Thomas's Innovation Wrap #34

🤖 Temperature-tracking drones, 💻 AI-designing AI, and ▶️ media consumption in a crisis

Greetings,

Here’s your weekly wrap of technology, innovation, and finance news.

🤖 Robotics and Drones

Draganfly is collaborating with Vital Intelligence, a healthcare data services company, and the University of South Australia to combine aerial drones, cameras, and data service to remotely measure health conditions.

Vital Intelligence and Draganfly

Bloomberg BusinessWeek profiled drone giant DJI and its founder, Frank Wang, in a piece titled: DJI Won the Drone Wars, and Now It’s Paying the Price.

Every summer, DJI, the world’s largest drone maker, puts on a competition in Shenzhen called RoboMaster. If amateur robotics warfare isn’t your hobby of choice, you should know that at the event hundreds of university students from China, Japan, the U.S., and elsewhere build robotic vehicles the size of lawn mowers, arm them with plastic bullets, and pit the machines against one another in front of thousands of screaming fans.

The competition was Frank Wang’s idea. For several years, the founder and chief executive officer of DJI (full name: SZ DJI Technology Co.) has attempted to turn RoboMaster into something like a cult that celebrates engineering—and, not incidentally, stokes demand for his company’s products. Along with the event, there’s a TV cartoon, a reality show, a documentary, and a comic book series. Starting last year, DJI began selling a smaller version of a battlebot to consumers as a DIY kit called the RoboMaster S1.

👁️ Surveillance and Privacy

Countries are using apps and data networks to keep tabs on the pandemic.

Here’s a fascinating video which shows how quickly people can spread out from Spring Break (using location data from their phones).

📱 App Economy

Houseparty, Discord, Zoom, and Macro Polo downloads have exploded amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Most notably, Houseparty has seen its daily downloads rise from 24,795 per day on February 15 to 651,694 on March 25. In France alone, where I live, that number has jumped from 2,162 to 38,739 during that time.

Epic Games, makers of Fortniteacquired Houseparty last summer. The service lets up to 8 people chat simultaneously, while also offering games and other interactive features.

🎮 Gaming

Doom Eternal had the best opening weekend in the franchise’s history.

Valve released Half-Life: Alyx which showcases what virtual reality can do, but its unclear if it will bring new converts to the medium.

Pokémon Go is seeing healthy revenue growth during the pandemic after they increased monster spawn rates which make it easier to see Pokémon while staying at home.

The World Health Organization and video game companies have created #PlayApartTogether, a promotional campaign that encourages people to entertain themselves while also practising social distancing.

👓 Virtual and Augmented Reality

A new VR app called Spaces allow you to attend Zoom meetings from within VR.

💊 Health

China created a “fail-safe” infectious disease reporting system to track contagions after experiencing SARS, but it failed due to a political aversion to sharing bad news.

“According to the rules, this of course should have been reported,” Yang Gonghuan, a retired health care official involved in establishing the direct reporting system, said in an interview. “Of course they should have seized on it, found it, gone to understand it.”

Hospitals are fast-tracking remote technology to manage critically ill Covid-19 patients.

Generally known as “tele-ICU,” this two-way bedside video is sort of like FaceTime or Zoom. The difference is that it typically adds a host of other technologies to videoconferencing, in order to connect critically ill patients in hospital ICU beds with teams of doctors and nurses who specialize in delivering care to the sickest, even when those teams are miles or even whole states away.

The point of tele-ICU isn’t to replace staff on premise, but to supplement them while also keeping the scarce supply of trained intensivists physically removed from patients to minimize their risks of infection. Doctors on the other side of the screens at patients’ bedsides can help with monitoring and can even use local staff as their “hands” when they need to manipulate something in the room.

💻 Chips and Computing

Google is using AI to design their next AI chip.

“We believe that it is AI itself that will provide the means to shorten the chip design cycle, creating a symbiotic relationship between hardware and AI, with each fueling advances in the other,” they write in a paper describing the work that posted today to Arxiv.

☁️ Cloud Computing

In a webinar this week, Zoom, Netflix, Dropbox, and Equinix discussed how they are tackling coronavirus infrastructure challenges.

The result is a big shift in usage patterns that is quite different than what many large companies had forecast. While people tend to think of the internet as a single system, it is really a patchwork of datacenters and delivery networks stitched together by a wide range of companies. Far from being virtual, making these physical networks run smoothly means betting on where the traffic demands will originate and to where they will travel in order to strategically place network capacity over time.

Bill Long, senior vice president of product management at datacenter giant Equinix, said the companies have seen spikes in traffic ranging from 10% to 40% depending on the region.

▶️ Streaming

Coronavirus is leading to a boom in home entertainment usage, as you’d expect, but an analysis of media consumption during past crises suggests this will be short-lived.

Data from Nielsen, a market-research firm, indicate that people do indeed turn to the box in a crisis. Television use of all sorts in America went up by 18% in the week ending March 22nd, compared with the week before. Viewership of live television rose by 14%, while the use of video-game consoles climbed by 35%. The increase in watching live TV was especially marked for teenagers (31%); many of them can no longer go to school. Overall internet usage rose by 28%, partly because so many workers must now meet their colleagues digitally, rather than face to face.

💲 Finance

Slack stock jumped 15% after the CEO revealed that the company has added 9,000 new paying customers so far in its April quarter. This is a rapid acceleration from the 7,000 new paying customers they announced last week (+2,000 in a week!), which compares to adding 5,000 new paying customers in each of the previous 3 quarters. The whole thread discusses how Slack has managed through the last few weeks and is a captivating read.

