Shuttleworth on Ubuntu 18.04: Multicloud Is the New Normal

Canonical last week released the Ubuntu 18.04 LTS platform for desktop, server, cloud and Internet of Things use. Its debut followed a two-year development phase that led to innovations in cloud solutions for enterprises, as well as smoother integrations with private and public cloud services, and new tools for container and virtual machine operations.

The latest release drives new efficiencies in computing and focuses on the big surge in artificial intelligence and machine learning, said Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth in a global conference call.

Ubuntu has been a platform for innovation over the last decade, he noted. The latest release reflects that innovation and comes on the heels of extraordinary enterprise adoption on the public cloud.

The IT industry has undergone some fundamental shifts since the last Ubuntu upgrade, with digital disruption and containerization changing the way organizations think about next-generation infrastructures. Canonical is at the forefront of this transformation, providing the platform for enabling change across the public and private cloud ecosystem, desktop and containers, Shuttleworth said.

“Multicloud operations are the new normal,” he remarked. “Boot time and performance-optimized images of Ubuntu 18.04 LTS on every major public cloud make it the fastest and most-efficient OS for cloud computing, especially for storage and compute-intensive tasks like machine learning,” he added.

Ubuntu 18.04 comes as a unified computing platform. Having an identical platform from workstation to edge and cloud accelerates global deployments and operations. Ubuntu 18.04 LTS features a default GNOME desktop. Other desktop environments are KDE, MATE and Budgie.

Diversified Features

The latest technologies under the Ubuntu 18.04 hood are focused on real-time optimizations and an expanded Snapcraft ecosystem to replace traditional software delivery via package management tools.

For instance, the biggest innovations in Ubuntu 18.04 are related to enhancements to cloud computing, Kubernetes integration, and Ubuntu as an IoT control platform. Features that make the new Ubuntu a platform for artificial intelligence and machine learning also are prominent.

The Canonical distribution of Kubernetes (CDK) runs on public clouds, VMware, OpenStack and bare metal. It delivers the latest upstream version, currently Kubernetes 1.10. It also supports upgrades to future versions of Kubernetes, expansion of the Kubernetes cluster on demand, and integration with optional components for storage, networking and monitoring.

As a platform for AI and ML, CDK supports GPU acceleration of workloads using the Nvidia DevicePlugin. Further, complex GPGPU workloads like Kubeflow work on CDK. That performance reflects joint efforts with Google to accelerate ML in the enterprise, providing a portable way to develop and deploy ML applications at scale. Applications built and tested with Kubeflow and CDK are perfectly transportable to Google Cloud, according to Shuttleworth.

Developers can use the new Ubuntu to create applications on their workstations, test them on private bare-metal Kubernetes with CDK, and run them across vast data sets on Google’s GKE, said Stephan Fabel, director of product management at Canonical. The resulting models and inference engines can be delivered to Ubuntu devices at the edge of the network, creating an ideal pipeline for machine learning from the workstation to rack, to cloud and device.

Snappy Improvements

The latest Ubuntu release allows desktop users to receive rapid delivery of the latest applications updates. Besides having access to typical desktop applications, software devs and enterprise IT teams can benefit from the acceleration of snaps, deployed across the desktop to the cloud.

Snaps have become a popular way to get apps on Linux. More than 3,000 snaps have been published, and millions have been installed, including official releases from Spotify, Skype, Slack and Firefox,

Snaps are fully integrated into Ubuntu GNOME 18.04 LTS and KDE Neon. Publishers deliver updates directly, and security is maintained with enhanced kernel isolation and system service mediation.

Snaps work on desktops, devices and cloud virtual machines, as well as bare-metal servers, allowing a consistent delivery mechanism for applications and frameworks.

Workstations, Cloud and IoT

Nvidia GPGPU hardware acceleration is integrated in Ubuntu 18.04 LTS cloud images and Canonical’s OpenStack and Kubernetes distributions for on-premises bare metal operations. Ubuntu 18.04 supports Kubeflow and other ML and AI workflows.

Kubeflow, the Google approach to TensorFlow on Kubernetes, is integrated into Canonical Kubernetes along with a range of CI/CD tools, and aligned with Google GKE for on-premises and on-cloud AI development.

“Having an OS that is tuned for advanced workloads such as AI and ML is critical to a high-velocity team,” said David Aronchick, product manager for Cloud AI at Google. “With the release of Ubuntu 18.04 LTS and Canonical’s collaborations to the Kubeflow project, Canonical has provided both a familiar and highly performant operating system that works everywhere.”

Software engineers and data scientists can use tools they already know, such as Ubuntu, Kubernetes and Kubeflow, and greatly accelerate their ability to deliver value for their customers, whether on-premises or in the cloud, he added.

Multiple Cloud Focus

Canonical has seen a significant adoption of Ubuntu in the cloud, apparently because it offers an alternative, said Canonical’s Fabel.

Typically, customers ask Canonical to deploy Open Stack and Kubernetes together. That is a pattern emerging as a common operational framework, he said. “Our focus is delivering Kubernetes across multiple clouds. We do that in alignment with Microsoft Azure service.”

Better Economics

Economically, Canonical sees Kubernetes as a commodity, so the company built it into Ubuntu’s support package for the enterprise. It is not an extra, according to Fabel.

“That lines up perfectly with the business model we see the public clouds adopting, where Kubernetes is a free service on top of the VM that you are paying for,” he said.

The plan is not to offer overly complex models based on old-school economic models, Fabel added, as that is not what developers really want.

“Our focus is on the most effective delivery of the new commodity infrastructure,” he noted.

