Facebook Is Building a Minecraft AI Because Games May Be Great Training Tools


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It turns out that video games may be an excellent method of teaching skills to artificial intelligence assistants. That’s the theory of a group of researchers working for Facebook, who have focused on Minecraft as a potential teaching tool for building generalist AI — a so-called ‘virtual assistant.’ The research team isn’t trying to build an artificial intelligence that’s super-good at classifying images or other content — it wants to build a generalist AI that can perform a much larger number of tasks reasonably well.

This is, to-date, an under-studied area of research. The authors’ write:

There has been measured progress in this setting as well, with the mainstreaming of virtual personal assistants. These are able to accomplish thousands of tasks communicated via natural language, using multi-turn dialogue for clarifications or further specification. The assistants are able to interact with other applications to get data or perform actions.

Nevertheless, many difficult problems remain open. Automatic natural language understanding (NLU) is still rigid and limited to constrained scenarios. Methods for using dialogue or other natural language for rich supervision remain primitive. In addition, because they need to be able to reliably and predictably solve many simple tasks, their multi-modal inputs, and the constraints of their maintenance and deployment, assistants are modular systems, as opposed to monolithic ML models. Modular ML systems that can improve themselves from data while keeping well-defined interfaces are still not well studied.

According to the team, they picked Minecraft because it offered a regular distribution of tasks with “hand-holds for NLU research,” as well as enjoyable opportunities for human-AI interaction, with plenty of opportunities for human-in-the-loop research. Minecraft, for those of you who haven’t played or heard of it, is a block-based crafting and exploration game in which players explore a 3D voxel grid universe populated with various types of materials, neutral characters, and enemies. The team’s goal is to build an AI virtual assistant that can be given instructions in natural language by a Minecraft player, and that can reliably complete some of the primary tasks that player might engage in, including gathering materials, building structures, fighting mobs, and crafting items.

The authors of the paper target three specific achievements: Create synergy between machine-learning and non-machine-learning components, allowing them to work together; create a “grounded” natural language simulation that allows the AI to understand what players want it to do, and can communicate its success or failure back to the end-user; and create an AI that shouldn’t just be capable of doing what the player wants it to do, but that also its performance should improve based on observation of the human player.

They write:

We intend that the player will be able to specify tasks through dialogue (rather than by just issuing commands), so that the agent can ask for missing information, or the player can interrupt the agent’s actions to clarify. In addition, we hope dialogue to be useful for providing rich supervision. The player might label attributes about the environment, for example “that house is too big”, relations between objects in the environment (or other concepts the bot understands), for example “the window is in the middle of the wall”, or rules about such relations or attributes. We expect the player to be able to question the agent’s “mental state” to give appropriate feedback, and we expect the bot to ask for confirmation and use active learning strategies.

The machine learning code being used for the Facebook-Minecraft bot is available on GitHub. Better AI tools could be useful in many games, though they could also raise serious questions about what constitutes cheating in multiplayer.

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What is Andela, the Africa tech talent accelerator? – gpgmail


As someone who covers Africa’s tech scene, I’m frequently asked about Andela. That’s not surprising, given the venture gets more global press (arguably) than any startup in Africa.

I’ve found many Silicon Valley investors have heard of Andela but aren’t exactly sure what it does.

In a bite, Andela is Series D stage startup―backed by $180 million in VC―that trains and connects African software developers to global companies for a fee.

The revenue-focused venture is often misread as a charity. In 2017, Andela CEO Jeremy Johnson described the organization as “a mission-driven for-profit company” ― a model for the concept “that you can actually build businesses that create real impact.”

I asked Johnson recently to clarify the objective behind Andela’s drive. “It’s the exact same mission as when we started, based around our founding principle… that brilliance and talent are distributed equally around the world, but opportunity is not,” he said.

“We’re about breaking down the walls that prevent brilliance and opportunity from connecting to each other.”

A major barrier for Africa’s software engineers, according to Johnson, is simply the fact that the continent has been totally off the network that companies look to for developer talent.


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Fresh out of Y Combinator, Tandem lands millions from Andreessen Horowitz – gpgmail


Tandem, one of the most sought after companies to graduate from Y Combinator’s summer batch, will emerge from the accelerator program with a supersized seed round and an uncharacteristically high valuation.

The months-old business, which is developing communication software for remote teams after pivoting from crypto, is raising a $7.5 million seed financing at a valuation north of $30 million, sources tell gpgmail. Airbnb investor Andreessen Horowitz is leading the round.

Tandem and a16z declined to comment for this story. The round has yet to close, which means the deal size is subject to change. Y Combinator startups raise capital using SAFE agreements, or simple agreements for future equity, which allow investors to buy shares in a future priced round at a previously agreed-upon valuation.

