Peter Beck was more productive than most teenagers. He spent much of his youth tinkering in the family’s garage workshop in small-town New Zealand, amid welding and milling equipment. At 15 he built an aluminum bike from scratch. At 16 he bought a rusted-out Austin Mini for $300 and refurbished it end-to-end, rebuilding the engine and suspension and fixing all of the body panels. Beck’s parents, a museum director and a teacher, encouraged their son—within reason. “Mum would bring dinner down and set it on a bench for me, but it would just get cold,” Beck says. “Eventually she would yell out, ‘You have to stop angle grinding and get to bed.’ ”
In 1999, at 18, Beck did something most people would consider very stupid. After checking out books from the library to learn how to make his own fuel, he set up a laboratory in a backyard shed and set to work on a rocket engine. Lacking a hazmat suit, he wrapped himself in plastic bags and put on a welding helmet as he distilled peroxide and other chemicals.
After successfully testing one of his engine designs, he decided it was time for a proper adventure. He strapped the engine to the back of a custom-built bicycle, dressed himself in a red jumpsuit and white helmet, and fired up a trial run in a local parking lot. Leaning forward in a near-prone position, he managed to reach about 90 miles an hour. To slow himself down, he first sat upright, allowing wind resistance to do some of the work lest the brake pads or wheels melt. “Only a few people on the planet have put their legs inside a rocket,” Beck says. “It’s a very good feeling.”
For most people, a successful rocket test conducted with home-brewed fuel might have led to an engineering degree. Beck instead took on a series of apprenticeships and jobs. He worked for an aluminum supplier, cleaning toilets and putting together mills and lathes. He built luxury yachts, becoming expert at analyzing their acoustics to dampen engine and propeller noise. He worked for a local appliance maker, where he learned tool and die casting. Finally, he joined a government-backed R&D lab.
At every stop he would complete his required tasks, then stay late into the night fiddling with his rocket engine designs. Co-workers appreciated his pluck, and now and again an expensive bit of material, like a $2,000 hunk of titanium, would mysteriously appear in his workspace.
In 2006, Beck’s wife got a work assignment that brought the couple to the U.S. for a month. He took the opportunity to tour the country’s aerospace research institutes and companies, showing up—sometimes unannounced—at places like NASA’s Ames Research Center and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as well as Boeing Co. and Rocketdyne. He was hoping to find a job but came away depressed. “I expected there to be all these startup people running around with high energy and crazy shit everywhere,” he says. “But there was none of that happening.” Companies and labs were still making rockets and talking about missions to Mars, but their approaches seemed stale.
Every day, Americans spend about $1.2 billion online. That figure has roughly doubled in the past five years, according to the Department of Commerce, and it’s likely to double again in the next five as the internet continues to devour traditional retail. So it might come as a surprise that the web’s financial infrastructure is old and slow. For years, the explosive growth of e-commerce has outpaced the underlying technology; companies wanting to set up shop have had to go to a bank, a payment processor, and “gateways” that handle connections between the two. This takes weeks, lots of people, and fee after fee. Much of the software that processes the transactions is decades old, and the more modern bits are written by banks, credit card companies, and financial middlemen, none of whom are exactly winning hackathons for elegant coding.
In 2010, Patrick and John Collison, brothers from rural Ireland, began to debug this process. Their company, Stripe Inc., built software that businesses could plug into websites and apps to instantly connect with credit card and banking systems and receive payments. The product was a hit with Silicon Valley startups. Businesses such as Lyft, Facebook, DoorDash, and thousands that aspired to be like them turned Stripe into the financial backbone of their operations.
The company now handles tens of billions of dollars in internet transactions annually, making money by charging a small fee on each one. Half of Americans who bought something online in the past year did so, probably unknowingly, via Stripe. This has given it a $9.2 billion valuation, several times larger than those of its nearest competitors, and made Patrick, 28, and John, 26, two of the world’s youngest billionaires.
But payments is a brutal battleground. Countless startups, big banks, and companies such as Google Inc. and Apple Inc. are trying to grab what pennies they can with their own systems. This competition, combined with the industry’s minuscule profit margins, has left pundits asking whether Stripe’s lofty appraisal makes sense. “We’re a ways out before they can satisfy that valuation,” says Brendan Miller, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. “They’re valued higher than a lot of players who have been around for years with thousands of employees, tremendously more volume, and clients all over the world.”
People get up to weird things in New Zealand. At the University of Auckland, if you want to run hours upon hours of experiments on a baby trapped in a high chair, that’s cool. You can even have a conversation with her surprisingly chatty disembodied head.
BabyX, the virtual creation of Mark Sagar and his researchers, looks impossibly real. The child, a 3D digital rendering based on images of Sagar’s daughter at 18 months, has rosy cheeks, warm eyes, a full head of blond hair, and a soft, sweet voice. When I visited the computer scientist’s lab last year, BabyX was stuck inside a computer but could still see me sitting in front of the screen with her “father.” To get her attention, we’d call out, “Hi, baby. Look at me, baby,” and wave our hands. When her gaze locked onto our faces, we’d hold up a book filled with words (such as “apple” or “ball”) and pictures (sheep, clocks), then ask BabyX to read the words and identify the objects. When she got an answer right, we praised her, and she smiled with confidence. When she got one wrong, chiding her would turn her teary and sullen.
