This week, we read a very short story, The Great Silence, as we start to head toward the end of Ted Chiang’s Exhalation collection. This story asks questions about how we connect with nature, and also how to think about innovation and where new ideas come from.
We will finish the remaining two stories in the collection in the coming week, and then it will be time (sadly!) to change books. I’ll announce the next book in the book club hopefully shortly.
Some further quick notes:
This is a quite short story with a simple message. The narrator is a parrot discussing humanity’s quest to seek out artificial life elsewhere in the universe. The parrot, observing these actions, reflects on why humanity spends so much time looking for intelligence elsewhere, when it itself is intelligent, and located right next to us. The devastating line Chiang delivers comes toward the end:
But parrots are more similar to humans than any extraterrestrial species ever will be, and humans can observe us up close; they can look us in the eye. How do they expect to recognize an alien intelligence if all they can do is eavesdrop from a hundred light-years away?
The author offers us some obvious points to think about around environmental destruction and species extinction, and those are obvious enough that I think any reader can sort of surmise how the story connects to those issues.
So I want to instead connect this discussion to a theme dear to the heart of TechCrunch readers, and that is the quest for science and innovation.
To me, Chiang isn’t just criticizing our disdain for the animal species around us, but is also critiquing an innovation community that constantly strives for the big and “shiny” discoveries when so many smaller and local discoveries have yet to be made.
We invest billions of dollars into satellites and telescopes and radar arrays hoping to capture some fleeting glimpse into an alien world somewhere in the galaxy. And yet, there are deeply alien worlds all around us. It’s not just parrots — Earth is filled with species that are incredibly different from us in physiology, behavior, and group dynamics. What if the species most alien to our own in the whole galaxy is located right under our noses?
Of course, there would be huge headlines in finding even a single-celled organism on another planet (assuming there was even some way to detect such life in the first place). But that is precisely the type of narrow-minded, novelty-seeking behavior that Chiang is pointing out here.
Nonetheless, innovation can be a weird beast. It isn’t hard to look around the Valley these days and be dismayed at just how adrift a huge part of the industry is. We are creating more “smart” products than ever, yet huge social challenges and scientific frontiers remain completely unfunded. It’s easier to raise funding to start up an upgraded handbag company with a new brand and marketing strategy than it is to build an engineering team to push quantum computing forward.
There are certainly many valid arguments for moving our money to more “worthwhile” pursuits. Yet, fresh ideas that change industries can sometimes come from the oddest places, with even frivolous products occasionally creating fundamental advances in technology. Facebook as a social network might be a time sink for its users, but its huge scale also triggered all kinds of new data center infrastructure technologies that have been widely adopted by the rest of the tech industry. Solving a frivolous problem became the means to solving a problem of more depth.
In the end, you need to seek answers. Don’t overlook the obvious around us or get inured to the quotidian challenges that may just be the fount of innovation. Maybe figuring out the communication of parrots does nothing for us. Or maybe, exploring that area will open up whole new ideas for how to communicate and understand the neural patterns of speech. We can’t know until we tread along the path.
Now, to take one aside before we close out: Exhalation is a collection of previously-published short stories, but Chiang manages to work in his arch-symbol of breath and air into this piece in a fairly tight way:
It’s no coincidence that “aspiration” means both hope and the act of breathing.
When we speak, we use the breath in our lungs to give our thoughts a physical form. The sounds we make are simultaneously our intentions and our life force.
It’s a symbol we saw most substantively in Exhalation (the short story itself, not this whole collection) which we talked about a few posts ago. It’s a gorgeous little motif, and Chiang nicely embeds it to create an empathetic connection between humans and animals.
For the next and penultimate short story Omphalos, here are some questions to think about as you read the story.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said today that it would allow new diagnostics technologies to be used to test for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, at elite academic hospitals and healthcare facilities around the country.
The agency’s new initiative comes as critics have assailed various U.S. government agencies for being woefully underprepared to effectively address the spread of the novel coronavirus in the country despite being aware of the potential risks the virus posed since the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China in early December.
As the first diagnosed cases of the new virus appeared in the country, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had conducted only 459 tests. Meanwhile, China had five commercial tests for the coronavirus on the market one month ago and can now conduct up to 1.6 million tests per week. South Korea has tested another 65,00 people so far, according to a report in Science Magazine. Initial tests in the U.S. were hampered by the distribution of test kits which contained a faulty reagent — rendering the kits useless.
