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Snap’s AI chatbot draws scrutiny in UK over kids’ privacy concerns

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Snap’s AI chatbot has landed the company on the radar of the UK’s data protection watchdog which has raised concerns the tool may be a risk to children’s privacy.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) announced today that it’s issued a preliminary enforcement notice on Snap over what it described as “potential failure to properly assess the privacy risks posed by its generative AI chatbot ‘My AI’”.

The ICO action is not a breach finding. But the notice indicates the UK regulator has concerns that Snap may not have taken steps to ensure the product complies with data protection rules, which — since 2021 — have been dialled up to include the Children’s Design Code.

“The ICO’s investigation provisionally found the risk assessment Snap conducted before it launched ‘My AI’ did not adequately assess the data protection risks posed by the generative AI technology, particularly to children,” the regulator wrote in a press release. “The assessment of data protection risk is particularly important in this context which involves the use of innovative technology and the processing of personal data of 13 to 17 year old children.”

Snap will now have a chance to respond to the regulator’s concerns before the ICO takes a final decision on whether the company has broken the rules.

“The provisional findings of our investigation suggest a worrying failure by Snap to adequately identify and assess the privacy risks to children and other users before launching ‘My AI’,” added information commissioner, John Edwards, in a statement. “We have been clear that organisations must consider the risks associated with AI, alongside the benefits. Today’s preliminary enforcement notice shows we will take action in order to protect UK consumers’ privacy rights.”

Snap launched the generative AI chatbot back in February — though it didn’t arrive in the UK until April — leveraging OpenAI’s ChatGPT large language model technology to power a bot that was pinned to the top of users’ feed to act as a virtual friend that could be asked advice or sent snaps.

Initially the feature was only available to subscribers of Snapchat+, a premium version of the ephemeral messaging platform. But pretty quickly Snap opened access of “My AI” to free users too — also adding the ability for the AI to send snaps back to users who interacted with it (these snaps are created with generative AI).

The company has said the chatbot has been developed with additional moderation and safeguarding features, including age consideration as a default — with the aim of ensuring generated content is appropriate for the user. The bot is also programmed to avoid responses that are violent, hateful, sexually explicit, or otherwise offensive. Additionally, Snap’s parental safeguarding tools let parents know whether their kid has been communicating with the bot in the past seven days — via its Family Center feature.

But despite the claimed guardrails there have been reports of the bot going off the rails. In an early assessment back in March, The Washington Post reported the chatbot had recommended ways to mask the smell of alcohol after it was told that the user was 15. In another case when it was told the user was 13 and asked how they should prepare to have sex for the first time, the bot responded with suggestions for “making it special” by setting the mood with candles and music.

Snapchat users have also been reported bullying the bot — with some also frustrated an AI has been injected into their feeds in the first place.

Reached for comment on the ICO notice, a Snap spokesperson told TechCrunch:

We are closely reviewing the ICO’s provisional decision. Like the ICO we are committed to protecting the privacy of our users. In line with our standard approach to product development, My AI went through a robust legal and privacy review process before being made publicly available. We will continue to work constructively with the ICO to ensure they’re comfortable with our risk assessment procedures.

It’s not the first time an AI chatbot has landed on the radar of European privacy regulators. In February Italy’s Garante ordered the San Francisco-based maker of “virtual friendship service” Replika with an order to stop processing local users’ data — also citing concerns about risks to minors.

The Italian authority also put a similar stop-processing-order on OpenAI’s ChatGPT tool the following month. The block was then lifted in April but only after OpenAI had added more detailed privacy disclosures and some new user controls — including letting users ask for their data not to be used to train its AIs and/or to be deleted.

The regional launch of Google’s Bard chatbot was also delayed after concerns were raised by its lead regional privacy regulator, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission. It subsequently launched in the EU in July, also after adding more disclosures and controls — but a regulatory taskforce set up within the European Data Protection Board remains focused on assessing how to enforce the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on generative AI chatbots, including ChatGPT and Bard.

