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‘Breaking Into Startups’: Torch CEO and Well Clinic founder Cameron Yarbrough on mental health & coaching

By Arman Tabatabai
Chad M. Crabtree Contributor
Chad M. Crabtree is the editor-in-Chief at Career KarmaCareer Karma, covering the Future of Work, Tech Education, and Startups.

There has long been a stigma associated with therapy and mental health coaching, a stigma that is even more pronounced in the business world, despite considerable evidence of the efficacy of these services. One of the organizations that has set out to change this negative association is Torch, a startup that combines the therapeutic benefits of executive coaching with data-driven analytics to track outcomes.

Yet, as Torch co-founder and CEO Cameron Yarbrough explains in this Breaking Into Startups episode, the startup wasn’t initially a tech-oriented enterprise. At first, Yarbrough drew on his years of experience as a marriage and family counselor as he made the transition into executive coaching, even referring to the early iterations of Torch as little more than “a matchmaking service between coaches and professionals.”

In time, Yarbrough identified a virtually untapped market for executive coaching — one that, by his estimate, could amount to a $15 billion industry. To demonstrate to investors the great potential of this growing market, he first built up a clientele that provided Torch with sufficient recurring revenue and low churn rate.

Only then was Yarbrough able to raise a $2.4 million seed round from Initialized Capital, Y Combinator, and other investors, convincing them that data analytics software could enhance the coaching process — as well as coach recruitment — enough to effectively “productize feedback,” as he puts it.

For Yarbrough and Torch, “productizing feedback” involves certain well-known business strategies that complement traditional coaching methods. For instance, Torch’s coaching procedure includes a “360 review,” a performance review system that incorporates feedback from all angles, including an employee’s manager, peers, and other people within an organization who have knowledge of the employee’s work.

The 360 review is coupled with an OKR platform, which provides HR departments and other interested parties with the metrics and analytics to track employee progress through the program. This combination is designed to promote the development of soft skills, which in turn drive leadership.

Torch has achieved considerable success, landing several influential clients in the tech sector through its B2B approach. But Yarbrough is clear that his goal with the company is to “democratize” access to professional coaching, in hopes of providing the same kind of mental health counseling and support to employees in all levels of an organization.

In this episode, Yarbrough discusses the history and trajectory of Torch, his experience scaling a company many considered unscalable, and the methods he uses to manage his own emotional and mental health as the CEO of an expanding startup. Yarbrough offers insights into the feelings of anxiety and dread common among entrepreneurs and provides a close look at how he has found business and personal success with Torch.


Breaking Into Startups: There’s a difference between a mentor and a coach. Today, I want to talk about that difference and in addition to the intersection between business and psychology, What Cameron Yarbrough, CEO of Torch and Founder of Well Clinic.

If you’re someone that is looking for a mentor or a coach as you break into tech, or if you just want to be surrounded by peers, make sure you download the Career Karma app by going to www.breakingintostartups.com/download.

On today’s episode, you’re going to understand the importance of therapy, mental health and coaches, as well as how historically, it has been inaccessible to people and how Cameron is using his background to democratize this for the world.

If this is your first time listening to the Breaking Startups Podcast, make sure you leave a review on iTunes and tell your friends. Listen to it on Soundcloud and talk about it on Spotify. If you have any feedback for us, positive or negative, please let us know. Without further ado, let’s break-in.

Cameron Yarbrough is the CEO of Torch. He’s one of the best executive coaches in the world. Not only are we going to be talking about coaching and mentoring for executives, but we’ll also be talking about coaching in general for everyone. We’re going to go into how he created his company.

Y Combinator-backed Holy Grail is using machine learning to build better batteries

By Jonathan Shieber

For a long, long time, renewable energy proponents have considered advancements in battery technology to be the holy grail of the industry.

Advancements in energy storage has been among the hardest to achieve economically thanks to the incredibly tricky chemistry that’s involved in storing power.

Now, one company that’s launching from Y Combinator believes it has found the key to making batteries better. The company is called Holy Grail and it’s launching in the accelerator’s latest cohort.

With an executive team that initially included Nuno Pereira, David Pervan, and Martin Hansen, Holy Grail is trying to bring the techniques of the fabless semiconductor industry to the world of batteries.

The company’s founders believe that the only way to improve battery functionality is to take a systems approach to understanding how different anodes and cathodes will work together. It sounds simple, but Pereira says that the computational power hadn’t existed to take into account all of the variables that go along with introducing a new chemical to the battery mix.

“You can’t fix a battery with just a component,” Pereira says. “All of the batteries that were created and failed in the past. They create an anode, but they don’t have a chemical that works with the cathode or the electrolyte.”

For Pereira, the creation of Holy Grail is the latest step on a long road of experimentation with mechanical and chemical engineering. “As a kid I was more interested in mechanical engineering and building stuff,” he says. But as he began tinkering with cars and became fascinated with mobility, he realized that batteries were the innovation that gave the world its charge.

In 2017 Pereira founded a company called 10Xbattery, which was making high-density lithium batteries. That company, launching with what Pereira saw as a better chemistry, encapsulated the industry’s problem at large — the lack

So, with the help of a now-departed co-founder, Pereira founded Holy Grail. “He essentially told me, ‘Do you want to take a step back and see if there’s a better way to do this?'” said Pereira.

The company pitches itself as science fiction coming from the future, but it relies on a combination of what are now fairly standard (at least in the research community) tools. Holy Grail’s pitch is that it can automate much of the research and development process to create new batteries that are optimized to the specifications of end customers.

“It’s hard for a human to do the experiments that you need and to analyze multidimensional data,” says Pereira. “There are some companies that only do the machine-learning part and the computational science part and sell the results to companies. The problem is that there’s a disconnection between experimental reality and the simulations.”

Using computer modeling, chemical engineering and automated manufacturing, Holy Grail pitches a system that can get real test batteries into the hands of end customers in the mobility, electronics, and utility industries orders of magnitude more quickly than traditional research and development shops.

Currently the system that Holy Grail has built out can make 700 batteries per day. The company intends to  build a pilot plant that will make batteries for electronics and drones. For automotive and energy companies, Holy Grail says it will partner with existing battery manufacturers that can support the kind of high-throughput manufacturing big orders will require.

Think of it like bringing the fabless chip design technologies and business models to the battery industry, says Pereira.

Holy Grail already has $14 million in letters of intent with potential customers, according to Pereira and is expecting to close additional financing as it exits Y Combinator.

To date the company has been backed by the London-based early stage investment firm Deep Science Ventures, where Pereira worked as an entrepreneur in residence.

Ultimately, the company sees its technology being applied far beyond batteries as a new platform for materials science discoveries broadly. For now, though the focus is on batteries.

“For the low volume we sell direct,” says Pereira. “While on high volume production, we will implement a pilot line through the system… we are able to do the research engineering with the small ones and test the big ones. In our case when we have a cell that works, it’s not something that works in a lab it’s something that works in the final cell.”

What security pros need to know from Black Hat & Def Con 2019

By Zack Whittaker

Black Hat and Def Con came and went as quickly as it ever does. The week-long pair of back-to-back conferences, referred to as “hacker summer camp,” draws in the security crowd from across the world onto Las Vegas, where startups tout their technologies as hackers and researchers reveal their findings.

This year we saw ordinary-looking charging cables that can hack your computer, we found out that cloud backups are easily exposed, robocall blocking apps aren’t as privacy-focused as you might think, and your corporate VPN and office printer are targets for hackers (and if they fail there they’ll just ship a hardware exploit to your mailroom.) Even students can easily hack their own school systems.

The obvious takeaways might be to never plug anything into your computer and that all your data is already ‘pwned’.

But what does that all mean to the average security professional, let alone the CISO at the top of the corporate chain? Between the villages and the many speaker tracks — not to mention the darting between hotels — it’s tough to know exactly what we should take away from the shows.

We spoke to four security experts who were there and asked them what their primary takeaways were for security decision-makers.