The CDC isn’t the only U.S. agency criticized for its mishandling of the response to a potential outbreak. On Thursday a whistleblower complaint was filed against the Department of Health and Human Services alleging that the agency sent over a dozen employees to Wuhan to evacuate American citizens from the country without the proper training or protective gear, as first reported by The Washington Post.
Now, the Food and Drug Administration is opening the doors for research centers across the country to use new technologies that have yet to be approved for emergency use in order to dramatically increase the number of tests healthcare facilities can perform.
“We believe this policy strikes the right balance during this public health emergency,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, in a statement. “We will continue to help to ensure sound science prior to clinical testing and follow-up with the critical independent review from the FDA, while quickly expanding testing capabilities in the U.S. We are not changing our standards for issuing Emergency Use Authorizations. This action today reflects our public health commitment to addressing critical public health needs and rapidly responding and adapting to this dynamic and evolving situation.”
The new policy allows laboratories to begin to use validated COVID-19 diagnostics before the FDA has completed review of the labs’ Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) requests, the agency said in a statement.
In cases where the Department of Health and Human Services indicates that there’s a public health emergency or a significant potential for a public health emergency, the FDA can issue these EUAs to permit the use of medical products that can diagnose, treat, or prevent a disease. The HHS secretary determined that the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus was just such an emergency on February 4.
So far, the FDA has authorized one EUA for COVID-19 that’s already being used by the CDC and some public health labs, the agency said.
“The global emergence of COVID-19 is concerning, and we appreciate the efforts of the FDA to help bring more testing capability to the U.S.,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD).
Development of new diagnostics tests are handled by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, part of the HHS Office responsible for preparedness and response to health issues.
“This step may reduce development costs, speed the process for availability at more testing sites, incentivize private development and, ultimately, help save lives,” said Rick Bright, the BARDA’s director.
Startups like the Redwood City, Calif.-based genome sequencing device manufacturer, Genapsys, and Co-Diagnostics, another molecular diagnostics startup out of Salt Lake City, have been approached by the Chinese government and European testing facilities, respectively.
In the U.S. a number of large, publicly traded companies and startups are pursuing new diagnostics tools that can be used to identify the novel strain of the coronavirus.
“At BARDA, we are identifying industry partners to develop rapid diagnostics that can be used in commercial and hospital labs or even doctors’ offices so that medical professionals and their patients have the information they need to take action,” Bright said.
These days capitalism and democracy seem to mean that it’s never too early to take advantage of the misery of others, and the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is the latest proof point.
On Saturday the Washington Post reported that an agency within the State Department had compiled a report of two million tweets, which peddled conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.
Among the hoaxes compiled in the report and reported by the Post included the suggestion that the virus had been created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or was the result of a bioweapon developed by the Chinese government.
In all, these tweets represent about 7 percent of the total tweets surveyed by the government, according to the Post’s reporting.
Critically, the report indicated that some of the misinformation spread online appeared to be the result of “inauthentic and coordinated activity,” the Post reported the document saying.
The report mirrors warnings from cybersecurity firms like Check Point Software, which issued a report tracking the launch of new websites linked to themes around the coronavirus outbreak earlier this month.
According to the company’s Global Threat Index for January 2020, “cyber-criminals are exploiting interest in the global epidemic to spread malicious activity, with several spam campaigns relating to the outbreak of the virus.”
The company correlated Google search terms with what it deemed to be “malicious discussions” about the virus, and showed them to be tightly correlated.
In one instance, a hacking campaign targeting web users in Japan distributed malicious email attachments by pretending to be a Japanese disability welfare service provider. The email provided misinformation about the spread of the coronavirus in several Japanese cities, and when a user opened an attachment to the email, they downloaded a modular, self-propagating Trojan virus onto their computer.
Email campaigns represent one threat, but another one that the security firm tracked was new websites with domain names linked to the virus.
The company already spotted one fake website, “vaccinecovid-19.com”. It was first created on February 11, 2020 and registered in Russia. According to Check Point, “the website is insecure, and offers to sell ‘the best and fastest test for Coronavirus detection at the fantastic price of 19,000 Russian rubles (about US$300)’.
Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter have all taken steps to remove misinformation about the novel coronavirus from their platforms including advertisements offering purported cures for the disease.
Earlier this month, the big tech companies met with representatives of the World Health Organization to come up with a plan and coordinate on ways to combat misinformation and scams online.
Earlier this week, Facebook issued the following statement about its continuing response to misinformation campaigns on the site:
As world health officials issue new guidance and warnings about coronavirus (COVID-19), we’re continuing our work to connect people to information from regional and local health organizations and limit the spread of misinformation and harmful content about the virus.