Private Cloud Alternative to VMware

Canonical OpenStack delivers private cloud with significant savings over VMware and provides a modern, developer-friendly API, according to Canonical. It also has built-in support for NFV and GPGPUs. The Canonical OpenStack offering has become a reference cloud for digital transformation workloads.

Today, Ubuntu is at the heart of the world’s largest OpenStack clouds, both public and private, in key sectors such as finance, media, retail and telecommunications, Shuttleworth noted.

Other Highlights

Among Ubuntu 18.04’s benefits:

  • Containers for legacy workloads with LXD 3.0 — LXD 3.0 enables “lift-and-shift” of legacy workloads into containers for performance and density, an essential part of the enterprise container strategy.

    LXD provides “machine containers” that behave like virtual machines in that they contain a full and mutable Linux guest operating system, in this case, Ubuntu. Customers using unsupported or end-of-life Linux environments that have not received fixes for critical issues like Meltdown and Spectre can lift and shift those workloads into LXD on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS with all the latest kernel security fixes.

  • Ultrafast Ubuntu on a Windows desktop — New Hyper-V optimized images developed in collaboration with Microsoft enhance the virtual machine experience of Ubuntu in Windows.

  • Minimal desktop install — The new minimal desktop install provides only the core desktop and browser for those looking to save disk space and customize machines with their specific apps or requirements. In corporate environments, the minimal desktop serves as a base for custom desktop images, reducing the security cross-section of the platform.

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software.

Email Jack.

Desperate for jobs, Venezuelan immigrants turn to ride-hailing services across Latin America

One month ago, Yonathan Segovia, a Cabify driver originally from Venezuela, was allegedly attacked by a mob of taxi drivers on the streets of Quito in Ecuador.

In the video that documents the aftermath of his alleged assault, a short-of-breath Segovia narrates to his cell phone what happened. Behind him stand a few traffic police and a contingent of semi-formally dressed taxi drivers donning sunglasses and gesticulating to the police. Segovia directs the camera to the broken windshield and claims that he and his vehicle were attacked by xenophobic taxi drivers yelling fuera Cabify (get out Cabify) and regresa a tu país venezolanos (go back to your country, Venezuelans).

Though incidents of violence against drivers of ride-sharing apps are rare in Ecuador, the official taxi syndicate’s rhetoric has intensified as yellow cabs have become increasingly frustrated by what they perceive as government inaction over the encroachment of Uber and Cabify.

In neighbouring countries such as Colombia and Costa Rica, taxi drivers have attacked ride-sharing app drivers, their cars, and even passengers.

It had only been a few months after Segovia fled Venezuela’s violent streets that one of his brothers was murdered… killed in a case of mistaken identity, according to the young driver. He had come to Quito to escape, and instead found himself in the middle of a pitched battle between local taxi unions and an international ride-sharing company… a battle that had claimed foreign-born Cabify drivers as collateral damage.

Before choosing Ecuador as his new home, Segovia considered a number of countries in the region. To help make his decision he browsed Venezuelan expat groups on Facebook where people exchange information about their experience and ask for help. He considered going to Panama, but was dissuaded by reports of xenophobia against Venezuelans there.

He had about two months of salary saved for the journey and wanted to spend as little as possible on travel. He finally decided on Ecuador primarily because of its proximity and because the country has used the US dollar as its official currency since a financial meltdown in 1999. Having long abandoned his studies to be a civil engineer, Segovia now needed to send money home to help support his family. Earning US dollars represented the safest way to ensure the well-being of his dependents back home.  

Segovia took the 2500 kilometer trip overland from Maracay on the Atlantic Coast to Quito. After arriving in the Ecuadorian capital he initially struggled to find work until he was taken on at a car-wash. Claiming to have suffered exploitation and abuse by the owner of the car wash because of his foreign status, Segovia left the car wash and was told by a friend about Cabify and so he signed up for the driver training.

Cabify enabled him to work flexible hours without suffering the type of discrimination he faced at the car wash. “It’s like I’m my own boss,” he says, although a boss that drives himself pretty hard. Most days Yonathan works 16-18 hour days. Thanks to his sacrifice, Yonathan has been able to send money back home to help his family leave Venezuela. No se vive en Venezuela, se sobrevive, (No-one lives in Venezuela, they only survive.”) Segovia said.  Now he has three brothers living in Argentina. All three drive for Uber.

Thousands of taxi drivers, shouting slogans against Uber such as Uber out and Down with piracy brought traffic to a near standstill in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, a city of more than 8 million people, on May 10, 2017. (Photo by Juan Torres/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Venezuelans are leaving their country in droves, and their plight is propelling the growth of ride-sharing apps across Latin America. Desperate for work, Venezuelans are flocking to neighbouring countries and often finding immediate employment as drivers for US-based Uber and its regional competitor, the Spanish-based Cabify.

Although the relationship between Uber, Cabify, and the Venezuelan diaspora is often mutually beneficial, it also could be easily perceived as exploitative. On the one hand, ride-sharing apps are the saving grace for many desperate migrants, providing a much needed sources of income. On the other hand, the precarious circumstances in which Venezuelans find themselves abroad means that they are incapable of negotiating the conditions of their employment, making them even more vulnerable to the one-sided conditions ride-sharing apps often impose on their drivers.

And the explosion of Venezuelan drivers has added a jingoistic element to the legal and regulatory battles between ride-sharing apps and taxi syndicates, pitting locally-born taxi drivers against foreign-born riding-sharing drivers in confrontations that sometimes become violent.

Venezuela was once a beacon for development in Latin America, which makes its current predicament all the more perplexing. In the 1960s Venezuela shed its military dictatorship and looked forward to becoming a developed country thanks to the discovery of the world’s largest oil reserves beneath Lake Maracaibo. Despite its vast potential, the benefits of Venezuela’s growth did not trickle down to the country’s poorest citizens.