Internet of Things is a risk factor

Artificial intelligence can contribute to a safer world

By Jonathan Shieber
Matt Ocko Contributor
Matt Ocko is co-Managing Partner and co-founder of DCVC (Data Collective).
Alan Cohen Contributor
Alan Cohen is an operating partner at DCVC.

We all see the headlines nearly every day. A drone disrupting the airspace in one of the world’s busiest airports, putting aircraft at risk (and inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of passengers) or attacks on critical infrastructure. Or a shooting in a place of worship, a school, a courthouse. Whether primitive (gunpowder) or cutting-edge (unmanned aerial vehicles) in the wrong hands, technology can empower bad actors and put our society at risk, creating a sense of helplessness and frustration.

Current approaches to protecting our public venues are not up to the task, and, frankly appear to meet Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” It is time to look past traditional defense technologies and see if newer approaches can tilt the pendulum back in the defender’s favor. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can play a critical role here, helping to identify, classify and promulgate counteractions on potential threats faster than any security personnel.

Using technology to prevent violence, specifically by searching for concealed weapons has a long history. Alexander Graham Bell invented the first metal detector in 1881 in an unsuccessful attempt to locate the fatal slug as President James Garfield lay dying of an assassin’s bullet. The first commercial metal detectors were developed in the 1960s. Most of us are familiar with their use in airports, courthouses and other public venues to screen for guns, knives and bombs.

However, metal detectors are slow and full of false positives – they cannot distinguish between a Smith & Wesson and an iPhone. It is not enough to simply identify a piece of metal; it is critical to determine whether it is a threat. Thus, the physical security industry has developed newer approaches, including full-body scanners – which are now deployed on a limited basis. While effective to a point, the systems in use today all have significant drawbacks. One is speed. Full body scanners, for example, can process only about 250 people per hour, not much faster than a metal detector. While that might be okay for low volume courthouses, it’s a significant problem for larger venues like a sporting arena.

Image via Getty Images

Fortunately, new AI technologies are enabling major advances in physical security capabilities. These new systems not only deploy advanced sensors to screen for guns, knives and bombs, they get smarter with each screen, creating an increasingly large database of known and emerging threats while segmenting off alarms for common, non-threatening objects (keys, change, iPads, etc.)

As part of a new industrial revolution in physical security, engineers have developed a welcomed approach to expediting security screenings for threats through machine learning algorithms, facial recognition, and advanced millimeter wave and other RF sensors to non-intrusively screen people as they walk through scanning devices. It’s like walking through sensors at the door at Nordstrom, the opposite of the prison-like experience of metal detectors with which we are all too familiar. These systems produce an analysis of what someone may be carrying in about a hundredth of a second, far faster than full body scanners. What’s more, people do not need to empty their pockets during the process, further adding speed. Even so, these solutions can screen for firearms, explosives, suicide vests or belts at a rate of about 900 people per hour through one lane.

Using AI, advanced screening systems enable people to walk through quickly and provide an automated decision but without creating a bottleneck. This volume greatly improves traffic flow while also improving the accuracy of detection and makes this technology suitable for additional facilities such as stadiums and other public venues such as Lincoln Center in New York City and the Oakland airport.

Apollo Shield’s anti-drone system.

So much for the land, what about the air?   Increasingly drones are being used as weapons. Famously, this was seen in a drone attack last year against Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. An airport drone incident drew widespread attention when a drone shut down Gatwick Airport in late 2018 inconveniency stranded tens of thousands of people.

People are rightly concerned about how easy it is to get a gun. Drones are also easy to acquire and operate, and quite difficult to monitor and to defend against. AI is now being deployed to prevent drone attacks, whether at airports, stadiums, or critical infrastructure. For example, new AI-powered radar technology is being used to detect, classify, monitor and safely capture drones identified as dangerous.

Additionally, these systems use can rapidly develop a map of the airspace and effectively create a security “dome” around specific venues or areas. These systems have an integration component to coordinate with on-the-ground security teams and first responders. Some even have a capture drone to incarcerate a suspicious drone. When a threatening drone is detected and classified by the system as dangerous, the capture drone is dispatched and nets the invading drone. The hunter then tows the targeted drone to a safe zone for the threat to be evaluated and if needed, destroyed.

While there is much dialogue about the potential risk of AI affecting our society, there is also a positive side to these technologies. Coupled with our best physical security approaches, AI can help prevent violent incidents.

Northrup Grumman is among the companies tapped to make the US Army’s drone-killing lasers

By Jonathan Shieber

Northrop Grumman is going to be working on the U.S. Army’s long-planned drone-killing lasers.

The Army wants to mount 50 kilowatt laser systems on top of its General Dynamics designed Stryker vehicle as part of its U.S. Army Maneuver Short Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD) directed energy prototyping initiative.

Basically, the army wants to use these lasers to protect frontline combat troops against drone attacks.

The initiative includes integrating a directed energy weapon system on a Stryker vehicle as a pathfinding effort toward the U.S. Army M-SHORAD objective to provide more comprehensive protection of frontline combat units.

“Northrop Grumman is eager to leverage its portfolio of innovative, proven technologies and integration expertise to accelerate delivery of next-generation protection to our maneuver forces,” said Dan Verwiel, vice president and general manager, missile defense and protective systems, Northrop Grumman, in a statement.

The drone, helicopter, rocket, artillery and mortar defense system that the Army is looking to mount on a group of Stryker all-terrain vehicles could come from either Northrop Grumman or Raytheon, which was also tapped to develop tech for the project.

“The time is now to get directed energy weapons to the battlefield,” said Lt. Gen. L. Neil Thurgood, director of hypersonics, directed energy, space and rapid acquisition, in a statement. “The Army recognizes the need for directed energy lasers as part of the Army’s modernization plan. This is no longer a research effort or a demonstration effort. It is a strategic combat capability, and we are on the right path to get it in soldiers’ hands.”

For the Army, lasers extend the promise of reducing supply chain hurdles that are associated with conventional kinetic weapons. In May, the Army decided gave the green light to a strategy for accelerated prototyping and field use of a wide array of lasers for infantry, vehicles, and air support.

While Raytheon and Northrop Grumman have both been tapped by the Army, the military will also entertain pitches from other vendors who want to carry out their own research, according to the Army.

It’s a potential $490 million contract for whoever wins the demonstration, and the Army expects to have the vehicles equipped in Fiscal Year 2022.

“Both the Army and commercial industry have made substantial improvements in the efficiency of high energy lasers — to the point where we can get militarily significant laser power onto a tactically relevant platform,” said Dr. Craig Robin, RCCTO Senior Research Scientist for Directed Energy Applications, in a statement. “Now, we are in position to quickly prototype, compete for the best solution, and deliver to a combat unit.”

 

How retailers can survive the Amazon era

By Jonathan Shieber
Simon Wu Contributor
Simon is a Director with Cathay Innovation, an early growth venture capital firm based in San Francisco, Paris, and Shanghai; and previously worked at VMware as a Manager in the Strategy & Corporate Development team.

While Amazon’s 2019 Prime Day was riddled with complications from worker protests to antitrust investigations, the tech giant once again broke records with 175M items sold, surpassing both Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. In just twenty years, Amazon revolutionized the logistics industry by fulfilling orders directly and offering its fulfillment services to third parties selling on the Amazon marketplace.

This year, more than half of US households will be Prime members. As Amazon continuously pushes delivery costs and times down, consumer expectations keep rising higher. But what does this mean for other retailers?

To survive in the post-Amazon era, the way companies have been storing and delivering physical goods to their final destination will need to change profoundly in the next decade.  Below are some of the key challenges facing the logistics landscape and three predictions for what we can expect to see next. 

The challenge 

Beating Amazon is difficult due to its sheer size, breadth and depth of its warehousing and fulfillment infrastructure and cutting-edge automation. Meanwhile, the typical logistics supply chain has become increasingly complex from transportation of physical goods from manufacturing facilities to last mile delivery to consumers. Further, legacy technology struggles to provide actionable insights due to low transparency, inefficient information flow, and limited automation. 

