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Uber still dragging its feet on algorithmic transparency, Dutch court finds

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Uber has been found to have failed to comply with European Union algorithmic transparency requirements in a legal challenge brought by two drivers whose accounts were terminated by the ride-hailing giant, including with the use of automated account flags.

Uber also failed to convince the court to cap daily fines of €4k being imposed for ongoing non-compliance — which now exceed over half a million euros (€584,000).

The Amsterdam District Court found in favor of two of the drivers who are litigating over data access over what they couch as ‘robo-firings’. But the appeals court decided Uber had provided sufficient information to a third driver regarding the reasons why its algorithm flagged the account for potential fraud.

The drivers are suing Uber to obtain information they argue they are legally required to regarding significant automated decisions taken about them.

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provides both for a right for individuals not to be subject to solely automated decisions with a legal or significant impact and to receive information about such algorithmic decision-making, including receiving “meaningful information” about the logic involved; its significance; and envisaged consequences of such processing for the data subject.

The nub of the issue relates not to fraud and/or risk reviews purportedly carried out on flagged driver accounts by (human) Uber staff — but to the automated account flags themselves which triggered these reviews.

Back in April an appeals court in the Netherlands also found largely in favor of platform workers litigating against Uber and another ride-hailing platform, Ola, over data access rights related to alleged robo-firing — ruling the platforms cannot rely on trade secrets exemptions to deny drivers access to data about these sorts of AI-powered decisions.

Per the latest ruling, Uber sought to rehash a commercial secrets argument to argue against disclosing more data to drivers about the reasons why its AIs flagged their accounts. It also generally argues that its anti-fraud systems would not function if full details were provided to drivers about how they work.

In the case of two of the drivers who prevailed against Uber’s arguments the company was found not to have provided any information at all about the “exclusively” automated flags that triggered account reviews. Hence the finding of an ongoing breach of EU algorithmic transparency rules.

The judge further speculated Uber may be “deliberately” trying to withhold certain information because it does not want to give an insight into its business and revenue model.

In the case of the other driver, for whom the Court found — conversely — that Uber had provided “clear and, for the time being, sufficient information”, per the ruling, the company explained that the decision-making process which triggered the flag began with an automated rule that looked at (i) the number of cancelled rides for which this driver received a cancellation fee; (ii) the number of rides performed; and (iii) the ratio of the driver’s number of cancelled and performed rides in a given period.

“It was further explained that because [this driver] performed a disproportionate number of rides within a short period of time for which he received a cancellation fee the automated rule signalled potential cancellation fee fraud,” the court also wrote in the ruling [which is translated into English using machine translation]. 

The driver had sought more information from Uber, arguing the data it provided was still unclear or too brief and was not meaningful because he does not know where the line sits for Uber to label a driver as a fraudster.

However, in this case, the interim relief judge agreed with Uber that the ride-hailing giant did not have to provide this additional information because that would make “fraud with impunity to just below that ratio childishly easy”, as Uber put it.

The wider question of whether Uber was right to classify this driver (or the other two) as a fraudster has not been assessed at this point in the litigation.

The long-running litigation in the Netherlands looks to be working towards establishing where the line might lie in terms of how much information platforms that deploy algorithmic management on workers must provide them with on request under EU data protection rules vs how much ‘blackboxing’ of their AIs they can claim is necessary to fuzz details so that anti-fraud systems can’t be gamed via driver reverse engineering.

Reached for a response to the ruling, an Uber spokesperson sent TechCrunch this statement:

The ruling related to three drivers who lost access to their accounts a number of years ago due to very specific circumstances. At the time when these drivers’ accounts were flagged, they were reviewed by our Trust and Safety Teams, who are specially trained to spot the types of behaviour that could potentially impact rider safety. The Court confirmed that the review process was carried out by our human teams, which is standard practice when our systems spot potentially fraudulent behaviour.

The drivers in the legal challenge are being supposed by the data access rights advocacy organization, Worker Info Exchange (WIE), and by the App Drivers & Couriers union.

In a statement, Anton Ekker of Ekker law which is representing the drivers, said: “Drivers have been fighting for their right to information on automated deactivations for several years now. The Amsterdam Court of Appeal confirmed this right in its principled judgment of 4 April 2023. It is highly objectionable that Uber has so far refused to comply with the Court’s order. However, it is my belief that the principle of transparency will ultimately prevail.”

