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Europe halts partnership of moon exploration with Russia

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The European Space Agency has announced discontinuation of its cooperation on Russia’s Luna series of robotic moon missions, amid the country’s invasion into Ukraine. ESA’s Director General Dr Josef Aschbacher initiated a comprehensive review of all activities currently undertaken in cooperation with Russia and Ukraine. The review was to determine the possible consequences of this new geopolitical context for ESA programmes and activities and to create a more resilient and robust space infrastructure for Europe, officials said in a statement. “ESA will discontinue cooperative activities with Russia on Luna-25, -26 and -27,” the statement said. “As with ExoMars, the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the resulting sanctions put in place represent a fundamental change of circumstances and make it impossible for ESA to implement the planned lunar cooperation,” it added. The agency said its PILOTDA landing camera will be taken off the Luna 25 mission, which is scheduled to launch later this year. Instead, an alternative flight opportunity to test the ESA navigation camera is being procured from a commercial service provider, the ESA said. The Luna 27 rover, planned for 2025, was expected to feature a Europebuilt optical navigation system relying on artificially intelligent image analysis, and a subsurface drill designed to obtain samples of lunar soil from depths of up to 1 metre. The drill will now fly to the Moon on board a NASA-led Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) mission, Aschbacher said. 

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Tech Recap: Meta AI Integrates with WhatsApp and Instagram, ChatGPT upgraded

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In this week’s tech roundup, significant developments have been witnessed across various fronts. OpenAI has rolled out a crucial upgrade for ChatGPT, while Meta is testing its AI chatbot on WhatsApp and Instagram. Additionally, Google Gemini AI is set to debut on Oppo and OnePlus devices. Let’s delve into the noteworthy tech advancements dominating headlines this week.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta is now testing its generative AI chatbot, called ‘Meta AI’, on Instagram. Similar to other chatbots in the market, Meta AI will be able to craft poetry, generate images, and answer other questions based on a single text prompt. Notably, Meta had also recently started testing its AI chatbot for certain users in India and other countries. While confirming the development in a statement to Engadget, Meta said, “Our generative AI-powered experiences are under development in various phases, and we’re testing a range of them publicly in a limited capacity.”

Chinese smartphone makers Oppo and OnePlus announced on Friday that their devices will soon be integrated with Google’s Gemini AI models. Notably, the two companies said in an earlier statement that their smartphones will come with Gemini Ultra 1.0 integration, but later issued a clarification stating that Oppo and OnePlus devices will get “Gemini models”. In a joint release, Oppo and OnePlus said they are working with Google to integrate cloud AI into their upcoming products, meaning users will be able to use AI for tasks like summarizing news articles, generating audio, and generating social media content. Without going into further detail, the companies also said they are working with a number of partners to bring “groundbreaking AI experiences” to their users.

Apple is finally making it easier to repair your iPhones by allowing customers and third-party service providers to utilize used Apple parts in repairs. The Cupertino-based tech giant says the new process will help maintain user privacy, security, and safety, while offering customers more options and increasing product longevity. Notably, Apple users were previously unable to repair their iPhones with used parts due to a process called ‘parts pairing’, which matches the serial number of the device to the new part sold by Apple. So if an iPhone user replaced their display or camera with a used part, they would receive a notification saying that Apple couldn’t verify the newly installed part and the new hardware could cause Face ID and Touch ID to stop working.

Google is bringing a host of AI-powered features to its Photos app from May 15. Google is also rolling out its AI-powered Magic Editor to all eligible devices. The powerful tool was one of the key selling points when the Pixel 8 series was launched last year, but it seems Google wants to get users accustomed to its own tool amid a rush of AI-powered image editors on the market. However, Google does mention that free users will only be limited to 10 edits per month and that more edits will require a Google One subscription with 2TB of storage or more. However, Pixel users will still be able to make unlimited image edits.

Microsoft Founder Bill Gates hosted OpenAI CEO Sam Altman on his podcast where the duo had a wide-ranging discussion on artificial intelligence. During the discussion, Gates also shared his skepticism about artificial intelligence taking away his job. He said, “I get a lot of excitement that, hey, I’m good at working on malaria, and malaria eradication, and getting smart people and applying resources to that. When the machine says to me, ‘Bill, go play pickleball, I’ve got malaria eradication. You’re just a slow thinker,’ then it is a philosophically confusing thing.” OpenAI has released a new update to ChatGPT, which is touted to make the generative AI chatbot more direct, less verbose, and use more conversational language. Notably, the new upgrade is only available to paid users of ChatGPT, including those with ChatGPT Plus, Team, Enterprise, or API subscriptions. Informing about the latest upgrade in a post on X (formerly Twitter), OpenAI wrote: “Our new GPT-4 Turbo is now available to paid ChatGPT users. We’ve improved capabilities in writing, math, logical reasoning, and coding.”