The gap between shipper’s expectations and logistics providers’ capabilities continues to widen as more of the supply chain lands in the hands of 3PLs—increasing capacity and capabilities but decreasing the shipper’s visibility and control on the process.

Now, also take into account other factors such as the industry wide shortage of blue collar workers and the net effect is that innovation in delivery and warehousing operations is becoming a pressing need.

GettyImages 1161005963

TURIN, ITALY – JULY 09: Amazon boxes of Amazon Logistic Center on July 09, 2019 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Stefano Guidi/Getty Images)

What’s next for logistics?

Shippers will increasingly need to reinvent their logistics value chain and upgrade various functions, from storage to distribution, as well as leverage new partners that bring innovative technologies and expertise.  

The technology startups that are well-positioned to build lean and effective solutions for the entire industry are those that focus on solving specific pain points including improving, visibility across the logistics chain; speed of delivery; and cost effectiveness of storage and fulfillment.

  •  24/7 tracking becomes table stakes

Over the last few years, the “consumerization of IT” wave hit the logistics industry, meaning business professionals expect enterprise software to look and feel like the consumer apps they use every day – simple, fast, and easy-to-use. 

 Most companies’ legacy infrastructure has challenges with easy tracking or visibility into existing inventory. A new wave of venture backed tech-enabled solutions that marries both technology and execution has emerged to address these issues. 

 Take Shipwell (freight), Stord (warehousing), and Shipbob (fulfillment) for example — these solutions can provide end to end digitized offerings with the speed, reliability, and affordability that are vital to shipping operation teams. 

 While there is still no clear next-gen inventory or warehouse management winner in the US, early signs indicate capacity providers are moving in this direction by offering more solutions such as additional workflow and dashboard tools to their service offerings.

  • Same day shipping will be the norm

 Amazon’s recent one-day shipping announcement is a precursor to where the industry is being pushed. According to Invesp, over 65% of retailers surveyed expect to offer same-day delivery within the next two years.

Many are trying to solve for end-to-end fulfillment solutions to e-commerce players, including warehousing, packaging, fulfillment, transportation, and reverse logistics services. Startups like Deliverr, Shipmonk and Darkstore offer competitive or better solutions in terms of cost and speed, usually controlling supply of storage directly and outsourcing or crowdsourcing delivery. 

Others have gone vertical, such as Cathay Innovation portfolio company and delivery app Glovo, who recently launched their version of a darkstore which is the size of a garage with limited inventory inside cities— but with a goal of guaranteeing 15 minute delivery. According to Glovo’s CEO Oscar Pierre, “Dark stores are a major priority for us, and we plan to open further stores in Barcelona, Lisbon, Milan and Tbilisi within the next year. Being able to deliver within 20 minutes has a massive influence on the customer’s decision. When the delivery time is short and the pricing sensitivity is low, that’s what makes people decide between going to their local convenience store or ordering from the app.”

Delivery speed expectation is experiencing its own “Moore’s law” and is an area we see a great amount of opportunity given the conflux of change needed from physical retail meeting digital expectations.

  • The cost-effectiveness of storage and fulfillment will rapidly improve 

Just as Spotify and Netflix have conditioned consumers to around a $10 price point, retailers and last mile delivery players are doing the same with shipping. This limits the ability for shippers to pass the costs onto consumers, thus forcing vendors to look elsewhere to cut costs.

Several startups are emerging to solve the problem that legacy companies are ill-equipped to solve: enabling retailers to compete with Amazon, respond faster to market needs and contain rising costs.

Flexible, on-demand warehousing has become a good option to save costs and expand footprint, AWS-style. Companies like FLEXE and Flowspace are connecting unused warehouse space and fulfillment capacity with clients that have dynamic warehousing and fulfillment needs, creating a more liquid and efficient market while also increasing visibility into their assets. On the trucking side, companies such as Convoy and Ontruck, (my firm’s investment) are also making sure trucks are being better utilized by matching capacity to empty trucks.

As many shippers (even behemoth’s like Walmart) grapple with creating a profitable e-commerce operation, areas including storage, distribution and fulfillment will be key areas to watch in the coming years.

Parting thoughts

Several technological innovations, from IoT sensors and machine learning models to autonomous robots, are transforming the logistics supply chain. Startups not only have the opportunity to survive the post-Amazon era but help the booming e-commerce industry deliver on its innovation potential.

With Y Combinator’s seal of approval, MyPetrolPump raises $1.6 million for its car refueling business

By Jonathan Shieber

Even before pitching onstage at Y Combinator, Indian car refueling startup MyPetrolPump has managed to snag $1.6 million in seed financing.

The business, which is similar to startups in the U.S. like Filld, Yoshi and Booster Fuels, took 10 months to design and receive approval for its proprietary refueling trucks that can withstand the unique stresses of providing logistics services in India.

Together with co-founder Nabin Roy, a serial startup entrepreneur, MyPetrolPump co-founder and chief executive Ashish Gupta pooled $150,000 to build the company’s first two refuelers and launch the business.

MyPetrolPump began operating out of Bangalore in 2017 working with a manufacturing partner to make the 20-30 refuelers that the company expects it will need to roll out its initial services. However, demand is far outstripping supply, according to Gupta.

“We would need hundreds of them to fulfill the demand,” Gupta says. In fact the company is already developing a licensing strategy that would see it franchise out the construction of the refueling vehicles and regional management of the business across multiple geographies. 

Bootstrapped until this $1.6 million financing, MyPetrolPump already has five refueling vehicles in its fleet and counts 2,000 customers already on its ledger.

These are companies like Amazon and Zoomcar, which both have massive fleets of vehicles that need refueling. Already the company has delivered 5 million liters of fuel with drivers working daily 12-hour shifts, Gupta says.

While services like MyPetrolPump have cropped up in the U.S. as a matter of convenience, in the Indian context, the company’s offering is more of necessity, says Gupta.

“In the Indian context, there’s pilferage of fuel,” says Gupta. Bus drivers collude with gas station operators to skim money off the top of the order, charging for 50 liters of fuel but only getting 40 liters pumped in. Another problem that Gupta says is common is the adulteration of fuel with additives that can degrade the engine of a vehicle.

There’s also the environmental benefit of not having to go all over to refill a vehicle, saving fuel costs by filling up multiple vehicles with a single trip from a refueling vehicle out to a location with a fleet of existing vehicles.

The company estimates it can offset 1 million tons of carbon in a year — and provide more than 300 billion liters of fuel. The model has taken off in other geographies as well. There’s Toplivo v Bak in Russia (which was acquired by Yandex), Gaston in Paris and Indonesia’s everything mobility company, Gojek, whose offerings also include refueling services.

And Gupta is preparing for the future as well. If the world moves to electrification and electric vehicles, the entrepreneur says his company can handle that transition as well.

We are delivering a last-mile fuel delivery system,” says Gupta. “If tomorrow hydrogen becomes the dominant fuel we will do that… If there is electricity we will do that. What we are building is the convenience of last-mile delivery to energy at the doorstep.”

The Knight Foundation launches $750,000 initiative for immersive technology for the arts

By Jonathan Shieber

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is looking for pitches on how to enhance and augment traditional creative arts through immersive technologies.

Through a partnership with Microsoft the foundation is offering a share of a $750,00 pool of cash and the option of technical support from Microsoft, including mentoring in mixed-reality technologies and access to the company’s suite of mixed reality technologies.

“We’ve seen how immersive technologies can reach new audiences and engage existing audiences in new ways,” said Chris Barr, director for arts and technology innovation at Knight Foundation, in a statement. “But arts institutions need more knowledge to move beyond just experimenting with these technologies to becoming proficient in leveraging their full potential.”

Specifically, the foundation is looking for projects that will help engage new audiences; build new service models; expand access beyond the walls of arts institutions; and provide means to distribute immersive experiences to multiple locations, the foundation said in a statement.

