All posts by MTechnology

‘Sooner, Faster, Now’ — the Companies Surfing the E-Commerce Wave

Amazon’s assault on the retail industry has brought misery to traditional retailers without a strong web presence.

Less well noticed is the patchwork of European companies that are turning the e-commerce revolution to their advantage, supplying online giants with everything from forklift trucks and storage space to cardboard boxes and automated warehouses.

Mainly bricks-and-mortar retailers such as Debenhams, H&M, and Marks & Spencer have faced a torrid few years as stretched consumers increasingly look online for bargains.

Online retail sales are growing at double-digit percentage rates in every western European country, according to consultancy the Centre for Retail Research.

In Britain, a fifth of transactions are now conducted online, a five-fold increase over the last decade.

The world’s dominant online retailer Amazon, whose shares have soared 73 percent in the last year, is outside the remit of most European investors because it is U.S. listed, so they have had to look for other ways of buying into the trend.

One is investing in companies that have benefited from the rise of e-commerce.

On February 16, warehouse owner Segro’s shares hit a decade-high after it said space-hungry clients, many in online retail and logistics, continued to buy up storage.

“There is a bull market in impatience,” said Gary Paulin, head of global equities at broker Northern Trust. “Consumers want things sooner, faster, now.”

He advises clients to buy shares in Kion, a German forklift truck-maker that is automating warehouses for online retailers, speeding up deliveries in the process.

He also flagged a turnaround at online supermarket Ocado. The company has long been targeted by short-sellers betting its share price will fall, but recently it has signed tie-ups with food retailers Casino and Sobeys, and its shares have more-than-doubled since November.

Martin Todd, a fund manager at Hermes Investment Management, owns shares in Kion as well as DS Smith, a cardboard-box maker which supplies Amazon as well as a number of other online retailers.

DS Smith is developing technology to custom-make boxes for Amazon that will help reduce large gaps in packages that increase freight costs.

“You might think it is a pretty unsexy business … [but] it is getting more high tech in what is traditionally a very low tech industry,” Todd said.

The company recently entered Britain’s blue-chip FTSE 100 index for the first time.

Buying some stocks exposed to online retail does not come cheap. Ocado shares are currently trading at more than 800 times forecast earnings, according to Eikon data.

John Bennett, head of European equities at Janus Henderson Investors, said while traditional retailers were “absolutely dying,” stocks such as Kion were too expensive for him to own.

“It became a very popular name, and I tend to shy away [from widely-owned companies],” he said. “I am far too curmudgeonly on the multiples you pay.”

Reporting by Alasdair Pal.

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US Companies Urged to Issue ‘Clearer’ Cyber Risk Disclosures

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday updated guidance to public companies on how and when they should disclose cybersecurity risks and breaches, including potential weaknesses that have not yet been targeted by hackers.

The guidance also said company executives must not trade in a firm’s securities while possessing nonpublic information on cybersecurity attacks. The SEC encouraged companies to consider adopting specific policies restricting executive trading in shares while a hack is being investigated and before it is disclosed.

The SEC, in unanimously approving the additional guidance, said it would promote “clearer and more robust disclosure” by companies facing cybersecurity issues, according to SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, a Republican.

Democrats on the commission reluctantly supported the guidance, describing it as a paltry step taken in the wake of a raft of high-profile hacks at major companies that exposed millions of Americans’ personal information. They called for much more rigorous rule-making to police disclosure around cybersecurity issues, or requiring certain cybersecurity policies at public companies.

Commissioner Robert Jackson said the new document “essentially reiterates years-old staff-level views on this issue,” and pointed to analysis from the White House Council of Economic Advisers that finds companies frequently under-report cybersecurity events to investors.

The SEC first issued guidance in 2011 on cybersecurity disclosures.

“It may provide investors a false sense of comfort that we, at the Commission, have done something more than we have,” Commissioner Kara Stein, another Democrat, said in a statement. Significant breaches have included those at Equifax Inc. consumer credit reporting agency, and at the SEC itself.