If it sounds odd to encounter a virtual child that can read words from a book, it’s much more disorienting to feel a sense of fatherly pride after she nails a bunch in a row and lights up with what appears to be authentic joy. BabyX and I seemed to be having a moment, learning from each other while trading expressions and subtle cues so familiar to the human experience. That’s the feeling Sagar is after with his research and his new company Soul Machines Ltd.
The term “artificial intelligence” has become a catchall for impersonal, mysterious calculations performed behind closed doors. Huge farms of computers crank away at piles of data, using statistics to analyze our internet history, driving habits, and speech to produce targeted ads, better maps, and Apple Inc.’s Siri. This sense of AI as an amorphous shadow falling over more and more of our lives has left people from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk skeptical of the technology, which tends to feel unnatural, somehow less than real.
Many of the biggest names in the technology industry are consumed with developing an artificial general intelligence, or AGI. Unlike today’s leading artificial intelligence software, an AGI wouldn’t need flesh-and-blood trainers to figure out how to translate English to Mandarin or spot tumors in an X-ray. In theory, it would have some measure of independence from its creators, solve complex, novel problems on its own, and herald an era in which humankind is no longer superior to machines.
The consensus among our pitiful fleshbrains is that if humans ever manage to create an AGI, it’ll arise in Mountain View, Calif., Beijing, or Moscow. All three cities are near world-class AI research universities and are home to companies that have pumped billions into the AGI race. There exists, however, a chance that the breakthrough will come from the Swiss city of Lugano. Yes, Lugano.
The picturesque slice of Switzerland’s southern tip is home to about 60,000 people, including a computer scientist named Jürgen Schmidhuber. He’s a professor, a researcher, and the co-founder of a 25-employee AI startup called Nnaisense. (Pronounced like “nascence,” the name is proof that Silicon Valley holds no monopoly on ridiculous company names.) Schmidhuber is a pioneer who effectively figured out how to give AI systems memories. His ideas appear in one form or another in just about every smartphone, social network, and digital assistant. He’s not shy to mention these things, or to cite reams of documentation to back himself up, or to say things like, “My team plans to change the course of human history,” in between bites of salmon lasagna at a Lugano cafe.
Every spring, thousands of great white sharks begin a mysterious migration. From up and down America’s West Coast, they head straight for a Colorado-size patch of the Pacific about halfway between San Diego and Hawaii. Once there, they hang for months at what marine biologists call the White Shark Cafe, frolicking and diving 1,500 feet or more. For decades, we didn’t know much more about what they do there—or why. This year, we should get some answers, thanks to a pair of saildrones.
Each drone is a 23-foot neon-orange sailboat that catches wind with a solid wing more durable than a cloth sail. As the name implies, they’re seaworthy, autonomous robots, though a human pilot can take control remotely. In mid-March, two saildrones packed with sensors, cameras, and scientific instruments launched from a dock in the Bay Area city of Alameda, gliding past Alcatraz and beneath the Golden Gate Bridge to begin a three-week, 1,200-mile journey to the Shark Cafe.
By early April, the saildrones arrived and began picking up signals from a group of 37 sharks that researchers had tagged with acoustic transmitters. The drones pinpointed the sharks’ locations, then sailed back and forth, using sonar to see what they were up to. Via satellite, the drones relayed images and other data to Barbara Block, a Stanford marine biologist who started planning a research voyage to the Cafe three years ago. Block has studied these sharks for much of her career, but this was her first detailed look at their vast deepwater playground.
Over the past five years, artificial intelligence has gone from perennial vaporware to one of the technology industry’s brightest hopes. Computers have learned to recognize faces and objects, understand the spoken word, and translate scores of languages. The world’s biggest companies—Alphabet, Amazon.com, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft—have bet their futures largely on AI, racing to see who’s fastest at building smarter machines. That’s fueled the perception that AI has come out of nowhere, what with Tesla’s self-driving cars and Alexa chatting up your child. But this was no overnight hit, nor was it the brainchild of a single Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
The ideas behind modern AI—neural networks and machine learning—have roots you can trace to the last stages of World War II. Back then, academics were beginning to build computing systems meant to store and process information in ways similar to the human brain. Over the decades, the technology had its ups and downs, but it failed to capture the attention of computer scientists broadly until around 2012, thanks to a handful of stubborn researchers who weren’t afraid to look foolish. They remained convinced that neural nets would light up the world and alter humanity’s destiny.
While these pioneers were scattered around the globe, there happened to be an unusually large concentration of neural net devotees in Canada. That’s only partly through luck: The government-backed Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (Cifar) attracted a small group of academics to the country by funding neural net research when it was anything but fashionable. It backed computer scientists such as Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun at the University of Toronto, Yoshua Bengio at the University of Montreal, and the University of Alberta’s Richard Sutton, encouraging them to share ideas and stick to their beliefs. They came up with many of the concepts that fueled the AI revolution, and all are now considered godfathers of the technology. This is the peculiar story—pieced together from my interviews with them—of why it took so long for neural nets to work, how these scientists stuck together, and why Canada, of all places, ended up as the staging ground for the rise of the machines.
