Robo-taxis, privacy committees and wearables to augment intelligence

May 04, 2019: A roundup of news and perspectives on disruptive technology from around the world. In this issue: Tesla’s robo-taxi networks, Facebook’s privacy positions, Microsoft’s Blockchain partnership, wearables, carbon sucking plants and more

N S Ramnath

[Note: We are trying to make this an easy read. Swipe the deck or read the sentences in bold for a quick overview. Read the rest to go deeper. Bookmark the links for further reading. You can also sign up to get this column delivered to your inbox every week]


Tesla's platform ambitions

The news: Elon Musk told investors that autonomous vehicles will turn Tesla into a $500 billion company.

  • That's about half of Microsoft's market cap, and about 12 times Tesla's present value. The electric car company is in the process of raising $2 billion in new funds—$650 million in equity and $1.35 billion in convertible bonds. Musk’s comments were made during an investors call.

Dig a layer: Musk believes he can turn existing electric cars into self-driving cars with a software upgrade; and self-driving cars into a network of robo-taxis.

  • Musk believes he will have 1 million vehicles on the road next year that can function as “robo-taxis". Take it with a pinch of salt—but just a pinch. Because, while Musk is known to underestimate the time it takes to deliver some of his promises, his critics often underestimate his ability to actually deliver it.
  • Many Tesla observers, in fact, responded to Tesla's grand plans—revealed earlier in its Autonomy Day event—with scepticism. However, what Tesla has in abundance is data from thousands of cars that run on the streets. It collects data of not only how its auto pilot performs, but also on how it would have performed had it been on.

Dig another layer: Underlying Tesla's autonomous vehicles is a chip the company designed all by itself.

  • One might wonder why Tesla took upon itself to design a chip at a time when it had serious operational issues to solve, and why it didn't simply buy one from a company that specialised in the job, such as Nvidia. However, drawing parallels with Apple might offer some hints.
  • Steve Cheney writes: "It is—in fact—chip making capabilities, that [Steve] Jobs famously brought in-house to Apple shortly after the launch of the original iPhone, that helped Apple create a massive profit moat between itself and an entire industry (smartphones). Chip advantages ultimately became one of the little understood, but critical elements in Apple’s vertically integrated approach. Android OEMs can copy the Face ID sensors. They just go to the camera supplier that Apple buys it from. But they can’t copy the underlying software powering and securing its own chips.”

Dig deeper:

The future of privacy

The news: Facebook is set to have a privacy committee, an external assessor for privacy, and a chief compliance officer.

  • The committee will help protect user data, the external assessor would be appointed by Facebook and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the chief compliance officer is likely to be Mark Zuckerberg himself.
  • Zuckerberg,  speaking ???? at Facebook's developers conference, detailed his plans for the company in a world that puts privacy first. However, creation of new privacy roles is a part of its deal with FTC. It had set aside $5 billion towards fines around its handling of user data.

Dig a layer: It is not clear if it will satisfy its critics, but this might indicate where the world is moving.

  • Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, called the new positions “a joke”. Many, including some of us at Founding Fuel in the past, have argued that the problem with Facebook runs deeper.
  • However, it is still an indicator of where things are moving. How far will the Trump administration go to regulate the technology giants? Will these satisfy the European Union? What lessons will India—which might pass a data protection law this year—take away from all these?

Dig deeper:

  • 15 months of fresh hell inside Facebook - by Nicholas Thompson & Fred Vogelstein [Wired]
  • F8 2019 Day 1 keynote and session videos [FB]

Blockchain bets

The news: Microsoft and JP Morgan join hands on blockchain.

  • The technology and banking giants have partnered to help businesses build applications on top of blockchain technology, with the former’s Azure cloud services, and the latter’s blockchain platform, Quorum.
  • Their enterprise customers will get access to tools that will help them build solutions on blockchain faster.

Dig a layer: JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon once called bitcoin a “fraud”, but the bank has been betting on blockchain for years now.

  • The bank launched Quorum back in 2016. The bank employs over 50,000 technologists. But blockchain was different. It wasn’t easy and went out of the way to attract people who “weren’t eager to work for them”.

Dig another layer: Microsoft has been slow in getting into blockchain, but it's no newbie either.

  • Microsoft was already working with two other technology companies Accenture and Avanade on a blockchain-based identity prototype that uses Microsoft Azure. It is for the ID2020 Alliance, a public-private partnership that wants to help 1.1 billion people around the world without legal forms of ID get one.

Dig deeper:

  • 80+ corporations working on blockchain and distributed ledgers - [CB Insights]
  • The most valuable company (for now) is having a Nadellaissance - By Austin Carr and Dina Bass [Bloomberg]


Will wearables make us smart?

The jury is still out on whether smartphones have made us smart—all things considered. There are serious concerns about smartphone addiction. It has made access to information easy, but it has also made access to fake news easy, while increasing our ability to amplify it. It was supposed to connect people—Nokia's slogan used to be Connecting People—but smarter cousins of Nokia have been putting a strain on face-to-face relationships among people, even while pushing them into polarising digital filters.

Will wearables be any different? Possibly, but some work needs to be done, argues Lauren Golembiewski. “The need for an intelligence-amplifying device that is less obtrusive than a smartphone and more discreet than a voice interface is clear. Many technologists and entrepreneurs are working to create the next revolutionary intelligence-amplifying device that will solve the problems of its predecessors while giving users seamless access to advanced AI systems.,”


“The UK should legislate as soon as possible to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The target can be legislated as a 100% reduction in greenhouse gases (GHGs) from 1990 and should cover all sectors of the economy, including international aviation and shipping.”

"This is the first time that humanity has been allowed to talk to each other without gatekeepers or any other mechanisms of control. It is not going well."

  • Can anyone tame the next internet? By Kara Swisher [Vox]

"While people haven’t been able to ride on New Shepard yet, the rocket has given rides to lots of research experiments. The vehicle’s last flight carried eight microgravity experiments to the edge of space, and this next trip will carry 38 research payloads."

  • Blue Origin successfully launches and lands its New Shepard rocket during 11th test flight By Loren Grush [Verge]

"For each country, the real danger [of AI arms race] is not that it will fall behind its competitors in AI but that the perception of a race will prompt everyone to rush to deploy unsafe AI systems. In their desire to win, countries risk endangering themselves just as much as their opponents.

“Plants evolved to suck up CO2 and they’re really good at it. And they concentrate it, which no machine can do, and they make it into useful materials, like sugar. They suck up all the CO2, they fix it, then it goes back up into the atmosphere.” She is now working to design plants capable of storing even more carbon dioxide in their roots.

  • This scientist thinks she has the key to curb climate change: super plants by Adam Popescu [Guardian]

“Dr. Miskin worked around the power conundrum by leaving out the batteries. Instead, he powers the robots by shining lasers on tiny solar panels on their backs.”

  • The Microbots Are on Their Way by Kenneth Chang [NYTimes]

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[Image by tookapic from Pixabay]

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About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Senior Editor

Founding Fuel

NS Ramnath is a member of the founding team & Lead - Newsroom Innovation at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book, The Aadhaar Effect. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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