The agency announced in September its corporate filing system, known as EDGAR, was breached by hackers in 2016 and may have been used for insider trading. The matter is under review.

The new guidance will mean that corporations disclose more information about cyberattacks and risks and take steps to ensure no insider trading can occur around those events, said several attorneys who advise businesses on the subject.

“This essentially creates a mandatory new disclosure category — cybersecurity risks and incidents,” said Spencer Feldman, an attorney with Olshan Frome Wolosky LLP.

Craig A. Newman, a partner with Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP, said the SEC guidance “makes clear that it doesn’t want a repeat of the Equifax situation.”

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To Get a Ride, Uber Says Take a Walk

The latest variation of an Uber ride will require a short walk.

In eight U.S. cities, the ride-hailing company is rolling out a service called “Express Pool,” which links riders in the same area who want to travel to similar destinations. Once linked, riders would need to walk a couple of blocks to be picked up at a common location. They also would be dropped off at a site that would be a short walk from their final destinations.

Depending on time of day and metro area, Express Pool could cost up to 75 percent less than a regular Uber ride and up to half the cost of Uber’s current shared-ride service called Pool, said Ethan Stock, the company’s product director for shared rides.

Pool, which will remain in use, doesn’t require any walking. Instead it takes an often circuitous route to pick up riders at their location and drops them at their destination. But that can take longer than Express, which travels a more direct route.

Uber has been testing the service since November in San Francisco and Boston and has found enough ridership to support running it 24 hours per day. Within the next two days, the around-the-clock service will start running in Los Angeles; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Miami, San Diego and Denver. More cities will follow, Uber said.

The new service could spell competition for mass transit, but just how much depends on how well it works and how good the mass transit is, said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. If buses or subways are overcrowded and Uber can provide service for a similar price, that will help with mobility.

“If, however, you are cannibalizing transit that’s not over-subscribed, then that becomes a bad thing,” Hallenbeck said.

Also, if the ride-sharing service pulls people off mass transit and creates more automobile traffic, that will add to congestion, he said.

The service could complement Uber X, the company’s door-to-door taxi service — or draw passengers away from it.

Stock said the system should work well with public transit, providing first-mile and last-mile service for transit riders and by providing service to low passenger volume areas where it’s not cost effective for public transit to serve. He also says it will reduce congestion by cutting the number of personal vehicle trips.

Express already has ride-sharing competitors such as Via, which operates in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Express Pool will have normal-sized cars, at least initially, and optimally will carry a maximum of three passengers so riders aren’t crammed into the vehicles. It could be expanded to six-passenger vehicles, Stock said.

It will take one to two minutes for Uber’s computers to match a rider to a driver and other riders and select a pick-up point, Stock said.

The lower cost of the service should help Uber grow, Stock said. “More riders can afford to take more trips for more reasons,” he said. Already Uber Pool accounts for 20 percent of Uber trips in the cities where it’s available.

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To Get a Ride, Uber Says Take a Walk

The latest variation of an Uber ride will require a short walk.

In eight U.S. cities, the ride-hailing company is rolling out a service called “Express Pool,” which links riders in the same area who want to travel to similar destinations. Once linked, riders would need to walk a couple of blocks to be picked up at a common location. They also would be dropped off at a site that would be a short walk from their final destinations.

Depending on time of day and metro area, Express Pool could cost up to 75 percent less than a regular Uber ride and up to half the cost of Uber’s current shared-ride service called Pool, said Ethan Stock, the company’s product director for shared rides.

Pool, which will remain in use, doesn’t require any walking. Instead it takes an often circuitous route to pick up riders at their location and drops them at their destination. But that can take longer than Express, which travels a more direct route.

Uber has been testing the service since November in San Francisco and Boston and has found enough ridership to support running it 24 hours per day. Within the next two days, the around-the-clock service will start running in Los Angeles; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; Miami, San Diego and Denver. More cities will follow, Uber said.