“When done right, life-changing experiences can happen at the intersection of arts and technology,” said Victoria Rogers, Knight Foundation vice president for arts. “Our goal through this call is to help cultural institutions develop informed and refined practices for using new technologies, equipping them to better navigate and thrive in the digital age.”

Launched at the Gray Area Festival in San Francisco, the new initiative is part of the Foundation’s art and technology focus, which the organization said is designed to help arts institutions better meet changing audience expectations. Last year, the foundation invested $600,000 in twelve projects focused on using technology to help people engage with the arts.

“We’re incredibly excited to support this open call for ways in which technology can help art institutions engage new audiences,” says Mira Lane, Partner Director Ethics & Society at Microsoft. “We strongly believe that immersive technology can enhance the ability for richer experiences, deeper storytelling, and broader engagement.”

Here are the winners from the first $600,000 pool:

  • ArtsESP – Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts

Project lead: Nicole Keating | Miami | @ArshtCenter

Developing forecasting software that enables cultural institutions to make data-centered decisions in planning their seasons and events.

  • Exploring the Gallery Through Voice – Alley Interactive

Project lead: Tim Schwartz | New York | @alleyco@cooperhewitt@SinaBahram

Exploring how conversational interfaces, like Amazon Alexa, can provide remote audiences with access to an exhibition experience at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

  • The Bass in VR – The Bass

Project lead: T.J. Black | Miami Beach | @TheBassMoA

Using 360-degree photography technology to capture and share the exhibit experience in an engaging, virtual way for remote audiences.

  • AR Enhanced Audio Tour – Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Project lead: Shane Richey | Bentonville, Arkansas | @crystalbridges

Developing mobile software to deliver immersive audio-only stories that museum visitors would experience when walking up to art for a closer look.

  • Smart Label Initiative – Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

Project lead: Brian Kirschensteiner | East Lansing, Michigan | @msubroad

Creating a system of smart labels that combine ultra-thin touch displays and microcomputers to deliver interactive informational content about artwork to audiences.

  • Improving Arts Accessibility through Augmented Reality Technology – Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, in collaboration with People’s Light

Project lead: Lisa Sonnenborn | Philadelphia | @TempleUniv,@IODTempleU@peopleslight 

Making theater and performance art more accessible for the deaf, hard of hearing and non-English speaking communities by integrating augmented reality smart glasses with an open access smart captioning system to accompany live works.

  • ConcertCue – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology

Project lead: Eran Egozy | Cambridge, Massachusetts | @EEgozy,@MIT,@ArtsatMIT@MIT_SHASS

Developing a mobile app for classical music audiences that receives real-time program notes at precisely-timed moments of a live musical performance.

  • Civic Portal – Monument Lab

Project lead: Paul Farber and Ken Lum | Philadelphia | @monument_lab@PennDesign@SachsArtsPhilly@paul_farber

Encouraging public input on new forms of historical monuments through a digital tool that allows users to identify locations, topics and create designs for potential public art and monuments in our cities.

  • Who’s Coming? – The Museum of Art and History at the McPherson Center

Project lead: Nina Simon | Santa Cruz, California | @santacruzmah@OFBYFOR_ALL

Prototyping a tool in the form of a smartphone/tablet app for cultural institutions to capture visitor demographic data, increasing knowledge on who is and who is not participating in programs.

  • Feedback Loop – Newport Art Museum, in collaboration with Work-Shop Design Studio

Project lead: Norah Diedrich | Newport, Rhode Island | @NewportArtMuse

Enabling audiences to share immediate feedback and reflections on art by designing hardware and software to test recording and sharing of audience thoughts.

  • The Traveling Stanzas Listening Wall – Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University Foundation

Project lead: David Hassler | Kent, Ohio | @DavidWickPoetry,@WickPoetry,@KentState@travelingstanza

Producing touchscreen installations in public locations that allow users to create and share poetry by reflecting on and responding to historical documents, oral histories, and multimedia stories about current events and community issues.

  • Wiki Art Depiction Explorer – Wikimedia District of Columbia, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution

Project lead: Andrew Lih | Washington, District of Columbia | @wikimedia@fuzheado

Using crowdsourcing methods to improve Wikipedia descriptions of artworks in major collections so people can better access and understand art virtually.

What politicians are getting wrong about fixing higher education

By Jonathan Shieber
Darrell Silver Contributor
Darrell Silver is the co-founder and CEO of Thinkful.

From Capitol Hill to the Democratic Presidential debates, the drumbeat for new approaches to higher education is getting louder.

On the campaign trail, Bernie Sanders continues to advocate for free college and Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently proposed bigger plans to eliminate the $1.6 trillion in student debt nationwide. On the Hill, Republican senators Marco Rubio and Todd Young were joined by Democratic senators Mark Warner and Chris Coons in rolling out a bill to regulate income share agreements to make education more accessible.

Before anyone tries to solve what’s wrong with higher education, we need to first understand the value of a college degree. It’s a debate that truly began during the Recession, as students weren’t getting jobs upon graduation. And that lack of value is the reason we have a student loan crisis. So, why would we call for free college, if there is doubt about the value of what “free” gets someone?

While everyone should have an opportunity to pursue higher education after high school, any politico – from the Secretary of Education to the Democratic candidates, should first address the larger value crisis in today’s education system.

If Democratic candidates are going to call for free college, first, there needs to be more accountability from colleges about what a student – or future student – can expect upon graduation.

At a very young age, students are taking huge risks by spending their time and money going to college. And the majority are specifically because they want to get a job upon graduation. But tuition is non-negotiable and there is no outcome – i.e., a job – associated with graduating. The value at a coding bootcamp like Thinkful is that we have a jobs report that proves there’s a job waiting for you once you graduate. So, at a traditional college, wouldn’t the value of a college degree drop if there was no job attached to it? It’s why I think educators must be held to higher standards that are more consumer-friendly by providing transparency to students about what they can expect upon graduating with a certain major.

There such a demand around skills-based learning that even employers are recognizing you don’t need to go to college to be hireable.

From Blackrock to Google, big companies aren’t requiring college degrees for highly skilled tech positions, paving the way for employers to hire candidates from trusted education companies that they know are producing candidates with skill sets like data science, coding and design. In fact, adults in their 20s, 30 and even 50s who have college degrees are enrolling in coding bootcamps or career accelerators because they didn’t get job-ready skills when they were in school.

And it’s why coding bootcamps can offer a job guarantee or allow students to utilize Income Share Agreements to pay for their program. We are perfectly comfortable taking on that “free” risk because we know that you are very likely to get a high paying job upon graduation. Our yearly jobs data proves it.

So, calling for free college is missing the point about what really needs to happen if we want more people learning to get a job that will put them on a sustainable career trajectory. There needs to be much more accountability into what a “free degree” would get someone.

Udelv partners with H-E-B on Texas autonomous grocery delivery pilot

By Darrell Etherington

Autonomous delivery company Udelv has signed yet another partner to launch a new pilot of its self-driving goods delivery service: Texas-based supermarket chain H-E-B Group. The pilot will provide service to customers in Olmos Park, just outside of downtown San Antonio where the grocery retailer is based.

California-based Udelv will provide H-E-B with one of its Newton second-generation autonomous delivery vehicles, which are already in service in trials in the Bay Area, Arizona and Houston providing deliveries on behalf of some of Udelv’s other clients, which include Walmart among others.

Udelv CEO and founder Daniel Laury explained in an interview that they’re very excited to be partnering with H-E-B, because of the company’s reach in Texas, where it’s the largest grocery chain with approximately 400 stores. This initial phase only covers one car and one store, and during this part of the pilot the vehicle will have a safety driver on board. But the plan includes the option to expand the partnership to cover more vehicles and eventually achieve full driverless operation.

“They’re really at the forefront of technology, in the areas where they need to be,” Laury said. “It’s a very impressive company.”

