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From: Paul H. Christiansen8/24/2017 8:29:33 AM
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Inside Waymo's Secret World for Training Self-Driving Cars

An exclusive look at how Alphabet understands its most ambitious artificial intelligence project

In a corner of Alphabet’s campus, there is a team working on a piece of software that may be the key to self-driving cars. No journalist has ever seen it in action until now. They call it Carcraft, after the popular game World of Warcraft.

The software’s creator, a shaggy-haired, baby-faced young engineer named James Stout, is sitting next to me in the headphones-on quiet of the open-plan office. On the screen is a virtual representation of a roundabout. To human eyes, it is not much to look at: a simple line drawing rendered onto a road-textured background. We see a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica at medium resolution and a simple wireframe box indicating the presence of another vehicle.

Months ago, a self-driving car team encountered a roundabout like this in Texas. The speed and complexity of the situation flummoxed the car, so they decided to build a look-alike strip of physical pavement at a test facility. And what I’m looking at is the third step in the learning process: the digitization of the real-world driving. Here, a single real-world driving maneuver—like one car cutting off the other on a roundabout—can be amplified into thousands of simulated scenarios that probe the edges of the car’s capabilities.

Scenarios like this form the base for the company’s powerful simulation apparatus. “The vast majority of work done—new feature work—is motivated by stuff seen in simulation,” Stout tells me. This is the tool that’s accelerated the development of autonomous vehicles at Waymo, which Alphabet (née Google) spun out of its “moon-shot” research wing, X, in December of 2016.

If Waymo can deliver fully autonomous vehicles in the next few years, Carcraft should be remembered as a virtual world that had an outsized role in reshaping the actual world on which it is based.

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From: Paul H. Christiansen8/24/2017 8:42:59 AM
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Fasten your harnesses, because the era of cloud computing’s giant data centers is about to be rear-ended by the age of self-driving cars. Here’s the problem: When a self-driving car has to make snap decisions, it needs answers fast. Even slight delays in updating road and weather conditions could mean longer travel times or dangerous errors. But those smart vehicles of the near-future don’t quite have the huge computing power to process the data necessary to avoid collisions, chat with nearby vehicles about optimizing traffic flow, and find the best routes that avoid gridlocked or washed-out roads. The logical source of that power lies in the massive server farms where hundreds of thousands of processors can churn out solutions. But that won’t work if the vehicles have to wait the 100 milliseconds or so it usually takes for information to travel each way to and from distant data centers. Cars, after all, move fast.

That problem from the frontier of technology is why many tech leadersforesee the need for a new “edge computing” network—one that turns the logic of today’s cloud inside out. Today the $247 billion cloud computing industry funnels everything through massive centralized data centers operated by giants like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google. That’s been a smart model for scaling up web search and social networks, as well as streaming media to billions of users. But it’s not so smart for latency-intolerant applications like autonomous cars or mobile mixed reality.

“It’s a foregone conclusion that giant, centralized server farms that take up 19 city blocks of power are just not going to work everywhere,” says Zachary Smith, a double-bass player and Juilliard School graduate who is the CEO and cofounder of a New York City startup called Packet. Smith is among those who believe that the solution lies in seeding the landscape with smaller server outposts—those edge networks—that would widely distribute processing power in order to speed its results to client devices, like those cars, that can’t tolerate delay.

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From: Paul H. Christiansen8/25/2017 7:43:43 AM
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Sneak a peek at the smartphone of tomorrow

What will your phone look like in ten years? We tour the design schools and research labs to discover the innovations coming to our mobile devices.

(A sequential series of slides)

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From: Paul H. Christiansen8/26/2017 7:28:04 AM
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Apple’s Core ML Brings AI to the Masses

AI is one of the core themes on which we focus at Loup Ventures. And as analysts, we heard Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple emphasizing their focus on AI over the last several years. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has commented on each of the past three Google earnings calls that Google is transitioning from mobile-first to AI-first. Facebook has recently spent a lot of time and resources developing chat bots on its platform, and has utilized AI to create a better news feed, and improve photo recognition. Amazon uses AI extensively with recommendations, and is integrating third-party AI models into AWS. While Google, Facebook and Amazon are each making significant progress as it relates to AI, it’s worth noting that Apple was the first company of the four to embrace it.

Apple’s AI roots date back to the mid 1990s with handwriting recognition on the Newton. In June Apple announced Core ML, a platform that allows app developers to easily integrate machine learning (ML) into an app. Of the estimated 2.4m apps available on the App Store, we believe less than 1% leverage ML today – but not for long. We believe Core ML will be a driving force in bringing machine learning to the masses in the form of more useful and insightful apps that run faster and respect user privacy.