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Indian tech startups see sharp drop in layoffs, down 60% in Q1

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Indian technology startups witnessed a notable decline in layoffs during the first quarter of the calendar year, according to data compiled by a tracking website. Despite ongoing economic challenges, layoffs in the sector reduced by 60% compared to the corresponding period last year, indicating a relatively stable employment landscape amidst evolving market dynamics.

The decline in layoffs coincided with a reduction in venture capital funding, as reported by layoffs.fyi. During the first quarter of 2023, 43 companies reportedly laid off 5,358 employees. Notable among these layoffs was edtech firm Byju’s, which terminated 1,500 employees across various departments including design, engineering, and production teams. Other prominent startups affected by layoffs included foodtech unicorn Swiggy, which underwent a company-wide restructuring resulting in 380 job losses, and social media platform ShareChat, which trimmed its workforce by 500 employees, constituting nearly 20% of its staff.

Additionally, Ola, MediBuddy, DealShare, MyGate UpGrad, and Pristyn Care were among the companies that laid off more than 100 employees each. In the current year, 11 startups-initiated layoffs in the first quarter, with ecommerce giant Flipkart letting go of approximately 1,100 employees as part of its annual performance reviews. Swiggy, in a separate instance, downsized its workforce by 400 employees, representing nearly 7% of its total workforce, in January. Other companies such as InMobi, Cure.fit, and Pristyn Care were also affected by layoffs.

The cycles of hiring and layoffs in the startup ecosystem are intricately linked to funding rounds and capital availability in the market. Last year, amid a funding winter, layoffs affected approximately 16,400 employees across 111 companies, whereas in 2021, a year characterized by heightened funding activity, layoffs amounted to nearly 4,000.

As funding rounds normalize this year, especially for early-stage companies, industry experts anticipate a reduction in layoffs and a more stable employment environment. Recent funding data from Tracxn Technologies indicates a 28% increase in early-stage funding rounds, despite declines in seed-stage and late-stage rounds, suggesting cautious optimism for the startup ecosystem moving forward.

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AIMRA accuses Apple India of retail favoritism, iPhone 15 Pro cashback sparks outrage

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As the iPhone 15 series from Apple continues to be one of the best-selling premium smartphones, Apple India is now facing criticism from the All India Mobile Retailers Association (AIMRA) over its “discriminatory” cashback offers between larger and small retail stores. AIMRA, which reportedly represents over 1,50,000 mobile phone retailers in India, has accused Apple of engaging in anti-competitive practices with its iPhone 15 Pro and iPhone 15 Pro Max cashback offers.

The association alleges that Apple has allowed its own stores and large retailers to offer cashback of up to Rs 10,000 on these models, while smaller retail channels are only allowed to offer Rs3,000 cashback, as per a Financial Express report. In a letter to Ashish Chowdhary, the Managing Director of Apple India, Navneet Pathak, the national joint secretary of AIMRA, highlighted the issue. The letter stated that this discrepancy poses a significant risk of loss in sales for the retail channels and raises concerns about unfair competition, further emphasizing that such actions would make customers lose trust in small retailers.

“This is purely an anti-competitive move favouring few…This discrepancy not only poses a significant risk of loss in sales for the retail channels but also raises concerns of unfair competition. Such actions undermine the trust and confidence we have diligently built with our customers over time,”. AIMRA has urged the iPhone maker to resolve the cashback offer quickly in order to ensure that all the retailers are treated equally and to prevent the rise of unhealthy competition in the market.

The association has stressed the need for fair competition and trust in the retail ecosystem, the report further added. The iPhone 15 series was launched in September last year, with the iPhone 15 priced at Rs79,900, the iPhone 15 Plus at Rs 89,900, the iPhone 15 Pro at Rs 1,34,900, and the iPhone 15 Pro Max at Rs 1,59,900.

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Apple warns users of 92 countries about possible ‘mercenary spyware’ attack

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Apple has warned its users in India and 91 other countries that they may have been the victims of a “mercenary spyware” attack, according to multiple media reports. Apple has warned users that they are being attacked by mercenary spyware that is trying to gain remote access to their iPhones. Mercenary spyware attacks like NSO Group’s Peagusus are ‘exceptionally rare’ and ‘vastly more sophisticated’ than a regular cybercriminal activity or consumer malware, Apple stated in the threat notification.

The Cuperino-based company also explained that these attacks cost millions of dollars and are individually deployed against a very small number of people. “Apple detected that you are being targeted by a mercenary spyware attack that is trying to remotely compromise the iPhone associated with your Apple ID -xxx-. This attack is likely targeting you specifically because of who you are or what you do. Although it’s never possible to achieve absolute certainty when detecting such attacks, Apple has high confidence in this warning — please take it seriously,” the threat notification by Apple was quoted as saying by The Indian Express.

Apple also advised users not to open links or attachments from unknown senders and to be cautious about any links they receive. However, the company declined to provide further information about the spyware, saying that this could help attackers adapt their behaviour and avoid detection in the future. Notably, Apple also updated its support page on Wednesday, adding tips for users who have been victims of a possible mercenary spyware attack.