(Now, not everyone agrees with Canada’s pride of place. See if you can spot German researcher Jürgen Schmidhuber below, and find out why he’s so upset here.)
The mystery box sits inside an all-white room in an office building in San Francisco. It’s a large, wooden crate with no features other than the word “ZOOX” in big, black block letters and a sturdy-looking padlock. For about $100 million, you can get a key and have a look inside.
Few have had the pleasure. What they saw is a black, carlike robot about the size and shape of a Mini Cooper. Or actually, like the rear halves of two Mini Coopers welded together. The interior has no steering wheel or dashboard, just an open space with two bench seats facing each other. The whole mock-up looks like someone could punch a hole through it. But because you’ve just invested $100 million in the thing, you’ve earned the right to have a seat and enjoy a simulated city tour while you pray that this vision of a driverless future will come to pass.
Of the many self-driving car hopefuls, Zoox Inc. may be the most daring. The company’s robot taxi could be amazing or terrible. It might change the world—not in the contemporary Silicon Valley sense, but in a meaningful sense—or it might be an epic flop. At this point, it’s hard to tell how much of the sales pitch is real. Luckily for the company’s founders, there have been plenty of rich people excited to, as Hunter S. Thompson once put it, buy the ticket and take the ride.
The Sherpa people living at high altitudes in Nepal and the Himalayas have a genetic trait that puzzles and fascinates scientists. They’re able to lead healthy, active lives with blood oxygen levels far below what most humans need to function properly. Where other people in high altitudes have adapted to boost their oxygen to typical levels over time, the Sherpa have gene variants that let them live in what should be a hypoxic, or oxygen-starved, state. “They don’t suffer any ill health effects,” says geneticist Stephane Castel. “It’s incredible.”
Castel is the co-founder of Variant Bio, a startup that’s spent the past couple years scouring the planet for genetic outliers. His team is betting that by sequencing such people’s DNA, Variant will be able to untangle the root causes of desirable traits—superior metabolism, eyesight, immune response—and synthesize drugs and other therapies that could pass some of these benefits on to the rest of us. If Variant’s software and scientific analysis can pinpoint the right bits of genetic code, the company will begin the painstaking, multiyear process of trying to develop drugs and therapies based on that data.
Max Polyakov is in Texas, and the aspiring rocket magnate wants to do Texan things. It’s months before the coronavirus pandemic will force even the Lone Star State into a brief, reluctant lockdown, so Polyakov feels plenty comfortable driving a truck to the 5-Way Beer Barn about 50 miles north of downtown Austin. “Look at that! Look at that! Look at that!” he exclaims in a thick Slavic accent as the red storehouse comes into view. “We’ve come at the right time for the Beer Barn!” There, he can pull up, roll down the window, and get suds, harder booze, or a hay bale plopped into his vehicle by a friendly person who starts the conversation with “What y’all need today?”
Drive-through service isn’t what Polyakov is after. Inside the barn, more or less an open warehouse with towers of inventory, the 43-year-old appears to savor all the little things he doesn’t see in his native Ukraine. His eyes flit from the chewing tobacco to the beef jerky. He marvels at the corn feed for deer. He’s even excited to use a credit card instead of cash in this rural setting. “Culture is culture!” he says on the drive out, 24-beer variety pack in hand.
relates to A Rocket Mogul Is Preparing to Launch a Union of U.S. and Soviet Technology
Polyakov at his home in California.PHOTOGRAPHER: KELSEY MCCLELLAN FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK
This fish-out-of-water routine is fun, but Polyakov is someone the emerging commercial spaceflight industry needs to take seriously. To date, he’s put $150 million of his own money into rocketry, more than anyone besides Elon Musk, with SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos, with Blue Origin. Polyakov’s company, Firefly Aerospace Inc., runs a vast engine test site about a half-mile from the beer barn. From offices in nearby Cedar Park, Firefly executives have put the company in the mix for a series of contracts to launch satellites into orbit for NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, and a string of commercial satellite companies.
Blake Scholl just kept turning up. For months he would rent a plane in Silicon Valley, fly himself to California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, and get a table at the Voyager restaurant, a well-known hangout for modern-day aviation mavens.
Scholl would sit for hours, listening to conversations and introducing himself to pilots and engineers from aeronautics pioneers such as Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. and Scaled Composites LLC. Visit by visit, Scholl, an aerospace outsider, began to figure out the kinds of people and skills needed to bring a revolutionary new aircraft to life. “I’ve not seen such a practical approach before or since,” says Elliot Seguin, a test pilot who knows Scholl.
On Oct. 7 the results of Scholl’s scouting missions and subsequent years of hard work will be revealed to the public. His startup, Boom Technology Inc., founded in 2014, will unveil the completed version of its XB-1 supersonic jet. While only a demonstrator prototype designed for a single rider—the test pilot—the plane represents a milestone in the pursuit of superfast air travel.
If all goes well, on May 27 two American astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, will ride in a Tesla electric car to a Florida launchpad, hop out, and then climb into the nose of a Falcon 9 rocket built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. They’ll strap in before a bank of superslick touchscreens, as opposed to a Cold War-era clutter of buttons and knobs. The rocket will blast off at 4:33 p.m. EDT and dock with the International Space Station about 19 hours later. It will be the first privately built rocket and capsule ever to put humans into space, as well as the first time in almost a decade that an American spacecraft will ferry Americans into space from American soil.
