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

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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.