet Para Todos Perú, and it’s also signed an agreement with Telesat to use its networking software to manage the company’s low Earth orbit satellites. Finally, it’s partnered with AT&T in preparation to use its balloons to provide internet service to disaster-stricken areas and with Vodacom to provide internet to Mozambique.
Magic Leap has appointed Peggy Johnson, a former Microsoft executive, as its new CEO. Johnson will begin leading the company on August 1st, replacing current CEO and company co-founder Rony Abovitz. Her appointment is part of the struggling mixed reality company’s move toward business customers and away from consumer entertainment and personal computing.
Johnson was Microsoft’s executive vice president of business development as well as the head of its venture capital fund M12. She told The New York Times that she reached out to Abovitz about the job after he announced plans to step down in May. It’s not yet clear what role Abovitz will play after the transition, but he’s previously said he will provide “strategy and vision” through Magic Leap’s board of directors.
Johnson, who ran Qualcomm’s internet services division before joining Microsoft in 2014, told the Times that current-generation mixed reality is comparable to early cellphone or cloud computing tech. Mixed or augmented reality tech enjoyed a boom in the early and mid-’00s, but in the past few years, many AR companies have either shifted their focus or shut down entirely. Most recently, Bose abandoned plans for audio-based mixed reality glasses in June, and Google acquired consumer AR startup North, nixing plans for a second-generation pair of North’s Focals glasses. Magic Leap cut hundreds of employees earlier this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, although it tells the Times that it’s since secured a $375 million investment (previously reported as $350 million) to maintain operations.
Magic Leap still faces many challenges. The company is currently working on a second-generation headset, which follows a first-generation product that was impressive but limited. And although the pandemic provides new opportunities in areas like remote work, it’s dealt a huge blow to location-based entertainment operations like theme parks, once seen as a promising venue for mixed reality. Earlier this year, Magic Leap was also forced to indefinitely delay the launch of an ambitious narrative project called The Last Light following the cancellation of several 2020 film festivals.
Microsoft is one of the industry’s few major success stories, however; since 2015, it’s turned its HoloLens headset into a business-focused hardware product. Johnson’s work wasn’t focused on HoloLens, but having an existing enterprise division gave Microsoft a key advantage, and Johnson’s expertise in that field could help Magic Leap — even if the company’s future remains highly uncertain.