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Take a closer look at Elon Musk’s Neuralink surgical robot

While the science was front-and-center in Elon Musk’s presentation about Neuralink, his human brain computer inference company, the surgical robot the company debuted made a splash of its own. The rounded polycarbonate sci-fi design of the brain surgeon bot looks like something out of the Portal franchise, but it’s actually the creation of Vancouver-based industrial design firm Woke Studio. To be clear, Musk’s engineers and scientists have created the underlying technology, but Woke built the robot’s look and user experience, as well as the behind-the-ear communication end piece that Neuralink has shown in prior presentations.

Neuralink’s bot features clean white (required for ensuring sterility, per Woke), arcing lines and smooth surfaces for a look that at once flags its advanced technical capabilities, but also contains some soothing and more approachable elements, which is wise, considering what the machine is intended to do.

“While the patient may not be awake to see the machine in action, it was still important to design a non-intimidating robot that can aesthetically live alongside the iconic machines in Musk’s portfolio,” the company explains in a press release. “It also needed to meet a long list of medical requirements in terms of sterility and maintenance, and provide safe and seamless utilization for its operators.”

Image Credits: Woke Studio

Woke says the Neuralink surgical robot can be separated into three main parts: The head, the body and base. The head of the robot is that helmet-like piece, which actually holds the head of the patient. It also includes a guide for the surgical needle, as well as embedded cameras and sensors to map the patent’s brain. The intent of the design of this piece, which includes a mint-colored interior, is to give the robot “an anthroprmorphic characteristic” that helps distract from the invasive nature of the procedure. There are also single-use disposable bags that line the interior of the helmet for sterile operation.

The Neuralink robot also has a “body,” that humped rear assembly, which includes all the parts responsible for the motion of the robot as it sets up from the procedure. The third element is the base, which basically keeps the whole thing from tipping over, and apparently also contains the computing brains of the brain-bot itself.

Neuralink is an Elon Musk-founded company that’s seeking to mitigate what Musk sees as a potential existential threat to human life: The ascendancy of general artificial intelligence. While its near-term goals are aimed at helping address medical conditions incurred by damage to brain tissue, Musk ultimately hopes that Neuralink will be able to help humans keep up with advanced AI by providing them with a latency-free, direct high-bandwidth connection to their computers — using direct thought input.

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Here are four areas the $311 billion CPPIB investment fund thinks will be impacted by COVID-19

The Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board, an asset manager controlling around $311 billion in assets for the Canada’s pensioners and retirees, has identified four key industries that are set to experience massive changes as a result of the global economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The firm expects the massive changes in e-commerce, healthcare, logistics, and urban infrastructure to remain in place for an extended period of time and is urging investors to rethink their approaches to each as a result.

“It really ties into the mandate that we have in thematic investing,” said Leon Pedersen, the head of Thematic Investments at CPPIB.

There was a realization at the firm that structural changes were happening and that there was value for the fund manager in ensuring that the changes were being addressed across its broad investment portfolio. “We have a long term mandate and we have a long term investment horizon so we can afford to think long term in our investment outlook,” Pedersen said.

The Thematic Investments group within CPPIB will make mid-cap, small-cap and private investments in companies that reflect the firm’s long term theses, according to Pedersen. So not only does this survey indicate where the firm sees certain industries going, but it’s also a sign of where CPPIB might commit some investment capital.

The research, culled from international surveys with over 3,500 respondents as well as intensive conversations with the firm’s investment professionals and portfolio companies, indicates that there’s likely a new baseline in e-commerce usage that will continue to drive growth among companies that offer blended retail offerings and that offices are likely never going to return to full-time occupancy by every corporate employee.

Already CPPIB has made investments in companies like Fabric, a warehouse management and automation company.

The e-commerce wave has crested, but the tide may turn

Amid the good news for e-commerce companies is a word of warning for companies in the online grocery space. While usage surged to 31 percent of U.S. households, up from 13 percent in August, consumers gave the service poor marks and many grocers are actually losing money on online orders. The move online also favored bigger omni-channel vendors like Amazon and Walmart, the study found.

The CPPIB also found that there may be opportunities for brick and mortar vendors in the aftermath of the epidemic. As younger consumers return to shopping center they’re going to find fewer retailers available, since bankruptcies are coming in both the US and Europe. That could open the door for new brands to emerge. Meanwhile, in China, more consumers are moving offline with malls growing and customers returning to shopping centers.