The new service could spell competition for mass transit, but just how much depends on how well it works and how good the mass transit is, said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. If buses or subways are overcrowded and Uber can provide service for a similar price, that will help with mobility.

“If, however, you are cannibalizing transit that’s not over-subscribed, then that becomes a bad thing,” Hallenbeck said.

Also, if the ride-sharing service pulls people off mass transit and creates more automobile traffic, that will add to congestion, he said.

The service could complement Uber X, the company’s door-to-door taxi service — or draw passengers away from it.

Stock said the system should work well with public transit, providing first-mile and last-mile service for transit riders and by providing service to low passenger volume areas where it’s not cost effective for public transit to serve. He also says it will reduce congestion by cutting the number of personal vehicle trips.

Express already has ride-sharing competitors such as Via, which operates in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Express Pool will have normal-sized cars, at least initially, and optimally will carry a maximum of three passengers so riders aren’t crammed into the vehicles. It could be expanded to six-passenger vehicles, Stock said.

It will take one to two minutes for Uber’s computers to match a rider to a driver and other riders and select a pick-up point, Stock said.

The lower cost of the service should help Uber grow, Stock said. “More riders can afford to take more trips for more reasons,” he said. Already Uber Pool accounts for 20 percent of Uber trips in the cities where it’s available.

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Artificial Intelligence Poses Risks of Misuse by Hackers, Researchers Say

Rapid advances in artificial intelligence are raising risks that malicious users will soon exploit the technology to mount automated hacking attacks, cause driverless car crashes or turn commercial drones into targeted weapons, a new report warns.

The study, published on Wednesday by 25 technical and public policy researchers from Cambridge, Oxford and Yale universities along with privacy and military experts, sounded the alarm for the potential misuse of AI by rogue states, criminals and lone-wolf attackers.

The researchers said the malicious use of AI poses imminent threats to digital, physical and political security by allowing for large-scale, finely targeted, highly efficient attacks. The study focuses on plausible developments within five years.

“We all agree there are a lot of positive applications of AI,” Miles Brundage, a research fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. “There was a gap in the literature around the issue of malicious use.”

Artificial intelligence, or AI, involves using computers to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as making decisions or recognizing text, speech or visual images.

It is considered a powerful force for unlocking all manner of technical possibilities but has become a focus of strident debate over whether the massive automation it enables could result in widespread unemployment and other social dislocations.

The 98-page paper cautions that the cost of attacks may be lowered by the use of AI to complete tasks that would otherwise require human labor and expertise. New attacks may arise that would be impractical for humans alone to develop or which exploit the vulnerabilities of AI systems themselves.

It reviews a growing body of academic research about the security risks posed by AI and calls on governments and policy and technical experts to collaborate and defuse these dangers.

The researchers detail the power of AI to generate synthetic images, text and audio to impersonate others online, in order to sway public opinion, noting the threat that authoritarian regimes could deploy such technology.

The report makes a series of recommendations including regulating AI as a dual-use military/commercial technology.

It also asks questions about whether academics and others should rein in what they publish or disclose about new developments in AI until other experts in the field have a chance to study and react to potential dangers they might pose.

“We ultimately ended up with a lot more questions than answers,” Brundage said.

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Macron’s State Reform Tsar Looks to Technology to Cut Red-Tape

France is ready to invest in artificial intelligence, blockchain and data mining to “transform” its sprawling bureaucracy instead of simply trimming budgets and jobs, its administration reform tsar said.

The 39-year old former telecoms executive whom President Emmanuel Macron has charged with reforming the public sector said he believed technology would win support from government employees and in the end produce less costly public services.

Macron himself is coming under pressure from budget watchdogs and Brussels to spell out how he plans to cut 60 billion euros ($74 billion) in public spending and 120,000 public sector jobs to fulfill pledges made in his election campaign.

