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Remember the 1980s movie Brewster’s Millions, in which a minor league baseball pitcher (played by Richard Pryor) must spend $30 million in 30 days to inherit $300 million? Pryor goes on an epic spending spree for a bigger payoff down the road.
One of the world’s biggest public companies is making that film look like a weekend in the Hamptons. Japan’s SoftBank Group, led by its indefatigable CEO Masayoshi Son, is shooting to invest $100 billion over the next five years toward what the company calls the information revolution.
The newly-created SoftBank Vision Fund, with a handful of key investors, appears ready to almost single-handedly hack the technology revolution. Announced only last year, the fund had its first major close in May with $93 billion in committed capital. The rest of the money is expected to be raised this year.
The fund is unprecedented. Data firm CB Insights notes that the SoftBank Vision Fund, if and when it hits the $100 billion mark, will equal the total amount that VC-backed companies received in all of 2016—$100.8 billion across 8,372 deals globally.
The money will go toward both billion-dollar corporations and startups, with a minimum $100 million buy-in. The focus is on core technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics and the Internet of Things.
Aside from being Japan’s richest man, Son is also a futurist who has predicted the singularity, the moment in time when machines will become smarter than humans and technology will progress exponentially. Son pegs the date as 2047. He appears to be hedging that bet in the biggest way possible.
Show Me the Money
Ostensibly a telecommunications company, SoftBank Group was founded in 1981 and started investing in internet technologies by the mid-1990s. Son infamously lost about $70 billion of his own fortune after the dot-com bubble burst around 2001. The company itself has a market cap of nearly $90 billion today, about half of where it was during the heydays of the internet boom.
The ups and downs did nothing to slake the company’s thirst for technology. It has made nine acquisitions and more than 130 investments since 1995. In 2017 alone, SoftBank has poured billions into nearly 30 companies and acquired three others. Some of those investments are being transferred to the massive SoftBank Vision Fund.
SoftBank is not going it alone with the new fund. More than half of the money—$60 billion—comes via the Middle East through Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund ($45 billion) and Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Company ($15 billion). Other players at the table include Apple, Qualcomm, Sharp, Foxconn, and Oracle.
During a company conference in August, Son notes the SoftBank Vision Fund is not just about making money. “We don’t just want to be an investor just for the money game,” he says through a translator. “We want to make the information revolution. To do the information revolution, you can’t do it by yourself; you need a lot of synergy.”
Off to the Races
The fund has wasted little time creating that synergy. In July, its first official investment, not surprisingly, went to a company that specializes in artificial intelligence for robots—Brain Corp. The San Diego-based startup uses AI to turn manual machines into self-driving robots that navigate their environments autonomously. The first commercial application appears to be a really smart commercial-grade version that crosses a Roomba and Zamboni.
A second investment in July was a bit more surprising. SoftBank and its fund partners led a $200 million mega-round for Plenty, an agricultural tech company that promises to reshape farming by going vertical. Using IoT sensors and machine learning, Plenty claims its urban vertical farms can produce 350 times more vegetables than a conventional farm using 1 percent of the water.
The spending spree continued into August.
The SoftBank Vision Fund led a $1.1 billion investment into a little-known biotechnology company called Roivant Sciences that goes dumpster diving for abandoned drugs and then creates subsidiaries around each therapy. For example, Axovant Sciences is devoted to neurology while Urovant focuses on urology. TechCrunch reports that Roivant is also creating a tech-focused subsidiary, called Datavant, that will use AI for drug discovery and other healthcare initiatives, such as designing clinical trials.
The AI angle may partly explain SoftBank’s interest in backing the biggest private placement in healthcare to date.
Also in August, SoftBank Vision Fund led a mix of $2.5 billion in primary and secondary capital investments into India’s largest private company in what was touted as the largest single investment in a private Indian company. Flipkart is an e-commerce company in the mold of Amazon.
The fund tacked on a $250 million investment round in August to Kabbage, an Atlanta-based startup in the alt-lending sector for small businesses. It ended big with a $4.4 billion investment into a co-working company called WeWork.