People walk by graffiti with an image of late President Hugo Chavez in Caracas on May 11, 2018. – Venezuelan citizens face a severe socio-economic crisis, with hyperinflation – estimated at 13,800% by the IMF for 2018 – and shortages of food, medicines and other basic products. (Luis ROBAYO / AFP/Getty Images)

In 1999 Lt. Colonel Hugo Chavez, a populist strongman and failed coup-leader, was elected on a mandate to bring socialism to Venezuela by appealing to class divisions. Benefiting from record-high $100/barrel oil prices, Chavez re-directed the country’s oil wealth to the poor through a vast array of well meaning but unsustainable government welfare schemes. 14 years into his mandate, Chavez died of cancer in 2013. Shortly thereafter the bottom fell out of the price of oil, plunging to $26/barrel by 2016.

Chavez’s chosen successor, the former bus driver and union leader Nicolas Maduro, was elected in a contested vote in 2014. As oil wealth dried up, Venezuelans became aware of how years of socialist policies, including expropriations, had damaged the country’s non-oil productive capacity, making them over-reliant on imports and increasingly short of foreign exchange.

Rather than attempt to mend for errors past, Maduro doubled-down on socialism and oppression by attacking the media, violently suppressing protests, throwing his opponents in jail, and creating a parallel congress after voters gave a majority to an opposition coalition in 2015. From there Venezuela’s nightmare has become increasingly farcical. Two of Maduro’s nephews have been convicted for drug trafficking by the United States. The country’s current vice-president was also accused by the United States of drug trafficking, prompting sanctions. Mismanagement has driven Venezuelan oil-production to an all-time low. Slowly, the country is running out of cash. Inequality, the cornerstone issue for the self-nominated Bolivarian socialists,  is actually worse than ever.

It’s hard to overstate the scale of the humanitarian, economic, political and social crisis that causes Venezuelans to leave. Food shortages are rife. Medicines are scarce. Inflation is expected to rise to 13,000% in 2018.  Venezuela’s elections, including those held this month, are shambolic. Tropical diseases such as malaria that were controlled or eliminated in the 1960s are roaring back. According to the World Economic Forum, Venezuela was the sixth most dangerous country on the planet in 2017.

Leaving Venezuela is increasingly difficult. Airlines such as United, Delta, and regional heavyweight Avianca have suspended flights to Venezuela due to accumulating debts with the foreign-currency-strapped government. Many try to escape to neighbouring caribbean nations by boat, often with dire consequences.

Though precise numbers are difficult to obtain, we know that roughly a million Venezuelans have left the country in the past two years. While some will migrate to the United States, the vast majority will flee overland to neighbouring countries. Colombia alone has registered at least half-a-million legal migrants, while Brazil receives 800 migrants a day.

Often arriving without money or shelter, Venezuelan migrants depend on the networks of friends and family already established in their destination countries to find work. Through Mercosur, a regional trade block that includes most of the countries in South America, Venezuelans are usually able to qualify for working visas, though many work illegally because the costs of getting a visa are prohibitive. Whereas highly-educated Venezuelans have more luck in finding gainful employment, many Venezuelans join the troves of native-born citizens in either the informal economy or under-employment.

Ride-sharing apps are well-suited to Latin America because most major cities already operate with an extensive network of informal taxis. Cars with hand-made signs that say “taxi” often circulate in dense areas seeking brave passengers while avoiding both formal taxis and the police. Users are attracted to ride-sharing apps because of the additional security and the attention to detail in the quality of service. Whereas traditional taxis are looked upon suspiciously, Uber and Cabify allow for both traceability, on-demand services, and predictable prices, providing a safe and dependable mode of transport where there often isn’t any.

Both Uber and Cabify have focused aggressively on Latin America where the stakes are high. Two cities in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, represent Uber’s biggest markets in terms of rides. Aside from Spain and Portugal, Cabify focuses exclusively on its operations in 12 Latin American countries. Chinese competitor Didi recently purchased Brazilian competitor 99 and promptly launched its first foreign operation in Mexico.

According to Uber, the company has more than 36 million active users in the region and provides employment for more than a million drivers. Cabify, on the other hand, claims to have 13 million users and to have grown its installed-base by 500% between 2016 and 2017.

As reported in TechCrunch, Cabify’s parent-company Maxi Mobility recently raised $160 million at a $1.4 billion USD valuation. Maxi Mobility’s Series E comes just as Uber sold its east-asia operation to rival Grab, prompting CEO Dara Khosrowshah to disclose that the company is less focused on M&A and more focused on organic growth, thus encouraging the flush-with-cash Maxi Mobility’s Latin America push. Seeking scale, Maxi Mobility also acquired regional competitor EasyTaxi.

Though their business models are similar there are notable differences between how the two companies operate. Whereas Uber tends to invoice from abroad and thus avoid paying most local taxes, Cabify prefers to setup local entities and thus subject itself to local tax and regulatory regimes where possible. While Uber burns through cash, Cabify flirts with profitability.

The legal hurdles for ride-sharing apps in Latin America are similar to elsewhere in the world. Countries such as Mexico, Panama, and Uruguay have regulated ride-sharing apps. Others such as Argentina, have banned the apps’ operations. In most countries in Latin America, including large markets such as Brazil and Colombia, the apps find themselves in legal limbo as cases involving the companies make their way through the arduous and often politicized court systems.

