Insane in the membrane

September 24, 2019

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Today, VR is no longer just a toy, and Snap indulges the FTC’s ploy, but first…

The Hustle Daily Email

Researchers race to perfect brain implants

It’s a concept that could have been ripped out of a sci-fi novel: Labs are competing to develop brain implants, which could eventually be marketed to the general public.

Neurotechnology is the newest frontier

BrainGate develops brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) — known as Utah arrays — aimed at restoring mobility to people who have experienced paralysis, neurodegenerative disease, or limb loss. 

The Utah arrays — which are metal electrodes protruding from a silicon base — are surgically implanted in the brain’s motor cortex. BCIs record neural activity and translate it to command external actions like sending text messages, purchasing products online, and moving robotic arms to stack blocks. 

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This technology could have nonmedical applications as well: For example, people could control devices or drive their cars using their brains.

And Silicon Valley wants in on this nascent neurotech 

Elon Musk’s Neuralink has received $158m in funding — $100m from Musk himself — to develop an implantable wireless system. 

Paradromics, which has raised $25m in funding, got a significant sum from the Pentagon, which became interested in BCIs when it discovered the robotic limbs it was developing for injured soldiers needed additional brain control. 

But BCIs aren’t ready for prime time

As sophisticated as BCIs are, the brain is a big thing to tackle. Each electrode can record between 1 and 4 neurons, which is… cute. But there are 100B neurons in the brain.

Many of these devices require open-brain surgery to implant. Over time, scar-tissue buildup impedes signal quality… and it’s possible the electrodes could dissolve or corrode. 

There are ethical questions as well: If BCIs became common, who would own the brain data, and how could they use it? Who is responsible if the brain implant doesn’t accurately translate the person’s intent? And would people with BCIs be vulnerable to third-party “brainjacking?”

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Police are being armed with their least deadly weapon yet: Virtual reality

VR is no longer a toy, kids. OK, technically it still is, but these days scientists, doctors, the military, and corporate giants like Walmart are getting their fair share of use out of the technology — especially for virtual training purposes.

Now Axon, the tech company known for creating the Taser and being a leading pusher of police body cameras, is the latest major firm to jump on (or shall we say “in”) the immersive bandwagon. 

The company’s main goal: To teach police officers empathy

According to a study from The Washington Post, 19% of all Americans fatally shot by police in 2019 had a mental illness. 

The focus of Axon’s “empathy development training” is to condition police officers to ask the right questions (in the right tone) to better assess high-pressure situations before pulling their weapons.

A few months ago, Axon unveiled a virtual program in Chicago — using Oculus Go VR headsets — to train first responders in scenarios involving citizens with autism and schizophrenia. The company’s latest rollout is focused on preparing officers to better assist in suicide prevention.

This is just the beginning… 

Axon’s new training program seeks to put its trainees on both sides of the coin: the officer, and the person in need (here’s a 2D preview from Axon — use your imagination for the VR part).

As for the future of virtual reality in law enforcement, experts believe it has a whole lotta promise — providing immersive views of body-cam evidence, assisting in recruitment, or one day being utilized as therapy for officers experiencing PTSD.

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Snapchat’s lawyers help the feds take on ‘He Who Must Not Be Named,’ AKA Facebook

Snapchat’s lawyers have been keeping a dossier of Facebook’s aggressive growth tactics for years, code-named “Project Voldemort,” according to the WSJ

As the Federal Trade Commission investigates whether Facebook has committed antitrust violations, the agency is giving Snap and other competitors a chance to (golden) snitch on the record. 

It’s bigger than Potter vs. Malfoy 

We’re talking Order of the Phoenix vs. Death Eaters. Snap has its own beef with Facebook: In “Project Voldemort,” the company details years of competition-stifling practices — Hmm, you mean like when Facebook and Instagram both rolled out nearly spot-on versions of Snap’s flagship features (stories… filters…)?

But Snap isn’t alone. The FTC has apparently been talking to dozens of other current and former competitors. Many of them claim they’ve been unfairly burned by Facebook’s aggressive practices as the company grew from a Hogwarts social network to a service used by more than 2B muggles worldwide

Scared, Zuckerberg?

You wish, Malfoy. Well, maybe a little. So far, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made out like the Boy Who Lived despite multiple investigations into his company’s alleged abuses, ranging from these antitrust concerns to mishandling users’ data. And he’s even invited the government to regulate his company more.

But inside the company, senior leadership wants to play it safe. The FTC has shown it’s not afraid to crack down on big tech lately. And as Facebook’s rivals pass damaging info to investigators, they could be handing the government a Marauder’s Map to holding the company to account. 

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Amazon released shoes under a private label that look pretty much the same as Allbirds

Amazon is infamous for copying hot product designs and selling cheaper versions under its own private labels. 

The company’s private label biz is on track to hit $31B by 2022, up 98% year over year from its $2B earnings last year.

Allbirds, the $1.4B company behind Silicon Valley’s favorite lace-ups, is Amazon’s latest victim. Last week, Amazon released the Galen Wool Blend Sneakers under its private label 206 Collective, and they bear a not-so-sneaky resemblance to Allbird’s Wool Runners

Where they lack resemblance is in price: Amazon’s copycats are $45. Allbirds sell for $95.

But Allbirds isn’t exactly flipping Amazon the bird…

Other brands have snagged Allbirds’ shoe designs in the past; the company has tried to litigate, with little success. Allbirds’ co-founder and co-CEO, Joey Zwillinger, says he’s more bothered by the sustainability implications of the Amazon-bird than the design ripoff.

“Given what I know about manufacturing, there is no way you can sell a shoe for that low while taking care of all of the environmental and animal welfare considerations and compliance we take into account,” he said. 

Amazon has also been accused of juicing its own products

Brands selling knockoff products is nothing new. Retailers have been doing this for a long time, and it’s (generally) totally legal. 

One-third of US retail dollars spent online go to Amazon, and the company now sells over 10k products under its own brands.

Some companies have reported selling their products on Amazon for years, only to see sales plummet after Amazon swipes their design and puts out similar, significantly cheaper products.

Recently, Amazon has also come under fire for allegedly skewing its product search algorithm to favor products that are more profitable for the company, including private label items, following a Wall Street Journal report. Spokespeople from Amazon, however, deny this claim.

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