The Brunch Briefing: Made in China, Exxon, and Labradoodles

(The Brunch Briefing is a collection of the most interesting stories from the past week, designed to enliven your weekend conversations. For last week’s BB click here.)

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🐰 Overheard

(Quotes from clever people)

Those who have written off digital money will soon look as silly as the people who said the internet would never replace the fax machine.

- Niall Ferguson

In his recent post “America’s power is on a financial knife edge,” Ferguson discusses the risks of the US policy of skepticism towards cryptocurrencies.

Historically, financial clout has been an essential component of real power. Over the last two decades, the US has flexed monetary muscle through sanctions, quantitative easing, and negative interest rates — novel techniques that have maintained status and influence. Much of that has been possible because of American control over Swift, an international entity that serves as the nexus for bank to bank payments.

But the landscape is changing. More and more payments are being made digitally, a domain that China dominates thanks to applications like WeChat Pay and Alibaba. If China succeeds in owning the modern rails for money transmission, the US would lose a core component of its arsenal. Ferguson suggests that a warmer approach towards cryptocurrencies in general, and Facebook’s Libra initiative in particular, is necessary to compete. The latter brings with it 2.4B potential users, providing an effective way to bootstrap a large scale system.

🌳 Monitoring: Carbon Offsets

(One space worth keeping an eye on)

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The problem: the planet’s kind of f*cked. This isn’t news, of course. As Thunberg said in her address to the UN Assembly, indications have been clear for over 30 years with climatologist James Hansen testifying in front of Congress in 1988; oil executives knew a decade earlier.* The result is a looming extinction event, with little time left on the clock. According to a new UN report, a tipping point has already been reached: extreme storms that would once happen once a century will occur once a year by 2050.

The solution: carbon offsets. At least, they’re one weapon in a broader arsenal. Carbon offsets are environmentally beneficial projects (think: wind farms, planting trees) funded by both individuals and businesses looking to neutralize the climatic damage they cause. As opposed to carbon credits, offsets are voluntary (not part of cap-and-trade regulation) and their effect occurs outside company operations. For that reason, they’ve been touted as more efficient — money is directed towards the most effective carbon-capture projects rather than being limited to those a company is able to undertake themselves. Forward-thinking companies are capitalizing on the trend by leveraging new technologies, and better understanding consumer behavior.

  • Blockchain. Nori are focused on simplifying the offset purchase process, as well giving more carbon-removal initiatives access to funding. They do so by using blockchain to cut out middlemen that, according to Nori’s founder, “are really just maintaining a database–they’re not contributing much more value than that.” Regen Network, another TechStars company, is also utilizing blockchain to create an “ecological ledger,” an open database of environmental information.
  • Machine Learning. Pachama, a marketplace and verification solution is taking advantage of advancements in machine learning to analyze satellite images, and extract better estimates for carbon capture from forestry projects. This is an improvement over old processes which often relied on in-person forest visits and manual measurements.
  • Subscriptions. Project Wren relies on consumer’s current comfort with recurring subscriptions. After a short quiz, users are told the amount of carbon they emit (I’m at 21.45 tons/year, mostly because of flying), and then given the opportunity to set up a recurring payment, of which the company takes 20%. I am currently offsetting by funding clean fuel for refugees in Uganda.

What’s next: big business adoption. Let’s hope so, at least. While consumers have shown a willingness to change their behavior, business has moved more slowly. But we seem to be at an inflection point in terms of public will, and 60 countries have pledged to try and reach net zero emissions by 2050, hopefully forcing others to follow suit. Even Britain, currently embroiled in a political tire-fire similar to the US, has succeeded in codifying this commitment. Perhaps these shifts will spur broader enterprise adoption, as businesses look to meet consumer expectations. If so, the startups above are well positioned to capitalize.

Exxon executives were aware of fossil fuel’s environmental effects in the 1970s. Rather than informing the public, they capitalized on the longer drilling season in the Artic, and redesigned drilling platforms to account for rising sea levels.

