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UK gambling machines loaded with AI ‘cool off’ system

Betting terminals in a bookmaker'sImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Thousands of British betting terminals have already been loaded with the new software

Every gambling machine in the UK’s betting shops is being updated with software designed to detect and prevent problematic behaviour in players.

The system locks gamblers out of machines for 30 seconds if erratic or excessive play is detected.

While the brief lockdown is in effect, warnings about safe gambling are displayed on the machines’ screens.

One expert said the enforced break was “probably not long enough to have a positive effect”.

The artificial intelligence (AI) Anonymous Player Awareness System was launched this month by the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), an industry group representing 90% of the UK betting and gaming market.

Among the behaviour patterns it tries to detect are chasing losses, spending too long on a single machine and playing a succession of games rapidly.

“It was rolled out to all our machines in our 1,600 shops in early November,” a spokesman for Betfred told the BBC.

“These alerts are now operational on machines in all 3,200 Ladbrokes and Coral shops,” a Ladbrokes Coral spokesman added.

William Hill confirmed the software had been installed on its betting machines, too.

The Telegraph reported that other firms across the industry may also adopt the software.

‘Staff alerted’

Thousands of shops have already installed the technology on betting machines, according to the BGC.

When an enforced break is triggered on a gaming machine, staff in betting shops behind the counter receive an alert, a BGC spokesman said.

“The staff behind know and probably would come out to check you’re ok and have a discussion with you if there are any issues,” he added.

The BGC had already rolled out the system for players who used personal accounts to log in to and play games. It would take previous problematic gambling behaviour into account when analysing play.

However, this has now been extended to anyone who uses a betting terminal, whether they log in or not.

Image copyright BGC
Image caption During 30 second enforced breaks, gamblers are advised to set limits on their betting

Some have questioned how effective the 30 second breaks will be.

“This is a step in the right direction but obviously needs to be monitored and evaluated,” said Mark Griffiths, professor of behavioural addiction at Nottingham Trent University.

However, he added, “The mandatory break is probably not long enough to have a positive effect.”

In a study of Norwegian gambling machines published in September, Prof Griffiths and colleagues evaluated whether an enforced 90 second break could curtail problematic gambling behaviour.

The research found that the break caused “no significant effect” on the amount of money staked during a subsequent gambling session or how long that session lasted.

Can Valve tempt gamers to try virtual reality?

Half-life 2Image copyright Valve
Image caption Half-life remains one of gaming’s best-known series, despite there not having been a new title in more than a decade

Game developer Valve has announced a new title in its well-known Half-Life series of games.

The next one, called Half-Life: Alyx, will be available in March 2020. More details are due to be released later this week.

First, some history

Gamers not born when Half-Life was released in 1998 may not be aware of the hold it, and its various follow-ups, have on older players.

Half-life rejuvenated the first-person shooter by injecting it with much needed realism, a strong story and a memorable hero in Gordon Freeman. The potent combination made it hugely successful and it is widely regarded as one of the best games ever made.

The love affair continued with Half-Life 2, released in November 2004, which introduced a detailed world with realistic physics that players could exploit, via the game’s gravity gun, to solve puzzles or defeat enemies. It too regularly tops lists of best games.

Valve has released extra episodes for Half-Life 2 but those who cut their gaming teeth on the two titles have eagerly awaited the third instalment.

Online, every hint about HL3 that has surfaced over the last 15 years has been dissected and pored over by fans.

Image copyright Epic Games
Image caption Gamers weaned on massive, multiplayer games such as Fortnite may find Half-Life a bit tame

Is the new game Half-Life 3?

Not quite. Ars Technica reports that it will be set after the first game and before the second. A sequel to one and prequel to the other.

Half-Life: Alyx is an entirely new game only playable via virtual reality. Valve has helped develop the Vive VR headset with HTC but it said the game would also work on the Oculus Rift and Windows Mixed Reality VR systems.

As its name suggests, the game will focus on Alyx Vance – one of the main characters in Half-Life 2.

The original game introduced an alien technological superpower called the Combine that, once it was unleashed on Earth by Gordon Freeman, conquered the planet in a few hours.

