As pandemic drags on, interest in automation surges

Today, the U.S. exceeded three million COVID-19 cases and 132,000 deaths. In several states, new hotspots have rolled back plans to reopen businesses. The novel coronavirus has — and will continue — to profoundly impact the way we live and work.

For the moment, that includes a shift in the employment status of many Americans. More than 50 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March. And while many states have made efforts to reopen businesses and return some sense of normality, these moves have led to a spike in cases and may prolong the pandemic and its ongoing economic impact.

Technology has been a lifeline for many, from food delivery to the 3D printing I highlighted last week, which has worked to address a nation suffering from personal protective equipment shortages. Automation and robotics have also been a constant in conversations around tech’s battle against COVID-19.

Robots don’t get sick, tired or emotionally burnt out, and unlike us, they aren’t walking, talking disease vectors. Automation advocates like to point to the “three Ds” of dull, dirty and dangerous jobs that will eventually be replaced by a robotic workforce, but in the age of COVID-19, nearly any essential job qualifies.

The robotic invasion has already begun in earnest. The service, delivery, health care and sanitation industries in particular have all opened a massive gap over the past several months that automation has been more than happy to roll right through. A recent report from The Brookings Institute notes that automation arrives in the workforce in fits and starts — most notably, during times of economic downturn.

“Robots’ infiltration of the workforce doesn’t occur at a steady, gradual pace. Instead, automation happens in bursts, concentrated especially in bad times such as in the wake of economic shocks, when humans become relatively more expensive as firms’ revenues rapidly decline,” the study found. “At these moments, employers shed less-skilled workers and replace them with technology and higher-skilled workers, which increases labor productivity as a recession tapers off.”

Elon Musk sets update on brain-computer interface company Neuralink for August 28

Elon Musk said on Twitter this week that Neuralink, the company he founded in 2016 to develop computer-brain interfaces for the explicit purpose of helping humans keep pace with advanced artificial intelligence, will provide an update on its progress on August 28. The last major update from Neuralink came roughly a year ago, when it shared that it will be using a surgical robot to implant gossamer-thin wires into a person’s brain, connected to an external computer processing unit, and that ultimately it hopes to make the connection between the two wireless for maximum freedom and flexibility.

Neuralink revealed in July 2019 that it had already performed successful tests of its technology on mice and even apes, and that it would be pursuing testing on its first human subjects starting as early as the following year – which is this year, 2020, if you’re keeping track.

C-founded by Musk and led by CEO Jared Birchall, Neuralink is headquartered in San Francisco and has been conducting research in partnership with UC Davis. The company’s goal initially is to use its technology to help mitigate the effects of neurological disorders in patients with severe impacts to mobility and other daily functioning, but ultimately the company also hopes to use its technology to essentially ‘upgrade’ humans to be able to interact with computing devices at the speed of thought.

Musk has consistently pointed out how ‘lossy’ the process of translating thought to input via conventional means including keyboard and mouse is, and believes that a tighter, more high-fidelity bond between people and computers can help decrease the risk that advanced AI surpasses the capabilities of human intelligence. Musk has stated on a number of occasions that he believes uncontrolled, unregulated advanced general artificial intelligence poses an existential risk to humanity, and Neuralink is intended to be a means of protection against that threat.

We don’t yet know what Musk and Neuralink will be sharing about the company’s progress since its last update in 2019, but hopefully we’re hear something about its plans to begin human trials. Musk also shared what he calls Neuralink’s “mission statement” alongside the date of the company update: “If you can’t beat em, join em.”

Elon Musk sets update on brain-computer interface company Neuralink for August 28

Elon Musk said on Twitter this week that Neuralink, the company he founded in 2016 to develop computer-brain interfaces for the explicit purpose of helping humans keep pace with advanced artificial intelligence, will provide an update on its progress on August 28. The last major update from Neuralink came roughly a year ago, when it shared that it will be using a surgical robot to implant gossamer-thin wires into a person’s brain, connected to an external computer processing unit, and that ultimately it hopes to make the connection between the two wireless for maximum freedom and flexibility.

Neuralink revealed in July 2019 that it had already performed successful tests of its technology on mice and even apes, and that it would be pursuing testing on its first human subjects starting as early as the following year – which is this year, 2020, if you’re keeping track.

C-founded by Musk and led by CEO Jared Birchall, Neuralink is headquartered in San Francisco and has been conducting research in partnership with UC Davis. The company’s goal initially is to use its technology to help mitigate the effects of neurological disorders in patients with severe impacts to mobility and other daily functioning, but ultimately the company also hopes to use its technology to essentially ‘upgrade’ humans to be able to interact with computing devices at the speed of thought.