We’re told several top venture capital firms were vying for a stake in Tandem. One firm even gifted the founders a tandem bike, sources tell gpgmail, resorting to amusing measures to sway the Tandem team. But it was a16z — which has an established interest in the growing future of work sector, evidenced by its recent investment in the popular email app Superhuman — that ultimately won the coveted lead investor spot.

Tandem provides a virtual office for remote teams, complete with video-chatting and messaging capabilities, as well as integrations with top enterprise tools including Notion, GitHub and Trello. The service launched one month ago and has signed contracts with Airbnb, Dropbox and others. The company claims to be growing 50% week-over-week.

“Every company is a remote company,” Tandem chief executive officer Rajiv Ayyangar said during his pitch to investors on day two of Y Combinator Demo Days this week. “You have salespeople in the field, [companies with] multiple offices, people working from home. Tandem isn’t just building the future of remote work, it’s building the future of work.”

Ayyangar was previously a data scientist at Yahoo before joining Yakit, a startup seeking to simplify ecommerce delivery, as the director of product. Co-founders Bernat Fortet Unanue and Tim Su are also Yahoo alums.

We’re told Tandem’s fundraise was nearly complete before it pitched to investors Tuesday afternoon. Startups that participate in YC are often flooded with offers from VCs throughout the three-month program. Firms are hungry for the batch’s Airbnb, Dropbox or Stripe — graduates of the program — and will pay premiums on startup equity for their chance to invest in a future ‘unicorn.’

As a result, the median seed deal for U.S. startups in 2018 was roughly $2 million — a record high — with typical pre-money valuations hovering north of $10 million. Tandem’s seed financing represents both a trend of swelling seed deals and valuations, as well as a tendency for VCs to dole out more cash to fresh-from-YC companies amid heightened competition amongst their peers.

The previous YC batch, which wrapped up in March, included ZeroDown, Overview.AI and Catch, a trio of companies that pocketed venture capital ahead of demo day. ZeroDown, a financing solution for real estate purchases in the Bay Area, raised upwards of $10 million at a $75 million valuation before demo day, sources told gpgmail at the time (months after demo day, Zero Down announced a whopping $30 million financing). ZeroDown was an outlier, of course, as the company’s founders had previously co-founded the billion-dollar HR software company Zenefits.

As for the summer batch, we’re told Actiondesk, Taskade and Tandem are amongst the startups to garner the most hype from investors. Some even forwent the demo day pitch altogether. BraveCare, which is creating urgent care clinics intended just for kids, raised $4.1 million ahead of demo day, we’re told. The company opted not to pitch to additional investors this week.

You can read about all the company’s that pitched during demo day one here and demo day two here.


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GitHub adds 21 new partners to its free Student Developer Pack – gpgmail


For a few years now, GitHub has been running a program that gives students around the world free access to GitHub Pro and various free and discounted services from other partners as part of its GitHub Education program. In total, over 1.5 million students have now signed up for the program, with about 750,000 being currently active, and with the new school year about to start, the company today announced that it is doubling the number of partners in the Student Developer Pack program by adding an additional 21 companies to the list.

The new partners cover a wide range of developer tools and services. They range from web design tools like Bootstrap Studio, which actually quietly joined the program over the summer, to the domain registrar .TECH, SSH client Terminus, ConfigCat for feature flag and configuration management, and Icons8 for making applications look better.

“Our philosophy what it comes to the pack is that it is about preparing students for all the premier tools they are going to encounter in the workplace,” said Scott Sanicki, the Senior Program Manager for the GitHub Student Developer Pack. That means that there can be partners with competing products, too, but as Sanicki noted, GitHub hasn’t seen any pushback from existing partners so far, including Microsoft.

Indeed, over the summer, GitHub’s new owner, Microsoft also added its Azure cloud computing services to the Student Pack. That’s no surprise, but it’s worth noting that AWS, DigitalOcean and Heroku were already part of the pack and offered students free and discounted cloud computing resources. They remain in the program and as Sanicki told me, it’s part of the company’s promise to remain open, even after having been acquired by Microsoft.

“[GitHub CEO Nat Friedman] was asked directly at the time of the acquisition whether we were going to sunset the student developer pack and he committed that we were continuing the pack and, in fact, make it stronger and that’s what we’ve we’ve attempted to continue to do,” Sanicki said. “We’ve seen support from Microsoft, from leadership, to give us the resources that we need to not only dream bigger with what we want to do with the pack and GitHub Education but to actually now attempt to accomplish it.”

Sanicki expects that the team will continue to add new partners over the course of the next few months. To sign up and see if you qualify for the program, head over here.

Below, you can find a list of all the new partners and what they are offering.