For its part, H-E-B Group has been in discussion with a number of potential partners for autonomous deliver trials, and according to Paul Tepfenhart, SVP of Omnichannel and Emerging Technologies at H-E-B, but it liked Udelv specifically because of their safety record, and because they didn’t just come in with a set plan and a fully formed off-the-shelf offering – they truly partnered with HEB on what the final deployment of the pilot would look like.

Both Tepfenhart and Laury emphasized the importance of customer experience in providing autonomous solutions, and Laury noted that he thinks Udelv’s unique advantage in the increasingly competitive autonomous curbside delivery business is its attention to the robotics of the actual delivery and storage components of its custom vehicle.

“The reason I think we’re we’ve been so successful, is because we focused a lot on the delivery robotics,” Laury explained. “If you think about it, there’s no autonomous delivery business that works if you don’t have the robotics aspect of it figured out also. You can have an autonomous vehicle, but if you don’t have an automated cargo space where merchants can load [their goods] and consumers can unload the vehicle by themselves, you have no business.”

Udelv also thinks that it has an advantage when it comes to its business model, which aims to generate revenue now, in exchange for providing actual value to paying customers, rather than counting on being supported entirely through funding from a wealthy investor or deep-pocketed corporate partners. Laury likens it to Tesla’s approach, where it actually has over 500,000 vehicles on the road helping it build its autonomous technology – but all of those are operated by paying customers who get all the benefits of owing their cars today.

“We want to be the Tesla of autonomous delivery,” Laury said. “If you think about it, Tesla has got 500,000 vehicles on the road […] if you think about this, for of all the the cars in the world that have some level of automated driver assistance (ADAS) or autonomy, I think Tesla’s 90% of them – and they get the customers to pay a ridiculous amount of money for that. Everybody else in the business is getting funding from something else. Waymo is getting funding from search; Cruise is getting funding from GM and SoftBank and others, Nuro is getting funding from SoftBank. So, pretty much everybody else is getting funding from a source that’s a different source from the actual business they’re supposed to be in.”

Laury says that Udelv’s unique strength is in the ability the company has to provide value to partners like HEB today, through its focus on robotics and solving problems like engineering the robotics of the loading and customer pick-up experience, which puts it in a unique place where it can fund its own research through revenue-generating services that can be offered in-market now, rather than ten years from now.

Doctours offers packaged medical tourism for U.S. customers

By Jonathan Shieber

Doctours, a Los Angeles-based online platform for booking trips and treatments for medical and dental care around the world, is expanding its services to 35 countries.

Founded by serial travel entrepreneur Katelyn O’Shaughnessy, whose last company TripScope was acquired by Travefy, Doctours aims to connect patients with doctors to receive access to quality, affordable healthcare around the world.

The cost of care in the U.S. continues to climb, leading patients with few options but to travel to the best facilities offering the lowest cost care. Some companies that provide insurance benefits to their employees, like Walmart, are opting to pay for better care upfront by transporting their workers to facilities to receive appropriate care, rather than pay later for shoddy treatment.

Doctours sort of expands that thesis in an international context.

“When it comes to medical and dental treatment, there is no longer any reason to limit ourselves based on where we live,” said O’Shaughnessy, in a statement. “There is an increasingly advantageous global marketplace available with highly trained practitioners offering quality healthcare solutions at affordable prices and, although medical and dental tourism is a safe and cost-efficient solution, the current market is extremely fragmented and challenging to navigate. Doctours eliminates this fragmentation and allows anyone to easily and affordably access international medical and dental treatments and procedures.”

Katelyn Headshot 2

Katelyn O’Shaughnessy, founder, Doctours

The company, which is backed by investors including investors in Doctours include the former CEO of Expedia, Erik Blachford, Texas billionaire and CEO of multi-strategy holding company, Cathexis, William Harrison, and Charles Cogliando of Mosaic Advisors, offers more than 330 different medical and dental procedures and has a global service area that includes Mexico, Colombia, the Caribbean, Thailand, Dubai, Brazil, Germany and Costa Rica. 

Currently working out of Quake Capital’s Austin incubator, the company helps patients search for and compare the cost of procedures, connect with doctors and book everything from in vitro fertilization to stem cell therapy, cosmetic and reparative plastic . surgery, weight loss surgery, dental work and Lasik. 

Once the procedure is booked, Doctours puts together itineraries that provide different options for flights and hotels based on the needs of the patient,  the company said.

The company also offers specialized medical tourism insurance to all of its customers, according to O’Shaughnessy. And the company vets its doctors by ensuring that they are Joint Commission International accredited physicians. Roughly 70% of the company’s doctors were trained at universities and medical schools in Europe or the U.S., O’Shaughnessy wrote in an email.

Doctours is certainly entering a lucrative market. Medical and dental tourism is a $439 billion global market growing at a rate of 25% per year, according to data provided by Doctours. In 2018 alone, 14 million patients traveled abroad to seek healthcare, according to the company.

Y Combinator-backed Project Wren is aiming to make carbon offsets more consumer friendly

By Jonathan Shieber

When Landon Brand and Benjamin Stanfield graduated from the University of Southern California this year, they already had the plans for Project Wren, their service for selling carbon offsets to a new generation of conscious consumers.

Along with fellow co-founder Mimi Tran Zambetti (who’s still attending USC), Brand and Stanfield aim to make carbon offsets more accessible to people who may feel like there’s nothing they can do on a personal level to reduce their carbon footprint or support projects that reduce carbon emissions. 

It’s not a novel concept. In 2004, TerraPass launched its service to provide carbon offsets for consumers. The company was acquired in 2014 and now operates as a subsidiary of the publicly traded Canadian retail energy company, Just Energy.

Since TerraPass, other organizations have come in with services to offset consumer and corporate carbon emissions. The Swiss nonprofit MyClimate is another organization working on offsets for corporations and individuals (as is the German nonprofit, Atmosfair) and the North American public benefit corporation, NativeEnergy also has both a retail and corporate offset program.

Project Wren sources its offset investments from Project Drawdown and is trying to choose the projects that the company’s founders consider “most additional,” according to Brand.

Brand, Stanfield and Tran Zambetti met at USC while pursuing a bachelor of science degree in USC’s new Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy. Iovine and Young are the co-founders of Beats, which sold to Apple for roughly $3 billion, but perhaps are more famous for their work in the music business as the co-founders of Interscope Records (Young is the rapper and producer known as Dr. Dre).

From the outset the three students worked together on side projects and in student organizations, and decided last year to launch a sustainable business that could impact consumers in a positive way. The first idea, and the one that was initially incorporated as Project Wren, was to develop an algorithmically enhanced software service to promote diversity and inclusion in companies.

“The idea was promising, but it’s a hard product to sell. Companies aren’t used to leveraging software to help build their culture,” Brand wrote in an email. “Trying to get people to use the product made us realize how difficult it is to build something that’s useful and good for the world. If we were going to build a company around doing good, it would take a decade or more.”

The group convened earlier this year and decided, after spending a year working on their idea, that the more than 10 years it would take to build a successful business was too long for them to see the impact they wanted to make in the world. “We felt like the mission of making companies a better place to work was important, but not urgent,” Brand wrote to me in an email. “Climate change is urgent. It’s the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. That’s why we decided to pivot.”

The group then decided that they would pool their resources on another project — a vegan cloud kitchen that could potentially become a franchise or chain.

“Meat production is responsible for as much as 20% of greenhouse gas emissions,” Brand wrote. “If we could make eating vegan food easier than eating meat, we would have a huge impact.”

The group ran a cloud kitchen out of Brand’s apartment for two weeks before deciding that, too, ultimately was a wash for the three young co-founders.

With that idea behind them, the three began researching carbon offsets, which led them to Project Drawdown, which led them to build their current website and, ultimately, Y Combinator .

Customers who buy offsets using Wren will support projects that the company has selected for their additionality (meaning the projects would not have been done without the support of organizations like Wren). Once the offsets are purchased, Project Wren retires them from circulation so they can’t be traded on any exchange after their creation.