Betterment of Humanity
And those investments only include companies that SoftBank Vision Fund has backed directly.
SoftBank the company will offer—or has already turned over—previous investments to the Vision Fund in more than a half-dozen companies. Those assets include its shares in Nvidia, which produces chips for AI applications, and its first serious foray into autonomous driving with Nauto, a California startup that uses AI and high-tech cameras to retrofit vehicles to improve driving safety. The more miles the AI logs, the more it learns about safe and unsafe driving behaviors.
Other recent acquisitions, such as Boston Dynamics, a well-known US robotics company owned briefly by Google’s parent company Alphabet, will remain under the SoftBank Group umbrella for now.
This spending spree begs the question: What is the overall vision behind the SoftBank’s relentless pursuit of technology companies? A spokesperson for SoftBank told Singularity Hub that the “common thread among all of these companies is that they are creating the foundational platforms for the next stage of the information revolution.All of the companies, he adds, share SoftBank’s criteria of working toward “the betterment of humanity.”
While the SoftBank portfolio is diverse, from agtech to fintech to biotech, it’s obvious that SoftBank is betting on technologies that will connect the world in new and amazing ways. For instance, it wrote a $1 billion check last year in support of OneWeb, which aims to launch 900 satellites to bring internet to everyone on the planet. (It will also be turned over to the SoftBank Vision Fund.)
SoftBank also led a half-billion equity investment round earlier this year in a UK company called Improbable, which employs cloud-based distributed computing to create virtual worlds for gaming. The next step for the company is massive simulations of the real world that supports simultaneous users who can experience the same environment together(and another candidate for the SoftBank Vision Fund.)
Even something as seemingly low-tech as WeWork, which provides a desk or office in locations around the world, points toward a more connected planet.
In the end, the singularity is about bringing humanity together through technology. No one said it would be easy—or cheap.
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The multiverse of science fiction is populated by robots that are indistinguishable from humans. They are usually smarter, faster, and stronger than us. They seem capable of doing any job imaginable, from piloting a starship and battling alien invaders to taking out the trash and cooking a gourmet meal.
The reality, of course, is far from fantasy. Aside from industrial settings, robots have yet to meet The Jetsons. The robots the public are exposed to seem little more than over-sized plastic toys, pre-programmed to perform a set of tasks without the ability to interact meaningfully with their environment or their creators.
To paraphrase PayPal co-founder and tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, we wanted cool robots, instead we got 140 characters and Flippy the burger bot. But scientists are making progress to empower robots with the ability to see and respond to their surroundings just like humans.
Some of the latest developments in that arena were presented this month at the annual Robotics: Science and Systems Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The papers drilled down into topics that ranged from how to make robots more conversational and help them understand language ambiguities to helping them see and navigate through complex spaces.
Ben Burchfiel, a graduate student at Duke University, and his thesis advisor George Konidaris, an assistant professor of computer science at Brown University, developed an algorithm to enable machines to see the world more like humans.
In the paper, Burchfiel and Konidaris demonstrate how they can teach robots to identify and possibly manipulate three-dimensional objects even when they might be obscured or sitting in unfamiliar positions, such as a teapot that has been tipped over.
The researchers trained their algorithm by feeding it 3D scans of about 4,000 common household items such as beds, chairs, tables, and even toilets. They then tested its ability to identify about 900 new 3D objects just from a bird’s eye view. The algorithm made the right guess 75 percent of the time versus a success rate of about 50 percent for other computer vision techniques.
In an email interview with Singularity Hub, Burchfiel notes his research is not the first to train machines on 3D object classification. How their approach differs is that they confine the space in which the robot learns to classify the objects.
“Imagine the space of all possible objects,” Burchfiel explains. “That is to say, imagine you had tiny Legos, and I told you [that] you could stick them together any way you wanted, just build me an object. You have a huge number of objects you could make!”
The infinite possibilities could result in an object no human or machine might recognize.
To address that problem, the researchers had their algorithm find a more restricted space that would host the objects it wants to classify. “By working in this restricted space—mathematically we call it a subspace—we greatly simplify our task of classification. It is the finding of this space that sets us apart from previous approaches.”