Musk has consistently pointed out how ‘lossy’ the process of translating thought to input via conventional means including keyboard and mouse is, and believes that a tighter, more high-fidelity bond between people and computers can help decrease the risk that advanced AI surpasses the capabilities of human intelligence. Musk has stated on a number of occasions that he believes uncontrolled, unregulated advanced general artificial intelligence poses an existential risk to humanity, and Neuralink is intended to be a means of protection against that threat.

We don’t yet know what Musk and Neuralink will be sharing about the company’s progress since its last update in 2019, but hopefully we’re hear something about its plans to begin human trials. Musk also shared what he calls Neuralink’s “mission statement” alongside the date of the company update: “If you can’t beat em, join em.”

Garry Kasparov on AI: ‘People always called me an optimist’

Garry Kasparov is a political activist who’s written books and articles on artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and online privacy, but he’s best known for being the former World Chess Champion who took on the IBM computer known as Big Blue in the mid-1990s.

I spoke to Kasparov before a speaking engagement at the Collision Conference last month where he was participating in his role as Avast Security Ambassador. Our discussion covered a lot of ground, from his role as security ambassador to the role of AI.

TechCrunch: How did you become a security ambassador for Avast?

Garry Kasparov: It started almost by accident. I was invited by one of my friends, who knew the previous Avast CEO (Vince Steckler) to be the guest speaker at the opening of their new headquarters in Prague. I met the team and very quickly we recognized that we could work together very effectively since Avast wanted an ambassador.

I thought that it would be a great combination because it’s about cybersecurity, and it’s also about customers, about individual rights, which is related to human rights, and it also had a little bit of a political element of course. But most importantly, it’s a combination of privacy and security and I felt that with my record of working for human rights, and also writing about individuals and privacy and also having some experience with computers, that it would be a good match.

Now it’s my fourth year and it seems that many of the things we have been discussing at conferences when I have spoken about the role of AI in our lives, and many of the discussions that we thought were theoretical, have become more practical.

What were those discussions like?

One of the favorite topics that was always raised at these conferences is whether AI will be a helping hand or threat. And my view has been that it’s neither because I have always said that AI was neither a magic wand nor a Terminator. It’s a tool. And it’s up to us to find the best way of using it and applying its enormous power to our good.

SUSE acquires Kubernetes management platform Rancher Labs

SUSE, which describes itself as ‘the world’s largest independent open source company,’ today announced that it has acquired Rancher Labs, a company that has long focused on making it easier for enterprises to make their container clusters.

The two companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition, but Rancher was well funded, with a total of $95 million in investments. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s only been a few months since the company announced its $40 million Series D round led by Telstra Ventures. Other investors include the likes of Mayfield and Nexus Venture Partners, GRC SinoGreen and F&G Ventures.

Like similar companies, Rancher’s original focus was first on Docker infrastructure before it pivoted to putting its emphasis on Kubernetes once that became the de facto standard for container orchestration. Unsurprisingly, this is also why SUSE is now acquiring this company. After a number of ups and downs — and various ownership changes — SUSE has now found its footing again and today’s acquisition shows that its aiming to capitalize on its current strengths.

Just last month, the company reported that the annual contract value of its booking increased by 30% year over year and that it saw a 63% increase in customer deals worth more than $1 million in the last quarter, with its cloud revenue growing 70%. While it is still in the Linux distribution business that the company was founded on, today’s SUSE is a very different company, offering various enterprise platforms (including its Cloud Foundry-based Cloud Application Platform), solutions and services. And while it already offered a Kubernetes-based container platform, Rancher’s expertise will only help it to build out this business.

“This is an incredible moment for our industry, as two open source leaders are joining forces. The merger of a leader in Enterprise Linux, Edge Computing and AI with a leader in Enterprise Kubernetes Management will disrupt the market to help customers accelerate their digital transformation journeys,” said SUSE CEO Melissa Di Donato in today’s announcement. “Only the combination of SUSE and Rancher will have the depth of a globally supported and 100% true open source portfolio, including cloud native technologies, to help our customers seamlessly innovate across their business from the edge to the core to the cloud.”

The company describes today’s acquisition as the first step in its ‘inorganic growth strategy’ and Di Donato notes that this acquisition will allow the company to “play an even more strategic role with cloud service providers, independent hardware vendors, systems integrators and value-added resellers who are eager to provide greater customer experiences.”