🖼️ 1000 words

(Something to look at)

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The Terabyte Warriors. In 2015, Xi Jinping unveiled his ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative, a plan to transition the country’s manufacturing from low to high-end goods, with particular focus on deep-tech. Three years later, it’s clear that leveraging robotic automation is a big part of that push, with installations increasing 124.8%. In 2018, a year that brought record sales to the industry and a total of $26B in spend, 1 in 3 robots were installed in China.

Perhaps just as importantly to Jinping, China is becoming not only a robotics customer, but a supplier. The country is making particularly strong inroads in the electronics, and metal and machinery spaces; in the latter industry, Chinese suppliers outstrip their foreign counterparts.

It remains to be seen just how large Jinping’s robot army grows. While expansion is expected in the long-term, the market may slow over the next couple years: the trade war is affecting Chinese manufacturers, smartphone sales are decreasing, and the transition to electric vehicles requires the creation of new processes.

😱 Signs of the apocalypse

(Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!)

Everybody dance now. Full body deepfakes are now possible. While previous forms of synthetic media have mostly been limited to talking heads, deep learning algorithms are now able to realistically graft movement onto someone else’s body. It’s easy to imagine how this might be used destructively, especially given that 95% of deepfakes are pornographic. For me, it brought to mind the College Blues scandal; imagine how compelling a simulacrum of athletic achievement you could create by plastering your face on say, Zion Williamson’s body.

Atlas can do a lot more than shrug. Boston Dynamics, robotics company and purveyor of nightmare-fuel has unveiled its newest creation, Atlas. The humanoid is able to lithely roll, handstand, pirouette, and twist. While technically remarkable, it is hard to imagine the use of this physical prowess beyond inevitable military applications.

More CTRL. Facebook tightened its vice-grip on our cerebellums with the purchase of brain-computer interface startup CTRL Labs. The company, founded by two Columbia neuroscience PhDs, was building a wrist device that would allow users to navigate technology with their thoughts.

🐒 Long tail

(Best of the rest)

Virtual reality is being used to help police be more empathetic. Axon, a provider of tasers and body cams has begun offering training designed to help police forces deal with potential suicides.

India emulates China’s facial recognition program. Modi will begin accepting bids to build a national system that links to fingerprint and passport databases. The Indian police force is currently understaffed.

Generation Silver turns entrepreneurial. More over-50s are starting ventures of their own, looking for greater independence, the chance to pursue a passion, and the hopes of increased income.

Lids are disappearing from Turkish shelves. As the population recovers from a recession, more people are taking efforts to preserve food, especially going into winter when food prices are often higher. A black-market has developed around this unlikeliest of items.

The way we learned to multiply is inefficient. The Karatsuba method requires fewer steps, particularly useful when multiplying larger numbers.

10% of what you see on Amazon is sponsored. That’s a 3% increase from last year, making it increasingly difficult to sell on the platform without deep pockets.

A man in Spokane was saved by his Apple Watch. After a bike crash left him unconscious, the “fall detection” on Bob Burdett’s watch called 911. He woke up in an ambulance.

Neumann is out. When investment bank’s pitched for the WeWork IPO, they speculated the company might be worth as much as $65B, or even $104B. Today, it might be worth 1/10th that amount. Adam Neumann, one of tech’s most visible impresarios, is at the center of the death spiral.

Autonomous vehicle providers are narrowing their focus. Full scale autonomy is taking longer than anticipated. In the meantime, many are turning their attention to closed loop environments, or projects that require limited functionality.

The creator of the Labradoodle is filled with regret. Wally Conron first created the dog as a guide for a blind woman whose husband was allergic to longhaired dogs.

The Army is trialing ‘female’ chatbots to boost enlistment. A booming economy has hurt recruiting. Officials think that ‘First Lt. Stripe,’ an automated assistant, will bring more women into the fold.

Amazon released a range of new Alexa-enabled gadgets this week. The most baffling is the ‘Loop,’ a tiny ring with a speaker that will answer your questions.

🧩 Puzzler

(A question, conundrum, or riddle to mull over)

I am taken from a mine and shut up in a wooden case from which I am never released. Yet, I am used by almost everybody. What am I?

The answer to an especially difficult one last week, was ‘fingerprints.’ Tricky.

I hope that your week is ending pleasantly, and sending my best. 💙

Written by

Tech from idea to IPO at Investing in chaotic-good founders at

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