In another era and under slightly different circumstances, this event would be the whole, glorious story. Immigrant rocket man ferries brave patriots into the heavens. Plop some ice cream on the apple pie, pass the Budweisers around, and let the livestreamed adrenaline loose on the imaginations of millions of kids.
Alas, we do not live in such times. We have a Twitter President and all the tremendous, very big, super-duper baggage that comes with him. We have a Space Force. We have a virus run amok. And, in Musk, we have a Twitter Business Icon with his own impressive set of baggage. So the moment of achievement is complicated. Sort of like The Right Stuff meets The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test where the idea that “anything is possible” is as unnerving as it is encouraging.
Every summer, DJI, the world’s largest drone maker, puts on a competition in Shenzhen called RoboMaster. If amateur robotics warfare isn’t your hobby of choice, you should know that at the event hundreds of university students from China, Japan, the U.S., and elsewhere build robotic vehicles the size of lawn mowers, arm them with plastic bullets, and pit the machines against one another in front of thousands of screaming fans.
The competition was Frank Wang’s idea. For several years, the founder and chief executive officer of DJI (full name: SZ DJI Technology Co.) has attempted to turn RoboMaster into something like a cult that celebrates engineering—and, not incidentally, stokes demand for his company’s products. Along with the event, there’s a TV cartoon, a reality show, a documentary, and a comic book series. Starting last year, DJI began selling a smaller version of a battlebot to consumers as a DIY kit called the RoboMaster S1.
In public, Wang doesn’t preach the RoboMaster gospel himself. He’s perhaps the most private tech CEO of them all, shunning all but a handful of media requests over his 14 years as DJI’s boss and figurehead. He stood up a planned interview for this story twice, leaving his representatives to apologize and explain that they just never quite know what the man will do. In fact, the rumor going around DJI’s press office is that Wang might not speak to a reporter ever again.
The 40-foot-long, 4-foot-wide rocket loomed over the quiet suburb of Alameda, Calif., on the morning of Jan. 18, near the Pottery Barn Outlet. A handful of engineers and metal wrenchers got to work early, setting up the rocket and connecting it to a mess of electronics and tubes. The device stood up straight, with the help of some black metal scaffolding. Its bottom third gleamed aluminum; the rest, actor-teeth white. Over the course of the day, the team pumped in various gases and liquids to prepare the rocket’s valves, chambers, and other components for a crucial test.
Shortly after midnight, the rocket was ready for an exercise called a cold flow, meant to ensure that its propellant tanks can handle liquid fuel. Once the team had filled the rocket, taken the needed measurements, and checked for leaks, they simply evacuated the machine by releasing huge volumes of liquid nitrogen into the air. The thing about liquid nitrogen is that it must be kept supercold to remain liquid. It boiled instantly on contact with the outside air, creating a billowing white cloud that stretched out more than 200 yards. With the team’s floodlights beaming down on the test site, this odd fog monster easily could have been seen by anyone living in the houses as close as 2,000 feet away. Soon, though, the rocket was trucked off toward its next temporary home, a spaceport in Kodiak, Alaska.
The last stop for civilization before the North Pole is Svalbard, an archipelago north of mainland Norway along the 80th parallel. Most of Svalbard’s old Norwegian and Russian coal mines have shut down, so locals have rebranded their vast acres of permafrost as an attraction to scientists, doomsday preppers, and scientist doomsday preppers. Around Svalbard, things can be hidden from the stresses of the outside world. There’s a treaty in place to keep it neutral in times of war. In other words, it’s an ideal spot for a big global reset button or two.
Pride of place belongs to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where seeds for a wide range of plants, including the crops most valuable to humans, are preserved in case of some famine-inducing pandemic or nuclear apocalypse. The seed vault looks like something out of a movie, its entrance a triangular obelisk jutting high out of a blinding white expanse. It sparkles with glowing green lights.
Nat Friedman, however, hasn’t come for the beat-the-apocalypse aesthetics. On Oct. 24, the tall, thin, 42-year-old chief executive officer of GitHub Inc., Microsoft’s world-leading code bank, hops in a van and drives about 15 minutes from his hotel to an abandoned coal mine, where he puts on a miner’s helmet and headlamp. Deep inside one of the mine’s frigid, eerily quiet arteries, Friedman comes to what looks like a metal tool shed. “It’s more mine-y and rustic and raw-hole-in-the-rock than I thought it would be,” he says.
The tennis tournament -- more formally known as the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California -- provided him with the perfect backdrop to flex his passions: tennis and selling stuff. Hurd turned the event, which Oracle Corp. co-founder Larry Ellison bought in 2009, into a two-week database and software sales extravaganza. He could be seen strolling the grounds or at nearby hotels constantly schmoozing with customers and using his connections with tennis legends like Chris Evert and Rafael Nadal to win people over and help close a deal. Along the way, Hurd, Oracle's co-CEO, would sneak in a hit -- he had a big serve and liked to flaunt it -- or check on the American college players he was mentoring and the young pros he was quietly helping with financial aid. For Hurd, business and pleasure were one and the same and almost always intermixed in his life.
