I was in Atlanta Thursday, and for the second time in two weeks I was reminded that Silicon Valley has no monopoly on innovation.
I visited a company adjacent to Georgia Institute of Technology called Pindrop, which makes voice authentication and security products used by financial services companies and the like to cut down on fraud. Its AI-driven software listens to customer responses and cuts down on annoying verification questions as well as fraudulent behavior.
Pindrop has some mind-blowing capabilities. CEO Vijay Balasubramaniyan blew me away (and freaked me out a bit) by beginning a Q&A he and I did with his employees by playing a synthesized version of my voice greeting the group. His engineers pulled my voice from YouTube and fabricated some comments I never made. It wasn’t completely perfect, but I did recognize my voice.
Getting back to innovation happening outside Silicon Valley, Balasubramaniyan tells me his engineer pals in California rarely talk to him about engineering anymore. They’re preoccupied with issues of talent recruitment and retention and asking potential employees question like, “What coconut water do you need?” Pindrop, which has 330 employees (but doesn’t disclose it financials), has raised $122 million from the likes of Google Capital, Andreessen Horowitz and others. He says Georgia Tech provides ample hunting ground for engineers who aren’t as inclined to job hopping as their Silicon Valley counterparts.
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Pindrop has the flourishes of a California company. Its office space is in a refurbished old building, just like in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. Its conference rooms have clever names too: They are named for fraudsters Pindrop’s technology has caught.
Voice-recognition has been around for a long time, of course, led by listed companies like Nuance. Balasubramaniyan says old technology is based on rules fed into software, while his company’s artificial intelligence deploys deep learning. It can account for an aging voice, for example. Customers include banks, insurers, and retailers. He’s targeting automakers next, so drivers can speak commands to their car. (Chinese startup iFLYTEK talked about similar ambitions at the Fortune Global Forum last week in Guangzhou.)
It’s an exciting time to be in technology—in lots of different places.
Down to earth. Google is using a new wireless broadband technology it developed to help India’s Andhra Pradesh state government get millions of people online at low cost. An outgrowth of the company’s Project Loon balloons-with-Internet service, the Free Space Optical Communications technology uses rooftop boxes to transmit data via light beams at up to 20 gigabits per second, linking Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers.
Gutted. As expected, the Federal Communications Commission KO-ed its 2015 net neutrality rules and now, after all the debate, the implications will start to reveal themselves. Big Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon promised nothing would change. Democrats plan to use the issue to attract younger voters. Some state attorneys general plan to sue to keep the old rules in place.
Assembly line aptitude. Artificial intelligence expert Andrew Ng, who oversaw AI at Baidu and created the Google Brain project, has a new startup called Landing.ai that will focus on helping manufacturing companies transform with cutting age computer smarts. “By bringing AI to manufacturing, we will deliver a digital transformation to the physical world,” Ng writes in a blog post announcing his new company.
A dream deferred. Database giant Oracle disappointed Wall Street with a forecast of only 21% to 25% cloud revenue growth and 2% to 4% total revenue growth in its current quarter. Chairman Larry Ellison said the problem is many customers are waiting for Oracle’s new AI-powered cloud database service, which doesn’t arrive until January. “We think our customers are going to move very, very rapidly to the cloud but they are waiting for our Autonomous Database,” he told analysts. Oracle shares dropped 5% in premarket trading on Friday.
Moving on. Noted venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar, an early investor in Uber, left his firm, Sherpa Capital, after being accused of sexual harassment. Pishevar said he was leaving voluntarily and denied the allegations by at least seven women.
Vegan expansion. Plant-based food startup Impossible Foods, which currently serves its meat-free burger in more than 300 restaurants in the United States, will make its debut in Asia next year, CEO Pat Brown tells Fortune.