Some of the biggest winners will actually be online entertainment and cashless payments — since fewer stores are accepting cash and music and video streaming represent low-risk, easier options than live events or movie theaters.

LOS ANGELES, CA – MAY 30: General views of tourists and shoppers returning to the Hollywood & Highland shopping mall for the first weekend of in-store retail business being open since COVID-19 closures began in mid-March on May 30, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

Healthcare goes digital and privacy matters more than ever

Consumers in the West, already reluctant to hand over personal information, have become even more sensitive to government handling of their information despite the public health benefits of tracking and tracing, according to the CPPIB. In Germany and the U.S. half of consumers said they had concerns about sharing their data with government or corporations, compared with less than 20 percent of Chinese survey respondents.

However, even as people are more reluctant to share personal information with governments or corporations, they’re becoming more willing to share personal information over technology platforms. One-third of the patients who used tele-medical services in the U.S. during the pandemic did so for the first time. And roughly twenty percent of the nation had a telemedicine consultation over the course of the year, according to CPPIB data.

Technologies that improve the experience are likely to do well, because of the people who did try telemedicine, satisfaction levels in the service went down.

DENVER, CO – MARCH 12: Healthcare workers from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment check in with people waiting to be tested for COVID-19 at the state’s first drive-up testing center on March 12, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. The testing center is free and available to anyone who has a note from a doctor confirming they meet the criteria to be tested for the virus. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Cities and infrastructure will change

“From mass transit to public gatherings, few areas of urban life will be left unmarked by COVID-19,” write the CPPIB report authors.

Remote work will accelerate dramatically changing the complexion of downtown environments as the breadth of amenities on offer will spread to suburban communities where residents flock.  According to CPPIB’s data roughly half of workers in China, the UK and the US worked from home during the pandemic, up from 5 percent or less in 2019. In Canada, four-in-ten Canadian were telecommuting.

To that end, the CPPIB sees opportunities for companies enabling remote work (including security, collaboration and productivity technologies) and automating business practices. On the flip side, for those workers who remain wedded to the office by necessity or natural inclination, there’s going to need to be cleaning and sanitation services and someone’s going to have to provide some COVID-19 specific tools.

With personal space at a premium, public transit and ride hailing is expected to take a hit as well, according to the CPPIB report.

New York City, NY is shown in the above Maxar satellite image. Image Credit: Maxar

Supply chains become the ties that bind in a distributed, virtual world

As more aspects of daily life become socially distanced and digital, supply chains will assume an even more central position in the economy.

“Amid rising labor costs and heightened geopolitical risk, companies today are focused on resilience,” write the CPPIB authors.

Companies are reassessing their reliance on Chinese manufacturing since political pressure is coming from more regions on Chinese suppliers thanks to the internment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang and the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic and open society. According to CPPIB, India, Southeast Asia, and regional players like Mexico and Poland are best positioned to benefit from this supply chain diversification. Supply chain management software providers, and robotics and automation services stand to benefit.

“Confined to their homes for months and subjected to a rapid reordering of their perceived health risks and economic prospects, consumers are emerging from a shared trauma that will change their priorities and concerns for years to come,” the CPPIB study’s authors write.

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UK government reverses course on Huawei’s involvement in 5G networks

Conservative members of the United Kingdom’s government have pushed Prime Minister Boris Johnson to draw up plans to remove telecom equipment made by the Chinese manufacturer Huawei from the nation’s 5G networks by 2023, according to multiple reports.

The decision by Johnson, who wanted Huawei’s market share in the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure capped at 35 percent, brings the UK back into alignment with the position Australia and the United States have taken on Huawei’s involvement in national communications networks, according to both The Guardian and The Telegraph.

The debate over Huawei’s role in international networking stems from the company’s close ties to the Chinese government and the attendant fears that relying on Huawei telecom equipment could expose the allied nations to potential cybersecurity threats and weaken national security.

Originally, the UK had intended to allow Huawei to maintain a foothold in the nation’s telecom infrastructure in a plan that had received the approval of Britain’s intelligence agencies in January.

“This is very good news and I hope and believe it will be the start of a complete and thorough review of our dangerous dependency on China,” conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith told The Guardian when informed of the Prime Minister’s reversal.

As TechCrunch had previously reported, the Australian government and the U.S. both have significant concerns about Huawei’s ability to act independently of the interests of the Chinese national government.