“Such attacks are vastly more complex than regular cybercriminal activity and consumer malware, as mercenary spyware attackers apply exceptional resources to target a very small number of specific individuals and their devices. Mercenary spyware attacks cost millions of dollars and often have a short shelf life, making them much harder to detect and prevent. The vast majority of users will never be targeted by such attacks,” the updated Apple support page reads.

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For equipment upgrades, China eyes fresh $69 bn credit in tech sector

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The Hong Kong-based ‘South China Morning Post’ (SCMP) newspaper, China has unveiled a plan to reintroduce two relending mechanisms previously utilized to mitigate the economic effects of Covid-19. The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) will facilitate loans through 21 banks to support small and medium-sized technology firms at an interest rate of 1.75 per cent. These loans can be extended twice, each extension lasting up to one year, as per the report. The move, announced on Sunday, comes amid challenges posed to the Chinese economy by a property crisis and geopolitical tensions with key trading partners. China’s policymakers are aiming to enhance liquidity and bolster confidence in the world’s second-largest economy.

Relending mechanisms these measures will allocate a combined 500 billion yuan (US $69.1 billion) to incentivise loans supporting technological innovation and large-scale equipment upgrades – two sectors that have been explicitly prioritised by the country’s leadership, said the report. The refinancing programme will cover 60 per cent of the principal amount for eligible loans extended to technology-focused small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and can be renewed twice, each time for an additional year.

By the end of last year, the PBOC had 17 active structural support tools with a cumulative outstanding size of 7.5 trillion yuan – equivalent to 16.4 per cent of central bank assets. What are China’s relending programmes? These targeted monetary instruments gained prominence in 2014 when pledged supplementary lending was first utilised to directly provide loans to commercial banks to renovate outdated residential buildings. Among the tools, 13 were introduced as temporary measures during the pandemic to support small businesses, toll roads, private firms, property delivery, logistics, and carbon emissions reduction. Seven of them have already expired.

SCMP said the move has sparked speculation among market participants regarding the extent to which Chinese authorities are willing to implement monetary easing, in light of the US Federal Reserve postponing anticipated interest rate adjustments and the Chinese economy concluding the first quarter of 2024 on a stronger footing. The previous relending mechanism for technology, with a quota of 400 billion yuan (US $55.2 billion), was initiated in April 2022 and has since concluded. Similarly, the earlier equipment renovation program, with a quota of 200 billion yuan (US $27.6 billion), was active from September to December 2022.

BEIJING GUIDELINES

This relending programme aligns with Beijing’s guidelines for domestic banks, encouraging them to provide funding for five essential finance categories outlined by President Xi Jinping: technology finance, green finance, inclusive finance, pension finance, and digtal finance.

Furthermore, it corresponds with the objective of large-scale equipment upgrades mentioned during the February meeting of the Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission. This objective serves dual purposes: Leveraging the country’s substantial fixed-asset investment to stimulate economic growth and advancing its vast manufacturing sector, the Hong Kong-daily said. The relending program and other structural measures aim to aid China amidst ongoing challenges in the property market and fragile investor sentiment.

These hurdles will scrutinize the country’s aspirations to attain a 5 percent economic growth rate this year, as reported by SCMP.

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OpenAI transcribed Google’s YouTube videos to train AI models, says report

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OpenAI transcribed more than one million hours of YouTube videos to gather training data for its advanced GPT-4 model, disregarding copyright regulations set by the Google-owned platform. Utilizing an indigenous speech recognition tool named Whisper, supported by Microsoft, OpenAI converted audio from YouTube videos into conversational text. This text served as training material for the AI model behind ChatGPT.

According to the report, makers of ChatGPT internally discussed how the use of YouTube data for training might be against the platform’s policy. The company reportedly opted to use YouTube videos’ data as it had exhausted the reservoir of publicly available data. The report stated that OpenAI’s president, Greg Brockman, personally assisted in selecting videos for transcription. Google prohibits the use of videos posted on YouTube for applications that are “independent” of the video platform.

In a statement to The Verge, OpenAI spokesperson Lindsay Held said that the company uses “unique” datasets for each of its models to “help their understanding of the world.” She added that the company uses “numerous sources including publicly available data and partnerships for non-public data.”

Commenting on the topic, Google spokesperson Matt Bryant told The Verge that Google has “seen unconfirmed reports” related to OpenAI using YouTube videos for training AI models. He added that the streaming platform’s “Terms of Service and robots.txt files prohibit unauthorized scraping or downloading of YouTube content.”

Earlier this week, YouTube CEO Neal Mohan in an interview said that “he has seen reports” related to OpenAI using YouTube videos to train their text-to-video generator Sora. He said that he has no information about the same, but it would be a “clear violation” of the platform’s policies if it did.

Google has also used transcribed texts from YouTube videos for training its AI model Gemini. If true, this violates the copyright to the videos, which belongs to the creator who posts the video to the platform.

The report stated that Google broadened its terms of service to allow the company to be able to use publicly available Google Docs files, restaurant reviews on Google Maps, and more for training AI models.

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