Chatbots – software that can answer users’ questions with a conversational approach – or algorithms helping the taxman to target potential tax evaders, were some of the possibilities offered by technology, Thomas Cazenave told Reuters in an interview.

“The state … must not fall behind, get ‘uberized’ and shrivel up,” Cazenave said.

“The potential created by digitalization, data and artificial intelligence will help put fewer employees on some tasks, while reinvesting in others,” he added.

A 700-million-euro ($864-million) fund will help invest in IT projects over the next five years to help modernize administration in the highly centralized country and automate some activities.

‘Macron boy’

Cazenave is one of the ‘Macron boys’ whose mix of top civil service pedigree and private sector experience is being used to shake up France’s 5.5 million-strong army of government employees and cut one of the highest public spending ratios in the world.

Only two months younger than Macron, the two met over 10 years ago when they joined the highly selective corps of finance civil servants after graduating from ENA, a graduate school of public administration for the French elite.

Cazenave then became the number 2 human resources executive at telecoms firm Orange, a company which transitioned from government monopoly to globalized private champion. In 2016, Macron prefaced Cazenave’s book, “The State in Start-Up Mode.”

“Like me, the president feels very deeply that these are no longer times where public services can be reformed with small tweaks. Major transformations are needed,” Cazenave said.

Sensitive subject

However, despite frequently referring to transformation and revolution, Macron has taken a cautious approach on belt-tightening measures, with very few details given so far on where the ax will fall.

His budget minister said this month a voluntary redundancy plan could be on the cards, but did not elaborate. More details are expected to be announced in March/April but legislation is not expected before early 2019.

Cazenave said taking time to consult employees was necessary to get government employees on board and to review which public services still need to be ran by government, and which can be outsourced or even abandoned.

He also said previous spending cut plans, such as former conservative leader Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision not to fill one in two vacancies left by retiring baby-boomers had failed to curb spending because the state’s remit had not been changed.

Outsourcing some public services is currently being considered, he said, but the example of British outsourcing firm Carillion’s collapse showed it could not be replicated everywhere.

“There is no place for ideology on the outsourcing debate, in one way or another. The private sector doesn’t have a definitive superiority to the public sector,” he said.

 

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Officials: Aid Sector Must Innovate to Deliver Value for Money

The humanitarian sector lacks creativity and must innovate to deliver more value for the money, officials said Monday, amid fears of a funding shortfall following the Oxfam sex scandal.

Aid groups must make better use of technology — from cash transfer programs to drones — to improve the delivery of services, said a panel of government officials in London.

“For far too long, when faced with a challenge, we’ve looked inward and crafted a solution that doesn’t work for the communities we’re meant to serve,” said Mark Green, head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

“Be it in London or [Washington] D.C., we humanitarians are way behind in terms of creativity,” he added.

Green was speaking at an event hosted by the Overseas Development Institute, a think-tank, to launch the Humanitarian Grand Challenge, an initiative by the U.S., British and Canadian governments to promote innovation across the aid sector.

Britain’s aid minister Penny Mordaunt said aid groups must learn from communities’ and the private sector’s creativity in addressing challenges including climate shocks and malnutrition.

Mordaunt cited innovations such as cash transfer programs — whereby recipients receive cash electronically rather than aid provisions — as one way to deliver humanitarian aid better, faster and cheaper, while also giving communities autonomy.

Other promising technologies include gathering data on mobile phones and the use of drones to determine where the most urgent needs are in humanitarian crises, according to Mordaunt.

Green said the United States had spent $8 billion on aid in 2017, of which 80 percent went to services in conflict zones.

“Less than 1 percent of that money, however, went into innovations and ways to improve the delivery of aid services.”

British charity Oxfam has come under fire this month over sexual misconduct accusations against its staff in Haiti and Chad which have threatened its U.K. government and EU funding.

Several industry experts have warned that the backlash against Oxfam could drive charities to cover up cases of sex abuse for fear of losing support and funding from the public, donors and governments.

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