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From: Paul H. Christiansen8/26/2017 7:33:58 AM
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HomePod Uniquely Positioned to Win Smart Speaker Market

In December, Apple will ship HomePod, a smart speaker with a unique focus on music. Don’t be fooled, however, by HomePod’s music-focused marketing; Apple has a grander vision than delivering a better sounding Echo. The company is making Siri a ubiquitous, ambient presence that connects and controls all your connected devices and services – and making a leap forward in the transition to voice-first computing.

The importance of natural language interface. The way humans interact with computers is changing. Today, we use our keyboards, mice, and touchscreens to interact with computers. In the future, we’ll simply rely on our voice, gestures, or even our thoughts. In the near-term, voice is quickly becoming a preferred interface.

At Google I/O in May, CEO Sundar Pichai said that 20% of mobile queries are now made via voice search. Moreover, 42% of people in a MindMeld study said they have started using voice commands in the last six months. Natural language as a computing input is not only a more natural way to interact with our devices, but it can also be remarkably more efficient. When typing or clicking, users will be very brief, leaving the computer with little information to act on. Asking a verbal question, however, allows for more involved queries with which a machine can much more easily determine intent and deliver more specific information.

This is one area in which Siri excels. Siri is able to process commands with multiple steps, such as, “make a note called Slide 4 in my Presentation Notes folder that says: change transition.” Users will also be able to say, “send directions to Steve’s house to my phone,” or, “turn on the TV and play the newest episode of Westworld.” These functionalities are not unique to Siri, but Apple’s seamlessly integrated ecosystem of devices puts them in a position to employ voice-first computing in ways their competitors can’t match.

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From: Paul H. Christiansen8/29/2017 10:54:12 AM
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MIT Achieves Breakthrough in Nuclear Fusion

Researchers operating fusion reactor experiments at MIT, along with partnered scientists in Brussels and the U.K., have developed a new type of nuclear fusion fuel that produces ten times as much energy from energized ions as previously achieved. The experiments with the new fusion fuel, which contains three types of ions—particles with an electric charge due to the loss or gain of an electron—were conducted in MIT's Alcator C-Mod tokamak, a magnetic confinement reactor that holds the records for highest magnetic field strength and highest plasma pressure in a fusion experiment.

The Alcator C-Mod conducted its final run in September 2016, but data from experiments in the tokamak device were recently analyzed, revealing a unique type of nuclear fusion fuel greatly increases ion energies within the plasma. The results were so encouraging that researchers operating the Joint European Torus (JET) in Oxfordshire, U.K., the largest operational magnetic confinement fusion experiment in the world, repeated the experiments and achieved the same increases in energy generation. A study detailing the findings was recently published in Nature Physics.

The key to increasing the efficiency of the nuclear fuel was to add in trace amounts of helium-3, a stable isotope of helium that only has one neutron rather than two. The nuclear fuel used in the Alcator C-Mod previously contained just two types of ions, deuterium and hydrogen. Deuterium, a stable isotope of hydrogen with one neutron in its nucleus—compared to common hydrogen which has no neutrons—accounts for about 95 percent of the fuel.

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From: Paul H. Christiansen8/31/2017 1:29:32 PM
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FDA Approves Groundbreaking Gene Therapy for Cancer

A revolutionary cancer therapy that uses genetically engineered immune cells has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, ushering in a new era of cancer treatment.

The FDA calls the treatment, made by Novartis, the “first gene therapy” in the U.S. The therapy is designed to treat an often-lethal type of blood and bone marrow cancer that affects children and young adults. Known as a CAR-T therapy, the approach has shown remarkable results in patients. The one-time treatment will cost $475,000, but Novartis says there will be no charge if a patient doesn't respond to the therapy within a month.

“We’re entering a new frontier in medical innovation with the ability to reprogram a patient’s own cells to attack a deadly cancer,” said FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb in a statement.

The therapy, which will be marketed as Kymriah, is a customized treatment that uses a patient’s own T cells, a type of immune cell. A patient’s T cells are extracted and cryogenically frozen so that they can be transported to Novartis’s manufacturing center in New Jersey. There, the cells are genetically altered to have a new gene that codes for a protein—called a chimeric antigen receptor, or CAR. This protein directs the T cells to target and kill leukemia cells with a specific antigen on their surface. The genetically modified cells are then infused back into the patient.

In a clinical trial of 63 children and young adults with a type of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, 83 percent of patients that received the CAR-T therapy had their cancers go into remission within three months. At six months, 89 percent of patients who received the therapy were still living, and at 12 months, 79 percent had survived.