In a statement commenting on the ruling, James Farrar, director of WIE, added: “Whether it is the UK Supreme Court for worker rights or the Netherlands Court of Appeal for data protection rights, Uber habitually flouts the law and defies the orders of even the most senior courts. Uber drivers and couriers are exhausted by years of merciless algorithmic exploitation at work and grinding litigation to achieve some semblance of justice while government and local regulators sit back and do nothing to enforce the rules. Instead, the UK government is busy dismantling the few protections workers do have against automated decision making in the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill currently before Parliament. Similarly, the proposed EU Platform Work Directive will be a pointless paper tiger unless governments get serious about enforcing the rules.”

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Intrepid spacecraft beams back vivid photo before moon landing

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An uncrewed private spacecraft has reached the moon’s orbit, one day ahead of its attempt to land at the lunar south pole.

Intuitive Machines’ robotic spacecraft, which launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Feb. 15, beamed back a view of the near side of the moon to flight controllers just six days later. The craft took a speedier path through space to get to the moon than its predecessors over the past year.

On Wednesday, the spacecraft completed its planned main engine burn to get into a circular orbit about 57 miles above the moon. NASA and its contractor intend to broadcast the landing on their respective websites. The event is scheduled for 5:49 p.m. ET Feb. 22.

“Odysseus continues to be in excellent health,” the company said on X, formerly known as Twitter, referring to its name for the lander.

If Intuitive Machines touches down without crashing, it will be the first U.S. spacecraft to complete the quarter-million-mile journey since the last Apollo mission in 1972. Though NASA isn’t controlling this spaceflight and doesn’t own Odysseus, the agency is paying the company $118 million to deliver six instruments to the moon, among other customers’ payloads.

The proposed landing site is Malapert A crater, just under 200 miles from the south pole. Several spacefarers have set their sights on this general region because of its ice. The natural resource, thought to be buried in permanently shadowed craters, is coveted because it could supply drinking water, oxygen, and rocket fuel for future space voyages.

Throughout history, about half of lunar landing attempts have failed, and only one out of three missions that tried to touch down on the moon in 2023 made it without a crash.

Odysseus, the Intuitive Machines’ moon lander, takes a photo of Earth in space.
Credit: Intuitive Machines

Already this year, another NASA contractor, Astrobotic Technologies, tried to get to the moon but never reached lunar orbit due to a detrimental fuel leak discovered early in the flight. In January, Japan became the fifth nation ever to land a spacecraft on the moon, but not without incident: It got there upside down and suffered significant power-generation problems.

NASA selected Intuitive Machines as one of several vendors for its Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative to explore the moon over the next few years. The program has recruited the private sector to help deliver cargo, conduct experiments, and demonstrate new technology, as well as send back crucial data. Through these contracts, NASA wants to see a regular cadence of moon missions to prepare for astronauts’ return to the moon in 2026 or later.

“What we’ve asked industry to do, which is soft land and operate on the moon’s surface, is not easy at all. It’s extremely difficult, as you probably have seen for lunar landing attempts just in the month of January,” said Joel Kearns, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration, during a call with reporters.

No commercial company has achieved this feat so far, although a few have tried.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket upper stage deploys Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander, aka “Odysseus,” in space.
Credit: SpaceX

Landing on the moon is hard because its exosphere — an extremely thin atmosphere of gasses barely held by the moon’s gravity — provides virtually no drag to slow a spacecraft down as it approaches the ground. Furthermore, there are no GPS systems on the moon to help guide a craft to its landing spot.

Despite numerous failures anticipated from the new, inexperienced players in space exploration, people can expect to be dazzled by their cosmic views, such as the stunning Intuitive Machines images of the past week.

“Pretty cool when a lunar lander takes a picture of its ride to space!” SpaceX said in a post on X last week. “Wishing @Int_Machines and IM-1 a safe and soft landing on the Moon.”





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How to watch the moon landing live: See the Intuitive Machines landing attempt

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We might be watching a historic moon landing today.

Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 spacecraft, the uncrewed Odysseus, could potentially land on the surface of the Moon on Feb. 22 at around 4:24 p.m. ET, after an eight-day journey through space. While we can’t be completely sure that the landing will be successful, on Wednesday Intuitive Machines said Odysseus “continues to be in excellent health in lunar orbit.”

You can watch the official stream on Intuitive Machines’ site, on NASA’s website, NASA Television, the NASA app, or on NASA+. You can also keep up by following blog updates on NASA’s website. The live coverage begins at around 3:00 p.m. ET, will continue through the potential landing, and ends with a news conference held by NASA.

The spacecraft is expected to land near Malapert A crater in the south pole region of the moon.

