British telecommunications firm Vodafone has pulled out of the Libra Association, raising further doubt that the digital currency will get off the ground this year as planned....

Another one bites the dust: Facebook unveiled the vision for Libra, which it has promised will promote “financial inclusion” around the world, in June. At the time, there were 28 members in the Libra Association, a nonprofit Facebook founded to manage the digital currency system. Then, in October, PayPal kicked off a string of high-profile exits including Visa, Mastercard, eBay, and Stripe. Vodafone is the first one to back out so far this year. Remaining members include Uber, Lyft, and Spotify. 

Why? Vodafone told CoinDesk that it plans to devote resources previously meant for Libra to M-Pesa, its digital payments platform that is already established in several African nations, Afghanistan, India, and Romania. It is not clear whether Libra might represent competition for M-Pesa. 

Project in peril? Since day one, Libra has faced skepticism and resistance from policymakers around the world, many of whom still aren’t sure of how to approach it from a regulatory standpoint. The backlash has likely contributed to the exits of many of its most high-profile members. Although the goal is to launch the currency this year, with 100 total members, it won’t be surprising if it doesn’t make that deadline—as Facebook itself has acknowledged.

Glass half full: Still, the Libra Association has consistently said the project is not in trouble, and that it will take as long as necessary to ensure the approval of regulators before launching. It has also said it still expects to have 100 total members by the time it launches. In October, the group said that more than 1,500 entities are interested in joining. 

Keep up with the fast-moving and sometimes baffling world of cryptocurrencies and blockchains with our weekly newsletter Chain Letter. Subscribe here. It’s free!

Expand

Google has announced a trio of projects meant to get you out in the real world and away from your phone....

The “apps”: They are designed by Google’s Digital Wellbeing Experiments arm to make your Pixel3a (the only phone for which they work) barely functional. One involves sticking your phone into an envelope, sealing it, and using it only as a camera or a basic keypad to dial numbers. (It’s called... Envelope.) The second, Screen Stopwatch, transforms your home screen into a giant timer every time you unlock your phone—it’s supposed to make you more aware of your phone usage. And the last, Activity Bubbles, represents your activity in bubble shapes. The longer the session, the bigger the bubbles; the more the sessions, the more bubbly your home screen.

We’ve seen this paper stunt from Google before. Back in November, Google released a paper phone, a printout of the directions, a to-do list, and puzzles you might need to get through your day sans blue screen.

Can these things work? Sure. By sealing your phone and making it harder to use, you’re cutting out any potential side jaunts into Twitter or Instagram to stalk a frenemy. Measuring the time you spend on your phone isn’t a new concept (plenty of apps and plugins already do that, along with ... ummm ... clocks), but it certainly helps to quantify the time you spend on a screen.

Or, you know, just put your phone away. The Digital Wellbeing Experiments are supposed to be “a collection of ideas and tools that help people find a better balance with technology.”

But as digital expert Julie Albright told us last year, the best way to control your phone use isn’t necessarily to download more apps or flagellate yourself with shaming devices. Instead, we can create “sacred” space or time away from the phone: the bedroom, for example, could be a no-phone zone, or the hour before you go to bed could be a time to crack open a book instead of scrolling through TikTok. And in any case, we don’t even know whether screen time is such a bad thing anyway.

Expand

The algorithm lets robots find the shortest route in unfamiliar environments, opening the door to robots that can work inside homes and offices....

The news: A team at Facebook AI has created a reinforcement learning algorithm that lets a robot find its way in an unfamiliar environment without using a map. Using just a depth-sensing camera, GPS, and compass data, the algorithm gets a robot to its goal 99.9% of the time along a route that is very close to the shortest possible path, which means no wrong turns, no backtracking, and no exploration. This is a big improvement over previous best efforts. 

Why it matters: Mapless route-finding is essential for next-gen robots like autonomous delivery drones or robots that work inside homes and offices. Some of the best robots available today, such as Spot and Atlas made by Boston Dynamics and Digit made by Agility Robotics, are packed with sensors that make them pretty good at keeping their balance and avoiding obstacles. But if you dropped them off at an unfamiliar street corner and left them to find their way home, they’d be screwed. While Facebook’s algorithm does not yet handle outside environments, it is a promising step in that direction and could probably be adapted to urban spaces. 

Two billion steps and counting: Facebook trained bots for three days inside AI Habitat, a photorealistic virtual mock-up of the interior of a building, with rooms and corridors and furniture. In that time they took 2.5 billion steps—the equivalent of 80 years of human experience. Others have taken a month or more to train bots in a similar task, but Facebook massively sped things up by culling the slowest bots from the pool so that faster ones did not have to wait at the finish line each round.

As ever, the team doesn’t know exactly how the AI learned to navigate, but a best guess is that it picked up on patterns in the interior structure of the human-designed environments. Facebook is now testing its algorithm in real physical spaces using a LoCoBot robot.   

Sign up here to our daily newsletter The Download to get your dose of the latest must-read news from the world of emerging tech. 

Expand