Pardon the interruption. More ads are coming your way from Facebook and Pandora Media. The giant social network said it would add more ads to short videos, while the music streaming service said it was adding a free, ad-supported tier to its on-demand offerings.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Y Combinator Is Launching a ‘Grad School’ Program to Help Later-Stage Startups By Casey Quackenbush
NASA Used Google’s AI to Discover Two New Planets By Jonathan Vanian
AOL Instant Messenger Officially Ends Its 20-Year Run on Friday By Kirsten Korosec
What the Disney-Fox Deal Could Mean for Hulu By Chris Morris
Commentary: Net Neutrality Is Dead. The Internet Is Next By Nicholas Economides
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Since the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal broke back in October, revelations of similar high-placed abusers have poured in from every industry and every nook and crevice of society. Look no farther than the story reported above in today’s news of a prominent VC stepping down after multiple allegations or new allegations emerging against Dustin Hoffman. The reckoning finally seems to have arrived for many of the abusers out there.
But it’s just as important to step back and try and gauge the big picture. Rebecca Traister has a long essay on New York magazine’s The Cut blog examining what’s happened and what it means. It’s not just about the sexual nature of the offenses, it’s about the nature of women in the workplace, she observes:
It’s about the cruel reminder that these are still the terms on which we are valued, by our colleagues, our bosses, sometimes our competitors, the men we tricked ourselves into thinking might see us as smart, formidable colleagues or rivals, not as the kinds of objects they can just grab and grope and degrade without consequence. It’s not that we’re horrified like some Victorian damsel; it’s that we’re horrified like a woman in 2017 who briefly believed she was equal to her male peers but has just been reminded that she is not, who has suddenly had her comparative powerlessness revealed to her. “I was hunting for a job,” said one of the women who accused Charlie Rose of assault. “And he was hunting for me.”
FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE
A few interesting longer reads I came across that are suitable for your weekend reading pleasure.
The Internet Is the Uncanniest Valley. Don’t Get Trapped There. (Wired)
The cycle of doubt and self-doubt—bitcoin sounds fishy; I’m an idiot for thinking bitcoin sounded fishy—can turn palpable, somatic. And that’s when it starts to seem clear that what we’re doing with software is not just interacting with machines, something our emotionally detached left brains can deal with. What we’re doing still, after all these years, is seeking serviceable metaphors that will make sense of the digital onslaught, trying to match its many facets, in scale and tenor, with traditional human experiences.
Tap and Trade: Apps Target Young Investors (Barron’s)
That ease of use, however, worries some. “Older generations had to call their broker and place an order,” says Meir Statman, a behavioral finance professor at Santa Clara University. “That was kind of tedious. On an app, you can click and buy it and sell it, and trade it again a second later.” He prefers budgeting and savings apps over those that make trading stocks and ETFs easier.
Spies, Dossiers, and the Insane Lengths Restaurants Go to Track and Influence Food Critics (Washingtonian)
The voice on the phone seemed a little too chipper. Tom Sietsema wondered if he’d been made. Or was he being paranoid? Maybe Le Diplomate’s reservationist was always this enthusiastic about hosting a party of eight at the buzzy French restaurant. Either way, as usual, the Washington Post’s lead restaurant critic made his reservation under an alias. This time, it was Dean Cook.
Behind the Scenes With the World’s Top Feather Detective (Audubon)
The job market has never been friendly to ornithologists, so Trail split time during those first years back in the States picking up contract work, raising his sons, and writing a sci-fi eco-thriller for young adults. Out of the blue one day in 1998 he received a call from the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, which happened to be a short drive from his home. The lab’s first and only ornithologist had left suddenly and cases were piling up—they needed a stopgap and wanted to know if Trail was available for a few months until they found a full-time replacement.
BEFORE YOU GO
Following up our report earlier this week on the travels of the spaceship-shaped asteroid Oumuamua through the solar system, researchers who aimed a giant radio telescope at the object reported Thursday no initial evidence of transmissions or other indications of extraterrestrial intelligence. But much of the 90 terabytes of data collected from Oumuamua remains to be analyzed. “Our team is excited to see what additional observations and analyses will reveal,” says Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center. Have a great weekend.