Meanwhile, a pair of undergraduate students at Brown University figured out a way to teach robots to understand directions better, even at varying degrees of abstraction.
The research, led by Dilip Arumugam and Siddharth Karamcheti, addressed how to train a robot to understand nuances of natural language and then follow instructions correctly and efficiently.
“The problem is that commands can have different levels of abstraction, and that can cause a robot to plan its actions inefficiently or fail to complete the task at all,” says Arumugam in a press release.
In this project, the young researchers crowdsourced instructions for moving a virtual robot through an online domain. The space consisted of several rooms and a chair, which the robot was told to manipulate from one place to another. The volunteers gave various commands to the robot, ranging from general (“take the chair to the blue room”) to step-by-step instructions.
The researchers then used the database of spoken instructions to teach their system to understand the kinds of words used in different levels of language. The machine learned to not only follow instructions but to recognize the level of abstraction. That was key to kickstart its problem-solving abilities to tackle the job in the most appropriate way.
The research eventually moved from virtual pixels to a real place, using a Roomba-like robot that was able to respond to instructions within one second 90 percent of the time. Conversely, when unable to identify the specificity of the task, it took the robot 20 or more seconds to plan a task about 50 percent of the time.
One application of this new machine-learning technique referenced in the paper is a robot worker in a warehouse setting, but there are many fields that could benefit from a more versatile machine capable of moving seamlessly between small-scale operations and generalized tasks.
“Other areas that could possibly benefit from such a system include things from autonomous vehicles… to assistive robotics, all the way to medical robotics,” says Karamcheti, responding to a question by email from Singularity Hub.
More to Come
These achievements are yet another step toward creating robots that see, listen, and act more like humans. But don’t expect Disney to build a real-life Westworld next to Toon Town anytime soon.
“I think we’re a long way off from human-level communication,” Karamcheti says. “There are so many problems preventing our learning models from getting to that point, from seemingly simple questions like how to deal with words never seen before, to harder, more complicated questions like how to resolve the ambiguities inherent in language, including idiomatic or metaphorical speech.”
Even relatively verbose chatbots can run out of things to say, Karamcheti notes, as the conversation becomes more complex.
The same goes for human vision, according to Burchfiel.
While deep learning techniques have dramatically improved pattern matching—Google can find just about any picture of a cat—there’s more to human eyesight than, well, meets the eye.
“There are two big areas where I think perception has a long way to go: inductive bias and formal reasoning,” Burchfiel says.
The former is essentially all of the contextual knowledge people use to help them reason, he explains. Burchfiel uses the example of a puddle in the street. People are conditioned or biased to assume it’s a puddle of water rather than a patch of glass, for instance.
“This sort of bias is why we see faces in clouds; we have strong inductive bias helping us identify faces,” he says. “While it sounds simple at first, it powers much of what we do. Humans have a very intuitive understanding of what they expect to see, [and] it makes perception much easier.”
Formal reasoning is equally important. A machine can use deep learning, in Burchfiel’s example, to figure out the direction any river flows once it understands that water runs downhill. But it’s not yet capable of applying the sort of human reasoning that would allow us to transfer that knowledge to an alien setting, such as figuring out how water moves through a plumbing system on Mars.
“Much work was done in decades past on this sort of formal reasoning… but we have yet to figure out how to merge it with standard machine-learning methods to create a seamless system that is useful in the actual physical world.”
Robots still have a lot to learn about being human, which should make us feel good that we’re still by far the most complex machines on the planet.
Image Credit: Alex Knight via Unsplash Continue reading
Halloween has never been my holiday of choice. Why? Because scary things, well, actually scare me. But here in the Bay Area, adults go nuts for Halloween. This year, technology companies are showing some serious commitment to Halloween too, and they're using technology to amp up the fright factor—like creating virtual reality simulated haunted houses and using artificial intelligence to generate ridiculously scary images. I’ll be avoiding these tech-induced terrors this weekend, but here are a few stories we… read more Continue reading