Nike navigated China shutdowns by shifting their focus to online. Their online sales in Greater China increased by 30% during the quarter ending February 29, 2020, limiting the decline in Greater China sales to 5%.

After the new coronavirus confined Chinese shoppers to their homes, Nike quickly shifted focus to connecting with them digitally, and not just by pushing products on them. It continued its messaging to shoppers and engaged them with apps such as Nike Training Club, which offers members at-home workouts. Donahoe said Nike saw a spike in sign ups and engagement, with weekly active users jumping 80% across all the company’s activity apps compared to the start of the quarter.

Facebook is seeing a 50% increase in total messaging across the platform’s services, but additional usage won’t help its advertising business.

“We don’t monetize many of the services where we’re seeing increased engagement, and we’ve seen a weakening in our ads business in countries taking aggressive actions to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” wrote Alex Schultz, Facebook’s vice president of analytics, and Jay Parikh, vice president of engineering.

The company didn’t provide official earnings guidance, but the executives said “our business is being adversely affected like so many others around the world.”

Twitter also withdrew its revenue and profit forecast as coronavirus hurts advertising.

HBR discussed the economic shock of coronavirus and the shape of the recovery.

Where does the coronavirus shock fit in so far? The intensity of the shock will be determined by the underlying virus properties, policy responses, as well as consumer and corporate behavior in the face of adversity. But the shape of the shock is determined by the virus’ capacity to damage economies’ supply side, particularly capital formation. At this point, both a deep V-shape and a U are plausible. The battle ahead is to prevent a clear U trajectory.

🛰️ Space

Satellite internet startup OneWeb has filed for bankruptcy after SoftBank, its largest investor, declined a request for additional funding. OneWeb had ambitions of launching a 650 low earth orbit satellite mega-constellation that would provide internet access to customers around the world; they had launched 74 satellites so far.

⚡ Other Snippets

Researchers from Vanderbilt University are developing a prototype of a high-tech shoe (foot exoskeleton?) that could boost Usain Bolt’s top speed from 12.3 metres per second to 20.9 metres per second.

They found that the leg only supplies energy about 20 per cent of the time that a person’s foot is on the ground. To improve upon that, they have conceptualised a spring-powered device that would increase the amount of power a person’s legs generate while running.

An exoskeleton connected to each foot that contains a programmable spring would allow the leg to supply energy 96 per cent of that time, according to their analysis.

The device would store energy created as the leg bends in the air, compressing the spring, and release it when the runner takes a step. It would also lessen collisional energy loss. “I would compare this to a catapult that is pulled up in the air and then released on the ground,” says Bruan.

Coronavirus quarantines are leading to a huge, global drop in air pollution, which is also discussed in this CNBC video.

Bill Gates discussed how we must respond to the coronavirus pandemic in a 45-minute TED Talk. In 2015 Bill Gate gave this TED Talk: The next outbreak? We’re not ready.

Have a great week,

Thomas

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About Thomas Rice

Thomas Rice is the portfolio manager for the Perpetual Global Innovation Share Fund, based in Sydney, Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @thomasrice_au.

Thomas's Innovation Wrap #33

🏠 Zoom weddings, 💻 neuromorphic computing, and 🎮 gaming's recent boost

Greetings,

Here’s your weekly wrap of technology, innovation, and finance news.

🤖 Robotics and Drones

Police in Chula Vista, California and in Spain are resorting to using drones equipped with loudspeakers and cameras to help enforce coronavirus lockdowns. Drones were previously used in China for the same purpose.

Chula Vista police has bought two $11,000 drones made by  DJI

Microsoft researchers have written a paper on how to teach an AI to fly a real-world drone by training it in a simulation.

The coauthors assert that the results show “great potential” for helping in real-world applications. For example, the system might help an autonomous search and rescue robot to become better able to recognize humans despite age, size, gender, and ethnicity differences, giving the robot a better chance of identifying and retrieving people in need of help.

Business is good for Roborn Technology, a Hong Kong startup that makes temperature-taking robots. The company is expecting orders for 50 to 100 units in Hong Kong and Macau, mostly for high-specification units priced above HK$400,000 each (above US$51,000 or A$88,000 each).

5G-enabled mobile robot scanning people's body temperature. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

Standard University has developed semi-soft robots that use inflatable tubes to move. Their paper highlights the advantage of their design over pneumatic robots.

There are numerous advantages to a design like this. You get all the advantages of pneumatic robots (compliance, flexibility, collapsibility, durability, high strength to weight ratio) without requiring some way of constantly moving air around, since the volume of air inside the robot stays constant. Each individual triangular module is self-contained (with one tube, two active roller modules, and one passive anchor module) and easy to combine with similar modules—the video shows an octahedron, but you can easily add or subtract modules to make a variety of differently shaped robots with different capabilities.

🏠 Working from Home

Zoom featured in the news last week as more people work from home. CNBC wrote about why Zoom has become the darling of remote workers and how the company is handling the increased demand. Cisco’s Webex service is also seeing record usage. The New York Times highlighted the rise in trolling in public video conferences (“Zoombombing”) and how Zoom usage has extended beyond work to schooling, parties, and memes.

But no amount of planning could have anticipated the company’s emergence as a cultural phenomenon used to host parties, concertschurch services and art shows. Zoom could not have prepared to become a meme.

A Facebook group for young people trapped at home called Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens, founded less than a week ago, has already grown to more than 150,000 members.

Some people are even getting married on Zoom.

The WSJ looked at how America’s shut-in families are spending their days: Zoom, CNBC, and jigsaw puzzles.