Poland’s data protection authority also confirmed last month that it’s investigating a complaint against ChatGPT.



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SpaceX Rocket Suffers Engine Failure In Starlink Mission, Elon Musk Shares What’ll Happen Next

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SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket suffered a rare failure on Friday. The launcher lifted off with 20 Starlink satellites at 8:06 am IST from California but failed to deploy them in the intended orbit.

According to SpaceX, the second stage of Falcon 9 did not complete its second burn necessary for reaching the desired orbit. The booster did its job and safely landed on the droneship in the Pacific Ocean. It was SpaceX‘s 70th mission this year.

Currently, the satellites are in a lower orbit than planned.

“SpaceX has made contact with 5 of the satellites so far and is attempting to have them raise orbit using their ion thrusters,” the company said in a statement on X.

ALSO SEE: Japan’s First Private Rocket Launch Ends In Massive Explosion, Video Goes Viral

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that it might not work “but it’s worth the shot. He also said that the satellites might fall toward Earth and burn up in the atmosphere if their thrusters are overpowered by the atmospheric drag.

In another post, Musk revealed that the upper stage engine exploded for unknown reasons while trying to raise the orbit. “Team is reviewing data tonight to understand root cause,” he said.

Notably, the reputed rocket by SpaceX has suffered only one full in-flight failure during a mission to the International Space Station in 2015.

ALSO SEE: Chinese Rocket Launches Accidentally, Crashes With Massive Explosion Seconds Later

(Image: SpaceX)





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China Plans To Destroy An Asteroid For Planetary Defense Mission By 2030: Report

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After the impeccable success of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, China is now planning to deflect an asteroid later this decade. According to The Planetary Society, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) is preparing its first planetary defense test which is expected to launch by 2030.

Scientists have proposed the near-Earth asteroid 2015 XF261 as a candidate for the mission which will include two probes. One will ram into the space rock to deflect it and the second will conduct impact assessment.

The asteroid 2015 XF261 measures about 100 feet or 30 metres in diameter and it made a close flyby of our planet earlier this month. According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the asteroid was about 50 million kilometres from our planet on July 9 and was travelling at a speed of around 42,000 kilometres per hour.

ALSO SEE: NASA Drills Freaky Scenario Where Elusive Asteroid Heads Towards Earth

Apart from China, Japan is also eyeing a ‘kinetic impact’ test mission to deflect an asteroid. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) reportedly has plans to repurpose its Hayabusa2 spacecraft to collide with 1998 KY26. The probe which launched in 2014 is expected to rendezvous with the space rock in 2031 and potentially change its orbit.

The said missions by the two nations are driven by the success of NASA’s DART mission launched in 2021 which proved that smacking an asteroid can deflect them. It collided with Dimorphos which circles a larger rock Didymos in September 2022 and changed its orbit by about 32 minutes.

These missions are of immense importance as they enable technologies that could save Earth from a planet-killing asteroid. While predicting an impending asteroid armageddon is predictable, it is also the gravest threat that humanity faces.

ALSO SEE: Collision Of NASA’s DART With Asteroid Dimorphos Changed Its Shape; Finding Excites Scientists



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Uzbekistan mobile bank TBC raises $38.2M to expand its financial products

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Uzbekistan’s only mobile-exclusive bank, TBC Bank Uzbekistan, owned by London Stock Exchange-listed TBC Bank Group, has raised $38.2 million in a fresh equity investment. It plans to expand its local presence in the country and introduce new financial products as well.

TBC Bank Group has led the latest funding in TBC Bank Uzbekistan by infusing $23 million, while shareholders European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) have participated in the round by investing $7.6 million each.