The moon is all the rage these days. China wants to send people there. So too does the United States and NASA. In fact, just about every country with a space program has some sort of lunar ambition that they hope will play out over the next few years.
Now, there's a new entrant in this new space race, a nonprofit organization called the Open Lunar Foundation. Based in San Francisco, it's a group made up of tech executives and engineers -- many of them with former ties to NASA -- who have serious ambitions to create a lunar settlement.
Rocket Lab has sent seven spacecraft into Earth's orbit, an impressive feat for a 13-year-old company. Now it wants to get those rockets back.
Peter Beck, the founder and chief executive officer of the rocket maker, outlined a plan Tuesday to develop small, reusable rockets. Rather than use thrusters to help the rockets land as they reenter the atmosphere, Rocket Lab will deploy parachutes and then catch the rocket body in midair with a helicopter. It's a daring idea and one that goes against Beck's previous suggestion that reuse wasn't technologically feasible. "Unfortunately, I find myself in the position of eating my hat," Beck said onstage at a space industry conference.
Behind every self-driving car or cashier-less Amazon Go convenience store sit thousands of humans whose job it is to train computers to see. These people look at pictures and identify what's in the footage, labeling something as a truck or a bag of Doritos. Their observations are fed back into artificial intelligence software that then learns how to do the same thing over time. It's the drudgery behind the magic.
The robot sailboat is called #1020. It’s a lackluster moniker for a machine that just spent seven months battling its way through 12,500 miles of frigid, massive waves to circumnavigate Antarctica. The robot, made by startup Saildrone, is the first of its kind to complete the harrowing journey. More important, it’s the only scientific vehicle to have captured such a detailed environmental picture of the state of the Southern Ocean, bringing back data that could be key to our understanding of climate change.
There’s a photo of J.B. Straubel from 2004 that has become part of Tesla lore. It was taken back when the company was more of a hopeful concept than an actual carmaker. He’s in the backyard of his house, hand-gluing lithium ion batteries to a case as part of the arts and crafts project that was Tesla’s first vehicle. Straubel, the company’s longtime chief technology officer, looks the part of the youthful, eager, problem-solving engineer who has no idea of the hell that’s coming for him, and that’s exactly what he was. Of course, that version of Straubel also could never have imagined the heights he would achieve.
Elon Musk has had a lot to show off over the past 25 years, including an early online bank, solar roof tiles, a tunnel-digging machine, an electric car, a reusable rocket, and even the occasional electric car riding a rocket. He may have just topped them all with the help of a tubby brown-and-white rat.
The rodent belongs to Neuralink, a company Musk founded to develop a data transmission system between people and computers. Neuralink has been supersecretive about the nature of its work since its founding in 2017, until now. During its first demonstration in front of a reporter, the startup showed it can record a rat’s brain activity via thousands of tiny electrodes surgically implanted alongside the animal’s neurons and synapses. To do this, Neuralink, based in San Francisco, appears to have achieved a number of breakthroughs that let it place high-speed computing systems inside a brain, while causing less damage than existing techniques.
BOTTOM LINE - The Neuralink team says it’s about ready to test its brain implants on human patients, but first it’ll have to persuade the FDA, and some patients.
A few years ago, reporter Sarah McBride noticed that a top engineer at Twitter was also an expert on the brains of birds. Then, more and more, she started seeing that many top tech companies have bird brain experts in their highest ranks?--that includes Apple, Google, Intel and a secretive startup founded by Elon Musk. This week on Decrypted, Sarah and fellow reporter Ashlee Vance set out to understand why Silicon Valley is so interested in avian minds, and what they could tell us about tech’s ability to influence our own.
Want to hear more? Subscribe on Apple Podcasts and Pocket Casts for new episodes every week. Decrypted is a podcast that uncovers the hidden projects, quiet rivalries and uncomfortable truths in the global technology industry.
Jaguar is a mouse. He lives at Harvard’s Rowland Institute, where, from time to time, he plays video games on a rig that looks like it belongs in A Clockwork Orange. Metal bars position him inside a small platform in front of a metal lever; his mission is to find a virtual box’s edges by feel. To do this, he reaches with his right paw to grab the joystick, which can rotate 360 degrees, and maneuvers it until he feels feedback from the machine. When he reaches the right target area--say, an edge of the box--a tube rewards him with a dribble of sugar water.
DJI, the world’s largest drone maker, has come down to Earth.
On June 11, the company most closely associated with quadcopters plans to unveil a toaster-size robotic tank called the RoboMaster S1. Made of plastic and metal, it has four wheels, a rectangular base, and a gun turret that can swivel and fire lasers or tiny plastic pellets. Unlike DJI’s flying drones, which do everything from taking pretty pictures to fertilizing fields, the RoboMaster is part teaching tool and part battle bot. The odd contraption ships as a kit that people must assemble, learning about robotics and software along the way.
BOTTOM LINE - Kids may not love the assembly or cleanup portions of the RoboMaster S1 experience, but it’s tough to argue with the fun of a living room battle between minitanks.