“The fundamental issue is one of trust between nations in cyberspace,” wrote Simeon Gilding, until recently the head of the Australian Signals Directorate’s signals intelligence and offensive cyber missions. “It’s simply not reasonable to expect that Huawei would refuse a direction from the Chinese Communist Party.”

Given the current tensions between the U.S. and China, allies like the UK and Australia would be better served not exposing themselves to any risks from having the foreign telecommunications company’s technology in their networks, some security policy analysts have warned.

“It’s not hard to imagine a time when the U.S. and China end up in some sort of conflict,” Tom Uren of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) told TechCrunch. “If there was a shooting war, it is almost inevitable that the U.S. would ask Australia for assistance and then we’d be in this uncomfortable situation if we had Huawei in our networks that our critical telecommunications networks would literally be run by an adversary we were at war with.”

U.S. officials are bound to be delighted with the decision. They’ve been putting pressure on European countries for months to limit Huawei’s presence in their telecom networks.

“If countries choose to go the Huawei route it could well jeopardize all the information sharing and intelligence sharing we have been talking about, and that could undermine the alliance, or at least our relationship with that country,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, according to a report in The New York Times.

In recent months the U.S. government has stepped up its assault against the technology giant on multiple fronts. Earlier in May, the U.S. issued new restrictions on the use of American software and hardware in certain strategic semiconductor processes. The rules would affect all foundries using U.S. technologies, including those located abroad, some of which are Huawei’s key suppliers.

At a conference earlier this week, Huawei’s rotating chairman Guo Ping admitted that while the firm is able to design some semiconductor parts such as integrated circuits (IC), it remains “incapable of doing a lot of other things.”

“Survival is the keyword for us at present,” he said.

Huawei has challenged the ban, saying that it would damage the international technology ecosystem that has developed to manufacture the hardware that powers the entire industry.

“In the long run, [the U.S. ban] will damage the trust and collaboration within the global semiconductor industry which many industries depend on, increasing conflict and loss within these industries.”

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General Atlantic to invest $870M in India’s Reliance Jio Platforms

Mukesh Ambani’s Jio Platforms has agreed to sell its 1.34% stake to General Atlantic, the latest in a series of deals the top Indian telecom operator has secured in recent weeks.

On Sunday, New York-headquartered private equity firm General Atlantic said it would invest $870 million in the Indian telecom operator, a subsidiary of India’s most valued firm (Reliance Industries), joining fellow American investors Facebook, Silver Lake, and Vista Equity Partners that have also made sizeable bets on the three-and-a-half-year old Indian firm.

General Atlantic’s investment values Jio Platforms at $65 billion — the same valuation implied by the Silver Lake and Vista deals and a 12.5% premium over Facebook’s deal, the Indian firm said.

Sunday’s announcement further illustrates the growing appeal of Jio Platforms, which has raised $8.85 billion in the past one month by selling about 14.7% of its stake, to foreign investors that are looking for a slice of the fast-growing world’s second largest internet market.

General Atlantic, a high profile investor in consumer tech space that has invested in dozens of firms such as Airbnb, Alibaba, Ant Financial, Box, ByteDance, Facebook, Slack, Snapchat, and Uber, has been a key investor in India for more than a decade though it has avoided bets in consumer tech space in the country.

It has cut checks to several Indian startups including NoBroker, a Bangalore-based startup that helps those looking to rent or buy an apartment connect directly with property owners, edtech giants Unacademy and Byju’s, payments processor BillDesk, and National Stock Exchange of India. The PE firm, which has invested about $3 billion in India, said last week that it was looking to invest an additional $1.5 billion in Indian firms by next year — this time focusing on the players operating in consumer tech category.

Reliance Industries chairman Ambani, who has poured more than $30 billion to build Jio Platforms, said the telecom network would “leverage General Atlantic’s proven global expertise and strategic insights across 40 years of technology investing.”

“General Atlantic shares our vision of a digital society for India and strongly believes in the transformative power of digitization in enriching the lives of 1.3 billion Indians,” he added.

Prepaid SIM cards of Reliance Jio at a retail store. (Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)

Launched in the second half of 2016, Reliance Jio upended India’s telecommunications industry with cut-rate data plans and free voice calls. Jio Platforms, a subsidiary of Reliance Industries, operates the telecom venture, called Jio Infocomm, that has amassed 388 million subscribers since its launch to become the nation’s top telecom operator.