Alyx’s father, Dr Eli Vance, became head of the resistance fighting the Combine’s malign control, so it is reasonable to assume that the game will deal with the early days of the fightback.

Why is it only available in VR?

Valve has a history of pushing the boundaries in PC gaming and Half-Life: Alyx continues that trend.

In addition, Valve has a vested interest in getting people to try, and buy, Vive headsets. The basic Vive model costs £499 in the UK, $399 in the US, and the higher-spec models in the range cost a good deal more.

That high starting price for VR gaming means only really dedicated, older fans have tried it.

In addition, many of the games available to play in VR have been titles that would do as well on a flat screen.

If Valve manages to make Half-Life: Alyx an immersive VR experience that exploits the possibilities of the technology it could mean new gamers give it a try, said industry analyst Piers Harding-Rolls from IHS Markit.

“A Half-Life VR game will definitely increase consumer interest and awareness of the tech, and result in a bump in sales of PC-based VR headsets,” he said.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Valve has experimented with different control systems for the Vive headset

He doubts it will fuel an “explosive” surge in VR sales simply because the cost of a headset, and a PC to power it, is so high.

What can we expect from the game?

Valve has remained tight-lipped but there are hints about one aspect of the gameplay.

In September, a leak from Valve’s core gaming software suggested it was working on a novel control system called “grabbity gloves”.

These will allow players to point to, attract and control distant objects – a bit like the force powers the Jedi use. The world in Half-Life: Alyx will probably be very responsive and open to manipulation via VR controllers.

Who will play it?

Good question. The gaming world has moved on enormously since HL1 and 2. Valve is still widely influential thanks to its Steam gaming platform and other titles such as Counter Strike, Team Fortress 2, Dota 2, Left 4 Dead and Portal.

But players’ attention is now divided between massively multiplayer games such as Fortnite, League of Legends, Apex Legends, Call of Duty, Overwatch and many, many others.

For many of these people, the arrival of Half-Life: Alyx may be too little, too late to tempt them into donning a headset and taking on the Combine.

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Ford unveils all-electric car – the Mustang

Ford MustangImage copyright Ford

Ford has unveiled its all-electric Mustang Mach E at a glitzy event in Los Angeles that included an appearance by actor Idris Elba.

The top-range version of the car can travel up to 370 miles on a full charge and recharge 57 miles (92km) of range in 10 minutes on a high-power charge.

There are buttons in place of conventional door handles and storage space under the front bonnet.

The various models can accelerate from 0-60mph in about eight seconds.

In comparison, the Tesla Model 3 can do 0-60mph in 4.4 seconds.

Like the Tesla, the Mustang Mach E has a 15.5in (40cm) touch screen beside the steering wheel.

Prices range from £44,000 to £58,000 ($44,000 to $60,000 in the US).

Image copyright Ford
Image caption Storage space in the boot

Amanda Stretton, motoring editor at the price comparison website confused.com said “a lot of hopes” were riding on the vehicle.

“The interesting thing is that they’ve decided to use the Mustang name with this car, because of course it’s the name synonymous with American muscle cars, with big V8s… and yet they are taking the performance aspect of that name and putting it into this electric car,” she told BBC News.

“I really hope this is a game-changer.”

Earlier this year, Ford announced plans to close six manufacturing plants in Europe by the end of 2020.

Stuart Rowley, president of Ford of Europe, said at the time the company’s future was “rooted in electrification”.

Analyst Natalie Sauber, from Arcardis, said infrastructure was still a deterrent for consumers considering buying an electric vehicle.

“Norway is the country with the highest uptake of electric vehicles, followed by other Scandinavian countries,” she told the BBC’s WorkLife programme.

“The UK is coming in at the lower end, similar to Germany and the US.”

According to analyst Jato, 91% of global car sales in 2019 have been vehicles with an internal combustion engine.

Xbox’s boss: Years before game streaming is mainstream

It will take many years before streaming video games becomes mainstream, the head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, has said.

The best gaming experience was still on a console or PC, Mr Spencer told BBC Click’s Marc Cieslak.

His comments come just before Google launches its video game streaming service Stadia on 19 November 2019.