Connecting People to Accurate Information and Helpful Resources
Anyone who searches for information related to the virus on Facebook is shown educational pop-ups on top of search results connecting them to expert health organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO). We’ve launched these globally over the last few weeks in all languages on Facebook, directing people to the WHO. In several countries we are directing people to their local ministry of health. For example, in the US we are directing people to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and in Singapore, we’re directing people to the Singapore Ministry of Health. Moreover, in countries where the WHO has reported person-to-person transmission and deaths, we’ve shown additional messages to people toward the top of News Feed with more information.
[Editor’s note: Welcome to our weekly review of news that startups can use from across TechCrunch and Extra Crunch. If you want this post by email, just subscribe here.]
Distribution channels are getting saturated across the internet and beyond, and in many tech sectors the cost of acquiring new customers is crimping profitability. But so far, so good in the “great credit card craze,” as Alex digs into this week for Extra Crunch. It turns out that the remaining revenue possibilities combined with the current revenues from interchange fees mean costs are staying relatively flat — or so say a few well-placed execs.
“If anything, our customer numbers are massively accelerating despite cutting back on marketing spend,” explains Brian Barnes of M1 Finance. “And I do think that gets into how we positioned ourselves [as] a firm and what drives at the capital efficiency of how we’ve gotten to where we’ve gotten.”
After Elizabeth Yin posted a popular Twitter thread last month about the bifurcation of fundraising outcomes in Silicon Valley these days, we caught up with the Hustle Fund cofounder to talk more. “I’m seeing companies at the Series A and Series B stages with 30% MoM growth that were popular before now struggle to raise their next rounds because they are not profitable,” she writes in a guest column on TechCrunch. “The feedback they receive is to ‘come back when you’re profitable or really close to it.’”
She also noted that even though it does seem like there is a lot of money available, much of that is going to repeat entrepreneurs and/or companies with lots of growth and profitability in the numbers. In a companion interview with Alex Wilhelm for Extra Crunch, she notes that: “In the later stages, it is worthwhile to move to San Francisco because as you’re growing your company, there are a lot more people in San Francisco who have built high-growth companies before, there’s a lot of knowledge that I think is still insider knowledge in San Francisco itself. But at the earlier stages, I don’t think that that’s necessary.”
Speaking of raising these days, this new guide could help. Connie Loizos caught up with co-author and YC partner Aaron Harris in an interview for TechCrunch. Here’s one example he provides about the nuance it covers:
We explain how to work through a diligence request by an investor. Someone might say, ‘Hey, can you give me a month-by-month breakdown of major customers?’ And we’ve seen founders give them a full list of their customers, then the VC calls them, and if the customer is having a bad day or [the VC] reaches the wrong person, that bad reference check can sink a round. It’s really important that founders ask instead about what the VC is trying to learn from the diligence request, then call those customers so they’re ready, You also want to make sure that 15 investors aren’t calling the same customer so that [that person or company] isn’t overwhelmed.
Despite the decades of unrealized dreams, breakout hits like Fortnite and Minecraft are showing the emerging opportunities for mass-market virtual worlds. Media analyst Eric Peckham is exploring the evolution of this trend through a seven-part Extra Crunch series, which he and many others believe will come to gradually define our lives. So far, he’s published an overview, and Extra Crunch articles on gaming on social networks, our multiverse gaming future and why that future is not here yet. Stay tuned for his articles on the emerging competitive landscape and more.
Medical device and robotics startups raised roughly 600-700 rounds of venture capital in 2019, according to data from Pitchbook and Crunchbase, with most deals occurring at the early stage (over 25% of rounds occurred at the seed stage). With our 2020 Robotics+AI sessions event next week in Berkeley, be sure to check out our interviews with top med-tech investors in this week’s investor survey on Extra Crunch.
We’re trying some thing new here — a preview of upcoming guest columns. The following note is from growth strategist Chris Yeh, co-author of Blitzscaling.
Thanks to the success of companies like Uber and Airbnb, a seemingly endless array of startups jumped into becoming “the Uber for X” or the “Airbnb of Y”. So many of these startups have struggled or failed. Why? The fell into the “on-demand” trap: Believing that the delivery mechanism (a smartphone-enabled marketplace) rather than the market determines success. If you apply the on-demand model to the wrong market, you’ll be doomed to failure. To avoid the on-demand trap, avoid markets where the product or service A) is a low-consideration transaction and B) naturally lends itself to long-term buyer/seller relationships.
Want to learn more? Look for a detailed explanation of the on-demand trap, coming to TechCrunch and ExtraCrunch soon.