Reliance Jio Platforms also owns a suite of services including music streaming service JioSaavn (which it says it will take public), smartphones, broadband business, on-demand live television service and payments service.

“In just three and a half years, Jio has had a transformational impact in democratizing data and digital services, propelling India to be positioned as a leading global digital economy,” said Sandeep Naik, MD and Head of India & Southeast Asia at General Atlantic, in a statement.

The new capital would help Ambani, India’s richest man, further solidify his last year’s commitment to investors when he said he aimed to cut Reliance’s net debt of about $21 billion to zero by early 2021. Its core business — oil refining and petrochemicals — has been hard hit amid the coronavirus outbreak. Its net profit in the quarter that ended on March 31 fell by 37%.

In the company’s earnings call last month, Ambani said several firms had expressed interest in buying stakes in Jio Platforms in the wake of the deal with Facebook . Bloomberg reported last week that Saudi Wealth Fund was also in talks with Ambani for a stake in Jio Platforms.

Facebook said that other than offering capital to Jio Platforms for a 9.99% stake in the firm, it would work with the Indian giant on a number of areas starting with e-commerce. Days later, JioMart, an e-commerce venture run by India’s most valued firm, began testing an “ordering system” on WhatsApp, the most popular smartphone app in India with over 400 million active users in the country.

29-year-old Akash Ambani, the oldest son of Mukesh, said in a statement, “Jio is committed to make a digitally inclusive India that will provide immense opportunities to every Indian citizen especially to our highly talented youth.”

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Vista Partners founder calls for a fintech revolution to help pandemic-hit, minority-owned small businesses

The head of what is arguably private equity’s most successful technology investment firm — Vista Equity Partners — made a rare appearance on Meet The Press to discuss the steps that the country needs to take to help minority-owned businesses recover from the economic collapse caused by the COVID-19 epidemic.

Robert F. Smith is one of the worlds wealthiest private equity investors, a noted philanthropist, and the richest African American in the U.S.  Days after announcing a $1.5 billion investment into the Indian telecommunications technology developer Jio Platforms, Smith turned his attention to the U.S. and the growing economic crisis that’s devastating minority businesses and financial institutions even as the COVID-19 epidemic ravages the health of minority communities.

Calling the COVID-19 “a pandemic on top of a series of epidemics”, Smith said that the next round of stimulus needs to support the small businesses that still remain underserved by traditional financial institutions — and that new financial technology software and services can help.

“We need to continue to rally as Americans to come with real, lasting, scalable solutions to enable the communities that are getting hit first, hardest, and probably will take the longest to recover with solutions that will help these communities thrive again,” Smith told NBC’s Chuck Todd.

Smith called for an infusion of cash into community development financial institutions and for a new wave of technology tools to support transparency and facilitate operations among these urban rural communities that aren’t served by large banking institutions. 

In all, the first round of the Congressional stimulus package poured $6 trillion into the U.S. economy through authorizations for the Treasury to issue $4 trillion in credit and $2 billion in cash payouts to various industries. The average size of those initial loans was just under $240,000, according to a post-mortem assessment of the Payroll Protection Program written by Lendio chief executive Brock Blake for Forbes

Blake’s assessment of the shortcomings of the PPP echoes Smith’s own criticism of the program. “Many of these small communities — urban, rural — aren’t being banked by the large institutions,” Smith said. Instead they’re working with community development financial institutions that in many instances weren’t approved lenders under the Small Business Administration and so were not able to distribute PPP money and make loans to their customers.

“We have to take this opportunity to reinvest in our business infrastructure in these small to medium businesses. In our banking infrastructure so that we can actually emerge out of this even stronger,” Smith said. “We have to invest in technology and software so that these ‘capillary banking systems’ are more efficient and they have more access to capital so they can engage with these businesses that are underbanked.”

In many instances this would amount to the construction of an entirely new financial infrastructure to support the small businesses that were only just beginning to emerge in minority communities after the 2008 recession.

“We need to get this average loan size to $25,000 and $15,000,” said Smith. To do that, community banks and development finance institutions are going to need to be able to access new fintech solutions that accelerate their ability to assess the creditworthiness of their customers and think differently about how to allocate capital and make loans. 

In some ways, Smith is echoing the call that fintech executives have been making since the PPP stimulus first started making its way through the financial system and banks began issuing loans.