The company makes money by taking a 20% commission above the price of the project for operating expenses and marketing, says Brand.

What Brand sees as the young company’s competitive advantage is its ability to communicate more directly with a new audience of offset acquirers — engaging them more in the process by providing updates on the project.

“Photos, and stories too, from people on the ground will add a more human, real, touch,” to the projects and their reporting back to carbon offset buyers, according to Brand. “We just talk to a bunch of potential partners and see which partners would be able to give unique compelling updates to our users.”

Heat waves bring record-breaking temperatures on a geological scale

By Jonathan Shieber

From Alaska to Europe the world has spent the past few weeks roasting under temperatures never before seen in recorded history.

In Alaska, all-time high record temperatures were set across the state on July 4th, according to the National Weather Service. In Anchorage, the mercury soared to highs of 90 degrees, the highest temperature since recording began in 1952.

Temperatures in Alaska have reached 90 degrees in other cities around the state before, but this is the first time that the thermometer hit that mark in Anchorage.

The #4thofjuly2019 was one for the books. Several ALL-TIME high temperature records were set at official observation sites throughout Southern #Alaska. But that's not all…there were more daily temperature records set too! #AKwx #ItsHotInAlaska pic.twitter.com/GxcdUaD9ld

— NWS Anchorage (@NWSAnchorage) July 5, 2019

Meanwhile, hot winds blowing North from the Sahara set temperatures in Europe soaring to record highs, according to data released by the Copernicus Climate Change Service.

It was Europe’s record three degree temperature spike that brought global temperatures to their recorded-history highs.

Screen Shot 2019 07 05 at 12.16.41 PM

“Although local temperatures may have been lower or higher than those forecast, our data show that the temperatures over the southwestern region of Europe during the last week of June were unusually high,” said Jean-Noël Thépaut, head of the Copernicus Climate Change Service. “Although this was exceptional, we are likely to see more of these events in the future due to climate change.”

According to data from Copernicus, the temperature spikes across Europe was the highest on record for the month.

Compared for the same five-day period during the last thirty year climatological reference period, six to ten degree Celsius temperature spikes happened in most of France and Germany, throughout northern Spain, northern Italy, Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic.

As these events become common, the need for technologies that can reduce carbon emissions because more pressing.

Increasingly, businesses and investors are returning to the once-shunned market of clean technology and renewable energy to back new electric vehicle manufacturers, new energy efficient construction technologies, the rehabilitation of outdated infrastructure and consumer goods that have a smaller carbon footprint or reduce waste.

Data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance published earlier this year indicated that venture investments into what was once called clean technology hit $9.2 billion in 2018. That’s the highest cumulative investment in the sector since 2009. Much of those deals were in Chinese electric vehicle manufacturers who attracted some $3.3 billion in venture capital and private equity dollars.

That’s critical because global carbon emissions have increased over the past two years, according to estimates from the Global Carbon Project.

“We thought, perhaps hoped, emissions had peaked a few years ago,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “After two years of renewed growth, that was wishful thinking.”

In the U.S. specifically, climate related pressures (a warmer summer and a colder winter) led to increasing demand along with an uptick in gasoline consumption as demand for bigger vehicles fueled higher gas consumption.

“We’re driving more miles in bigger cars, changes that are outpacing improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency,” Jackson explained.

Unregulated facial recognition technology presents unique risks for the LGBTQ+ community

By Jonathan Shieber
Carlos Gutierrez Contributor
Carlos Gutierrez is deputy director and general counsel at LGBT Tech.

It seems consumers today are granted ever-dwindling opportunities to consider the safety and civil liberties implications of a new technology before it becomes widely adopted. Facial recognition technology is no exception. The well-documented potential for abuse and misuse of these tools built by giant and influential companies as well as government and law enforcement agencies should give serious pause to anyone who values their privacy – especially members of communities that have been historically marginalized and discriminated against.

The cavalier attitude toward unregulated surveillance tools demonstrated by some law enforcement and other local, state, and federal government entities seem to reinforce the notion that forfeiting your personal data and privacy for greater convenience, efficiency, and safety is a fair trade. For vulnerable communities this could not be further from the truth. Without proper oversight, facial recognition technology has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities and make daily life challenging and dangerous for LGBTQ+ individuals.

Biometric data can provide a uniquely intimate picture of a person’s digital life. Skilled and persistent hackers seeking to exploit access to an individual’s messages on social media, financial records, or location data would view the information collected by facial recognition software as a particularly valuable and worthwhile target, especially as biometric data has become increasingly popular as a form of authentication.

Without proper privacy protections in place, data breaches that target facial recognition data may become far more likely. In the wrong hands, a person’s previously undisclosed sexual orientation or gender identity can become a tool for discrimination, harassment, or harm to their life or livelihood.

The risks to transgender, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming individuals is even more acute.  Most facial recognition algorithms are trained on data sets designed to sort individuals into two groups – often male or female. The extent of the misgendering problem was highlighted in a recent report that found that over the last three decades of facial recognition researchers used a binary construct of gender over 90 percent of the time and understood gender to be a solely physiological construct over 80 percent of the time.

Consider the challenge – not to mention emotional toil – for a transgender individual trying to catch a flight who is now subject to routine stops and additional security screening all because the facial recognition systems expected to be used in all airports by 2020 are not built to be able to reconcile their true gender identity with their government issued ID.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community cannot shoulder the burden of lax digital privacy standards without also assuming unnecessary risks to their safety online and offline. Our vibrant communities deserve comprehensive, national privacy protections to fully participate in society and live without the fear that their data – biometric or otherwise – will be used to further entrench existing bias and prejudice.

Our communities face the challenge of trying to protect themselves from rules that neither they, or the people implementing them, fully understand. Congress must act to ensure that current and future applications for facial recognition are built, deployed, and governed with necessary protections in mind.

This is why LGBT Tech signed on to a letter by the ACLU, along with over 60 other privacy, civil liberties, civil rights, and investor and faith groups to urge Congress to put in place a federal moratorium on face recognition for law enforcement and immigration enforcement purposes until Congress fully debates what, if any, uses should be permitted.

Given the substantial concerns, which representatives on both sides of the aisle recognized at a recent hearing, prompt action is necessary to protect people from harm.  We should not move forward with the deployment of this technology until and unless our rights can be fully safeguarded.

Check out the breakout sessions at TC Sessions: Mobility

By Emma Comeau

TC Sessions: Mobility on July 10 in San Jose is fast approaching. Get ready for a superb lineup of speakers like Dmitri Dolgov (Waymo), Eric Allison (Uber) and Summer Craze Fowler (Argo AI). See the full agenda here.

In addition to the outstanding main stage content, TechCrunch is proud to partner with today’s leading mobility players for a full day of breakout sessions. These breakout sessions will give attendees deeper insights into overcoming some of mobility’s biggest challenges and answering questions directly from today’s industry leaders.

Breakout Session Lineup


How much data is needed to make Autonomous Driving a Reality?
Presented by: Scale AI

We are in the early days of autonomous vehicles, and what’s necessary to go into production is still very much undecided. Simply to prove that these vehicles are safer than driving with humans will require more than 1 billion miles driven. Data is a key ingredient for any AI problem, and autonomy is the mother of all AI problems. How much data is really needed to make autonomy safe, reliable, and widespread, and how will our understanding of data change as that becomes a closer reality? Sponsored by Scale AI.


Think Big by Starting Small: Micromobility Implications to the Future of Mobility

Presented by: Deloitte

A host of new micromobility services have emerged to address a broader range of transportation needs – bikesharing, electric scooters and beyond. The urban emergence of micromobility offers powerful lessons on finding the right balance between fostering innovations that will ultimately benefit consumers and broader transportation systems, while safeguarding public interests. Sponsored by Deloitte.


If You Build It, Will They Buy? – The Role of the FleetTech Partner in the Future Mobility Ecosystem with Brendan P. Keegan
Presented by: Merchants Fleet

The future will bring a convergence of new technologies, services, and connectivity to the mobility space – but who will manage and connect it all? Explore how FleetTech is creating the mobility ecosystem to help organizations embrace technologies – adopting your innovations through trials and pilots and bringing them to market. Sponsored by Merchants Fleet.