SetSail raises raises $7M to change how sales teams are compensated

Most sales teams earn a commission after a sale closes, but nothing prior to that. Yet there are a variety of signals along the way that indicate the sales process is progressing, and SetSail, a startup from some former Google engineers, is using machine learning to figure out what those signals are, and how to compensate salespeople as they move along the path to a sale, not just after they close the deal.

Today, the startup announced a $7 million investment led by Wing Venture Capital with help from Operator Collective and Team8. Under the terms of the deal, Leyla Seka from Operator will be joining the board. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $11 million, according to the company.

CEO and co-founder Haggai Levi says his company is based on the idea that commission alone is not a good way to measure sales success, and that it is in fact a lagging indicator. “We came up with a different approach. We use machine learning to create progress-based incentives,” Levi explained

To do that they rely on machine learning to discover the signals that are coming from the customer that indicate that the deal is moving forward, and using a points system, companies can begin compensating reps on hitting these milestones, even before the sale closes.

The seeds for the idea behind SetSail were planted years ago when the three founders were working at Google tinkering with ways to motivate sales reps beyond pure commission. From a behavioral perspective, Levi and his co-founders found that reps were taking fewer risks with a pure commission approach and they wanted to find a way to change that. The incremental compensation system achieves that.

“If I’m closing the deal, I’m getting my commission. If I’m not closing the deal, I’m getting nothing. That means from a behavioral point of view, I would take the shortest path to win a deal, and I would take the minimum risk possible. So if there’s a competitive situation I will try to avoid that,” he said.

They look at things like appointments, emails and call transcripts. The signals will vary by customer. One may find an appointment with CIO is a good signal a deal is on the right trajectory, but to avoid having reps gaming the system by filling the CRM with the kinds of positive signals the company is looking for, they only rely on objective data, rather than any kind of self-reporting information from reps themselves.

The team eventually built a system like this inside Google, and in 2018, left to build a solution for the rest of the world that does something similar.

As the company grows, Levi says he is building a diverse team, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it simply makes good business sense. “The reality is that we’re building a product for a diverse audience, and if we don’t have a diverse team we would never be able to build the right product,” he explained.

The company’s unique approach to sales compensation is resonating with customers like Dropbox, Lyft and Pendo, who are looking for new ways to motivate sales teams, especially during a pandemic when there may be a longer sales cycle. This kind of system provides a way to compensate sales teams more incrementally and reward positive approaches that have proven to result in sales.

SetSail raises raises $7M to change how sales teams are compensated

Most sales teams earn a commission after a sale closes, but nothing prior to that. Yet there are a variety of signals along the way that indicate the sales process is progressing, and SetSail, a startup from some former Google engineers, is using machine learning to figure out what those signals are, and how to compensate salespeople as they move along the path to a sale, not just after they close the deal.

Today, the startup announced a $7 million investment led by Wing Venture Capital with help from Operator Collective and Team8. Under the terms of the deal, Leyla Seka from Operator will be joining the board. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $11 million, according to the company.

CEO and co-founder Haggai Levi says his company is based on the idea that commission alone is not a good way to measure sales success, and that it is in fact a lagging indicator. “We came up with a different approach. We use machine learning to create progress-based incentives,” Levi explained

To do that they rely on machine learning to discover the signals that are coming from the customer that indicate that the deal is moving forward, and using a points system, companies can begin compensating reps on hitting these milestones, even before the sale closes.

The seeds for the idea behind SetSail were planted years ago when the three founders were working at Google tinkering with ways to motivate sales reps beyond pure commission. From a behavioral perspective, Levi and his co-founders found that reps were taking fewer risks with a pure commission approach and they wanted to find a way to change that. The incremental compensation system achieves that.

“If I’m closing the deal, I’m getting my commission. If I’m not closing the deal, I’m getting nothing. That means from a behavioral point of view, I would take the shortest path to win a deal, and I would take the minimum risk possible. So if there’s a competitive situation I will try to avoid that,” he said.

They look at things like appointments, emails and call transcripts. The signals will vary by customer. One may find an appointment with CIO is a good signal a deal is on the right trajectory, but to avoid having reps gaming the system by filling the CRM with the kinds of positive signals the company is looking for, they only rely on objective data, rather than any kind of self-reporting information from reps themselves.

The team eventually built a system like this inside Google, and in 2018, left to build a solution for the rest of the world that does something similar.

As the company grows, Levi says he is building a diverse team, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it simply makes good business sense. “The reality is that we’re building a product for a diverse audience, and if we don’t have a diverse team we would never be able to build the right product,” he explained.

The company’s unique approach to sales compensation is resonating with customers like Dropbox, Lyft and Pendo, who are looking for new ways to motivate sales teams, especially during a pandemic when there may be a longer sales cycle. This kind of system provides a way to compensate sales teams more incrementally and reward positive approaches that have proven to result in sales.