Odysseus launched on Feb. 15 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Its landing would make the first commercial moon landing and is quite the feat. Landing on the moon is an infamously difficult task for a variety of reasons, including the lack of GPS systems and atmospheric drag. Only five countries, including the former Soviet Union, the U.S., China, India, and Japan, have landed on the moon without a significant wreck.





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U.S. company makes history with first commercial moon landing

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A small American company’s robotic spacecraft has brought the United States back to the surface of the moon for the first time in more than a half-century.

Intuitive Machines, a Houston-based space company, landed on Thursday, becoming the first commercial company to reach the moon intact. The unprecedented achievement is a win for NASA, which has invested $2.6 billion in contracts with Intuitive Machines and several other vendors to deliver instruments to the moon over the next four years.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. A few hours before the landing, flight controllers discovered the spacecraft’s laser rangefinders, which help it avoid hazards on the ground, weren’t working. The team decided to take one more lap around the moon, which bought engineers a couple more hours to troubleshoot the problem. During that orbit, they uploaded a software patch to use onboard NASA lasers, which hadn’t previously been tested in space.

Then, there were some communication challenges, but NASA was quick to call the landing a success, even before a photo was beamed back to Earth.

“Today, for the first time in the history of humanity, a commercial company — an American company — launched and led the voyage up there,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson in a pre-recorded message during the broadcast. “Today is a day that shows the power and promise of NASA’s commercial partnerships.”

The moon lander dubbed Odysseus touched down on Malapert A crater, about 200 miles from the lunar south pole, just before 6:30 p.m. ET. Many nations and private ventures have set their sights on the region because of its ice, thought to be buried in the polar craters. The natural resource is coveted because it could supply drinking water, air, and rocket fuel for future missions, ushering a new era in spaceflight.

The success lends legitimacy to the Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative (CLPS), a private sector recruitment program to support NASA’s lunar ambitions. Through several contracts, the U.S. space agency wants to establish a regular itinerary of moon missions to prepare for putting Artemis astronauts on the moon in 2026 or later.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s former head of science, once described each of the first CLPS endeavors as “taking a shot on goal.” The sports analogy means not every attempt will be victorious, but overall the program will give NASA a lot of chances to achieve its moon-to-Mars goals. By outsourcing NASA’s lunar deliveries — rather than fully owning each mission — the agency believes it will save money. The contract with Intuitive Machines for this mission was $118 million.

Odysseus, the Intuitive Machines spacecraft, passes over the near side of the moon on Feb. 21, 2024.
Credit: Intuitive Machines

“We don’t know how many of the early attempts will be successful,” said Joel Kearns, NASA science’s deputy associate administrator for exploration, during a news conference in November. “But I can tell you that these American companies are technically strong and rigorous, savvy, they’re resourceful, and they’re driven to be successful. They want to secure that first mover advantage in generating this new lunar economy.”

But observers have questioned how cost-effective the initiative will truly be, given the riskiness of flying on inexperienced spacelines. In January, Astrobotic Technologies, the first of the CLPS vendors, tried to get to the moon, but never reached lunar orbit due to a detrimental fuel leak. NASA spent $108 million on that mission and lost five payloads in the process.

“If we’re flying missions at one-tenth of the cost of a NASA mission, and we fail two of them, we still get eight missions for that same price,” Kearns said in a pre-recorded statement during the landing broadcast. “Even with one or two or three failures, this is still a very economical proposition.”

Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus moon lander snaps a photo of Bel’kovich K crater, a 30-mile-wide pit with mountains in the center from lunar orbit.
Credit: Intuitive Machines

The likelihood of success, especially for novice space programs, is still slim. Historically, less than half of all missions to land on the moon have arrived without crashing. The lunar exosphere — an extremely thin atmosphere of gasses barely held by the moon’s gravity — provides virtually no drag to slow a spacecraft down as it approaches the ground. Furthermore, there are no GPS systems on the moon to help guide a craft to its landing spot. Engineers have to compensate for these shortcomings from 239,000 miles away.

Over the past five years, the private sector has tried and failed. An Israeli nonprofit and company collaborated in 2019 on the so-called Beresheet moon mission, which crashed on the lunar surface after an orientation component malfunctioned. Last April, Japanese startup ispace ran out of fuel on its descent and ultimately crashed. Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander never made it that far and ultimately broke apart as it crashed back to Earth.

But Intuitive Machines’ landing could instill confidence in the burgeoning lunar economy.

“I know this was a nail biter, but we are on the surface, and we are transmitting,” said Stephen Altemus, Intuitive Machines’ CEO. “Welcome to the moon.”





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