Chilean taxi drivers demonstrate along Alameda Avenue against US on-demand ride service giant Uber, in Santiago, on July 10, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Martin BERNETTI/Getty Images)

Though Uber was unable to disclose how many of its drivers in Latin America are Venezuelan expats, Cabify acknowledged that in Panama up to 60% of its drivers are Venezuelan nationals. In Ecuador and Argentina, the number is reported to be closer to 10%. The number of Venezuelan drivers in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Chile was not disclosed by either company. This presence of Venezuelan drivers across the continent has not only been noticed by tech-savvy business travelers with a keen ear for accents and a penchant for small talk. Panama went so far as to pass a law stating that ride-sharing app drivers must be Panamanian citizens.

Both companies acknowledge that they follow local legislation in hiring drivers. Neither company confirmed that they explicitly check immigration status prior to hiring a driver; however, they do require a local license which in turn requires a valid visa to obtain. Uber and Cabify require drivers submit an up-to-date police record from their country of residence, but not from the drivers’ previous countries of residence or countries of origin. Unless local legislation mandates limited hours, Uber and Cabify only sparingly limit the amount of time a driver can work, meaning drivers can work as much or as little as they like. Because of the informal nature of their work, drivers are not covered by national health insurance policies.

Because Venezuelans drivers are often new arrivals without credit history or savings, most negotiate agreements with vehicle owners who manage the relationship with the ride-sharing app. Vehicle owners like to keep their cars operating at close to maximum capacity in order to extract maximum value. Some will juggle as many as three drivers at a time in order to keep their vehicles in constant operation.

In markets where drivers are scarce it is common for drivers to negotiate 50/50 or 40/60 (40% for the driver, 60% for the owner) minus expenses including gasoline and insurance. While Cabify and Uber approve and train each driver and reserve the right to remove drivers from their fleet, the owners of the vehicles are responsible for paying the drivers. In an informal poll of drivers, most claimed to earn between $600 and $1000 USD per month, which is twice the minimum wage in many countries in Latin America and comparable to if not more than what taxi drivers make.

The same drivers claimed that they were making more with Uber and Cabify than they were working under the table in mostly service-sector jobs. Most drivers reported working more than 60 hours a week, well beyond the 40 hour work week legislated in most countries.

The Venezuelan drivers I spoke to across numerous countries generally speak well of Uber and Cabify whilst acknowledging their own vulnerable status. Many have stories to tell of vehicle owners that didn’t pay them, that docked their pay unnecessarily, or that were verbally abusive.

Drivers are dependent on vehicle owners to honor their verbal promises and they have no settlement mechanism to mediate disputes either through local governments or through the companies. For drivers who fall out with vehicle owners, their only option is to switch cars. After all, a driver with positive reviews and a clean record is attractive to vehicle owners hoping to maximize their return. None of the drivers I spoke to felt they were in a position to negotiate their working conditions with the ride-sharing apps.

While it’s not clear that Uber and Cabify are targeting Venezuelans fleeing the humanitarian crisis that has engulfed their homeland as part of their hiring strategy, it is clear that the companies have benefited immensely from their presence across Latin America, especially in smaller markets such as Panama, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Finding a pool of unemployed, eager and qualified drivers has allowed the companies to scale the supply-side of their business and thus ensure quick pick-up times for passengers, an essential feature for apps to become “sticky”.

As one vehicle owner stated, “Cabify entered the market right at the same time that Venezuelans were coming in higher numbers. The company never would have achieved critical mass [on the supply side] were it not for Venezuelans.” Uber and Cabify also benefit from the drivers’ powerlessness: because the alternative to driving for a ride-sharing app is often worse pay without protections, Venezuelan drivers accept the conditions dictated by the companies without protest.

Most of the countries in Latin America that are receiving Venezuelan migrants lack the infrastructure and the know-how to manage a massive influx of newcomers. Because many Latin American economies have large informal sectors, migrants quickly slip into the informal economy where they have neither benefits nor protections such as minimum wage. Uber, Cabify, EasyTaxi, Didi, etc., represent technologies that Latin American consumers have taken to because they offer a superior customer experience when compared to traditional taxi services.

Nonetheless, the status of these companies continues to be tenuous in countries such as Brazil and Colombia, where court cases drag-on slower than rush hour traffic in Sao Paulo or Bogotá. At the same time, politicians are reluctant to create legislation that will legalize ride-sharing apps for fear of upsetting powerful taxi unions. Ride-sharing apps offer a clear solution to an endemic transportation problem found in almost any Latin American city.

In many ways the problem these apps solve is caused by slow-to-change politicians and resistant-to-change taxi unions. Unfortunately, until local governments catch-up in providing legislation that protects drivers & fairly regulates ride-sharing apps., the growth of companies like Uber and Cabify in Latin America will be based partly on innovation, and partly on desperation and will always take place on the border of legality. In the meantime, as Latin American consumers jump into borrowed cars it’s worth remembering an adopted adage: there is no such thing as a free ride.

These CRISPR-modified crops don't count as GMOs

To feed the burgeoning human population, it is vital that the world figures out ways to boost food production.

Increasing crop yields through conventional plant breeding is inefficient – the outcomes are unpredictable and it can take years to decades to create a new strain. On the other hand, powerful genetically modified plant technologies can quickly yield new plant varieties, but their adoption has been controversial. Many consumers and countries have rejected GMO foods even though extensive studies have proved they are safe to consume.

But now a new genome editing technology known as CRISPR may offer a good alternative.

I’m a plant geneticist and one of my top priorities is developing tools to engineer woody plants such as citrus trees that can resist the greening disease, Huanglongbing (HLB), which has devastated these trees around the world. First detected in Florida in 2005, the disease has decimated the state’s US$9 billion citrus crop, leading to a 75 percent decline in its orange production in 2017. Because citrus trees take five to 10 years before they produce fruits, our new technique – which has been nominated by many editors-in-chief as one of the groundbreaking approaches of 2017 that has the potential to change the world – may accelerate the development of non-GMO citrus trees that are HLB-resistant.