“We would be remiss if we didn’t take a significant portion of capital to reinvest in the infrastructure of delivering capital back into those businesses and frankly reinvest in those businesses and give them technology and capability so there’s more transparency and visibility so there’s an opportunity to grow [and] scale,” said Smith. “I don’t want to see us go back to the same position where we were so we have these banking deserts.”

The head of Vista Equity Partners has even tasked his own portfolio companies to come up with solutions. As Barron’s reported last week, Smith told the Vista Equity portfolio company Finastra to develop technology that could help small lenders process Paycheck Protection Program loans for small businesses in underserved communities.

“In the process, it became apparent how unbanked these most vulnerable communities are, and we felt it was imperative to help build out permanent infrastructure in those banks so that they can build long-term relationships with the U.S. Small Business Administration beyond PPP,” Smith told Barrons.

As of last week, 800 lenders had processed 75,000 loans using the software that London-based Finastra developed for U.S. small lenders. Those loans generated $2.2 million in processing fees for the fintech company, proving that there’s money to be made in the small ticket lending market. And even as Finastra is reaping the rewards of its push into small business lending services, Vista Equity and Smith are donating the same amount to local food banks, according to a spokeswoman for the private equity firm, Barron’s reported.

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These leaders are coming to Robotics + AI on March 3. Why aren’t you?

TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics + AI brings together a wide group of the ecosystem’s leading minds on March 3 at UC Berkeley. Over 1,000+ attendees are expected from all facets of the robotics and artificial intelligence space — investors, students, engineers, C-levels, technologists and researchers. We’ve compiled a small list of highlights of attendees’ companies and job titles attending this year’s event:

ATTENDEE HIGHLIGHTS

  • ABB Technology Ventures, Vice President
  • Amazon, Head, re:MARS Product Marketing
  • Amazon Web Services, Principal Business Development Manager
  • Autodesk, Director, Robotics
  • AWS, Principal Technologist
  • BMW, R&D Engineer
  • Bosch Venture Capital, Investment Principal
  • Capital One, President of Critical Stack
  • Ceres Robotics Inc., CEO
  • Deloitte, Managing Director
  • Facebook AI Research, Research Lead
  • Ford X, Strategy & Operations
  • Goldman Sachs, Technology Investor
  • Google, Vice President
  • Google X, Director, Robotics
  • Greylock, EIR
  • Hasbro, Principal Engineer
  • Honda R&D Americas Inc., Data Engineer
  • HSBC, Global Relationship Manager
  • Huawei Technologies, Principal System Architect of Corporate Technology Strategy
  • Hyundai CRADLE, Industrial Design
  • Intel, Hardware Engineer
  • Intuit, Inc., Software Engineer
  • iRobot, CTO
  • John Deere, Director, Precision Ag Marketing and Innovation
  • Kaiser Permanente, Director
  • Kawasaki Heavy Industries (USA), Inc., Technical Director
  • LG Electronics, Head of Engineering
  • LockHeed Martin, Engineering Manager
  • Moody’s Analytics, Managing Director
  • Morgan Stanley, Executive Director
  • NASA, Senior Systems Architect
  • Nestle, Innovation Manager
  • NVIDIA, Senior Systems Software Engineer
  • Qualcomm Ventures, Investment Director
  • Samsung, Director, Open Innovations & Tech Partnership
  • Samsung Ventures, Managing Director
  • Shasta Ventures, Investor
  • Softbank Ventures Asia, Investor
  • Surgical Theater, SVP Engineering
  • Takenaka Corporation, Senior Manager, Technology Planning
  • Techstars, Managing Director
  • Tesla, Sr. Machine Learning Engineer
  • Toyota Research Institute, Manager, Prototyping & Robotics Operations
  • Uber, Engineering Manager
  • UPS, Director of Research and Development

STUDENTS & RESEARCHERS FROM:

  • Columbia University
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Harvard University
  • Northwestern University
  • Santa Clara University
  • Stanford University
  • Texas A&M University
  • UC Berkeley
  • UC Davis
  • UCLA
  • USC
  • Yale University

Did you know that TechCrunch provides a white-glove networking app at all our events called CrunchMatch? You can connect and match with people who meet your specific requirements, message them and connect right at the conference. How cool is that!?

Want to get in on networking with this caliber of people? Book your $345 General Admission ticket today and save $50 before prices go up at the door. But no one likes going to events alone. Why not bring the whole team? Groups of four or more save 15% on tickets when you book here.

Source: TechCrunch