🚗 The great autonomous vehicle debate


December 7, 2020

PLUS: A star AI ethicist just left Google. Why?

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HBO Series Industry

Four Seasons Total Landscaping — the location of the post-election press conference that went viral — has made $1.3m in merch sales per Business Insider. (Well played.)

The neighboring Fantasy Island Adult Book Store also put up a swag shop… but sales numbers are unclear.

The Big Idea
Elon Musk gif

Elon, a 25-year-old billionaire, and the great self-driving car debate

One of the classic beefs in business history is The War of the Currents.

The battle, which took place in the late 1800s, saw famed inventors square off over the best way to deliver electricity, including:

  • Thomas Edison, who pushed the direct current (DC) method
  • Nikola Tesla, who pushed the alternating current (AC) method

Today, Elon Musk — who named his EV car company after one of the aforementioned inventors (we won’t say who) — is in a beef with similar stakes: the future of self-driving cars.

Outside of Musk, most of the car industry is using LIDAR

The acronym stands for “LIght Detection And Ranging.” Per The Verge, LIDAR “uses laser pulses to build a 3D model of the environment around the car.”

For self-driving cars, this technology helps a vehicle “see” other vehicles, pedestrians, stop signs, and bikes.

Last week, one of the leading startups in the LIDAR space, Luminar Technologies, went public.

Austin Russell — the company’s 25-year-old CEO, who founded Luminar at age 17 — is now the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.

Musk says LIDAR is ‘doomed’

That’s because equipping a car with sensors is quite expensive.

Luminar Technologies is aggressively working to bring LIDAR prices down.

In comparison, Tesla cars are primarily built on cameras and ever-improving AI algorithms.

Musk believes that combining these technologies — along with GPS, maps, and ultrasonic sensors — will allow Teslas to sufficiently “see” and achieve level 5 autonomy (no human input needed).

Luminar will supply Volvos by 2022

According to Ars Technica, it also has a big partnership with Mobileye, Intel’s vision-based autonomous vehicle subsidiary that works with a number of car manufacturers.

One big advantage that Tesla has over its LIDAR competitors is data. As of January 2020, more than 700k+ Tesla vehicles have collected 2B+ miles of real-life autopilot driving.

All of these miles — particularly the edge cases — make Tesla’s self-driving product better and better.

While The War of Self-Driving Cars (LIDAR/Tesla) won’t create a rock group name quite like The War of the Currents (AC/DC), the stakes are just as big.

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Snippets

  • Young Money: 9-year-old Ryan Kaji — YouTube’s leading child star who made (I hope you’re sitting down for this) $26m in 2019 — will bring his hit show to the Roblox game. Digitizing Ryan is one way to keep him earning as he ages.
  • Poached: Activision is suing Netflix for poaching its CFO in 2018. Court documents show that the CFO was being courted while Netflix and Activision were negotiating a partnership. Fox previously sued Netflix for similar plays.
  • TikTok is experimenting with 3-minute videos (triple its current limit). Could it be TikTok’s big move to be the new MTV?
  • Tweet of the year?: “Guy Fieri has raised $21.5 million for unemployed restaurant workers, which means Guy Fieri has done more for unemployed restaurant workers than Congress has in the last 8 months.”
  • Ok, THIS might be the tweet of the year: “For anyone who thought 2021 was going to be any less ridiculous than this year, Floyd Mayweather announces an exhibition boxing bout vs. Logan Paul for Feb. 20.”
  • We might have to retire “three blind mice” after researchers were able to restore eyesight in mice by regenerating their neurons.
 
Test Time
nasal swab gif

At-home diagnostic startups are hot AF right now

French novelist Victor Hugo once said that “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

This is what it must feel like for the founders of Cue Health, who launched their startup to make easy-to-use testing kits during the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

After veering into several different diagnostic tests (fertility, influenza), Cue is now in talks to raise money at a $2B valuation for its rapid COVID test, per The Information.

Delivering results in 20 minutes

The test uses a nasal swab inserted into a cartridge, with results recorded via a mobile app.

Its rapid tests were used during the NBA’s Disney bubble playoffs and, in October, Cue scored a massive $481m contract with the US Department of Defense to develop 100k tests per day by March.