An even bigger jump in viewership went to CNBC as markets moved downward, with a 244% increase in daily time spent watching the business network this week compared with a year ago, according to Samba TV.

Slack and Microsoft Teams also reported big usage increases as more people work from home. Slack added 7,000 paying customers since the start of February, which is 40% more than it normally adds in an entire quarter. Microsoft Teams reached a new record 44 million daily users, up from 20 million daily users just four months ago.

“This may have jump-started the market by seven years,” said Wayne Kurtzman, an analyst at tech research firm IDC. Forcing millions of people to change their everyday work practices “is a perfect opportunity for companies to become the digital businesses they have wanted to be”, he added.

🎮 Gaming

Verizon saw a 75% increase in gaming traffic during the week ending March 16 compared to the week before as more people stayed home.

Activision’s new free-to-play battle royale shooter Call of Duty: Warzone reached 30 million players “working from home” in its first 10 days.

VR game Beat Saber surpassed 2 million copies sold. It’s a great game.

Beat Saber is one of virtual reality’s biggest hits, and the laser-sword rhythm dancing game has now reached a major sales milestone. Developer Beat Games Studiorevealed today on Twitter that Beat Saber surpassed 2 million copies sold. Fans have also purchased more than 10 million songs as downloadable content.

Valve CEO Gabe Newell thinks we’re way closer to The Matrix than people realise.

▶️ Streaming

Twitch saw its daily concurrent viewers rise 12% in March, its biggest year-over-year increase since August 2019.

Music is not necessarily a beneficiary of staying at home, with Italy seeing a decrease in the time spent streaming music.

In Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by coronavirus, the top 200 most streamed songs on Spotify within the country averaged 18.3 million total streams per day in February 2019. Since Italy’s prime minister announced a national quarantine on March 9th, the total streams for the 200 most popular songs have not topped 14.4 million. There was a 23% drop in top 200 streams on Tuesday March 17th compared to Tuesday, March 3rd.

With more people staying home and streaming video, YouTube, Amazon, and Netflix have cut picture quality in Europe to reduce the strain on the internet.

“Netflix has decided to begin reducing bit rates across all our streams in Europe for 30 days,” the company said. “We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25 per cent while also ensuring a good quality service for our members.”

🛍️ Ecommerce

Amazon is hiring an additional 100,000 employees in the US as millions of people turn to online deliveries. As of December 31, Amazon employed 798,000 full-time and part-time employees globally.

Delivery technology helped Chinese cities get through coronavirus.

The combination of consumer digital maturity and digitally supported supply chains has enabled local residents to organize home delivery of essential supplies to people in self-quarantine.  In the gated communities and neighborhoods that characterize Beijing, for example, residents have organized small groups of volunteers via group chat apps to receive supplies at the gate for the whole community, box them for each household, and deliver them to people’s doorsteps.

Southern Europe has been slow to embrace ecommerce, but life under quarantine may help accelerate adoption with retailers like Carrefour in Italy seeing their online customers double.

Grouped bar chart showing the Sales annual % change for Italy and Spain following the virus outbreak

⚙️ Mobility

Starsky Robotics, an autonomous truck startup, has shut down. The founder wrote a post outlining what went wrong; chief among them is the belief that “supervised machine learning doesn’t live up to the hype”.

Goodyear are working on intelligent tires outfitted with sensors and proprietary machine-learning algorithms that they hope will help self-driving cars brake at a shorter distance.

For example, if the tire senses that the car is driving over a slick road in cold temperatures, the vehicle will be able to automatically slow down and avoid sudden steering movements, while factoring in the tire’s tread and wear. Recent experiments showed that self-driving vehicles using Goodyear’s intelligent tires can shorten the stopping distance lost by wear-and-tear on a tire by about 30%.

Optical phased arrays could be a promising new technology for solid-state lidars in autonomous vehicles and for augmented reality headsets.

Researchers led by Columbia Engineering Professor Michal Lipson have developed a low-power beam steering platform that is a non-mechanical, robust, and scalable approach to beam steering. The team is one of the first to demonstrate low-power large-scale optical phased array at near infrared for autonomus navigation. It also claimed to be the first to demonstrate optical phased array technology on-chip at blue wavelength for augmented reality.

💊 Health

The Trump administration has expanded access to telemedicine in Medicare which is leading to more people trying it out.

For many of them, including the UC San Francisco cardiologist Ethan Weiss, the experience has been a pleasant surprise. 

Telemedicine was “waaaaaaaaay better than I thought,” he told CNBC. 

Hospitals are turning to technology to help manage patients, with Tampa General Hospital in Florida using facial scans to detect feverish visitors and Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel using AI-powered monitoring equipment to treat Covid-19 patients.

That sensor, which sits under a patient’s mattress, works by using machine learning to filter and analyze patterns in a person’s heart activity, respiratory rate and body movement and send early-warning alerts to medical staff members about deteriorating conditions.

Scientists have genetically modified nerve cells to produce an enzyme on their surface that joins together small molecules to make a polymer that can act as an electrical conductor or insulator. These modified cells could help us better connect to implants.

The work, which promises to allow electrical control of specific groups of cells, could lead to everything from new treatments for conditions such as epilepsy to better ways of connecting prosthetic limbs to nerves, says Zhenan Bao of Stanford University in California. “Those are definitely possibilities,” she says.

💻 Chips and Computing

Intel is releasing a neuromorphic computing system called Pohoiki Springs that can apparently train machine learning models with far greater energy efficiency than traditional computers.

Unlike in traditional machines, in the Pohoiki Springs system, the memory and computing elements are intertwined rather than separate, Mr. Davies said. That minimizes the distance that data has to travel, because in traditional computing architectures, data has to flow back and forth between memory and computing, he said.