The Economics of Going Electric: Constructing NextGen EV Business Models
Presented by: ABB

How do we make the rapidly growing EV industry operational and scalable? Join ABB, HPE and Microsoft for a discussion on how government, industry, providers and suppliers are addressing market shifts and identifying solutions to build successful business models that support the future of mobility. Moderated and sponsored by ABB.


Bringing Efficiency to Closed-Course AV Testing with Atul Acharya
Presented by: AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah

Looking to jump-start or accelerate your automated vehicle test operations? AAA has built its expertise by operating GoMentum Stations and performing safety assessments on multiple AVs and proving grounds. Join AAA as it shares its collective technical and operational learnings and testing results that will bring efficiency to your testing efforts. Sponsored by AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah.


Friction-Free Urban Mobility
Presented by: Arrive

What does the future of seamless, urban mobility look like? How do mobility-as-a-service providers and connected vehicles work together to power transportation in a smart city? And which platform will aggregate all of the providers? In what promises to be a thought-provoking discussion, Arrive’s COO Dan Roarty will lay the foundation for what a city’s connected future will look like and outline key steps needed to achieve it. Sponsored by Arrive.


Michigan’s Mobility Ecosystem
Presented by: PlanetM

Revolutionary things can happen when some of the brightest minds in technology come together in one room. This Breakout Session will offer key insights into Michigan’s mobility ecosystem: the people, places and resources dedicated to the evolution of transportation mobility. Following a brief discussion, attendees will have the opportunity to connect with the people and companies moving the world forward through technology innovation and collaboration. Sponsored by PlanetM.


We hope to see you at TC Sessions: Mobility on July 10. Tickets are still on sale but selling fast. Book your $395 general admission ticket here. Students, grab a $45 here.

MIT’s new interactive machine learning prediction tool could give everyone AI superpowers

By Darrell Etherington

Soon, you might not need anything more specialized than a readily accessible touchscreen device and any existing data sets you have access to in order to build powerful prediction tools. A new experiment from MIT and Brown University researchers have added a capability to their ‘Northstar’ interactive data system that can “instantly generate machine-learning models” to use with their exiting data sets in order to generate useful predictions.

One example the researchers provide is that doctors could make use of the system to make predictions about the likelihood their patients have of contracting specific diseases based on their medial history. Or, they suggest, a business owner could use their historical sales data to develop more accurate forecasts, quickly and without a ton of manual analytics work.

Researchers are calling this feature the Northstar system’s “virtual data scientist,” (or VDS) and it sounds like it could actually replace the human equivalent, especially in settings where one would never actually be readily available or resourced anyway. Your average doctor’s office doesn’t have a dedicated data scientist headcount, for instance, and nor do most small- to medium-sized businesses for that matter. Independently owned and operated coffee shops and retailers definitely wouldn’t otherwise have access to this kind of insight.

touchscreen analytics 1

This new tool is built on automated machine-learning techniques that are becoming much more ‘au courant,’ since it helps expand the number of people for whom AI technology is accessible.

Northstar itself is the product of more than four years of work, and presents a blank canvas that’s compatible across multiple platforms, and then users can upload their own data sets, which show up as boxes on the interface. They can then drag and drop those into the centre area of the canvas and then draw connecting lines to indicate to that they should be processed with an algorithm of their choosing in combination with one another.

So basically, they could theoretically grab a dataset detailing metabolic rates of patients, and another one detailing their age, and then derive from that how often a specific disease occurs across those two factors. Now, with the new virtual data scientist feature, they’ll be able to combine inputs to generate predictive, AI-based analysis across these combined factors as well.

touchscreen analytics 3

Researchers have also designed this VDS system so that it’s actually the fastest application of automated machine learning to date. That’s another key piece for making it usable by everyone, since it’s not really feasible to imagine people working with this digital whitetable and then waiting ours for results to come out. Next up, it’s going to improve error reporting to help ensure that non-specialist users not only find it easy to use, but also get clear indicators when they do something wrong so they can fix it next time.

Pavegen, which harvests energy and data from footsteps, secures crowd and Hinduja Group funding

By Mike Butcher

Pavegen, a UK startup which harvests energy from people’s footsteps and also tracks that data, has raised £2.6m on its crowdfunding push having doubled its initial £950k target.

The campaign secured funds from over 1,400 investors, including partnership and anchor investment from major global engineering conglomerate Hinduja Group and family investment firm Tamar Capital.

The Hinduja Group, whose Co-Chairmen topped the UK 2019 Rich List, aims to use the technology to reduce the cost of manufacturing and provide access to fast-growing markets in India and South East Asia.

The funding round follows expansion into 36 countries worldwide, and £1.8m in revenues in 2018, with installations including smart city developments, retail destinations, transport hubs and education institutions in Hong Kong, India, Korea, Thailand, UAE, UK & USA.

In 2018, Pavegen also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with global engineering and technology giant, Siemens, to develop smart city projects together.

The key to Pavegen is not just power generation. Pavegen which converts the kinetic energy of footsteps into both electricity and data, and it is also developing an ecosystem allowing people to be rewarded for steps on Pavegen walkways.

The company says its first shopping center deployment at The Mercury mall in East London has raised engagement with the site by 15%.

Laurence Kemball-Cook, CEO of Pavegen, said: “We believe in placing people at the heart of the smart city. With the support of Hinduja Group, Siemens and Tamar Capital, our plan of making our technology ubiquitous for all cities becomes achievable.”

Hrag Sarkissian, Founding Partner, Tamar Capital, said: “Pavegen is very relevant when it comes to Smart cities, from a power and a data play. As cost comes down, large scale deployments could really change the game.”

Shom Hinduja, President of Alternative Energy and Sustainability Initiatives at Hinduja Group said: “It’s an exciting time for Pavegen with new projects in airports, retail sites and smart city developments in Asia, the Middle East and North America. We believe the Hinduja team will be able to play a key role in enabling the Pavegen team to rapidly bring their ambitious vision to life.”

Europe should ban AI for mass surveillance and social credit scoring, says advisory group

By Natasha Lomas

An independent expert group tasked with advising the European Commission to inform its regulatory response to artificial intelligence — to underpin EU lawmakers’ stated aim of ensuring AI developments are “human centric” — has published its policy and investment recommendations.

This follows earlier ethics guidelines for “trustworthy AI”, put out by the High Level Expert Group (HLEG) for AI back in April, when the Commission also called for participants to test the draft rules.

The AI HLEG’s full policy recommendations comprise a highly detailed 50-page document — which can be downloaded from this web page. The group, which was set up in June 2018, is made up of a mix of industry AI experts, civic society representatives, political advisers and policy wonks, academics and legal experts.

The document includes warnings on the use of AI for mass surveillance and scoring of EU citizens, such as China’s social credit system, with the group calling for an outright ban on “AI-enabled mass scale scoring of individuals”. It also urges governments to commit to not engage in blanket surveillance of populations for national security purposes. (So perhaps it’s just as well the UK has voted to leave the EU, given the swingeing state surveillance powers it passed into law at the end of 2016.) 

“While there may be a strong temptation for governments to ‘secure society’ by building a pervasive surveillance system based on AI systems, this would be extremely dangerous if pushed to extreme levels,” the HLEG writes. “Governments should commit not to engage in mass surveillance of individuals and to deploy and procure only Trustworthy AI systems, designed to be respectful of the law and fundamental rights, aligned with ethical principles and socio-technically robust.”

The group also calls for commercial surveillance of individuals and societies to be “countered” — suggesting the EU’s response to the potency and potential for misuse of AI technologies should include ensuring that online people-tracking is “strictly in line with fundamental rights such as privacy”, including (the group specifies) when it concerns ‘free’ services (albeit with a slight caveat on the need to consider how business models are impacted).