Xbox has a rival service called Project xCloud which is still in its public testing phase.

See more at Click’s website and @BBCClick

Uber’s paradox: Gig work app traps and frees its drivers

Uber LondonImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Uber is seeking a five-year licence from Transport for London to continue operating in the city

On 24 November, after a nervous wait, Uber will learn whether its licence to operate in London is to be renewed.

The impending decision has revived debate over whether the data-driven basis for its business model and the “gig economy” jobs it creates are fair.

A wave of platforms has followed, offering new ways to buy and sell, to rent from and temporarily hire others.

Rather than salaried employees, independent contractors are paid by consumers for a specific job – a “gig”.

The platforms in the middle argue they do not employ staff but simply connect customers with people seeking to make money.

Research by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) estimates that one in 10 workers in the UK now regularly does “platform work”.

No company is more symbolic of this shift than Uber itself.

As a consequence, it has become a lightning rod for arguments about what gig work really represents.

Does it usher in new, flexible, liberating ways to work, or is it the means for a kind of arms-length control that undermines basic rights?

Abdura Hadi, an Uber driver who has worked on the streets of London for five years, has noticed a change.

Image caption Mr Hadi relies for work on Uber’s job-allocation algorithm but says he is does not know how it works

“On average, I used to work six-to-eight hours, six days a week to provide for my family” he told me. Now, he adds: “It’s 10-to-12 hours.”

He’s noticed that over the period, the number of Uber drivers has rapidly increased, while the number of pick-up jobs has not kept up.

Increased competition has made a particular part of Uber’s platform critical to Mr Hadi and his fellow drivers’ earning power – the software that determines who gets each ride.

However, none of them knows how it works.

“My family depends on the algorithm,” he explains.

“Sometimes it’s scary, but if it was fair, it would be OK.”

Minimum wage

At the heart of the controversy around Uber is that the disruption it has brought isn’t just economic, but also legal.

Definitions that were once reasonably clear in the workplace have become muddied.

The question of whether Uber drivers are actually employees is currently making its way through the British courts.

Even one of the most basic facts of any job has become disputed: how much Uber drivers actually earn.

“It’s a fact that drivers are working on less than minimum wage,” claims Mr Hadi.

Yet a recent study co-authored by researchers at Oxford University and Uber, based on administrative data from the company, reported that the median London driver earns about £11 per hour spent logged into the app.

That is just above the London Living Wage.

The study included vehicle operation costs and time spent waiting between rides while logged in.

Data v anecdotes

Ken Jacobs, an academic at University of California, Berkeley, who has studied hidden costs that Uber drivers and other gig workers face, refers to them as the five “major loopholes”.

They include:

  • time spent waiting for rides
  • the cost of driving back into busy areas after a ride
  • vehicle maintenance and insurance
  • the lack of payment for sick leave, meal breaks and rest breaks
  • the lack of holiday pay

“They tend to way underestimate the actual expenses a driver incurs,” he said.

Meera Joshi, the former head of the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission, the regulator responsible for services like Uber across the city, says data is key.

“Without data you only have anecdotes,” she told me.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Uber was forced to pay drivers in New York more money

“You have stories from drivers about low wages, but you have no way to really quantify that.”

In perhaps the first move of its kind, Ms Joshi’s commission forced Uber to hand over data about its drivers operating in New York.

“What we found out was that conditions were worse than what was described to us by drivers,” she said.

“Ninety-six per cent of drivers were making less than the city’s minimum wage. Most of the drivers were providing the main source of income for their families.”

After the watchdog implemented minimum-wage protections to cover the 80,000 New York drivers involved, an additional $225m (£172m) per month went “back into the pockets of drivers”, said Ms Joshi.

As a result, the cash flowed into local neighbourhoods rather than back to San Francisco-based Uber.

‘Prison and liberator’

The Oxford paper also claimed that Uber drivers had higher levels of life satisfaction than other workers, but also higher anxiety levels.

“That’s the paradox of Uber,” commented Duncan McCann, a researcher at the New Economics Foundation.

“It is both a prison and a liberator. You can just switch on the app and start working, but if you have a family to support, it’s obviously less flexible. You need to match peaks of demand: rush hours and weekends.”