Intel researchers recently used a single neuromorphic research chip to train an AI system to recognize hazardous odors using one training sample per odor, compared to the 3,000 samples required in state-of-the-art deep-learning methods—therefore requiring a fraction of the energy.

💲 Finance

The S&P 500 fell 15% over the week. It has now fallen 32% since its recent peak on the 19th of February.

Square got approval to start its own bank in Utah which will pave the way for them to start offering small-business loans to merchants.

⚡ Other Snippets

Ultrasonic waves, which pass through solid objects like walls, could be used to hack your phone by tricking voice assistants into making calls or revealing compromising texts.

Researchers have previously demonstrated how they could trick a phone by sending these waves through the air, but the approach required proximity to the victim and was easily disrupted by nearby objects. Now a new technique called SurfingAttack can send ultrasonic waves through solid objects. It could enable potential snoops to avoid obstacles and perform more invasive tasks—including stealing text messages and making calls from a stranger’s phone.

Hong Kong is using electronic tracker wristbands to geofence people under coronavirus quarantine.

Thousands of computers that were mining Ethereum have been redirected towards helping coronavirus research through Stanford University’s Folding@home project.

Apple’s new iPad Pro includes a lidar scanner that can scan objects in 3D.

Kurzgesagt produced a video explaining what coronavirus does to you, and what you should do to combat it.

Have a great week,

Thomas

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About Thomas Rice

Thomas Rice is the portfolio manager for the Perpetual Global Innovation Share Fund, based in Sydney, Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @thomasrice_au.

Thomas's Innovation Wrap #32

🦠💲 Coronavirus effects, 🤖 hospital robots, and 🔋 new energy storage

Greetings,

Here’s your weekly wrap of technology, innovation, and finance news.

🦠💲 Coronavirus effects

Coronavirus again dominated news headlines this past week as infections picked up outside of China. The situation became real for many people when in the space of 20 minutes Tom Hanks announced he tested positive, the NBA suspended the season, and Trump announced travel restrictions for Europe.

If no preventative action is taken, the CDC’s worse-case modelling implies 200,000 to 1.7 million people could die in the US, which compares to 20,000 to 50,000 deaths from the seasonal flu each year.

Between 160 million and 214 million people in the United States could be infected over the course of the epidemic, according to a projection that encompasses the range of the four scenarios. That could last months or even over a year, with infections concentrated in shorter periods, staggered across time in different communities, experts said. As many as 200,000 to 1.7 million people could die.

And, the calculations based on the C.D.C.’s scenarios suggested, 2.4 million to 21 million people in the United States could require hospitalization, potentially crushing the nation’s medical system, which has only about 925,000 staffed hospital beds. Fewer than a tenth of those are for people who are critically ill.

Preventative actions like social distancing and quarantines are designed to slow the spread and reduce healthcare costs but have a direct impact on businesses.

France closed its schools, as have several other places. The CDC says school closures of 8 weeks or more may better mitigate the spread, while Science Magazine looked at whether closing schools actually worked.

There was a wonderful paper published that analyzed data regarding the Spanish flu in 1918, examining proactive versus reactive school closures. When did [regional] authorities close the schools relative to when the epidemic was spiking? What they found was that proactive school closing saved substantial numbers of lives. St. Louis closed the schools about a day in advance of the epidemic spiking, for 143 days. Pittsburgh closed 7 days after the peak and only for 53 days. And the death rate for the epidemic in St. Louis was roughly one-third as high as in Pittsburgh. These things work.

Moving to online learning is highlighting the difference between the digital haves and have-nots.

OpenTable shared a public spreadsheet that shows the impact on restaurant bookings in this environment. San Francisco is hardest hit with bookings down 58% on the 14th of March when compared to a year ago, which will have a significant impact on a typically low margin business.

Restaurant bookings are down 40% based on OpenTable’s data, but only 11% in Australia — I suspect that will change soon.

Apple closed all of its stores outside of mainland China (all of its stores in China are now open again after previously closing). Abercrombie, Nike, and others are closing their stores. Disney is closing its US and Paris resorts.

US domestic movie ticket sales fell 44% to $55.3 million, the lowest level since the weekend after September 11.

At least 150 companies have now warned of an earnings hit from coronavirus.

Amazon told all its employees around the world to work from home if they can, as did Twitter. Google extended its North American work from home recommendation to employees in the UK, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

The WSJ looked at what China’s nationwide hibernation was like.

Italians, which have been in lockdown, are sending 20% more messages on WhatsApp compared to a year ago, and Microsoft Teams usage in the country is up 100%.

South Korea is offering free concerts online to help people get through it.

As more conferences have been cancelled, several startups like Run the World and Hopin are hoping to better replicate the real-world conference experience by hosting virtual conferences that include the ability to network.

The alternate ideas have been fairly uninspired: webinars, panel livestreams. Xiaoyin Qu, the cofounder of a new virtual conference startup called Run the World, says the problem with most virtual conferences is the inability to meet other people. She attended dozens of conferences last year for market research and found that the best moments often weren’t the keynote speeches, but the breakout sessions or coffee breaks when conference attendees could bump into one another. When people met someone at a conference whose work was relevant to them, it made the $1,000 ticket worth it. When they didn’t, conferences sometimes felt like “a waste of time.”

🎮 Gaming

The NBA, MLB, and many other sports were put on hold. Not even esports escaped, with Activision Blizzard cancelling all Overwatch League events in March and April and moving all Call of Duty League events to online-only.

