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What Is Palantir, and Why Is It Worth $20 Billion?

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Buzzfeed News reports that Palantir Technologies is raising $500 million on a valuation of $20 billion, making it the third-largest startup in America. “Its worth is surpassed only by Uber,” according to the report, “which is said to have a $50 billion valuation, and by Airbnb, which was recently reported by the Wall Street Journal to be raising money at a $24 billion valuation.” While the business models for both Uber and Airbnb are fairly well-known (i.e., apps for spending time in other people’s property, awkwardly avoiding small talk, and wondering if it’s all worth the few bucks you just saved), Palantir is a bit of a mystery to many.

Palantir is in the national security business. Unlike the common perception of defense contractors as Stark-Industries-type enterprises building robot suits and arc reactors, Palantir concerns itself with data analysis. In short, consider the hundreds of discrete moments that might go into a terrorist plot to blow up a national monument. Plane tickets are bought, parts for a bomb are purchased, targets are cased, agents are recruited, test-runs are carried out (including things like the bus tickets to get to the target, tickets to gain admission to the target, and so on). After the carnage, it’s easy to say, “Well obviously all of the dots were there. Why couldn’t we connect them?”

That’s what Palantir software is designed to do. It collects and synthesizes the data, helping government employees stop plots before they’re carried through to execution. Artificial intelligence is not running the show. Reportedly, the hands of human beings are firmly at the helm, which also helps protect civil liberties. By many reports, Palantir’s software is the best on the market today and works extremely well. The company counts among its successes derailing a massive, global web of cyber intrusion by the Chinese government; predicting the locations of improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan before the bombs could go off; helping J.P. Morgan fight fraud; and bringing together the salad bar of databases of the American intelligence community, enabling analysts to work from cohesive intelligence.

For obvious reasons, there are concerns about the company and its activities. Even if Palantir’s motives are as pure as the wind-driven snow, the potential for harm is self-evident. Jay Stanley, an analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, described abuse of the software as enabling a “true totalitarian nightmare, monitoring the activities of innocent Americans on a mass scale.” In at least one instance, government insiders proposed using Palantir software against WikiLeaks. (The plan was never carried out, due at least in part to a leak of the scheme to the press.)

In his final address as president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower warned that “only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” Critics of Palantir basically claim that they are the entity about which Ike was warning us. After all, our new $20 billion behemoth counts as its customers the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and major metropolitan police departments. If spies, armies, and the local fuzz need a mysterious product designed to drill into data about pretty much everything and that can be used against pretty much anyone, someone can claim to be “knowledgeable,” but it isn’t necessarily the citizenry.

The company’s name comes from Lord of the Rings. Remember those orbs that Sauron used to see people in Middle Earth? The orbs that controlled anyone who touched them? The orbs that could read people’s minds? Each of those orbs was a palantír. If it was good enough for the Dark Lord of Mordor, it’s good enough for the U.S. government.

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People With Limited Mobility Can Now Use Amazon Alexa to Control Exoskeletons
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Mario Tama, Getty Images

One of the challenges that comes with engineering exoskeletons that compensate for limited mobility is giving control to the people who wear them. Some systems use hand controls, while others can detect faint signals in the wearer’s muscles and respond accordingly. Now one exoskeleton startup is taking advantage of a technology that’s become mainstream in recent years: voice recognition.

As Engadget reports, Bionik Laboratories has integrated Amazon’s Alexa into its ARKE lower-body exoskeleton. The apparatus is designed for people with spinal chord damage or a history of stroke or traumatic brain injury that has hindered their movement below the waist. After strapping into the suit, wearers will now be able to use it just as they would a television set or stereo enabled with Alexa. Saying “Alexa, I’m ready to stand,” brings the joints to an upright position, and the command “Alexa, I’m ready to walk” prompts the legs to move forward. An Amazon Echo device must be within hearing range for the voice control to work, so in its current state the exoskeleton is only good for making short trips within the home.

Compatibility with Alexa isn’t the only modern feature Bionik worked into the design. The company also claims that ARKE is the first exoskeleton with integrated tablet control. That means if users wish to adjust their suit manually, they can do so by typing commands into a wireless touchpad. The tablet also records information that physical therapists can use to make more informed decisions when treating the patient.

Before the ARKE suit can be made available to consumers, it must first undergo clinical trials and receive approval from the FDA. If the tests go as planned Bionik hopes to have a commercial version of the product ready by 2019.

[h/t Engadget]

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The Most Popular Emojis Around the World
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iStock

Emojis may be the closest thing we currently have to a universal language. But even between English-speaking countries, emoji-texting habits can vary greatly.

HighSpeedInternet.com recently conducted an international survey on emoji usage and used the data to make the map below.

Of the nine English-speaking countries they studied, all nine chose the basic smiley emoji as their favorite pictograph. The second-place symbols are where interesting trends start to appear: For example, respondents in Jamaica, Trinidad, the UK, and the U.S. are all partial to the teary-eyed laughing emoji. Love is also a popular theme. Texters in Canada like sending one heart, while in New Zealand they prefer two. But not every country is so wholesome: In Ireland, the most popular emoji message behind a smiley face is a double poop.

They also determined that different countries have different interpretations of the same images; while everyone seems to greet that the kissing heart face means "love you," where some countries see an innocuous food image like an eggplant or a peach for exactly what it is, other countries have a less PG-rated view of them. (Learn more about their findings here.)

HighSpeedInternet.com

It should come as no surprise that emojis are loved in the U.S., where residents report including them in over half of all text messages. Besides Trinidad, all other countries included in the survey reported using emojis in less than 25 percent of texts. For a more localized look at visual texting trends, check out this map of the most prevalent emojis in each state.

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