HLB yellow dragon citrus greening disease has infected orchards in Florida and around the world devastating the citrus crops. By Edgloris Marys/

Genetically modified vs. gene edited

You may wonder why the plants we create with our new DNA editing technique are not considered GMO? It’s a good question.

Genetically modified refers to plants and animals that have been altered in a way that wouldn’t have arisen naturally through evolution. A very obvious example of this involves transferring a gene from one species to another to endow the organism with a new trait – like pest resistance or drought tolerance.

But in our work, we are not cutting and pasting genes from animals or bacteria into plants. We are using genome editing technologies to introduce new plant traits by directly rewriting the plants’ genetic code.

This is faster and more precise than conventional breeding, is less controversial than GMO techniques, and can shave years or even decades off the time it takes to develop new crop varieties for farmers.

There is also another incentive to opt for using gene editing to create designer crops. On March 28, 2018, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the USDA wouldn’t regulate new plant varieties developed with new technologies like genome editing that would yield plants indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods. By contrast, a plant that includes a gene or genes from another organism, such as bacteria, is considered a GMO. This is another reason why many researchers and companies prefer using CRISPR in agriculture whenever it is possible.

Changing the plant blueprint

The gene editing tool we use is called CRISPR – which stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats” – and was adapted from the defense systems of bacteria. These bacterial CRISPR systems have been modified so that scientists like myself can edit the DNA of plants, animals, human cells and microorganisms. This technology can be used in many ways, including to correct genetic errors in humans that cause diseases, to engineer animals bred for disease research, and to create novel genetic variations that can accelerate crop improvement.

Yi Li inspects his CRISPR altered plants in his lab. Xiaojing Wang, CC BY-SA

To use CRISPR to introduce a useful trait into a crop plant, we need to know the genes that control a particular trait. For instance, previous studies have revealed that a natural plant hormone called gibberellin is essential for plant height. The GA20-ox gene controls the quantity of gibberellin produced in plants. To create a breed of “low mowing frequency” lawn grass, for example, we are editing the DNA – changing the sequence of the DNA that makes up gene – of this plant to reduce the output of the GA20-ox gene in the selected turf grass. With lower gibberellin, the grass won’t grow as high and won’t need to be mowed as often.

The CRISPR system was derived from bacteria. It is made up of two parts: Cas9, a little protein that snips DNA, and an RNA molecule that serves as the template for encoding the new trait in the plant’s DNA.

To use CRISPR in plants, the standard approach is to insert the CRISPR genes that encode the CRISPR-Cas9 “editing machines” into the plant cell’s DNA. When the CRISPR-Cas9 gene is active, it will locate and rewrite the relevant section of the plant genome, creating the new trait.

But this is a catch-22. Because to perform DNA editing with CRISPR/Cas9 you first have to genetically alter the plant with foreign CRISPR genes – this would make it a GMO.

A new strategy for non-GMO crops

For annual crop plants like corn, rice and tomato that complete their life cycles from germination to the production of seeds within one year, the CRISPR genes can be easily eliminated from the edited plants. That’s because some seeds these plants produce do not carry CRISPR genes, just the new traits.

But this problem is much trickier for perennial crop plants that require up to 10 years to reach the stage of flower and seed production. It would take too long to wait for seeds that were free of CRISPR genes.

My team at the University of Connecticut and my collaborators at Nanjing Agricultural University, Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Hunan Agricultural University and University of California-San Diego have recently developed a convenient, new technique to use CRISPR to reliably create desirable traits in crop plants without introducing any foreign bacterial genes.

We first engineered a naturally occurring soil microbe, Agrobacterium, with the CRIPSR genes. Then we take young leaf or shoot material from plants and mix them in petri dishes with the bacteria and allow them to incubate together for a couple of days. This gives the bacteria time to infect the cells and deliver the gene editing machinery, which then alters the plant’s genetic code.

In some Agrobacterium infected cells, the Agrobacterium basically serves as a Trojan horse, bringing all the editing tools into the cell, rather than engineering plants to have their own editing machinery. Because the bacterial genes or CRISPR genes do not become part of the plant’s genome in these cells – and just do the work of gene editing – any plants derived from these cells are not considered a GMO.

After a couple of days, we can cultivate plants from the edited plant cells. Then it take several weeks or months to grow an edited plant that could be planted on a farm. The hard part is figuring out which plants are successfully modified. But we have a solution to this problem too and have developed a method that takes only two weeks to identify the edited plants.

Genetically designed lawns

The shorter lawn grasses on the left (perennial ryegrass) need to be mowed less frequently than their conventional counterpart, shown on the right. The shorter grasses were produced using a traditional plant breeding technique. Yi Li is currently using the CRISPR technique to create grasses of other species that require less maintenance. Yi Li, CC BY-SA

One significant difference between editing plants versus human cells is that we are not as concerned about editing typos. In humans, such errors could cause disease, but off-target mutations in plants are not a serious concern. A number of published studies reported low to negligible off-target activity observed in plants when compared to animal systems.

Also, before distributing any plants to farmers for planting in their field, the edited plants will be carefully evaluated for obvious defects in growth and development or their responses to drought, extreme temperatures, disease and insect attacks. Further, DNA sequencing of edited plants once they have been developed can easily identify any significant undesirable off-target mutations.

In addition to citrus, our technology should be applicable in most perennial crop plants such as apple, sugarcane, grape, pear, banana, poplar, pine, eucalyptus and some annual crop plants such as strawberry, potato and sweet potato that are propagated without using seeds.

We also see a role for genome editing technologies in many other plants used in the agricultural, horticultural and forestry industries. For example, we are creating lawn grass varieties that require less fertilizer and water. I bet you would like that too.