Activision Blizzard also launched a new free-to-play battle royale game, Call of Duty: Warzone. The game is off to a solid start with 15 million players in its first 4 days.

🤖 Robotics

A hospital ward staffed entirely by robots opened in Wuhan, China. The robots deliver food, drinks, and drugs to patients, and keep the ward clean.

The temporary ward was initially established as a human-run clinic, but has now been turned over to the robots after a week-long upgrade. Engineers mapped the area and uploaded the information to a cloud server for the robots to use as they move through the ward.

CloudMinds CEO Bill Huang says the ward will be a pilot case for future initiatives. “This is China’s first-ever entirely robot-led ward and an opportunity to test the capability of the technology and how we work together,” he says.

During their stay, patients wear bracelets fitted with sensors to measure their heart rates and temperatures. This information is displayed on a large screen outside the ward for doctors and nurses to access along with other health information. Medical staff can also use the screen to assign the robots their next task.

👓 Virtual and Augmented Reality

Oxford VR has launched a VR-based therapy to help people overcome social anxiety.

While VR is still struggling to gain adoption outside of gaming, health care is one area where it has been making real inroads. OVR builds immersive technology that aims to improve people’s mental health, and last month the company raised $13 million to push its offering into health care systems around the world. With its social engagement VR technology already used by major health organizations like the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS), OVR is demonstrating one way VR could enter the mainstream.

⚡ Other Snippets

What a week in markets! WSJ provides a day-by-day recollection of the past week in Diary of a Crazy Week in the Markets.

CNBC profiled Everbridge, a company founded after 9/11 to help companies manage public safety emergencies and a beneficiary of coronavirus. Its stock has risen 17% since the market decline started on February 20.

Uber has resumed testing its autonomous cars on San Francisco roads.

Amazon has started offering its cashierless “Just Walk Out” technology to rival retailers. OTG, a hospitality group focused on airports, announced plans to deploy the technology, while others remain wary.

Eliott believes the product is analogous to retailers historically having used Amazon to build their early website or using AWS. “Eventually you realise that you are funding Amazon to continue to kill you in the market, you’re helping them fine tune their product so that they can better use it against you and you’re giving them all the data on your shoppers buying habits and ways of interacting with your stores. You’re then faced with a hefty bill to move off the Amazon platform.”  

Personal Plug: Morningstar’s monthly rankings came out and my fund ranked 1st out of 264 funds in its category with a return of 27.7% over 1 year to February 2020, so that’s nice. Hopefully I can keep that up in these interesting times!

CNBC explores the future of energy storage beyond lithium-ion in this 14-minute video.

Have a great week,

Thomas

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About Thomas Rice

Thomas Rice is the portfolio manager for the Perpetual Global Innovation Share Fund, based in Sydney, Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @thomasrice_au.

Thomas's Innovation Wrap #31

💊 Direct CRISPR insertions, 🔒 Intel's security flaw, and ⚡ battle-ready laser weapons

Morning,

Here’s your weekly wrap of technology, innovation, and finance news.

⚙️ Mobility

Waymo raised $2.25 billion at a $30 billion valuation, mostly from external investors, which is the first time the company has raised money externally since Google started working on autonomous driving 11 years ago. In an interview with Financial Times, the company flagged a potential shift to focusing on the autonomous technology over the vehicles themselves.

“Our role could be just focusing on the Driver” — the name given to its driverless technology — “and leaving the rest of the customer [experience] to others in the industry,” said Mr Krafcik, indicating a possible shift from bona fide self-driving car maker and robotaxi operator to supplier of autonomous-driving technologies to other companies.

💊 Health

A CRISPR treatment has been directly inserted into the body for the first time. The treatment is part of a landmark clinical trial that’s testing the ability to use CRISPR to remove a genetic mutation that causes Leber’s congenital amaurosis 10 (LCA10), which is a leading cause of blindness in childhood. Previous CRISPR trials have edited genomes of cells after they had been removed from the body, with the edited cells infused back into the patient.

The ability to control a prosthetic limb with your mind is now closer to reality after researchers used machine learning to amplify nerve signals from an implanted sensor, and translated those signals into fine movements.

Amputees wearing the prosthetic hand were able to control each individual finger and swivel their thumbs, regardless of how recently they had lost their limb. Their nerve signals were recorded for a few minutes to calibrate the algorithms to their individual signals, but after that each implant worked straight away, without any need to recalibrate during the 300 days of testing, according to study co-leader Cynthia Chestek, an associate professor in biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan. 

Laser-powered liquid jets could mean you take injections without needles.

The device focuses a laser beam at a liquid in a glass tube. A small portion of the liquid rapidly heats and vaporises, forming a bubble. This generates enough pressure to force a jet of liquid into the skin at a speed of up to 300 metres per second.

The jet is less than a tenth of a millimetre wide, which is designed to minimise the impact of the fast-moving liquid on the skin and prevent pain and bruising.

In trials, the liquid jet penetrated 4 millimetres into a skin-like gel – deep enough to deliver drugs under the skin’s surface. When tested on pig skin, the jet reached the tissue just under the skin, where intradermal injections are delivered.

🤖 Robotics

Boston Dynamics and OTTO Motors released a video demonstrating their vision of the future of logistics automation.

MIT scientists have developed a new way to train robots to do tasks by watching humans. The method, called Planning with Uncertain Specifications (PUnS), allows the robot to simultaneously weigh many ambiguous requirements to reach the end goal when deciding what to do next, which is suitable for tasks where observing humans didn’t lead to a clear step-by-step specification set (such as setting a table).