The scene played out much like you see on television, only scarier. It was May 2017, and a fight between young Palestinian men and Israel Defense Forces soldiers broke out on a street in Ramallah. A handful of troops were barricaded behind two military vehicles stopped in the middle of the road, and now and again the young Palestinian men would rush up, sling rocks at the soldiers, then retreat. This back-and-forth went on for 20 minutes before the youngsters grew more brazen, lighting a dumpster on fire and pushing it toward the IDF position. Standing amid other onlookers on a dry, scrub-covered hill about 100 yards away, I wondered what would happen next, when a flood of IDF soldiers appeared out of nowhere. They peppered the area with rubber bullets and charged the Palestinians and those of us on the hill. People ran for cover. The acrid smell of tear gas hit nostrils. Ambulances reversed in haste with bleeding rock hurlers inside.
Maybe you’re tired of sharing a studio apartment with five other coders. Or perhaps WeWork’s beer selection no longer inspires big thoughts. Or maybe you’re just a restless multimillionaire who simply wants to be rich somewhere else. Whatever the case, New Zealand has the immigration system for you. The country’s Global Impact Visa is as much about intellectual renewal and generating positive vibes as economic impact. You can live in New Zealand or not, do business in New Zealand or not, and stay in New Zealand at the end of the visa term or not. The main requirements, which were set when the program was established two years ago, are that you’re an interesting person with good intentions and good ideas and that you know lots of other interesting people with good intentions and good ideas.
Google’s long-running quest has been “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” This corporate mantra focuses, for the most part, on arranging and analyzing data produced by humans, be it websites, books, calendar appointments, or the location of businesses around a city. But what if instead of gathering the world’s information from the ground up, you could begin organizing all of that data from above by looking down at Planet Earth itself? This has been the mission of Orbital Insight.
OneWeb -- fresh off launching its first batch of satellites -- has pulled in another huge round of funding as it seeks to build a worldwide internet system delivered from space.
On Monday, the seven-year-old startup announced that it had just raised $1.25 billion, bringing its total investment to date to $3.4 billion. SoftBank Group Corp., Grupo Salinas, Qualcomm Technologies Inc. and the Government of Rwanda led the latest round, while Virgin Group, Coca-Cola and Airbus are existing investors. “We are committed to bridging the digital divide, and this funding helps ensure our globally shared dream will soon become a reality,” said Greg Wyler, the founder of OneWeb, in a statement.
Richard Branson had snuck off into the corner of the room to buy a peaceful moment, but his scraggly blond mane and thick goatee are the opposite of a disguise. One by one, people approach, apologize for approaching, then rotate their bodies into a hug as they raise their phones for their obligatory photos. Branson can’t escape the steady stream of selfie takers, even at another company’s rocket launch.
A thunderous crackle ripped through the Amazon rain forest Wednesday evening, carrying with it the notion that the world is entering a new, even more connected age.
Just as the sun set here in Kourou, on the coast of French Guiana, a rocket provided by Arianespace SA lifted off and thrust six satellites made by OneWeb Systems Inc. into orbit. About two hours later, OneWeb said the satellites deployed well. The washing machine-sized devices are the first of thousands designed to bring high-speed internet service to more than three billion people who can’t get it today.
For two decades, biotech companies trying to tackle Alzheimer’s disease have had little success. While vaccines have often shown promise for certain patients, they’ve come with devastating side effects for others--brain swelling, for example--because researchers haven’t been able to reliably keep patients’ immune systems from kicking into overdrive when exposed to the vaccines. Now, a four-year old Dublin startup believes it may be on to something.
An idyllic ease permeates California’s Carmel Valley. Wealthy people have built ranch-style houses into the mountains, giving them views of the Pacific on one side and pine and cypress forests on the other. It’s neither too hot nor too cold, and the fresh ocean air makes you feel calm inside. These conditions, which give big ideas room to grow, have attracted artists to the area, as well as retirees who want to meditate on the good life. But every now and then, the gentle rhythm of this place gets disturbed. Someone’s perfectly manicured existence goes in a turbulent, unexpected direction.
Cheap, quick access to space has officially arrived -- and in some serious style.
On a late Sunday afternoon in New Zealand, Rocket Lab successfully launched its third rocket. Dozens of employees gathered at the company’s headquarters in Auckland clad in Rocket Lab’s black-and-red colors and let out a series of primordial screams as the rocket took off, flew into space and dropped its satellite payload into orbit.
Despite the recent assassination of a journalist by Saudi Arabian agents and an ensuing global controversy, Masayoshi Son and his Saudi-backed SoftBank Vision Fund appear as bold and extravagant as ever. On Friday, the investment firm plans to announce it has sunk $1.1 billion into View Inc., a Silicon Valley-based maker of glass used in internet-connected windowpanes.
View’s technology allows customers to control the level of tinting in so-called smart windows. This sort of “dynamic glass” can help lower cooling costs and remove the need for blinds or other accessories. It took View about a decade to develop this new kind of glass, and its sales to airports, hospitals and office buildings have taken off over the past couple years.
Last December, Steve Ballmer found himself in a highly unusual situation: He had time on his hands. It was disconcerting. He was the chief executive of Microsoft, waiting for the company’s board to name a successor, and he didn’t want to take on anything major that would get in the new guy’s way. So he stayed home and binge-watched TV. He plowed through 100 episodes of The Good Wife in about two weeks. “My kids teased me about it mercilessly,” he says. “They said, 'Dad, how’s the wife?’?” He watched mostly in bed--on a Microsoft Surface, of course--and says he wasn’t depressed. “'Depressed’ makes it sound like something bad. It was more like, 'Wow, this is weird. I have nothing to worry about right this minute.’?”