After serving customers in Georgia, TBC Bank Group decided to expand outside that country’s borders in 2019 and found Uzbekistan as its first international market. The bank started its Uzbekistan operations in 2020 through a separate entity, TBC Group Uzbekistan, which launched the mobile-only bank after its debut, with no physical branches in the country. The plan was to leverage Uzbekistan’s increasing digitization effort and foresee business growth in the country, which has the biggest population after Russia and Ukraine in the region — the second-largest among all the Commonwealth of Independent States countries — and has upright economic and socio-demographics.

“Before TBC came in, there were no banking apps in Uzbekistan … Fast-forward four years, most of the banks have got a mobile app, but TBC is far ahead of the field,” said Oliver Hughes, head of international business at TBC Group, in an exclusive interview.

According to official data, Uzbekistan has a 70% smartphone penetration rate and a 77% internet penetration rate; 59% of its population of 37 million is under 30 years old, making it a viable market for a mobile-specific business.

TBC Bank Uzbekistan offers a mobile app through which customers can open bank accounts and access services, including cash loans and deposits. This omits the requirement of physically going to a bank branch to access banking.

Hughes told TechCrunch that a couple of years ago, customers in Uzbekistan typically had to visit their bank and stand in a queue to get any of their banking work done.

Alongside the mobile-only bank, TBC Group Uzbekistan owns Payme, the digital payments app for individual users and small businesses, as well as the Sharia-compliant credit business called Payme Nasiya. To broaden its coverage, it looks to integrate some experiences from these two businesses within the bank or sync them with the bank’s operations.

For instance, through its app, TBC Group Uzbekistan will offer tips, recommendations and user-generated content on local events, entertainment, concerts and travel to provide complementary services that are not strictly financially related. Some of these features will first arrive on the Payme app but will be available to the TBC Bank Uzbekistan customers over time.

Similarly, Payme Nasiya currently serves Uzbek customers with its point-of-sale and installment loans. To expand the credit business, it will introduce e-commerce and offline buy now, pay later. This is expected to attract more local businesses and eventually help the mobile bank gain more customers.

In addition to the new financial products in the pipeline, TBC Group Uzbekistan plans to bring AI experiences to its mobile bank. Hughes told TechCrunch the group has built a large language model predominantly using its customer dataset and is working on a voice assistant to deliver banking and financial services through a chatbot integrated within its app.

In the fall, TBC Bank Uzbekistan will use the fresh funding to add credit cards and an insurance product next year, Hughes said.

The bank’s roadmap includes additional services such as current accounts, as well as accounting, offline payments, e-commerce payments and lending specifically for small and medium enterprise customers, Hughes added.

“This investment will allow us to further capitalize on the immense opportunities in Uzbekistan, a fast-growing country with a population of over 37 million people where TBC UZ continues to leverage its growth momentum,” said Vakhtang Butskhrikidze, CEO of TBC Bank Group, in a prepared statement.

At the end of 2022, TBC Bank Uzbekistan broke even, and 2023 was the bank’s first full year of profit. As of March 2024, the bank had a user base of 4.8 million unique registered users. It also recorded monthly active users of 1.2 million in the first quarter of 2024.

Overall, TBC Group Uzbekistan, with a registered user base of 15 million users, reached profitability two years after launch and recorded 85% year-on-year revenue growth in the first quarter of this year. The company achieved gross loans of $296 million and deposits of $216 million through all three of its subsidiaries. Its net profit hit $23 million for the financial year 2023, most of which came from Payme. However, TBC did not disclose the mobile bank’s revenues or profits.

“TBC UZ’s impressive growth trajectory and innovative approach align with our mission to support sustainable economic development in the region,” said Andi Aranitasi, head of Uzbekistan, EBRD.

Hughes said that by the end of 2025, TBC Group Uzbekistan is projected to generate $75 million in net profit, most of which would come from TBC Bank Uzbekistan.

“We are encouraged with the progress TBC UZ has made so far and remain confident in its potential to contribute to economic growth and financial inclusion in Uzbekistan,” said Neil McKain, country manager, Uzbekistan, IFC.



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