  • .TECH domains — A powerful domain extension to convey that you belong to the technology industry. One .TECH domain free for 1 year: https://get.tech/github-student-developer-pack
  • Better Code Hub — Better Code Hub provides a definition of done for code quality and actionable refactoring feedback for every push and pull request. A free upgrade to an Individual license to analyse your personal private repos: https://bettercodehub.com/github-student-developer-pack
  • Bootstrap Studio — Bootstrap Studio is a powerful desktop app for creating responsive websites using the Bootstrap framework. A free license for Bootstrap Studio while you are a student: https://bootstrapstudio.io/student-pack
  • ConfigCat — Feature flag service with unlimited team size, awesome SDK documentation and super easy integration with your application. 1000 feature flags, ∞ users for free: https://configcat.com/student
  • Cryptolens — License and sell your software securely. 10 licenses and any number of end-users for free for students: https://app.cryptolens.io/user/githubstudent
  • Frontend Masters — Advance your skills with in-depth JavaScript, Node.js & front-end engineering courses. Free 6-months access to all courses and workshops: https://frontendmasters.com/welcome/github-student-developers/
  • Gitpod — An online IDE for GitHub that provides a complete dev environment with a single click Free personal plan subscription for six months for students: https://www.gitpod.io/github-student-developer-pack/
  • Icons8 — Design resources: icons, UI illustrations, photos and software to class up your projects. 3-month All Access subscription with icons, photos, illustrations, and music: https://icons8.com/github-students
  • LogDNA — Log management platform that offers aggregation, monitoring, and analysis of server and application logs at any volume, from any source. $100 of credit every month for 1 year: www.logdna.com/github-students
  • Name.com — Domain names, web hosting, and websites. Unicorns and rainbows come standard with our customer support. One free domain name and free Advanced Security (SSL, privacy protection, and more): https://www.name.com/partner/github-students
  • Netwise — Turnkey data centre services for the hosting of critical IT infrastructure systems. Free single unit server colocation package free for 12 months: https://www.netwise.co.uk/students/
  • Next.tech — Learn tech skills and build software directly from your browser with real, online computing environments. 10,000 minutes of compute time for students: https://next.tech/github-students
  • Phrase — A cloud-based translation management system built to accelerate the development of multilingual digital products. Phrase Lite Plan free for up to 12 months for students: https://www.phraseapp.com/lp/github-student-package/
  • PomoDone — With PomoDone, hack and track your time and boost your productivity by applying Pomodoro technique to your workflow — eliminate distraction, sharpen focus and prevent burnout. PomoDone Lite plan free for 2-years: https://pomodoneapp.com/pomodoro-app-for-students.html
  • PushBots — The easiest way to engage your mobile & web app users via push notifications. Free Premium account for 6 months: https://pushbots.com/for/education
  • SQL Smash — Productivity plugin for SQL Server Management Studio for writing maintainable SQL scripts and faster navigation. Free standard license for students: https://student.sqlsmash.com
  • SymfonyCasts — Master Symfony and PHP with video tutorials and code challenges. Free 3-month subscription for students ($75 value): https://symfonycasts.com/github-student
  • Termius —SSH client that works on desktop and mobile. Termius securely syncs data across all your devices. Free access to the Premium plan (normally $99/year) while you’re a student: https://termius.com/education
  • Transloadit — A versatile uploading & encoding API to automate any file conversion. The Startup plan for free, including 10GB of encoding credit (valued at $49/month): https://transloadit.com/github-students/
  • Working Copy — Powerful Git client for iPhone & iPad. All Pro features for free while you are a student: https://workingcopy.app/education/


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GitHub gets a CI/CD service – gpgmail


Microsoft’s GitHub today launched the beta of a new version of GitHub Actions with full continuous integration and delivery (CI/CD) capabilities built right into the service. General availability is planned for November 13.

The company also today announced that it now has more than 40 million developers on its platform.

Ten months ago, GitHub launched Actions, its workflow automation platform. Developers could already take actions to trigger all kinds of events and use that to build custom CI/CD pipelines. At launch, the GitHub team stressed that Actions allowed for building these pipelines, but that it was a lot more than that. Still, developers were obviously quite interested in using Actions for CI/CD.

“Since we introduced GitHub Actions last year, the response has been phenomenal, and developers have created thousands of inspired workflows,” writes GitHub CEO Nat Friedman in today’s announcement. “But we’ve also heard clear feedback from almost everyone: you want CI/CD! And that’s what we’re announcing today.”

With this updated version of Actions, developers can now build, test and deploy their code on any platform and run their workflows in containers or virtual machines. Developers also can test multiple versions of their applications in parallel thanks to a new feature called “matrix builds,” which lets you, for example, test three different versions of Node.js on Linux, Windows and MacOS at the same time. Because GitHub Actions are defined in a basic YAML file, making those changes is only a matter of adding a few lines to the file.