In simulations asking the robot to set the table in different configurations, it only made six mistakes out of 20,000 tries. In real-world demonstrations, it showed behavior similar to how a human would perform the task. If an item wasn’t initially visible, for instance, the robot would finish setting the rest of the table without the item. Then, when the fork was revealed, it would set the fork in the proper place. “That’s where flexibility is very important,” Ankit Shah says. “Otherwise it would get stuck when it expects to place a fork and not finish the rest of table setup.”

👓 Virtual and Augmented Reality

Talespin raised $15 million for enterprise training in augmented and virtual reality. The funding round was led by Cornerstone OnDemand, a listed cloud-based talent management software provider.

🔒 Cybersecurity, Cybercrime, and Cyberwar

Intel chips from the past five years have an unfixable security flaw.

Thursday’s disclosure from Positive Technologies provides new details about vulnerability and ways to exploit it. Positive Technologies also cautions that the vulnerability may not be fully mitigated with updates. Intel has thanked the researchers but continues to suggest that the vulnerability is exploitable only when attackers have possession of a vulnerable machine.

🦠 Coronavirus

Coronavirus dominated news headlines as the virus spread throughout the week, with reported infections doubling every 4 to 5 days outside of China.

Like other viruses, coronavirus mutates slightly as it spreads. These changes in the genome are now being tracked almost in real-time on a website called Nextstrain, which allows scientists to see the evolution of the virus and how it has spread from country to country.

Several events have been cancelled and more workers are staying home in an attempt to slow the spread. For those working from home, HBR wrote about what it takes to run a great virtual meeting.

🎮 Gaming

Quarantines in China have boosted user numbers for both Tencent and NetEase as people stay indoors.

relates to Virus Quarantines in China Spur Tencent, NetEase Gaming Surge

⚛️ Quantum Computing

Honeywell claims it has built the world’s most powerful quantum computer. They plan to unveil it in the next three months. JPMorgan has signed up as the first public user.

Honeywell claims its upcoming computer will have a quantum volume of at least 64. To put that number in perspective, IBM recently announced a 28-qubit computer it built had a quantum volume of 32. The company was able to achieve this feat in part to thanks to a breakthrough it made in 2015 when it developed a technology that uses lasers to trap electrically charged atoms in a superpositioned state.

Quantum computing startup Rigetti Computing raised $71 million in a down round.

🛰️ Space

AST & Science emerged from “stealth mode” last week claiming it will be able to link satellite connectivity to ordinary smartphones. The company demonstrated its technology last year, and on March the 3rd they announced they had received investment from Vodafone, Rakuten, Samsung, American Tower, and other backers.

As well as working with existing phones, without the need for terrestrial gateways, Mr Avellan says that because his system needs far fewer satellites than its mega-constellation rivals, and thus fewer launches, it will be cheaper to build. As for pricing, he says access will be cheap enough for it to be used as a gap-filling technology in poor countries, where coverage can be patchy in rural areas. Such extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Now he must prove that his scheme will fly.

China’s largest car company, Geely, is planning on launching a low-earth orbit satellite network to support high-speed data transmission, precise navigation, and cloud computing. The company is building its own satellite production and testing facilities and plans to eventually make 500 satellites per year.

There are two seats left (out of three) on Axiom Space’s 10-day trip to the International Space Station. Tickets cost $55 million. The trip is expected to take place in late 2021 or early 2022.

⚡ Other Snippets

Fast Company profiles Axon’s live-streaming police body cameras.

Apple agreed to a $500 million settlement for slowing down older iPhones as it launched new models.

Laser weapons are almost ready for the battlefield.

The breakthrough for solid-state lasers came in 2014, with the testing by America’s navy of one that had a power of 30 kilowatts (kw)—the output of an average home boiler. When fitted to a small vessel called USS Ponce it proved able to fry the components and motors of nearby drones and boats. Ponce’s captain was then given permission to use it for real, if he needed to.

In light of this success a 60kw system, similarly intended for use, will be fitted on USS Preble, a destroyer, later this year. And an even more potent 150kw weapon is undergoing tests on larger ships. Nor are such devices exclusively naval. In February the American army said it planned to field its first “combat relevant” laser, a 50kw weapon that would sit atop Stryker armoured vehicles and defend them against aerial threats, by 2022.

The Science meets VC podcast tells the inside story of the creation of the V2 Food company, the Australian plant-based meat company.

Have a great week,

Thomas

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About Thomas Rice

Thomas Rice is the portfolio manager for the Perpetual Global Innovation Share Fund, based in Sydney, Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @thomasrice_au.

Thomas's Innovation Wrap #30

🤖 Microscopic fluid-moving robots, 💎 developing an AI Dungeon Master, and 💊 a digital twin for your heart

Greetings,

Here’s your weekly wrap of technology, innovation, and finance news.

🤖 Robotics

Engineers at the University of California have developed microscopic robots on a chip that can move droplets of fluid around like warehouse robots. The team have called these robots ferrobots because their movement is powered by magnetism, and they could lead to faster, automated blood diagnostics.

A team at Columbia University have come up with a new way for robots to feel things: by detecting changes made to an interior light.

The Columbia team’s new finger works in much the same way, but instead of electrodes and saline, it’s got those LEDs and photodiodes. When someone pokes the finger, all of the photodiodes look for changes in the amount of light they’re receiving. A photodiode closer to the poke will detect more of a change, while a photodiode on the opposite side of the finger will detect less. The system gets that information in fine detail, because 32 photodiodes times 30 LEDs equals 960 signals, which is a ton of data from a single poke.