Pornography and the butterfly effect

“Whatever happens to musicians happens to everybody,” said Bruce Sterling years ago, referring to the effects of free downloadable music on their industry; and so it has come to pass for pornographers, as depicted by the great Jon Ronson in his equal parts charming and spellbinding podcast series “The Butterfly Effect.”

Pornography, however, is much weirder than music, both as concept and as industry; and so, unsurprisingly, the emergent properties of the overturning of the porn industry are much weirder too, and the full extent of their ripple effects have yet to be measured. It’s at least plausible that the latest salvos in our intensifying culture wars, the subjects of “incels” and “enforced monogamy,” stem from touchpaper lit long ago by the butterfly in Ronson’s story.

That story seems simple in outline. A Belgian named Fabian starts trading in passwords to porn sites in the 1990s. Next decade, he purchases a relatively small company in Montreal which offers porn online for free; it faithfully complies with DMCA takedown requests, but they have no hope of keeping up with the firehose of uploads. He applies modern data science, A/B testing, SEO, etc., and his business grows from “substantial” to “enormous.”

Based on that he gets a $362 million loan, which he uses to purchase essentially all of his competitors. Ultimately, this cornucopia of free porn makes Fabian very, very rich, while impoverishing the American porn industry, headquartered in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles. It is the tale of a transfer of colossal amount of money, and viewers, from the Valley to Montreal; from porn directors and performers to buttoned-down data scientists and infrastructure engineers.

It is also, more interestingly, a tale of the emergent properties of free content. For instance: there is so much free porn that it had to be taxonomized; this, in turn, trained users to focus on and search for particular categories and keywords; this, in turn, forced the industry to adapt to those keywords. Ronson finds a director (Mike Quasar, the find of the show) working on a movie called Stepdaughter Cheerleader Orgy 2. “I guess the first one left a lot of unanswered questions,” Quasar cracks, but in fact it’s called that because titles have become strings of keywords. Ronson discovers that because porn viewers search for either “teen” or “MILF,” performers in between those ages, i.e. women aged between 24 and 29, find themselves effectively shut out of the industry for those years.

(It should be noted that Ronson talks to quite a few women, and does not depict the industry as the exploitative nightmare that, say, the movie “Hot Girls Wanted” does, though he doesn’t especially depict it as uplifting and empowering either. What first drew him to the subject was the raw contempt with which many “normal” people treat porn performers.)

Another emergent property of free porn is that porn now reaches enormous audiences. Pornhub, which is just one of dozens of porn brands owned by this same Montreal company, has a higher global Alexa rank than LinkedIn or eBay. 4 of the top 50 US sites are porn. Studies show that 90% of men in college, and a third of women, have watched porn within the previous year. We can conclude that a substantial majority of the entire adult population — and, awkwardly, probably the teenage one, too — indulges in pornography, while much to most of that same adult population simultaneously treats the porn industry as fundamentally contemptible and shameful.

That neo-Victorian attitude towards sexuality and porn performers, our collective cultural madonna/whore complex, may be changing, but not quickly. Note that Fabian got a $362 million loan, while porn performers have trouble getting leases, or small business loans, and/or get fired from other jobs, when their profession emerges. Which makes the siphoning of pornographic income away from performers and towards data scientists especially problematic.

And so, what happened to musicians happened to porn stars: they found other forms of income, especially niche or live performances. A great deal of “The Butterfly Effect” is devoted to bespoke videos crafted for specific individual customers, known as “customs.” I won’t spoil the show more than I already have, but they’re even more … idiosyncratic … than you might imagine. While porn is often accused of being depersonalizing, “customs” are very personal indeed. There has also apparently been a sharp rise in “escorting” among porn performers, and, of course, a movement towards carefully curated personal social-media brands.

Is this a stable and beneficial state? Doubtful. There probably aren’t that many unique and wealthy fetishists out there. As for beneficial — well, as a good San Franciscan I am of course sex-positive, pro-sex-workers, and pro-porn as a concept … but it would be disingenuous to pretend that Ronson doesn’t show a lot of dubious-trending-negative emergent effects of essentially unlimited free pornography.

Did you know that teens are having substantially less sex than the previous few generations? It’s true! And generally interpreted as a good thing. But Ronson suggests that this is in large part because porn is replacing sex, and, in fact, making real sex with real woman seem alienating and difficult. Did you know that erectile dysfunction rates have risen tenfold among young men since the rise of free porn? Correlation does not prove causality but it’s hard to imagine that those two things aren’t somehow related.

I’ve seen a few references myself over the last decade or so, on sites ranging from LiveJournal to Reddit, from men who said they had to teach themselves how to have sex with real women after imprinting on porn, and how it did not feel easy or instinctive to do so. These are anecdotes, but the erectile dysfunction studies are data, and it’s difficult to interpret them as healthy.

Perhaps the most volatile question: does widely available free porn encourage “incels,” the latest boogeymen from the Internet, and the calls for “enforced monogamy” from e.g. blowhard academics who people inexplicably take serious?

I’m inclined to tread cautiously here before I even ascribe any correlation, much less causality. Porn is also frequently viewed as a safety valve for sexual frustration. As Ronson points out in the series, violent porn is actually much less common than it was fifteen years ago. And “incels” — who basically started out as a thoughtful support group for people of any gender who found themselves unable to get laid (the woman who coined the term is an acquaintance of mine, and has recently launched a new site called Love Not Anger) — are much, much weirder than free pornography.

I’ve spent some time reading incel sites, out of pure horrified fascination, before they became a hot-button issue. Their body dysmorphia, their bizarre obsession with concepts like “canthal tilt,” and the language of hate they have developed, are all so weird that they do not lend themselves to any easy explanation at all. It’s true that the number of young men who are not having sex at all seems to have risen in the last decade. But only a tiny fraction of such men are actually “incels.”

