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“A.I. is a living and breathing engine”

September 24, 2020, 1:28 PM UTC

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Artificial intelligence is a bit like 5G. Both are heavily hyped, genuinely new, and poorly understood. (This explainer by Brian Chen in The New York Times might help on 5G; I plan to focus today on A.I.)

Oh, and there’s a lot of money to be made on both too, particularly from consultants, technology hardware and software vendors, and cloud services providers.

Strictly speaking, A.I. isn’t new. The notion and the aspiration have been around for decades. But new computing capacity married with scientific breakthroughs in harnessing have led to the hype and business explosion.

That newness shone through in a panel hosted Wednesday morning by Fortune deputy editor Brain O’Keefe. Tatsiana Maskalevich, a data scientist at clothing retailer Stitch Fix, calls the information its clients give the company—their size, age, likes and dislikes, and so on—“a data scientist’s goldmine.” The data helps human stylists, the people who choose clothes for clients, stay ahead of preference curves, faster than if they were merely reading the fashion zeitgeist. (Stitch Fix is trusted too: Maskalevich says the company often knows about client pregnancies before their families do.)

Joelle Pineau, a McGill University professor and A.I. big shot at Facebook, says the powerful company is applying machine-learning techniques to quickly translate medical reports about the pandemic, most of which are written in English.

And Lan Guan, an “applied intelligence” expert at Accenture, which sponsored the event, notes that because A.I. is so new, there is little historical data to choose from in analyzing it. “A.I. is a living and breathing engine,” she says.

(A delightful side note for a virtual event hosted by Fortune, a publication that over-indexed on male executives for decades: an entire panel of women.)

If you want to dig deeper into the newness of A.I., read Jonathan Vanian’s compelling feature about one of A.I.’s weakest suits, at least as it has been applied so far: reading spreadsheets and other so-called structured data.

Have an intelligent day.

Adam Lashinsky


This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.


The tide isn't going out yet. In case your EV stock rally was losing momentum after Elon Musk's overly realistic Tesla battery day pronouncements, California to the rescue. The state says it will allow the sale of only zero-emission passenger cars by 2035. Medium and heavy-duty trucks get until 2045 to go green. And startup XL Fleet, which refits trucks with electric drivetrains, is planning to go public by merging with a SPAC called Pivotal Investment Corp.

Three down, four to go. Remember the crazy harassment scheme that a bunch of eBay employees put in play against a Massachusetts couple who self-published a newsletter they didn't like? You know, the one with the bloody pig mask and cockroaches? Four of the seven indicted former eBay employees pled guilty on Wednesday. Two of the higher-ranked folks, former senior director of safety and security James Baugh and former director of global resiliency David Harville, are still fighting the charges. In other court-room dramas, ByteDance is asking a federal court to delay the Trump administration's app store ban of TikTok.

My warm heart turns cold. In the land of new features, owners of Samsung's Galaxy Watch 3 are finally getting promised EKG measurements after the FDA approved the function. The company also debuted its new midrange phone, the Galaxy S20 FE, starting at $700. On apps, Google added a COVID-19 overlay to its popular Maps app so you can see if maybe it's not such a good idea to visit that neighboring county. And the U.K. finally launched its much-delayed contract-tracing smartphone app that relies on a system developed by Apple and Google. There will be much more to report from New Featureland tomorrow, as Amazon is unveiling its latest Alexa gadgets at 1 p.m. ET today (I'm betting on a connected garlic press, pasta maker, and shop vac).

Show me the money. On the stock market, a few more tech companies debuted. Construction software developer Bentley Systems raised almost $240 million, as did Corsair Gaming, while online drug comparison platform GoodRx grabbed $1 billion. Oh, and Laird Superfood, which makes plant-based coffee creamer, raised almost $60 million. Footnote: WeWork, which still hasn't gone public, was an early investor in Laird but sold its shares and missed out on the big gain. Back on the private markets, sneakerhead destination Goat Group raised $100 million at a $1.75 billion valuation, making it our newest and probably hippest unicorn.

I see what you did there. Cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike is buying Preempt Security for almost $100 million to bolster its Falcon login security and network monitoring platform.


Elon Musk and many others are working to develop a more direct interface between computers and the human brain. In an essay for ZDNet, writer Jo Best delves into some of the implications if such research succeeds.

That will mean a massive jump in the speed between an individual having a thought and that thought producing an action in the real world -- our ability to process information could be faster than has ever been possible.

"Computers can process signals a lot faster than a biological nervous system can, so there's the ability to scale time. You could potentially enact motion commands a lot faster than your nervous system necessarily would," says (Justin Sanchez, a tech fellow at the Battelle Memorial Institute).

"And again, that's an interesting aspect of how the brain can adapt to those kinds of situations. We are limited in our perception and interaction with the world by the fundamental speed of our nervous system. If you provide to the brain something that works faster, the brain can adapt to those kinds of situations and operate faster," he says.


These 5 apps are up-and-comers with Gen Z, report says By Danielle Abril

Startup debuts software to help any company use “quantum algorithms” By Jeremy Kahn

5 cheap electric cars to buy until Tesla delivers on its $25,000 promise By David Z. Morris

A.I. algorithms had to change when COVID-19 changed consumer behavior By Aaron Pressman

How Nike hit its e-commerce goal 3 years early By Phil Wahba

Will the pandemic give us a Sputnik moment? By Erika Fry

There’s an ulterior motive to China’s carbon neutral pledge: Cornering the green tech market By Eamon Barrett

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)


While George R.R. Martin struggles to write the sixth book in his planned seven-book Game of Thrones series that he started in 1996, his protege is doing much better. Ty Franck, who was once Martin's personal assistant, and fantasy author Daniel Abraham are about to complete their epic science-fiction saga known as The Expanse (the pair write under the pen name James S.A. Corey). The ninth and final book, called Leviathan Falls, is on schedule for release next year, just a decade after the series kicked off with Leviathan Rises.

Aaron Pressman