A startup that went through YC, RoboTire, has developed a robot that can change a set of four tires in 10 minutes. That job usually takes 60 minutes for a human operator.

The NY Times asks: Should robots have a face? This one looks happy.

💲 Finance

Personal plug: My fund (Perpetual’s Global Innovation Share Fund) had an excellent month. The fund is a long-only global equities fund open to Australian investors. At the end of February, the fund held 42 stocks, with the largest positions being Axon Enterprise, RWE AG, Facebook, Activision Blizzard, and CyberAgent. The fund will be three years old at the end of June.

As more companies restrict travel (Amazon, Google, JPMorgan, Citigroup) and more conferences are cancelled (GDC, Facebook F8, Geneva Motor Show), more people seem to be trying video conferencing. Zoom, a leading video conferencing provider, added more users in the first two months of 2020 than they did in all of 2019 according to estimates from Bernstein. Zoom shares were up 40% in February.

Elliott Management invested $1 billion in Twitter and is looking to replace Jack Dorsey as CEO of the company. Dorsey is one of the only people to serve as CEO of two large public companies at the same time.

Jack Dorsey’s other company, Square, is being seen as a coronavirus hedge due to being relatively under-indexed to tourism and travel versus other travel companies.

Revoult, a fast-growing digital bank, raised $500 million at a $5.5 billion valuation, tripling its valuation from April 2018. The company was founded in 2015.

DoorDash filed for an IPO. It most recently raised $700 million in November at a $13 billion valuation.

Procore also filed for an IPO. Procore is a cloud-based construction software company that competes with Aconex, which was listed in Australia before Oracle acquired the company.

🌬️ Renewables

Wind became the largest source of renewable energy in the US in 2019, surpassing production from hydro.

🔗 Blockchain and Crypto

Excess wind energy is going into bitcoin mining in Texas.

Here’s why: many of the state's wind farms are far to the west of its biggest population centers, particularly the Houston area. Transmission lines that stretch across the state can move the power to where there is demand for it, but sometimes there's so much wind power that there’s not enough transmission capacity to carry it all. That means power producers are eager to find customers closer to them who will purchase that excess electricity. In theory, that could give miners leverage to purchase wind power at very low prices. 

💎 Artificial Intelligence

Where AI can’t replace jobs, it’s increasingly being used to watch over them.

“In the past, we would take a line that was struggling and bring a bunch of people down with stopwatches to try and make it better,” Huffman says—at least for problems that seemed serious enough to justify the time and expense. Drishti tirelessly logs the “cycle time” for every worker and station all day, for every shift. Plant managers use the data to track output and find and eliminate even subtle bottlenecks in production. “Everything flows better and is smoother,” Huffman says. Denso, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of auto parts, has been testing the technology at its Battle Creek facility since the end of 2017.

MIT Technology Review outlines a new way that AIs trained with reinforcement learning can be vulnerable to attack.

The adversaries learned to win not by becoming better players but by performing actions that broke their opponents’ policies. In the soccer game and the running game, the adversary sometimes never even stands up. This makes the victim collapse into a contorted heap or wriggle around in circles. What’s more, the victims actually performed far better when they were “masked” and unable to see their adversary at all. 

Researchers have proposed a new method to improve the quality of any video by artificially increasing frame rates and resolutions. Enhance!

WIRED has an interesting article on AI researchers trying to create a D&D Dungeon Master with AI as a challenge to develop intelligent narratives.

The article also mentions AI Dungeon, a text adventure game created in December 2019 by an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University. It’s pretty neat.

Playing AI Dungeon often feels more like a maddening improv session than a text adventure, because the algorithm veers off in bizarre directions and quickly loses the plot. Even so, Walton says more than 1.3 million people have played his game, some racking up more than 30 hours of gameplay. “There are definitely users who, like, this is their jam,” he says. “Like, this is what they've been waiting for.”

🎮 Gaming

Plague Inc., a popular epidemic-themed simulation game, has been removed from Apple’s App Store in China.

Matthew Ball wrote a compelling piece on why gaming IP is finally taking off in film and TV (4,200 words).

The consequence here is profound. The ability to richly address the seemingly endless consumer want for “more” will be critical to every IP. Not only will it provide additional opportunities to grow love on a per fan basis (not to mention the number of times a franchise reaches this fan), it will help to acquire new ones and help prevent displacement by emerging franchises.

Roblox has raised $150 million at a $4 billion valuation in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz. The virtual world now has around 115 million monthly active users, up from 70 million in 2018.

“What gets us really excited and where we see the most upside is in the long-term vision,” said David George, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz. “We think there is a real chance for Roblox to become the metaverse,” referring to a shared virtual world as described in works of fiction like “Ready Player One.”

Global esports revenue will reach $1.1 billion in 2020, up from $950 million, according to new estimates from Newzoo.

Robert Capps takes a deep dive into the business of esports with: How to Make Billions in E-Sports.

Like the typical streetwear brand, 100 Thieves is taking a “scarcity model” approach to its clothing lines, releasing only limited-edition offerings, organized into “drops.” “We’ve sold out all of our drops in less than 20 minutes,” John Robinson, the chief operating officer, says. “We’ll do about a half-million dollars of revenue on a Saturday morning.” Haag is quick to add that because they purposely limit supply, “that’s only scratching the surface.”

Chess is being revived by live streaming. While it remains much less popular than other games, time spent watching chess on Twitch has risen by more than 500% since 2016, according to data from Twitch. Alexandra Botez, one of the best chess players in Canada, started streaming full-time on Twitch in September and has amassed 60,000 followers.

Coronavirus is causing more people to stay indoors, which is leading to a significant increase in live streaming games in China according to a report from Forbes, citing Douyu and Niko Partners.