Nonetheless, it’s hard to escape the awkward bad-San-Francisco-liberal conclusion that porn, as is, has both positive and negative aspects, and that the latter are neither trivial or tiny in number. In particular, it seems pretty apparent that porn is not good in excess; that free-porn revolution has made unlimited excess available at the tap of a button; and that teenage brains are, to understate, not good at avoiding excess.

But there’s some good news. I like to think solutions are being born. See, especially, Cindy Gallop’s Make Love Not Porn, her struggles getting funding, her recent success, and her attempts to provide superior sextech alternatives to porn as we know it. (MLNP seems to be moving from strength to strength recently; in particular, they’ve hired Charlotte Reid, former Director of Project Management at MakerBot, as their COO.) Their slogan — “Pro-sex. Pro-porn. Pro-knowing the difference.” — could hardly be more timely, in this strange new sexual world.

On the one hand, the audience for pornography and sex tech alike is beyond immense; on the other, both find themselves in a kind of perpetually fraught state of unpredictable transformation, constantly revolutionized by both technical and social changes, their business models endlessly overturned even as they slide along the spectrum between anathema and respectable. It’s awfully hard to predict what will happen to that industry or to our culture; but I think we can say with some confidence that neither status quo will last. Let’s hope what comes next is an improvement.

Benioff Endorses GDPR for US

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff described Facebook as the “new cigarettes” in a recent appearance on the television show CBS This Morning and called for the U.S. to adopt a national privacy law like the GDPR, which just went into effect in Europe.

“Maybe this is a time where the government has to step in and regulate not just that product but really our industry,” Benioff said, referring to Facebook. “We’re really at that point with technology.”

Calls for regulation in social media and cloud computing are not new — I’ve made similar observations in this space. However, it’s interesting that a technology industry insider like Benioff now has made these points — especially at a time when the industry has been tarnished by external events. Perhaps there is no better time.

“What we need is a national privacy law, and that will really not just protect the tech industry — it’s going to protect all the consumers,” Benioff said in the CBS interview. “Ultimately, it’s going to protect our kids, which is really what this is all about, because we know that all these [social media] companies are looking to bring kids into their social networks as well.”

Standards and Rights

Benioff raised two issues that ought to be teased apart, especially by people who would like to see change. Without separation, we run a risk of engaging in an undisciplined argument that settles nothing.

The first issue is standards, which is really about how to get multiple technology vendors to work together to support things like GDPR and whatever comes after. At a more fundamental level, standards will help multiple vendors preserve their uniqueness while supporting the interoperability needed to implement regulation that will span the industry.

The relational database standard and SQL emerged about 40 years ago. Does anyone seriously doubt that the complex multivendor cloud industry we have today could have emerged without those and many other standards?

The other issue is rights — as in identifying the rights of vendors as well as end users. As Benioff put it, “that would mean the companies would have to fully disclose how they collect your information, use your information. And you’d have a right to be forgotten, so that if you want all your information deleted, you can hit that button and be assured that your data is gone forever.”

Without some added standards in this area, it’s hard to see how we protect privacy, because there are so many vendors today who collect data for the express purpose of selling it to flesh out the profiles kept by individual companies. You could begin with almost nothing and assemble a reasonably complete picture of a person’s data with a little time and effort.

These independent data-gathering organizations currently don’t have effective ways to propagate a deletion, however. Why should they? The incentive is in the other direction.

Benioff’s Track Record

Marc Benioff has rarely, if ever, been late for a technology party. For most of the last decade he nimbly skipped from topic to topic as fast-following competitors tried to keep up. They were always a year (or should we say one Dreamforce?) behind: certainly with cloud, then social, analytics, platforms and much more.

Lately he’s revved up the philanthropy and employee empowerment engines. In the same CBS interview, Benioff revealed that Salesforce has spent US$9 million trying to nail down fair employee compensation, noting that when you buy companies you have to go through the same audit process — and Salesforce buys lots of companies.

Benioff’s efforts have been focused on reducing costs by commoditizing everything about IT. While this also can be said of setting standards for interoperability, the idea of regulating how the industry works is a pivot toward humanizing the industry at a time when some people are beginning to question the efficacy of modern IT.

My Take

It’s likely time to take Benioff’s leadership on GDPR and the call for regulation seriously. Implicit in all this is another data point related to building the information utility of the 21st century: Some of our security and interoperability needs simply won’t be satisfied with the current Balkanized assembly of clouds that we have today.

As with other Benioff-led innovations, there’s a strong profit incentive for him and others. Salesforce was able to reap significant profits from being a first mover in cloud computing, and that’s also been true in other areas — like social, platforms and AI.

I recently appeared on the Gillmor Gang, a streaming interview show, and made the observation that change, like what I am advocating here, doesn’t usually happen without a catastrophe of some kind — Pearl Harbor or 9/11 to name two. Other guests weren’t so sure, but when you look at history the ambiguity evaporates.

The information industry is in such a moment today. It’s a time that calls for direct action to ensure its future by establishing regulations rather than having them imposed, as GDPR is about to do. Interestingly, what’s needed isn’t so much technical innovation and invention. It’s agreements, standards, and sensible regulation, things that sound easy but can sometimes seem much harder to pull off.

Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry analyst, strategist, writer and speaker. His new book, You Can’t Buy Customer Loyalty, But You Can Earn It, is now available on Amazon. His 2015 book, Solve for the Customer, is also available there.

Email Denis.

AI-Based Customer Data Platform Supports ABM Operations

Lattice Engines, a provider of account-based marketing tools driven by artificial intelligence, on Thursday announced the launch of Lattice Atlas, positioning it as the first customer data platform for ABM.