And Uber is just the “tip of the iceberg”, he added.

“The majority of gig-economy workers are women, doing care, cleaning.

“Under the water level, you have platforms openly advertising rates beneath minimum wage.”

Uber has taken steps to benefit the drivers ahead of the licensing deadline. For example, last week it added a button to their app to let them report racism or other discriminatory behaviour from passengers, who it promises to kick off its platform if the complaint is upheld.

“Drivers are at the heart of our service – we can’t succeed without them – and thousands of people come into work at Uber every day focused on how to make their experience better, on and off the road,” it said in a statement.

“Whether it’s being able to track your earnings or stronger insurance protections, we’ll continue working to improve the experience for and with drivers.”

But in many ways, the gig economy simply reintroduces very old issues of conditions and rights in the workplace in new ways.

Previous decades saw the struggles of employees to have their rights recognised; now the struggle is one of workers to be recognised as employees at all.

Once the focus was on the power of the owners of the means of production; now it is on the owners of the means to find work via the net.

The new battleground is not over who controls the shop floor, but who controls the data involved. Who has it, and what it reveals.

Whatever happens on 24 November, the wider debate will continue for a long time yet.

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Election 2019: What big tech isn’t telling us about ads

Social media ads

All over the country, voters, reporters and other observers have been going through something of an awakening about the extent that political parties are using social media to target us.

In a post-Cambridge Analytica-scandal world there’s suspicion about how we might be being manipulated.

To address concerns, the tech giants have created databases to show what political adverts are being run and by whom.

There’s no doubt that more is being disclosed than in previous campaigns, but critics say there’s still much more that “big tech” could reveal.

Let’s start with Facebook.

In October last year, it launched its Ad Library in the UK. Since then, more than 131,400 adverts related to politics, elections, and social issues have been added to the database. That’s almost £11m worth, according to the firm.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Facebook launched its political ads library in the UK a year ago

The library is free to use and easy to navigate. And recently it began including ads run on the firm’s photo-centric app, Instagram.

You can look up roughly how many times an ad was seen, its approximate cost, the gender and age of those targeted and who made and paid for the advert.

You can also see whether an ad was aimed at people in England, Scotland, Wales and/or Northern Ireland.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption This is the data Facebook provided for one ad run by the Labour Party

However, there’s still much that is not shared.

We know that political parties target voters in very specific areas, such as marginal seats, but the library doesn’t reveal where exactly an ad was shown.

We also know that people are targeted by personal details – for example, interested in “the environment” or “yoga” or more political interests, like “GMB union”. But that information, too, is not shared to the wider public.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Facebook allows users to be targeted by interests including environmentalism and specific trade unions

Facebook has previously said that transparency is important to “prevent future interference in elections”.

So reporters recently pressed it about these shortcomings. The firm said it planned to improve the database but would not be drawn on whether it intended to divulge the missing information about geographic or interest-based targeting.

When shown an ad, Facebook users can ask for more specific information about how it came to be shown to them.

The BBC and other news organisations have been trying to crowdsource the information from those targeted. But that only gives a fragmented view of what is going on – an unsatisfactory state of affairs, according to the co-founder of the Coalition for Reform of Political Advertising.

“Voters having the full picture of how they’re targeted is important, as it may impact their evaluation of the information being conveyed to them,” Benedict Pringle told the BBC.

“If a voter knows they are being targeted because of their age, sex or occupation it might encourage them to question the message and think, ‘Yes, well you would be saying that to me, wouldn’t you?’

“Also, if techniques deployed by political actors are unavailable for scrutiny by watchdogs and journalists it can enable malpractice.”

But Facebook claims that it is now “more transparent” about ads than those behind more traditional outlets, such as billboards, direct mail, leaflets or targeted email campaigns.

“This is the first UK general election since we introduced these changes and we’re already seeing many journalists using these transparency tools to scrutinise the adverts which are running during this election,” said Rebecca Stimson, head of Facebook’s UK Public Policy.

“This is something we welcome and it’s exactly why we introduced these changes.”

In the 2017 general election, more than £3m was spent by all parties on Facebook.