Last week the UK’s data protection watchdog fired an even more specific shot across the bows of the online behavioral ad industry — warning that adtech’s mass-scale processing of web users’ personal data for targeting ads does not comply with EU privacy standards. The industry was told its rights-infringing practices must change, even if the Information Commissioner’s Office isn’t about to bring down the hammer just yet. But the reform warning was clear.

As EU policymakers work on fashioning a rights-respecting regulatory framework for AI, seeking to steer  the next ten years+ of cutting-edge tech developments in the region, the wider attention and scrutiny that will draw to digital practices and business models looks set to drive a clean up of problematic digital practices that have been able to proliferate under no or very light touch regulation, prior to now.

The HLEG also calls for support for developing mechanisms for the protection of personal data, and for individuals to “control and be empowered by their data” — which they argue would address “some aspects of the requirements of trustworthy AI”.

“Tools should be developed to provide a technological implementation of the GDPR and develop privacy preserving/privacy by design technical methods to explain criteria, causality in personal data processing of AI systems (such as federated machine learning),” they write.

“Support technological development of anonymisation and encryption techniques and develop standards for secure data exchange based on personal data control. Promote the education of the general public in personal data management, including individuals’ awareness of and empowerment in AI personal data-based decision-making processes. Create technology solutions to provide individuals with information and control over how their data is being used, for example for research, on consent management and transparency across European borders, as well as any improvements and outcomes that have come from this, and develop standards for secure data exchange based on personal data control.”

Other policy suggestions among the many included in the HLEG’s report are that AI systems which interact with humans should include a mandatory self-identification. Which would mean no sneaky Google Duplex human-speech mimicking bots. In such a case the bot would have to introduce itself up front — thereby giving the human caller a chance to disengage.

The HLEG also recommends establishing a “European Strategy for Better and Safer AI for Children”. Concern and queasiness about rampant datafication of children, including via commercial tracking of their use of online services, has been raised  in multiple EU member states.

“The integrity and agency of future generations should be ensured by providing Europe’s children with a childhood where they can grow and learn untouched by unsolicited monitoring, profiling and interest invested habitualisation and manipulation,” the group writes. “Children should be ensured a free and unmonitored space of development and upon moving into adulthood should be provided with a “clean slate” of any public or private storage of data related to them. Equally, children’s formal education should be free from commercial and other interests.”

Member states and the Commission should also devise ways to continuously “analyse, measure and score the societal impact of AI”, suggests the HLEG — to keep tabs on positive and negative impacts so that policies can be adapted to take account of shifting effects.

“A variety of indices can be considered to measure and score AI’s societal impact such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Social Scoreboard Indicators of the European Social Pillar. The EU statistical programme of Eurostat, as well as other relevant EU Agencies, should be included in this mechanism to ensure that the information generated is trusted, of high and verifiable quality, sustainable and continuously available,” it suggests. “AI-based solutions can help the monitoring and measuring its societal impact.”

The report is also heavy on pushing for the Commission to bolster investment in AI — calling particularly for more help for startups and SMEs to access funding and advice, including via the InvestEU program.

Another suggestion is the creation of an EU-wide network of AI business incubators to connect academia and industry. “This could be coupled with the creation of EU-wide Open Innovation Labs, which could be built further on the structure of the Digital Innovation Hub network,” it continues. 

There are also calls to encourage public sector uptake of AI, such as by fostering digitalisation by transforming public data into a digital format; providing data literacy education to government agencies; creating European large annotated public non-personal databases for “high quality AI”; and funding and facilitating the development of AI tools that can assist in detecting biases and undue prejudice in governmental decision-making.

Another chunk of the report covers recommendations to try to bolster AI research in Europe — such as strengthening and creating additional Centres of Excellence which address strategic research topics and become “a European level multiplier for a specific AI topic”.

Investment in AI infrastructures, such as distributed clusters and edge computing, large RAM and fast networks, and a network of testing facilities and sandboxes is also urged; along with support for an EU-wide data repository “through common annotation and standardisation” — to work against data siloing, as well as trusted data spaces for specific sectors such as healthcare, automative and agri-food.

The push by the HLEG to accelerate uptake of AI has drawn some criticism, with digital rights group Access Now’s European policy manager, Fanny Hidvegi, writing that: “What we need now is not more AI uptake across all sectors in Europe, but rather clarity on safeguards, red lines, and enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the automated decision making systems — and AI more broadly — developed and deployed in Europe respect human rights.”

Other ideas in the HLEG’s report include developing and implementing a European curriculum for AI; and monitoring and restricting the development of automated lethal weapons — including technologies such as cyber attack tools which are not “actual weapons” but which the group points out “can have lethal consequences if deployed. 

The HLEG further suggests EU policymakers refrain from giving AI systems or robots legal personhood, writing: “We believe this to be fundamentally inconsistent with the principle of human agency, accountability and responsibility, and to pose a significant moral hazard.”

The report can downloaded in full here.

MIT AI tool can predict breast cancer up to 5 years early, works equally well for white and black patients

By Darrell Etherington

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab has developed a new deep learning-based AI prediction model that can anticipate the development of breast cancer up to five years in advance. Researchers working on the product also recognized that other similar projects have often had inherent bias because they were based overwhelmingly on white patient populations, and specifically designed their own model so that it is informed by “more equitable” data that ensures it’s “equally accurate for white and black women.”

That’s key, MIT notes in a blog post, because black women are more than 42 percent more likely than white women to die from breast cancer, and one contributing factor could be that they aren’t as well-served by current early detection techniques. MIT says that its work in developing this technique was aimed specifically at making the assessment of health risks of this nature more accurate for minorities, who are often not well represented in development of deep learning models. The issue of algorithmic bias is a focus of a lot of industry research and even newer products forthcoming from technology companies working on deploying AI in the field.

This MIT tool, which is trained on mammograms and patient outcomes (eventual development of cancer being the key one) from over 60,000 patients (with over 90,000 mammograms total) from the Massachusetts General Hospital, starts from the data and uses deep learning to identify patters that would not be apparent or even observable by human clinicians. Because it’s not based on existing assumptions or received knowledge about risk factors, which are at best a suggestive framework, the results have so far shown to be far more accurate, especially at predictive, pre-diagnosis discovery.

Overall, the project is intended to help healthcare professionals put together the right screening program for individuals in their care and eliminate the heartbreaking and all-too common outcome of late diagnosis. MIT hopes the technique can also be used to improve detection of other diseases that have similar problems with existing risk models with far too many gaps and lower degrees of accuracy.

Scientists discover a new way to provide plants the nutrients they need to thrive

By Darrell Etherington

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have discovered a new method for delivering key nutrients to plant roots – without having to ensure they’re present in the soil where the plants are growing.

The landmark study greatly increases the efficiency of surface delivery of nutrients and pesticides to plants. Currently, when crops are sprayed with stuff that’s supposed to help them grow faster or better, the vast majority of that (up to 95 percent, according to CMU’s engineering blog) will just end up either as concentrated deposits in the surrounding soil, or dissolving into ground water. In both cases, accumulation over time can have negative knock-on effects, in addition to being terribly inefficient at their primary task.

This method, described by researchers in detail in a new academic paper, would manage to improve efficiency to nearly 100% absorption of nutrients and pesticides delivered as nanoparticles (particles smaller than 50 nanometers across – a human hair is about 75,000 nanometers wide, for context) sprayed onto the leaves of plants, which then make their way through the plant’s internal vascular system all the way down into the root system.

Using this method, agricultural professionals could also greatly improve delivery of plant antibiotics, making it easier and more cost-effective to treat plant diseases affecting crop yields. It would be cheaper to delivery all nutrients and pesticides, too, because the big bump in efficiency of uptake by the plants means you can use much less of anything you want to deliver to achieve your desired effect.

This research could have huge impact in terms of addressing growing global food supply needs while making the most existing agricultural land footprint and decreasing the need for potentially damaging expansion of the same.

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