The new platform synchronizes all customer data across a single, integrated view, the company said, making it easier for customers to see their data, no matter the source.

Customers often have to view data across multiple tools and workflows — for example, in order to compare data with existing versus new customers, noted Nipul Chokshi, vice president of product marketing at Lattice.

“We realized that our customers needed a customer data platform that unifies all data,” he said, one that “enables AI-driven audience creation as well as omnichannel activation and personalization all in one centralized place, and provides enterprise grade marketing governance.”

The new platform employs the ABM identity graph, using patent-pending adaptive match technology to resolve identities by matching first-party to third-party data in Lattice Data Cloud, which has more than 20,000 curated insights, Chokshi added.

The platform includes configurable AI that predicts how likely buyers are to convert, how much they are willing to spend, and when they plan to make a purchase.

Lattice Atlas includes native, pre-built apps across multiple channels, and Salesforce, Marketo, Eloqua and REST APIs.

Growing Customer Base

Lattice currently has about 200 customers, ranging from high-growth midmarket firms to some Fortune 500 members, according to Caitlin Ridge, director of corporate marketing. Companies that work with Lattice on marketing and sales include PayPal, Dell, Adobe and SunTrust Bank. Lattice is a Salesforce Gold and Marketo Accelerate partner.

The company has launched a beta test of the new platform and plans to test it through the summer months.

“Our goal for the beta is to ensure the product we’re bringing to market is solving our customers’ ABM problems in ways that help them scale, while removing some of the complexities currently involved in their technology stack and processes,” Ridge told CRM Buyer.

“We’ve seen previous success with Lattice’s other solutions and knew that the Lattice Atlas platform would complement their best-in-class AI-based scoring engine to create automated, engaging campaigns across all of our target accounts,” said Steven Shapiro, vice president of digital and the buyer’s journey at Informatica, one of the customers beta testing the product.

Growing Business

The market size of vendors that are customer data platform specialists is currently about US$600 million and growing, said David Raab, founder of the CDP Institute.

The B2B market is about a year behind the B2C market, but there has been increased demand for these type of solutions, he told CRM buyer.

The most important benefit for a system like is ease of access to data, Raab said. “The data currently is going to be spread among different systems. You could have a data science team spend three weeks to pull together some sort of data set.”

There appears to be a growing wave of interest in embracing ABM in the martech sector, observed Cindy Zhou, principal analyst at Constellation Research.

“I recommend companies looking for an ABM solution to first determine the goal they want to accomplish,” she told CRM Buyer. “Is it finding the right accounts, or prioritizing existing leads and accounts?”

The Lattice Engine predictive sales and marketing solution has delivered good results, Zhou said, based on her discussions with a few of the company’s customers.

Lattice sits between a company’s sales force automation and its marketing automation solutions to help prioritize accounts based on key attributes, she said.

“The challenge for companies remains data quality,” Zhou pointed out. “Predictive solutions require sound data to feed it for better results.”

David Jones has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2015. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, e-commerce, open source, gaming, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles. He has written for numerous media outlets, including Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain’s New York Business and The New York Times. Email David.

1 New Ebola Death Confirmed in Congo, Bringing Total to 12

Another person has died in Congo of a confirmed case of Ebola, bringing the number of fatalities to 12, said the country’s Health Ministry.

The new death happened in Iboko, a rural area in northwestern Equateur province, said the Health Ministry statement released Sunday. There are also four new suspected cases in the province, said the statement.

Congo now has 35 confirmed Ebola cases.

Health workers have identified people who have been in contact with confirmed Ebola cases in three areas in Equateur province, the rural areas of Bikoro and Iboko and Mdbandaka, the provincial capital of 1.2 million that is a transport hub on the Congo River.

Congo’s health minister Saturday flew by helicopter to Bikoro and Iboko to see the deployment of health workers who will be tracing those who have been in contact with Ebola cases and inoculating them with a new experimental vaccine. Health minister Oly Ilunga was accompanied by representatives of the World Health Organization and UNICEF. The vaccination campaign in those rural is to begin Monday.

Dr. Oly Ilunga Kalenga, minister of health of the Democratic Republic of Congo, addresses residents at the town all of Mbandaka, May 21, 2018, during the launch of the Ebola vaccination campaign.

Dr. Oly Ilunga Kalenga, minister of health of the Democratic Republic of Congo, addresses residents at the town all of Mbandaka, May 21, 2018, during the launch of the Ebola vaccination campaign.

The vaccination campaign is already under way in Mbandaka, where four Ebola cases have been confirmed. About 100 health workers have been vaccinated there as front-line workers face high risk from the virus, which is spread via contact with the bodily fluids of those infected, including the dead.

The next few weeks are crucial in determining whether the outbreak can be brought under control, according to the World Health Organization. Complicating factors include its spread to a major city, the fact that health workers have been infected and the existence of three or four “separate epicenters” that make finding and monitoring contacts of infected people more difficult.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a meeting in Geneva on Saturday that ”I am personally committed to ensuring that we do everything we can to stop this outbreak as soon as possible.”

WHO is using a “ring vaccination” approach, targeting the contacts of people infected or suspected of infection and then the contacts of those people. More than 600 contacts have been identified.

WHO also is accelerating efforts with nine neighboring countries to try to prevent the Ebola outbreak from spreading there, saying the regional risk is high. It has warned against international travel and trade restrictions.

This is Congo’s ninth Ebola outbreak since 1976, when the hemorrhagic fever was first identified.

There is no specific treatment for Ebola. Symptoms include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pain and at times internal and external bleeding. The virus can be fatal in up to 90 percent of cases, depending on the strain.