Autonomous driving startup turns its AI expertise to space for automated satellite operation

Hungarian autonomous driving startup AImotive is leveraging its technology to address a different industry and growing need: autonomous satellite operation. AImotive is teaming up with C3S, a supplier of satellite and space-based technologies, to develop a hardware platform for performing AI operations onboard satellites. AImotive’s aiWare neural network accelerator will be optimized by C3S for use on satellites, which have a set of operating conditions that in many ways resembles those onboard cars on the road – but with more stringent requirements in terms of power management, and environmental operating hazards.

The goal of the team-up is to have AImotive’s technology working on satellites that are actually operational on orbit by the second half of next year. The projected applications of onboard neural network acceleration extend to a number of different functions according to the companies, including telecommunications, Earth imaging and observation, autonomously docking satellites with other spacecraft, deep space mining and more.

While it’s true that most satellites operate essentially in an automated fashion already – mean gin they’re not generally manually flown at every given moment – true neural network-based onboard AI smarts would provide them with much more autonomy when it comes to performing tasks, like imaging a specific area or looking for specific markers in ground or space-based targets. Also, AImotive and C3S believe that local processing of data has the potential to be a significant game-changer when it comes to the satellite business.

Currently, most of the processing of data collected by satellites is done after the raw information is transmitted to ground stations. That can actually result in a lot of lag time between data collection, and delivery of processed data to customers, particularly when the satellite operator or another go-between is acting as the processor on behalf of the client rather than just delivering raw info (and doing this analysis is also a more lucrative proposition for the data provider, or course).

AImotive’s tech could mean that processing happens locally, on the satellite where the information is captured. There’s been a big shift towards this kind of ‘computing at the edge’ in the ground-based IoT world, and it only makes sense to replicate that in space, for many of the same reasons – including that it reduces time to delivery, meaning more responsive service for paying customers.

Nvidia’s Ampere GPUs come to Google Cloud

Nvidia today announced that its new Ampere-based data center GPUs, the A100 Tensor Core GPUs, are now available in alpha on Google Cloud. As the name implies, these GPUs were designed for AI workloads, as well as data analytics and high-performance computing solutions.

The A100 promises a significant performance improvement over previous generations. Nvidia says the A100 can boost training and inference performance by over 20x compared to its predecessors (though you’ll mostly see 6x or 7x improvements in most benchmarks) and tops out at about 19.5 TFLOPs in single-precision performance and 156 TFLOPs for Tensor Float 32 workloads.

“Google Cloud customers often look to us to provide the latest hardware and software services to help them drive innovation on AI and scientific computing workloads,” said Manish Sainani, Director of Product Management at Google Cloud, in today’s announcement. “With our new A2 VM family, we are proud to be the first major cloud provider to market NVIDIA A100 GPUs, just as we were with NVIDIA’s T4 GPUs. We are excited to see what our customers will do with these new capabilities.”

Google Cloud users can get access to instances with up to 16 of these A100 GPUs, for a total of 640GB of GPU memory and 1.3TB of system memory.

As Palantir preps IPO, a look back at its growth history

Yesterday evening Palantir, the quasi-secretive data mining and analysis firm, publicly announced that it has privately filed to go public.

The disclosure came in the wake of Palantir raising new capital, taking on hundreds of millions of dollars before its planned public offering. According to Crunchbase data, Palantir has raised billions while private, making its debut a marquee affair in the worlds of technology, startups and venture capital.

As TechCrunch reported yesterday, Palantir has a controversial product history, including helping locate immigrants for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, connecting databases for intelligence agencies and recently winning no-bid contracts to gather data about the COVID-19 pandemic for the White House Pandemic Task Force.


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The company’s filing comes after a long incubation period; it’s been 17 years since Palantir’s founding in 2003. Since then, its reported financial performance and fundraising history have become sufficiently convoluted that I couldn’t tell you this morning how big the company really is or how much it raised before its most recent investment.

To prep us for its eventual public IPO filing, let’s go back in time and collect data points from Palantir’s reported history. This way when we do get the company’s S-1 filing, we’ll better understand what we’re looking at.

Palantir’s reported history

Even with companies that aren’t privacy-conscious, it can be hard to craft a comprehensive history of their business activities from when they were private. With Palantir, it’s even trickier.

Still, leaning on more than a decade of TechCrunch reporting, Crunchbase data, other publications and Craft.co, what follows is a reasonable look at what has been reported about Palantir through time. Of course, we’ll know more when we get the S-1.