Tons of startups are getting funded

Other notable names include Gauss Surgical, Color Genomics, LetsGetChecked, and Everlywell (which just raised money at a $1.3B valuation).

The Information reports that the accuracy of rapid tests is a concern, particularly with customers not collecting samples correctly.

Solving that issue will go a long way to making another Hugo quote timely: “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”

Check out related coverage:

  • Everlywell’s CEO Julia Cheek previously appeared on our “My First Million” podcast
  • Trends wrote about at-home diagnostics in March
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Q&A
Bill Pulte

Bill Pulte, the Twitter Philanthropist, tells us what innovation in the charity space needs

We recently wrote an article about the disruption of charity that featured Bill Pulte, a 31-year-old investor and entrepreneur who coined the term “Twitter Philanthropy” and has given away $800k+ via Cash App.

Pulte is the grandson of the founder of PulteGroup, one of America’s largest home construction and real estate development firms.

After reading the article, Pulte reached out to me on (you guessed it) Twitter for a follow-up conversation:

Do you have a request for a startup in the charity space?

A startup that would be extremely successful would [be] similar to GoFundMe but that allows users to vote for whichever person or charity looks to be the most in need.

I am working with folks at TeamGiving (where I joined the board) to figure out what the inputs would be to determine which causes are most in need. We are working on some things, but we are definitely open to anyone in the open-source community who wants to help.

What is a criticism of Twitter Philanthropy you give some credence to (and what is your counter)?

Some people want me to help more people, but as I’ve said, this Twitter Philanthropy movement will not be successful so long as it is dependent on me.

If we can get enough people to give $7 or $10 to help other people, we will continue to innovate philanthropy by going direct person-to-person.

What’s the best book you read in the past 12 months?

[Walmart founder] Sam Walton’s Made in America, because his lessons are timeless and he reminds me of my late best friend, my grandfather William Pulte.

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AI Ethics
Timnit Gebru

One of Google’s star AI researchers just left in a cloud of controversy. What happened?

Google can’t get out of its own way.

Already facing an antitrust case (and labor dispute), the search giant is embroiled in a controversy with Timnit Gebru, a star AI researcher who was forced out of the company last week.

A champion of diversity in tech, Gebru’s previous research notably discovered gender and skin-type bias in facial recognition technology.

Gebru flagged issues with Google’s large language models

According to the MIT Technology Review, these models — AIs trained on staggering amounts of text data — are “key to Google’s business.”

Here are some of Gebru’s latest research findings:

  • Environmental and financial costs: Large AI products use a lot of energy. One of the language models underpinning search creates as much CO2 as a round-trip flight between NY and SF.
  • Bias in large data sets: Language models are skewed toward countries and languages with large internet footprints (e.g., English). Other cultural norms may not be reflected in technology that uses these models.
  • Hard to audit: The datasets are so big, it’s very difficult to even see how they might be biased (or how to fix them).

Did Google want to suppress these findings?

Potentially.

Many AI ethicists believe Google “pushed her out because of the inconvenient truths that she was uncovering about a core line of its research” writes the MIT Technology Review.

A letter in support of Gebru has been signed by 1.5k+ Google employees and 2.1k+ academics in the AI field.

(Read more: Tech writer Casey Newton shared the email exchange between Gebru and her boss, Jeff Dean, that led to her departure.)

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Sketchy Corporate Move of the Day
Thomas Edison

Edison with his first dynamo for creating electricity (Source: Print Collector / Getty Images)

Thomas Edison did some very sketchy things in his efforts to win The War of the Currents during the late 1800s.

Holding numerous patents for the direct current (DC) method of delivering electricity, Edison wanted to discredit Nikola Tesla’s competing alternating current (AC) method.

According to the US Department of Energy (DoE), Edison “spread misinformation saying that alternating current was more dangerous, even going so far as to publicly electrocute stray animals using alternating current to prove his point.” (Bro, for real?)

For many years, DC — which runs electricity in a single direction — was the US standard. However, DC is not easily converted into high or low voltages; conversely, a transformer can simply convert the voltage of AC equipment.

The AC method was chosen to power the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and has been the standard since.

“Today our electricity is still predominantly powered by alternating current,” writes the DoE. “But computers, LEDs, solar cells, and electric vehicles all run on DC power.”

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