What a week. What an insane, heart-stopping, odd and stuffed week. I’m utterly exhausted. But, in better news, all of that is great fodder for podcast and chat, so today’s Equity is pretty okay, if I may say so.
Danny and I chewed through all the stuff that we couldn’t get out of our heads, like the markets falling apart and DoorDash’s initial movement toward going public. But in keeping with the real beating heart of Equity, we also went over four venture rounds and spent some time talking about SoftBank.
The basis of the classic James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies” is an evil media mogul who instigates war between the U.K. and China because it will be great for TV ratings. There’s been a wake-up call recently that our most popular social networks have been indirectly designed to divide populations into enemy camps and reward sensational content, but without the personal responsibility of Bond’s nemesis because they’re algorithmically driven.
(This is part five of a seven-part series about virtual worlds.)
The rise of “multiverse” virtual words as the next social frontier offers hope to one of the biggest crises facing democratic societies right now. Because the dominant social media platforms (in Western countries at least) monetize through advertising, these platforms reward sensational content that results in the most clicks and shares. Oversimplified, exaggerated claims intended to shock users scrolling past are best practices for individuals, media brands and marketing departments alike, and social platforms intentionally steer users toward more extreme content in order to captivate them for longer.
Our impending cultural shift to socializing equally as often through virtual worlds could help rescue us from this constant conflict of interest between what we recognize as healthy interactions with others and how these social apps incentivize us to behave.
Virtual worlds can have advertisements within them, but the dominant monetization strategies in MMOs are upfront purchase of games and in-game transactions. Any virtual world that gains enough adoption to compete as a social hub for mainstream society will need to be free-to-play and will earn more money through in-world transactions than from ads.
Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.
The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads in 2019 and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s recently released “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.
In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.
This week, we’ll look at the coronavirus outbreak’s impact on the App Store, China’s demand for App Store removals — and soon-to-be-removals, it seems. We’re also talking about Facebook’s lawsuit over a data-grabbing SDK, Tinder’s new video series, the TSA ban on TikTok, Instagram’s explanation for its lack of an iPad app and how Democratic presidential primary candidates are performing on mobile and social, among other things.
Well, after what I’m sure was a hectic few days for the folks planning the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, the team announced today that they have officially decided to cancel the event happening this March, saying in a blog post that they hoped they would be able to reschedule an event for “later in the summer.”
In recent days, nearly all of the event’s top corporate sponsors announced that they would not be sending employees to the event due to concerns surrounding coronavirus. Microsoft, Unity, Epic, Amazon, Facebook and Sony had all bowed out of the event. GDC’s statement did not reference the virus.
The company behind GDC detailed that they will be refunding conference and expo attendees in full, though a blog post details that the group hopes to host a GDC event later in the summer, noting, “We will be working with our partners to finalize the details and will share more information about our plans in the coming weeks.”
GDC is just the latest tech conference to be shuttered in the wake of worldwide concern surrounding the outbreak of coronavirus. Yesterday, Facebook announced it would be canceling the in-person component of its F8 conference and we have already seen the cancellation of GSMA‘s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
A year ago, Lyft submitted a report to the California Department of Motor Vehicles that summed up its 2018 autonomous vehicle testing activity in a single, short paragraph.
“Lyft Inc. did not operate any vehicles in autonomous mode on California public roads during the reporting period,” the letter read. “As such, Lyft Inc. has no autonomous mode disengagements to report.”
The 2019 data tells a different story. Lyft had 19 autonomous vehicles testing on public roads in California in 2019, according to data released earlier this week by the CA DMV. Those 19 vehicles, which operated during the reporting period of December 2018 to November 2019, drove nearly 43,000 miles in autonomous mode.
The report is the latest sign that Lyft is trying to ramp up its self-driving vehicle program known as Level 5.
The CA DMV, the agency that regulates autonomous vehicle testing on public roads in the state, requires companies to submit an annual report that includes data such as total AV miles driven and number of vehicles. It also requires companies to report “disengagements,” a term that describes each time a self-driving vehicle disengages out of autonomous mode either because its technology failed or a human safety driver took manual control for safety reasons.
That’s still far below established AV developers such as Cruise and Waymo, which accumulated 831,000 and 1.45 million autonomous miles, respectively. And it makes up just a tiny sliver of the total autonomous miles racked up by the 36 companies that tested on public roads in 2019.
The total number of autonomous miles driven in 2019 rose 40%, to more than 2.87 million, thanks largely to a notable uptick in public on-road testing by Baidu, Cruise, Pony.ai, Waymo and Zoox. While the number of companies with testing permits grew to 60 in 2019, the percentage of companies actually testing on public roads fell to about 58%. In 2018, about 62% of the 48 companies that held permits tested on public roads.