But a further £1m or so went to another often overlooked source – Google.

Image copyright Google
Image caption Google lets users select whether they want to see ads run as text, video or images

Ads can be purchased to appear at the top of its search results, within its YouTube videos or placed on third-party webpages via its ad tech platforms.

So, for example, a user might have been shown brief text-based messages by the Conservative Party promising to make “our streets safer” or the Brexit Party promising to “stand up for democracy”.

Google launched its own version of a political ad library in March, and has so far listed more than 1,400, totalling £144,500.

But it is far more vague than Facebook about the details.

When it lists the amount spent, it does so only in large bands, for example “from £500-£25,000”.

Likewise, the range for the number of people reported to have seen an ad is very broad- for example, “between 10,000 and 100,000”.

Moreover, the site says the details are updated “generally” only every week.

Image copyright Google
Image caption Google provides less detail about how ads were targeted than Facebook

There is a way to get more information.

You can find out how ads are targeted by gender, postcode and age. But to do so, you have to download a large, complex set of spreadsheets.

One thing you can’t find out is the crucial “key words” that parties have bought up to ensure their ads are seen when someone searches for certain topics, even those containing rival parties’ names.

Google says it is “thinking hard” about the feedback it’s receiving but has not made any specific commitments.

“We believe that our transparency report helps provide valuable information to voters, public bodies and researchers,” said UK spokesman Elijah Lawal.

He added that it had gone further than Facebook and banned searches based on people’s “interests” in certain sensitive topics, as well as paying regard to the legal protections given against profiling users for having the traits themselves.

“We don’t enable advertisers to target ads to citizens based on their inferred political leanings; nor do we allow ads to be personalised to people based on sensitive information, such as their religion, sexual orientation, or membership in a trade union.”

Snapchat is also running political adverts in this election and it, too, offers detailed targeting to politicians and parties.

The company also has an ad library, albeit only in spreadsheet form.

Earlier this month, Twitter announced it would ban outright political advertising from 22 November. It seems already to have had an effect in the UK, as we’ve not yet seen advertising from any of the main political parties on the platform.

It follows LinkedIn, which introduced a ban in June 2018. TikTok announced a similar measure last month.

For now, all the commitments are voluntary. But some think that it’s time the sector faced official scrutiny.

“Parliament needs to legislate to appoint or create a political-advertising regulator and update laws relating to political advertising,” said Mr Pringle.

“A political-content regulator could then develop a code based on legislation, which would require oversight by Parliament.”

But that won’t happen before this election, and it will be up to the next batch of MPs to decide whether to make it a priority.

Google set to offer banking current accounts

Google CEO Sundar PichaiImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Google is expanding its financial offerings

Google has become the latest big tech firm to move into banking by offering current accounts.

The firm said it plans to partner with banks and credit unions in the US to offer the “smart checking” accounts.

It said the service, to be launched via Google Pay, will allow users to add Google’s analytic tools to traditional banking products.

The move follows offerings of credit cards, payment systems and loans by Facebook, Uber, Apple and Amazon.

While the products and arrangements differ, the tech giants entering the world of banking share an underlying motive: making themselves indispensable, says Gerard du Toit, a partner at the Bain & Co consulting firm.

“They’re all competing for consumer attention and for their ecosystem and platform to win,” he says.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Facebook has said its payment tool is a natural outgrowth of its broader aim of connecting people

Amazon’s credit card and business loans are aimed at boosting its e-commerce business, while Uber Money is providing credit cards, debit accounts and money tracking tools to serve the company’s taxi operations.

Facebook has said its Facebook Pay service will complement its messaging tools.

And both Google and Apple, which has teamed up with Goldman Sachs’ new consumer arm, Marcus, on a credit card as part of its Apple Pay and Wallet service, want to to make iPhones and Androids essential.

Wading into financial services will also provide Google and Facebook information for their advertising business, helping to track what ads lead to purchases, Mr du Toit said.

The moves into banking are likely to add to the debates over the tech giants, which are already facing probes related to competition, data protection and privacy.