An estimated 3,100 patients aged 20 and younger in the U.S. are diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia each year, making it the most common childhood cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Current treatment options include chemotherapy and stem-cell transplants, but about 600 pediatric and young adult patients with the disease relapse each year, and many remain incurable.

David Mitchell, founder of an advocacy group called Patients for Affordable Drugs, said in a statement that the $475,000 cost is “excessive” and claims the federal government spent $200 million in early research on CAR-T therapy before Novartis purchased rights to the treatment. The group recently met with the company to appeal for a “fair” price for its therapy. Previous estimates predicted a price tag between $600,000 to $750,000.

The historic approval bodes well for rival companies Kite Pharma and Juno Therapeutics, which are also developing CAR-T therapies. Kite Pharma, which is awaiting FDA approval for its CAR-T therapy to treat a form of blood cancer in adults, was this week bought out by Gilead in a deal worth $11.9 billion.

Though the Novartis therapy has shown extraordinary results in patients, questions remain about how the company will be able to manufacture personalized therapies quickly enough to get them to patients across the country. Novartis says it takes an average of 22 days to create the therapy, from the time a patient's cells are removed to when they are infused back into the patient. Kymriah will initially be available at 20 U.S. hospitals within a month, Novartis says. Eventually, 32 total sites will offer the therapy.

CAR-T therapy has also been known to cause potentially life-threatening side effects in some patients, including neurological problems and a reaction called cytokine release syndrome. Juno Therapeutics ended a CAR-T study earlier this year after patients died from cerebral edema, or swelling in the brain. No patients treated with the Novartis CAR-T therapy have died from that complication, according to the company.

The FDA defines gene therapy as a medicine that “introduces genetic material into a person’s DNA to replace faulty or missing genetic material” to treat a disease or medical condition. This is the first such therapy to be available in the U.S., according to the FDA. Two gene therapies for rare, inherited diseases have already been approved in Europe.

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From: Paul H. Christiansen8/31/2017 1:33:43 PM
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Magna pitches new self-driving vehicle system

Auto supplier Magna International Inc on Thursday said it is developing a system automakers can use to enable vehicles to drive themselves without requiring bulky rooftop sensors or other compromises to vehicle styling.

Magna is one of several major automotive technology suppliers competing to profit from helping automakers offer automated driving functions in future cars. Delphi Automotive PLC, Continental AG, Siemens AG, Robert Bosch GmbH and Japan’s Denso Corp are among the incumbent auto suppliers jumping into the self-driving car race against technology companies such as Alphabet Inc’s Waymo, Intel Corp and China’s Baidu Inc.

Magna said in a statement that its Max4 system is designed to provide fully autonomous driving combining cameras, LiDAR and ultrasonic sensors and a computing platform that are integrated into the car’s body. Other autonomous vehicle sensor systems rely on LiDAR sensors that spin on top of the vehicle’s roof.

Automakers will be responsible for completing the systems to enable autonomous driving. Magna’s parts of the system are either production ready or nearly production ready, the company said.

Magna said the Max4 system can be designed so that drivers can turn on the autonomous driving function using a button, and turn it off as they do cruise control by either tapping the brake or hitting a button.

Magna outlined the Max4 system ahead of the Frankfurt auto show, which opens to the public Sept. 16.

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From: Paul H. Christiansen9/2/2017 10:59:56 AM
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The Consortium Conundrum and the Race for Autonomous Driving

The ambitious and multifaceted endeavor that is fully autonomous driving seems simply too large a task for one company to undertake. In the race for autonomy, automakers, software experts, hardware manufacturers, and ridesharing companies are turning to each other in an effort to expedite their collective progress on the matter.

Foregoing traditional practice and the opportunity for market dominance, several companies are hoping their combined efforts will bring them further than they could get on their own. Bringing a self-driving car to market not only poses many technical challenges, but it will involve a cultural shift in the way humans are transported and how they interact with machines every day. Such an unprecedented project has spurred unprecedented relationships that involve everything from young and nimble tech startups to century-old auto manufacturers coming together. These strategic partnerships present a challenging conundrum.