He’s saying this in October, while sitting in a tiny office at Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he teaches classes a couple of days a week. The funk is long gone. Dressed in khakis and a bright green polo shirt, he’s pacing around, gesticulating emphatically, poking me in the shoulder--hard--as he talks about life after Microsoft.
On a Tuesday evening this spring, Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, became part man and part machine. About 40 people, all gathered here at a NASA campus for a nine-day, $15,000 course at Singularity University, saw it happen.
While the flesh-and-blood version of Mr. Brin sat miles away at a computer capable of remotely steering a robot, the gizmo rolling around here consisted of a printer-size base with wheels attached to a boxy, head-height screen glowing with an image of Mr. Brin’s face. The BrinBot obeyed its human commander and sputtered around from group to group, talking to attendees about Google and other topics via a videoconferencing system.
As the sun rose over the mountains circling Los Reyes, a town in the Mexican state of Michoacan, one morning in March 2009, a caravan of more than 300 heavily armed law enforcement agents set out on a raid.
All but the lead vehicle turned off their headlights to evade lookouts, called “falcons,” who work for La Familia Michoacana, the brutal Mexican cartel that controls the drug trade. This time, the police weren’t hunting for a secret stash of drugs, guns or money. Instead, they looked to crack down on La Familia’s growing counterfeit software ring.
On July 16th 1945 the skies of New Mexico lit up and a thunderous roar whooshed across the desert. Los Alamos National Laboratory has been living ever since on the reputation it won from that history-changing event, the explosion of the first atomic bomb. But smugness can breed complacency, and complacency carelessness. In recent years the laboratory has been in the news not for its successes but its failures. A series of farcical events, ranging from secret data going missing (only to be discovered behind a copying machine) to false charges of espionage being laid against an American scientist of Chinese descent, led the then director, Pete Nanos, to describe his staff as “cowboys” and “butt-heads”, and to close the place down for seven months in 2004, to try to clean things up.
The team in charge of tracking Facebook’s growth works on the second floor of Building 17. Most days, the offices are like anywhere else at Facebook: whiteboards, toys on desks, shorts and flip-flops, pretty low-key. Around noon on Sept. 14, the second floor was packed. In one of the common areas, a giant screen showed the number of active Facebook users worldwide. About 100 people, including Mark Zuckerberg and his top lieutenants, watched the numbers run up by about a thousand users per minute: 999,980,000... 999,990,000... 1,000,000,000. The counter paused for a moment when it rounded 10 digits, as if to emphasize the point: 1 billion users.
In the early morning hours of May 24, an armed burglar wearing a ski mask broke into the offices of Nicira Networks, a Silicon Valley startup housed in one of the countless nondescript buildings along Highway 101. He walked past desks littered with laptops and headed straight toward the cubicle of one of the company’s top engineers. The assailant appeared to know exactly what he wanted, which was a bulky computer that stored Nicira’s source code. He grabbed the one machine and fled. The whole operation lasted five minutes, according to video captured on an employee’s webcam. Palo Alto Police Sergeant Dave Flohr describes the burglary as a run-of-the-mill Silicon Valley computer grab. “There are lots of knuckleheads out there that take what they can and leave,” he says. But two people close to the company say that they, as well as national intelligence investigators now looking into the case, suspect something more sinister: a professional heist performed by someone with ties to China or Russia. The burglar didn’t want a computer he could sell on Craigslist. He wanted Nicira’s ideas.
After the math department at the University of Texas noticed some of its Dell computers failing, Dell examined the machines. The company came up with an unusual reason for the computers’ demise: the school had overtaxed the machines by making them perform difficult math calculations.
Dell, however, had actually sent the university, in Austin, desktop PCs riddled with faulty electrical components that were leaking chemicals and causing the malfunctions. Dell sold millions of these computers from 2003 to 2005 to major companies like Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo, institutions like the Mayo Clinic and small businesses.
The print hanging behind the receptionist’s desk at Foundation Capital screams, “Our greatest thrill is to loan you money” -- in chunky, capitalized red letters. That’s encouraging news for Michael Bauer, because he wants money and has put himself in a prime position to get it.
Mr. Bauer has set up shop on the second floor of Foundation Capital’s offices here to pursue his dream of creating an energy company from scratch. He pays no rent to operate out of the building, which is designed to evoke a Mediterranean villa. And he’s free to enjoy all the trappings of this venture capital firm, including its ample parking, woodsy surroundings and outdoor patio.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass -- Dr. Jeff Lichtman likes his brains sliced thin -- very, very thin.
Dr. Lichtman and his team of researchers at Harvard have built some unusual contraptions that carve off slivers of mouse brains as part of a quest to understand how the mind works. Their goal is to run slice after minuscule slice under a powerful electron microscope, develop detailed pictures of the brain’s complex wiring and then stitch the images back together. In short, they want to build a full map of the mind.
It's 6 in the morning here in California, and things have turned palpable.
In thirty minutes, VMware's IPO (initial public offering) goes live. Call it the second coming of Google or the third coming of Netscape. This baby will rock the software world.