Still, the report shows Lyft is doing more than partnering with autonomous vehicle companies like Aptiv . Lyft and Aptiv launched a robotaxi pilot in January 2018 in Las Vegas. The program, which puts Aptiv vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network, surpassed 100,000 rides this month. Human safety drivers are always behind the wheel and the vehicles do not drive autonomously in parking lots and hotel lobby areas.
Lyft’s Level 5 program — a nod to the SAE automated driving level that means the vehicle handles all driving in all conditions — was launched in July 2017. Today, Level 5 employs more than 400 employees in the U.S., Munich and London.
Testing on public roads in California began in November 2018 with a pilot program in Palo Alto that provided rides to Lyft employees in Palo Alto. The pilot provided on-demand rides set on fixed routes such as traveling between the Lyft office and Caltrain.
Since then, the company has expanded the scope and geography of the pilot. By late 2019, Lyft was driving four times more autonomous miles per quarter than it was six months prior.
Lyft is also testing on a dedicated closed-course track in East Palo Alto that it opened in November 2019. The company told TechCrunch it uses this facility, which can be changed to include intersections, traffic lights and merges, as test software prior to putting its vehicles on public roads.
A new startup called Notivize aims to give product teams direct access to one of their most important tools for increasing user engagement — notifications.
The company has been testing the product with select customers since last year and says it has already sent hundreds of thousands of notifications. And this week, it announced that it has raised $500,000 in seed funding led by Heroic Ventures.
Notivize co-founder Matt Bornski has worked at a number of startups including AppLovin and Wink, and he said he has “so many stories I can tell you about the time it takes to change a notification that’s deeply embedded in your stack.”
To be clear, Bornski isn’t talking about a simple marketing message that’s part of a scheduled campaign. Instead, he said that the “most valuable” notifications (e.g., the ones that users actually respond to) are usually driven by activity in an app.
For example, it might sound obvious to send an SMS message to a customer once the product they’ve purchased has shipped, but Bornski said that actually creating a notification like that would normally require an engineer to write new code.
“There’s the traditional way that these things are built: The product team specs out that we need to send this email when this happens, or send this SMS or notification when this happens, then the engineering team will go in and find the part of the code where they detect that such a thing has happened,” he said. “What we really want to do is give [the product team] the toolkit, and I think we have.”
So with Notivize, non-coding members of the product and marketing team can write “if-then” rules that will trigger a notification. And this, Bornski said, also makes it easier to “A/B test and optimize your copy and your send times and your channels” to ensure that your notifications are as effective as possible.
He added that companies usually don’t build this for themselves, because when they’re first building an app, it’s “not a rational thing to invest your time and effort in when you’re just testing the market or you’re struggling for product market fit.” Later on, however, it can be challenging to “go in and rip out all the old stuff” — so instead, you can just take advantage of what Notivize has already built.
Bornski also emphasized that the company isn’t trying to replace services that provide the “plumbing” for notifications. Indeed, Notivize actually integrates with SendGrid and Twilio to send the notifications.
“The actual sending is not the core value [of what we do],” he said. “We’re improving the quality of what you’re paying for, of what you send.”
Notivize allows customers to send up to 100 messages per month for free. After that, pricing starts at $14.99 per month.
“The steady march of low-code and no-code solutions into the product management and marketing stack continues to unlock market velocity and product innovation,” said Heroic Ventures founder Michael Fertik in a statement. “Having been an early investor in several developer platforms, it is clear that Notivize has cracked the code on how to empower non-technical teams to manage critical yet complex product workflows.”
First off, they are fully remote; founders selected to participate in the program chat with advisors via video chat. Second, Pioneer is largely looking at companies that aren’t companies yet, framing themselves as more of a “startup generator” than an accelerator that aims to help entrepreneurs outside Silicon Valley zero in on exactly what kind of startup they want to build.
Earlier this month, I wrote about the accelerator, which is helmed by former YC partner Daniel Gross .
My interview with Gross had some interesting longer bouts I didn’t have space to include, so I’m including the salient bits here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TechCrunch: Remote work seems to have its challenges; how have you overcome some of the humps of being a remote accelerator?
Daniel Gross: My overall view is that remote can replace the majority of real-world interaction. But there’s less inertia, if that makes sense, and so I think you can build real rapport and real relationships through a group video chat on the internet, but it will require much more thinking and effort around it than if you were just meeting up in the real world.