Lay of the land. The web of players banding together to tackle autonomy is tangled. In the interest of brevity, here is a list of some of the more significant partnerships:

The Open AutoDrive Forum attempts to act as an open dialogue to standardize the area of autonomous driving with participation from over 60 companies across auto, software, mapping, ridesharing, hardware, and education. BMW, Intel (and Mobileye), Fiat Chrysler, and Delphi have partnered to establish an industry standard for self-driving fleets and hope to bring vehicles to market by 2021. Fiat Chrysler is also working with Waymo to develop autonomous vans based on their Pacifica model. Waymo partnered with Avis to augment their fleet service capabilities. Uber has announced partnerships with Daimler, Volvo, GM, Didi Chuxing, and Toyota. Waymo and Lyft have entered into an arrangement. Jaguar Land Rover is investing $25 million in Lyft to fund autonomous vehicle activities. Intel, Toyota, Ericsson, and Nippon Telegraph & Telephone have formed what is called the Automotive Edge Computing Consortium to develop the technology for an ecosystem of connected cars. HERE mapping, a 3D mapping initiative, is owned by a consortium of companies including German automotive companies BMW, Daimler, and Audi, along with now Intel and Tencent. There have also been several other groups arising that include Nvidia, LiDAR company Velodyne, and auto engineering firm Bosch. Where a consortium makes sense. In an area of commodity technology like wi-fi or Bluetooth, industry standards make certain that a rising tide lifts all boats and the collective group benefits from cooperation more than each could on its own. This concept manifests itself in bodies like the Wi-Fi Alliance and the Bluetooth Special Interest Group. This model can sometimes be an effective way to implement standards that encourage broadly adopted technology and safety, and bolster more substantial relationships with the government. For example, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication is one area in which a consortium could be effective. ‘Out-communicating’ your rivals does not afford you an edge, so competition for this technology does not make sense – the higher goal is safety. Cooperation on building and implementing the best system possible would benefit all companies and, most importantly, consumers.

But partnering up is usually inefficient. Innovation feeds off of competition. Great competitors play offense to attack their rivals. Partnerships that bring entities together inorganically, often out of obligation, typically play defense. While sharing technology, patents, or engineering talent may create synergies or expedite the time to market on paper, it often creates a clash of competing interests, muddled accountability, and a diminished sense of urgency. In an area of intense competition, like building an autonomous vehicle for public roadways, small differences in technology can create large gaps in capability and time to market. This is an area in which a consortium would be ineffective. Although a strategic partnership may bring together certain components of the system (e.g., an automaker, a chipmaker, a software company, or a ridesharing network), the group’s combined efforts cannot match those of a single, capable entity on a clear mission. We believe the most effective player is one who can quickly deploy resources at scale and one that is nimble enough to react quickly and decisively in the highly dynamic field of autonomy. For instance, General Motors may not have the balance sheet (mkt cap $51B) or the knowledge to spend $5 billion on a battery factory, but could most likely garner the necessary insights via a strategic partnership. Even so, due to their image as a traditional automaker and their adherence to the status quo, it is unlikely that they could raise or deploy the funds necessary to do so. On the other hand, Tesla has effectively been given an open checkbook from their investors to pursue new manufacturing paradigms, battery production, and autonomy.

A history lesson. It’s a challenge to find examples of strategic partnerships that have yielded revolutionary innovation. In fact, Peter Simoons suggests that 80% of ad hoc partnerships fail outright. If history repeats itself, the countless companies collaborating on autonomy may form solid organizations, but true innovation will evade them.

Shared Mission. A couple of years ago Tesla found that about 15% of Model S vehicles were making a strange noise when the car hit 17 mph. On a Saturday morning, Musk gathered the Tesla motor design team along with a group from SpaceX. He instructed the team to fix the issue by Monday, setting into motion what’s known inside of Tesla as “heroics.” By Monday the problem was solved. Having Tesla and SpaceX working together to solve a problem may sound like a strategic partnership, but it’s decisively different. Most SpaceX and Tesla employees believe they work for Musk, and walk through walls to inch towards his goals. It’s a lack of this type of shared mission that causes consortiums to stumble.

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From: Paul H. Christiansen9/3/2017 4:50:54 AM
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What are Amazon’s future plans for Whole Foods?

Excerpted from NY Times 9/1/2017 “Bits” column.

Farhad: Then we have Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, which just closed. To mark the kickoff, Amazon cut prices on a variety of Whole Foods staples. I went to my local Whole Foods around lunchtime yesterday and found it unusually packed. But have you been able to glean anything else about Amazon’s long-term plans for Whole Foods, beyond this marketing push?

Nick: The initial price cuts were a way to get curiosity seekers in the door on day one, which seems to have worked. Amazon has already talked about various plans to integrate Amazon services with Whole Foods, like making Amazon Prime the loyalty program for the stores.

Checkout lines are the single most annoying experience everyone I know has at supermarkets. Amazon has insisted they won’t use the cashier-free checkout technology they’re testing at their Amazon Go convenience store in Seattle to put people out of work. But if they can get the system working smoothly, I could see Amazon sticking to their promise by giving cashiers new roles inside Whole Foods stores — for example, spending more time answering customer questions.

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