VMware - trading on the NYSE under VMW - looks to ship 33m shares at $29 each. That leaves the server virtualization maker hoping to bring in $957m. Most indications have the company blowing past that figure and igniting a Silicon Valley boom. At least, that's what the likes of Citi, JPMorgan, Lehman Brothers, Credit Suisse, Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank want us to believe.
Drive a couple of blocks past the Loose Caboose and the Carburetor Shop on E. Sahara Avenue in Las Vegas, and you'll find one of the world's leading technology companies. The name of the company - Switch Communications - will go unrecognized by almost all of you. That's because it has operated in near total secrecy for the last few years. Switch has preferred to keep its gold mine a need-to-know type of affair. "Pay no attention to the secure fortress in the strip mall."
This is a story about ARM Holdings, the mobile technology company. But before it gets going, here are a few things you need to know: 1. ARM is a company made up mostly of chip engineers. They design parts of chips--such as graphics and communication bits--and they design entire chips. 2. ARM sells these designs and licenses its chip architecture to dozens of companies, including Apple, Samsung Electronics, Qualcomm, and Nvidia. 3. As a result, just about every smartphone, mobile phone, and tablet runs on an ARM chip. 4. In fact, you can argue that ARM-based products are now the most-used consumer products in the world, outflanking even Coca-Cola and McDonald’s by some measures. (I recently made just such an argument.) 5. A great many people have not heard of ARM. This is because the company has largely kept to itself from a headquarters in Cambridge, England. 6. Its anonymity is sort of incredible when you think about it, considering that ARM has arguably had a more profound effect on modern living than just about any other company.
Last June, three men squeezed inside a wind turbine in China’s Gobi Desert. They were employees of American Superconductor Corp., a Devens (Mass.)-based maker of computer systems that serve as the electronic brains of wind turbines. From time to time, AMSC workers are required to head out to a wind farm in some desolate location--that’s where the wind usually is--to check on the equipment, do maintenance, make repairs, and keep the customers happy.
The public knows only one version of Steve Ballmer: the blustery salesman, sweating and booming away and trying to rally Microsoft employees or win over investors. It’s not our fault that we think of Ballmer in this way; it’s his. He put on so many of these performances that he turned into a caricature. Yet, when you hear Ballmer reflect on his cheerleader persona, you know the public image of the man is incomplete.
Maria Sharapova is in a pretty good mood for someone who might be about to lose a tournament. It’s mid-March and she’s just made the two-hour drive from her beachfront home in Los Angeles to the desert town of Indian Wells, Calif., the site of the BNP Paribas Open. The tournament is owned by Larry Ellison, the software mogul and seventh-richest person in the world. In the past five years, through $100 million of upgrades and the help of sponsors such as Rolex and Emirates Airline, he’s turned it into one of the premier stops on the men’s and women’s tour.
“It’s a bit more personal for me to come here,” Sharapova, 28, says of Indian Wells. “I have a lot of friends and family who come to watch.” The exception is her Pomeranian, Dolce, who stays at home because of the dry conditions. “It’s not good for his hair.”
Amid a devastating drought, the Southern California town of Indian Wells seems like it should perhaps be illegal. Left alone, the ground here is baked and cracked and the same color brown as the barren mountains that surround this enclave of 5,000, many of whom are wealthy, white, and retired. But there aren’t that many spots where the ground remains in its natural state. Indian Wells is a vacation paradise full of resorts with luscious green golf courses, vibrant flower gardens, and abundant pools. Some resorts even have sandy beach wading areas for the grandchildren. The weather is perfect eight months of the year.
At 21, Gennady Vladimirovich Korotkevich is already a legend. Tourist, as he’s known online, is now the world's top sport programmer. He competes against other people to solve coding puzzles, and he's darn good at it. Perhaps too good.
"Probably the only person making a living at sport programming is Gennady because he wins so many of the competitions," says Vladimir Novakovski, a retired sport programmer who still follows the competitions closely. “We’ve never seen anyone like him.”
The conversation, combined with Linus Torvalds’s aggression behind the wheel, makes this sunny afternoon drive suddenly feel all too serious. Torvalds -- the grand ruler of all geeks -- does not drive like a geek. He plasters his foot to the pedal of a yellow Mercedes convertible with its "DAD OF 3" license plate as we rip around a corner on a Portland, Ore., freeway. My body smears across the passenger door. "There is no concrete plan of action if I die," Torvalds yells to me over the wind and the traffic. "But that would have been a bigger deal 10 or 15 years ago. People would have panicked. Now I think they’d work everything out in a couple of months."
They're either hapless pests or the very people capable of overthrowing Windows. Take your pick.
In December, hundreds of these controversial software developers gathered for one week at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. They came from all over the world, sporting many of the usual signs of software mercenaries: jeans, ponytails, unruly facial hair and bloodshot eyes.
But rather than preparing to code for the highest bidder, the developers were coordinating their largely volunteer effort to try to undermine Microsoft’s Windows operating system for PCs, which generated close to $17 billion in sales last year.
All the fuss at the meeting centered on something called Ubuntu and a man named Mark Shuttleworth, the charismatic 35-year-old billionaire from South Africa who functions as the spiritual and financial leader of this coding clan.
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