⚙️ Mobility

Autonomous car startup Pony.ai has raised $462 million at a $3 billion valuation, with $400 million coming from Toyota.

“After this round, Pony.ai is the second-most valuable independent autonomous driving company in the world,” a Pony.ai spokesperson told VentureBeat in an email. “We are position[ing] ourselves as a global autonomous driving company, as we’re running a business in both U.S. and China.”

Robotic Research plans to test autonomous low-speed shuttles with no driver on board in the second quarter of 2020.

💊 Health

Simulation may be extending to human organs as researchers explore creating a digital twin of your heart. A digital twin is a simulated digital copy of a real-world object, like a jet engine, which is updated with real-time information and used to carry out preventative maintenance.

A digital twin of the whole heart will allow simulation of the treatment of a particular individual for many other conditions, as well. That will give a clearer idea, in a particular case, of the likely outcome of an intervention. It might show, for instance, what type of operation is best suited to a patient’s condition, or if drugs and regular check ups are more appropriate.

Mice with type 1 diabetes have been “functionally cured” using a new stem cell therapy that reduces the mistakes made when converting stem cells into a specific type of cell. The research, published in Nature Biotechnology, is still at an early stage and will require many more tests in animal models before clinical trials could begin.

SoftBank invested $165 million in Karius, a startup that uses blood testing incorporating genomics and artificial intelligence to identify infectious diseases.

Karius, of Redwood City, Calif., helps hospitals identify bacterial and fungal infections by performing tests on blood samples shipped to its labs. Karius’s tests identify DNA traces of microbes left in the blood, which the company says is a more efficient alternative to taking biopsies from the brain, heart or lungs.

🔒 Cybersecurity

A flaw in billions of Wi-Fi chips lets attackers decrypt data. Even patched phones and tablets are vulnerable if they're connecting to wireless routers that haven’t yet been patched.

“This results in scenarios where client devices that are unaffected (either patched or using different Wi-Fi chips not vulnerable to Kr00k) can be connected to an access point (often times beyond an individual’s control) that is vulnerable,” Eset researchers wrote in a research paper published on Wednesday. “The attack surface is greatly increased, since an adversary can decrypt data that was transmitted by a vulnerable access point to a specific client (which may or may not be vulnerable itself).”

WIRED explores how North Korean hackers rob banks around the world.

Even with a mixed track record, these attempts at manipulating the global financial system have literally paid off. The bounties from North Korean hacking campaigns are huge; the United Nations estimated the total haul at $2 billion, a large sum for a country with a gross domestic product of only about $28 billion. As North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, cyberoperations help fund the regime. The scale of these operations is tremendous, at least relative to their past illicit efforts. Hackers now turn a far larger profit than the supernotes ever could.

🛰️ Space

For the first time ever, two private satellites have docked while orbiting the Earth. Northrop Grumman’s “life extension” spacecraft, the MEV-1, latched onto an Intelsat communications satellite (IS-901) in order to perform diagnostic tests and move the satellite to a higher orbit which will extend its operating life by another five years.

Virgin Galactic has started taking $1,000 refundable deposits to be added to their space tourism waitlist, and they plan to resume ticket sales ahead of its first flight this year. Tickets are expected to cost more than $250,000.

🔋 Batteries

WIRED has an interesting piece on using viruses to assemble battery electrodes. One for the distant future, perhaps.

When Belcher first suggested that these DNA-driven assembly lines might be harnessed to build useful things for humans, she encountered a lot of skepticism from her colleagues. “People told me I was crazy,” she says. The idea no longer seems so far-fetched, but taking the process out of the lab and into the real world has proven challenging. “Traditional battery manufacturing uses inexpensive materials and processes, but engineering viruses for performance and solving scalability issues will require years of research and associated costs,” says Bogdan Dragnea, a professor of chemistry at the Indiana University Bloomington. “We have only recently started to understand the potential virus-based materials hold from a physical properties perspective.”

Durian, the world’s smelliest fruit, could make super-fast electric chargers.

Vincent Gomes at the University of Sydney and his colleagues used leftovers from notoriously smelly durians and jackfruits, the world’s biggest tree fruit, to make superlight, hollow materials called aerogels. The aerogels make efficient component parts for energy storing devices called supercapacitors.

⚡ Other Snippets

Belgian researchers are making butter from insects.

Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium are experimenting with larva fat to replace butter in waffles, cakes and cookies, saying using grease from insects is more sustainable than dairy produce.

Data centre workloads have increased sixfold since 2010 but energy consumption has changed little due to vast improvements in energy efficiency according to a study published in Science.

The Port of Los Angeles is forecasting a 25% drop in volumes in February due to coronavirus.

“This appears to be much worse because of the number of folks who were affected and the lack of productivity that is taking place throughout the supply chain, starting with the manufacturing base,” he said.

Ever wanted to know what it feels like to be a massive celebrity? Then Botnet is for you! The faux-social network simulates the experience of mega-fame on the internet by providing an army of bots to like and comment on your updates.

My first post, a short introduction that’s automated for every new user (“Hey everyone! It’s me, Arielle”), received over 350,000 likes. The adoration was immediate, and powerful; several bots, each with its own algorithmically generated username, wrote, “I love you Arielle.” Other comments eluded my understanding. “I’m going to be so sad when she gets in the shower.”

Have a great week,

Thomas

Share Thomas's Innovation Wrap


About Thomas Rice

Thomas Rice is the portfolio manager for the Perpetual Global Innovation Share Fund, based in Sydney, Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @thomasrice_au.

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