Data Sheet—AI Expert Andrew Ng Wants to Improve Manufacturing

April 24, 2018, 1:01 PM UTC

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Andrew Ng, the respected computer scientist and entrepreneur, is getting his hands dirty, metaphorically speaking. Having co-founded education startup Coursera and built artificial intelligence units for Google and then Baidu, Ng now has his sights on factories.

“I’ve been to so many manufacturing plants,” says Ng, whose new startup,, aims to provide AI technology to the masses of companies that can’t or won’t build their own AI teams. “I’ve yet to walk into one where I did not think AI solutions wouldn’t help.”

Ng built his reputation in academic circles as a cutting-edge technologist. Since then he has refashioned himself as a translator, the rare PhD who can explain how it all works to business people. He’s based these days in a standard-issue Palo Alto office park on the other side of town from Stanford, where he works from a standup desk and a Spartan office. He also has a new venture fund that invests in AI-related companies. And he’s a board member—an “active board member,” he clarifies—of, an autonomous vehicle software company. (His wife, Carol Reiley, is president; they met at a robotics conference.)

The AI opportunity for manufacturing, says Ng, starts with inspection. All aspects of the manufacturing process require inspection for defects, often done by hundreds of people the old-fashioned way: with their eyes. “With human inspectors it’s difficult to get even the same person to make consistent judgments,” says Ng, let alone multiple people across multiple products.’s software analyzes photos and X-rays, but not yet ultrasounds, the technology ordered up to check fan blades on the engines of Boeing 737s.

Given his Google and Baidu pedigree, Ng says it’s easy to attract the attention of CEOs, all of whom want to surf the AI trend. His understandably self-serving pitch: “It turns out AI technology is complicated, more than I thought.”

And he’ll be happy to tour your factory to talk about it.


I managed to misidentify not one but two people in yesterday’s essay. Albert Wenger is a venture capitalist who’s interested in open access to APIs. (Not Wanger.) And Eric Posner, the University of Chicago law professor, is co-authoring a book with scholar Glen Weyl called Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society. His father, the famous jurist Richard Posner, has written many books, but not this one.

I apologize for the mistakes.


Unlockable. Amazon has a "top secret" plan to build robots for home use, unnamed sources tell Bloomberg. Gregg Zehr, the head of Amazon's Lab126 hardware R&D facility, is overseeing the project, which is codenamed “Vesta,” after the Roman goddess of the hearth. On a more confirmable note, the company announced that it is partnering with automakers Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Cadillac, and Volvo to extend its Key home delivery program and allow packages to be left in locked cars.

Unlockable, part II. Researchers have found a security flaw in the Nvidia chip powering the popular Nintendo Switch gaming device could allow hackers to gain control and access data, Ars Technica reports. Because the flaw is in a secured portion of the chip, it can't be corrected with a software patch, the researchers claim. No response yet from Nintendo or Nvidia.

Retaining. Scientists in Europe want to establish a new research center called the European Lab for Learning and Intelligent Systems, or Ellis, in a bid to keep top AI talent from relocating to the United States or China. “This is of such importance to Europe it would be a terrible mistake not to do something major,” Zoubin Ghahramani, Cambridge University professor and chief scientist at Uber, tells The Guardian.

Reviving. HTC is pivoting from early efforts to sell expensive virtual reality gear to consumers. With its new, upgraded gear announced on Monday, HTC is aiming for the corporate market (rival Facebook Oculus has signed up Farmers Insurance to use VR gear for training claims adjusters). The new Vive Pro 2.0 Kit, with a Vive Pro HMD VR headset, two revamped base stations for tracking movements, and two controllers, costs $1400, 17% more than HTC's original business bundle.

Inflating. Shareholders of Netflix did better than the CEO. After the stock climbed 55% last year, CEO Reed Hastings saw his 2017 total compensation rise only 5% to $24.4 million. Top content officer Ted Sarandos, who oversees the company's $8 billion and growing annual content budget, did a little better, getting a 19% raise to $22.4 million. The median worker pay was $183,304, meaning the boss made 133 times more.

Reporting. Elsewhere in the land of public companies, Google parent Alphabet said first quarter revenue jumped 26% to $31.1 billion. Net income rose 73% to $9.4 billion, or $13.33 per share. That was fueled in part by an accounting change that requires the company to include certain changes in the value of private company stakes it owns (cough, Uber, cough) in its quarterly results. Google shares lost 1% in premarket trading on Tuesday. Verizon, one of the biggest beneficiaries of corporate tax reform, said its first quarter revenue rose 7% to $31.8 billion and net income increased 31% to $4.7 billion, or $1.11 per share. Verizon shares rose 3%.


(Instead of "Food For Thought," today's excerpt should be renamed "Blow Your Mind.")

The species known as Homo Sapiens, or modern humans, first emerged about 500,000 years ago but civilized society is less than 10,000 years old and the industrial age started just 300 years ago. So what are scientists to make of emerging data showing rapid climate change on earth 55 million years ago that looks just like what's happening today? Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank have written a paper exploring the mind bending possible implication: did an alien industrial civilization exist on earth before humans? Scientific American has a summary and interview:

Their subsequent attempt to address both questions has yielded a provocative paper on the possibility Earth might have spawned more than one technological society during its 4.5-billion-year history. And if indeed some such culture arose on Earth in the murky depths of geologic time, how might scientists today discern signs of that incredible development? Or, as the paper put it: “If an industrial civilization had existed on Earth many millions of years prior to our own era, what traces would it have left and would they be detectable today?”

Schmidt and Frank began by forecasting the geologic fingerprints the Anthropocene will likely leave behind—such as hints of soaring temperatures and rising seas laid down in beds of sedimentary rock. These features, they noted, are very similar to the geologic leftovers of the PETM and other hyperthermal events. They then considered what tests could plausibly distinguish an industrial cause from otherwise naturally occurring climate changes. “These issues have never really been addressed to any great extent,” Schmidt notes. And that goes not only for scientists, but evidently for science fiction writers as well, he adds: “I looked back into the science fiction literature to try to find the earliest example of a story featuring a nonhuman industrial civilization on Earth. The earliest I could find was in a Doctor Who episode.”


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In the "let them eat cake" department of billionaire bad behavior, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla doesn't seem to like uninvited guests much. He's famously suing (and being sued) so he can block access to Martins Beach, a popular surfing spot that can only be reached by a road running across Khosla's property. Now the case may be heading to the Supreme Court.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.
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