Some officials have also expressed worry about gaps in financial oversight as growing activity occurs outside of traditional banking. And in recent days, New York announced it would investigate Apple, after accusations that its credit card relied on “sexist” algorithms.

Mr du Toit said regulatory concerns represent the “fly in the soup” for tech firms.

“They will have to be very careful,” he said.

Partnerships

In many cases, the tech firms are working with traditional banks – a sign they are aware of the potential issues, he said.

Google said its US partners, which reportedly include Citigroup, would start to offer the accounts by 2020.

“We believe our partners’ regulatory and financial know-how is a great complement to our experience in building helpful tools and technology for our users,” it said in a statement.

Image copyright STR
Image caption Chinese tech giants have had success with financial services

Lagging China

Amazon has offered small business loans since 2011 and launched its credit card with JP Morgan Chase in 2017.

But in some ways, the flurry of announcements by companies this year, is a sign that the US is late to the party.

In China and some other countries, the tech firms moved quickly into banking, motivated by the need to fill the gaps left by traditional finance industry that created hurdles for their businesses, whether they were e-commerce firms or food delivery companies.

In the US, however, the need was less pressing, thanks in part to the ubiquity of credit cards and other “good enough solutions”, Mr du Toit said.

Big tech payment services provided by the likes of Alibaba’s Ant Financial and Tencent’s WeChat account for roughly 16% of China’s GDP, compared to less than 1% in the US, according to the Bank for International Settlements, an organisation backed by 60 of the world’s central banks.

Tech companies “are now increasingly getting into it because they do believe they can offer a materially better solution to customers,” he said.

Image copyright Getty Images

Last month, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg evoked the threat of Chinese competition while defending his firm’s interest in developing a cryptocurrency before Congress last month.

“I view the financial infrastructure in the US as outdated,” he said.

‘Darwinian experiment’

As the tech companies start to make use of their massive reach, close customer relationships and giant data sets, banks “have woken up” to the threat, leading to collaborations and other uneasy “frenemy” arrangements, Mr du Toit said.

With tech firms moving beyond credit cards, regional banks will get left behind, while smaller financial technology firms are forced out or acquired, Mr du Toit said.

“I sometimes describe this as a giant Darwinian experiment of different couplings of the banks and the big techs,” he says. “There will be some mutations that succeed and others that fail.”

While Google’s earlier efforts to build up Google Pay failed to gain much traction in the US, the firm has developed significant payment business in India, where a Bain & Co survey found that more than half of respondents had used the platform in the last 12 months.

“I would not count them out,” Mr du Toit said.

Project Nightingale: Google probed over US patient data deal

A doctor shows a patient medical information on a tablet computerImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Google’s deal with Ascension, a major health firm, has attracted criticism from some

Google is to be investigated over how it is accessing US patient data via a major health firm, the Wall Street Journal reports.

An office of the US Department of Health and Human Services will examine the details of a deal dubbed “Project Nightingale”.

Google said patient data was “secure”.

Separately, in the UK, the Financial Times (FT) reports that popular health websites are sharing sensitive data with firms including Google.

The Project Nightingale deal with Ascension – a firm that runs 2,600 hospitals in the US – attracted criticism from some when the Wall Street Journal revealed that Google could access patient data without them being notified.

Among those who expressed concern was Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski.

“Privacy protections, particularly when it comes to personal info like your health, is a high priority of mine,” she said via Twitter.

However, in a blog, Google argued that the deal “adheres to industry-wide regulations” and that access to patient data by its employees was controlled.

The tech giant said patient data would not be combined with customer data from other parts of its business.

It added that it was “happy to co-operate” with the federal inquiry.

In its own blog, Ascension said it looked forward to developing artificial intelligence tools for medical purposes with Google’s help.

Websites’ data shared

News of Project Nightingale coincided with an FT investigation that revealed how popular health websites in the UK frequently shared personal data with companies including Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Websites such as WebMD and Bupa used cookies – code added to web browsers – that allowed other companies to track users’ activity on the web.

The kind of data shared from health websites to others included medical symptoms, diagnoses, and menstrual and fertility information, as well as the names of drugs.

Google told the FT it had strict policies preventing advertisers from using sensitive data to target ads.