Supported languages and frameworks include Node.js, Python, Java, PHP, Ruby, C/C++, .NET, Android and iOS. Actions is also integrated with the GitHub Package Registry.

As the application is built, you also get live logs streamed to the Action console, and it’s easy to link to any line in a log file to discuss issues with the rest of your team.

These new features are available for free during the beta and will remain free for all public repositories.

Actions for GitHub Enterprise Server will launch next year and will include a hybrid option that will allow you to keep the code in a private data center and still use GitHub to orchestrate the workflows.

“GitHub Actions is the democratization of CI/CD and software automation. Developers can write workflows reacting to any GitHub platform event and reference open-source GitHub Actions — reusable pieces of code — to supercharge their software lifecycle the same way they are used to writing application code,” said Max Schoening, GitHUb’s senior director of Product Design. “It truly is community-powered CI/CD with a pricing model that works for everyone.”

With this launch, GitHub is now also competing more directly with some of the CI/CD startups that have built businesses on top of the platform. That’s likely to create a bit of friction.

“GitHub has made a commitment to keeping their platform open to all partners, but only time will tell,” CircleCI CEO Jim Rose said in a statement. “Ultimately, developers are smart and will choose the best, most powerful tools available on the market, and we’re confident that that’s where CircleCI will continue to be. […] With more than nine years of data and experience on how teams move from idea to delivery, CircleCI is the leader in CI/CD and we are confident we have the best solution for developers.”

I expect that Rose’s comment will echo that of other CI/CD players, though it’s also worth noting, as Rose did, that Actions can be integrated with other continuous integration services to allow developers to trigger builds on their platforms. These providers can also make their own Actions available on GitHub.

“We see GitHub actions as complementary to what Codefresh does. It’s an additional way that users can leverage Codefresh to build robust pipelines in a scalable way. One interesting thing is that GitHub followed our lead in how they architected Actions. You can actually use GitHub actions as steps inside a Codefresh pipeline. So you see, we’re actually very aligned,” said Dan Garfield, the chief technology evangelist at CI/CD platform Codefresh. “Developers can find the Codefresh action right on GitHub!”

When I asked GitHub about this, Schoening provided the following statement: “GitHub and our community believe in choice and an open ecosystem. That is something we take seriously and build into everything we do. GitHub Actions lets developers integrate with all their existing tooling, mix and match new developer products, and hook into all parts of the software lifecycle, including existing CI/CD partners.”


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GitHub confirms it has blocked developers in Iran, Syria and Crimea – gpgmail


The impact of U.S. trade restrictions is trickling down to the developer community. GitHub, the world’s largest host of source code, is preventing users in Iran, Syria, Crimea and potentially other sanctioned nations from accessing portions of the service, chief executive of the Microsoft-owned firm said.

Over the weekend, GitHub CEO Nat Friedman wrote on Twitter that like any other “company that does business in the US,” GitHub is required to comply with the U.S. export law. The confirmation comes months after work collaboration service Slack, too, enforced similar restrictions on its platform.

As part of the push, Friedman said GitHub has enforced new restrictions to prevent users in sanctioned countries from accessing private repositories and GitHub Marketplace, as well as maintaining private paid organization accounts.

A selection of GitHub services such as access to public repositories will remain available to everyone, the company said in a statement on its website. “This includes limited access to GitHub public repository services (such as access to GitHub Pages and public repositories used for open source projects), for personal communications only, and not for commercial purposes.”

For developers intending to store export-controlled data, GitHub points them to its enterprise server offering, a self-hosted virtual appliance that can be run within users’ own data center or virtual private cloud.

Several developers began to complain about their inability to access some of GitHub’s services last week. News outlet ZDNet reported about a Russian developer living in Crimea whose GitHub account had been restricted, for instance. Hamed Saeedi Fard, a developer who is based in Iran, wrote in a viral Medium post that his GitHub account was blocked without any prior notice or the option to back up his data.

Interestingly, the restrictions are imposed based on a user’s location — by tracking their IP address and payment history — instead of validating their nationality and ethnicity, GitHub said on its website, where it mentions that Cuba and North Korea are also facing the U.S. sanctions.

For those who are considering a workaround by using VPNs (virtual private networks), GitHub has ruled out that possibility: People in U.S.-sanctioned countries “are prohibited from using IP proxies, VPNs, or other methods to disguise their location when accessing GitHub.com services.” It remains to be seen how GitHub enforces the rule.

Banned users who believe their accounts have been wrongfully suspended can fill out an appeal form, where they are required to produce a copy of their government-issued photo ID to prove their current residency along with a selfie, signaling GitHub’s step towards imposing real-name identity check.




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