Covid 19

Yes, exoplanets can have oxygen without alien life

The discovery of life on another world would be a monumental moment in the history of human civilization. The most likely way we will, one day, find alien life will be discovering chemical markers of life in the atmosphere of planets orbiting distant stars.

One of these markers is oxygen, which currently makes up a little over 20 percent of the atmosphere of our own world. However, our own world held onto relatively little oxygen until 2.4 billion years ago, when oxygen-producing cyanobacteria filled the atmosphere with the gas, leading to the first widespread extinction — the Great Oxidation event. Many lifeforms on Earth today, including human beings, are now dependent on this life-giving gas.

“Oxygen is a promising exoplanet biosignature due to the evolutionary advantage conferred by harnessing starlight for photosynthesis, and the apparent low likelihood of maintaining oxygen‐rich atmospheres without life,” researchers explained in an article published in the journal AGU Advances.

Ollie ollie exoplanet!

There are three scenarios through which we might discover life. The first of these, and the least likely, is the arrival on our planet of members of an intelligent civilization in spacecraft. The second means of finding life would be the detection of an intelligent signal from another world, most likely through radio waves. The most-likely scenario would be the discovery of gases, like large quantities of oxygen, methane, or phosphine, in the atmosphere of an alien world.

The James Webb Space Telescope should soon become the latest planet hunter in the search for exoplanets — some of which might be home to life. We talk with Scott Lambros, NASA’s instrument systems manager on this revolutionary observatory in space.

A new study from researchers at UC Santa Cruz highlights the need for an array of next-generation telescopes capable of searching exoplanets for multiple, independent, signs of life.

“This is useful because it shows there are ways to get oxygen in the atmosphere without life, but there are other observations you can make to help distinguish these false positives from the real deal. For each scenario, we try to say what your telescope would need to be able to do to distinguish this from biological oxygen,” Joshua Krissansen-Totton, a Sagan Fellow in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, explains.

Researchers hope that in the next 15 years or so, one or more telescopes in space will be capable of directly imaging exoplanets orbiting other stars, and studying the chemical makeup of their atmospheres. Such study could provide multiple means to detect life on other worlds, providing additional evidence for the discovery.

“There has a been a lot of discussion about whether detection of oxygen is ‘enough’ of a sign of life. This work really argues for needing to know the context of your detection. What other molecules are found in addition to oxygen, or not found, and what does that tell you about the planet’s evolution?” Jonathan Fortney, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC stated.

A look at how young magma planets could evolve into oxygen-rich worlds either with or without life.
Credit: J. Krissansen-Totton
A look at how young magma planets could evolve into oxygen-rich worlds either with or without life.

A series of simulations of theoretical exoplanets showed how exoplanets with oxygen could develop in the absence of life. The chemical makeup of these virtual worlds varied greatly depending on the presence of volatiles — those chemicals that are easily driven off worlds by heat and pressure from a nearby star.

“If you run the model for Earth, with what we think was the initial inventory of volatiles, you reliably get the same outcome every time — without life you don’t get oxygen in the atmosphere. But we also found multiple scenarios where you can get oxygen without life,” Krissansen-Totton said.

Oxygen can build up in planetary atmospheres without life by chemical processes. For instance, water in the upper atmosphere of an exoplanet could interact with ultraviolet light from its sun, splitting the water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen would quickly escape into space, leaving oxygen behind.

Turning Up the Heat

Other processes, both chemical and geological, could convert these molecules into other products, reducing quantities of the gas on exoplanets with oxygen.

However, simulations showed Earth-like planets containing more water than our world will develop oceans far more vast than our own. The enormous pressures of these oceans would shut down geological processes, preventing oxygen from being absorbed into the planet, increasing levels of oxygen in the atmosphere.

Exploring extreme exoplanets with Dr. Lauren Weiss from the University of Hawaii.

Oh yeah, I need steam… Feel the steam all around me
Ah you’re turning up the heat… When I start to dream aloud
See you move your hands and feet… Won’t you step into this cloud of steam” — “Steam” Peter Gabriel

The opposite case — exoplanets are lacking in water — can result in conditions where a surface of molten magma quickly freezes, leaving vast amounts of water in the air, in the form of a “steam atmosphere.” Once this water vapor meets with ultraviolet light, and hydrogen escapes to space, atmospheric oxygen would be left behind.

“On Earth, once water condensed on the surface, escape rates were low. But if you retain a steam atmosphere after the molten surface has solidified, there’s a window of about a million years when oxygen can build up because there are high water concentrations in the upper atmosphere and no molten surface to consume the oxygen produced by hydrogen escape,” Krissansen-Totton said.

A third scenario examined planets containing more carbon dioxide than Earth, leading to a runaway greenhouse effect. Temperatures on these worlds would remain too high for water to ever condense out of the atmosphere, driving up oxygen levels on worlds too hot to sustain life.

Examining geological and chemical processes on exoplanets shows how alien worlds could hold on to large quantities of oxygen without life. And, how a new generation of telescopes could discover life on distant exoplanets with oxygen.

This article was originally published on The Cosmic Companion by James Maynard, founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He is a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the Cat. You can read this original piece here.

Covid 19

3 new technologies ecommerce brands can use to connect better with customers

Ecommerce was already a fast-growing industry at the beginning of 2020. Now it’s experiencing an unprecedented boom as billions of shoppers seek to replace their physical shopping carts with virtual ones.

What’s more, customer loyalty has been uprooted and is now up for grabs. A study by McKinsey & Company found that consumer behaviors have changed drastically across the globe with extremely high numbers of consumers having tried new shopping behaviors, including purchasing products from new brands, in the past few months. 

These changes are creating new opportunities but also increased competition. 

As a result, companies have been investing in new tech, from AR-generated apps being used to allow customers to ‘try on’ make-up and clothes virtually to gamified shopping promotions. 

But, in the rush to adopt the latest trends and attract new customers, many companies are feeling more out of touch with their audience than ever. 

We spoke with three ecommerce experts to find out what companies are getting wrong and how they can better connect with their audiences using technology. As part of’s most recent batch of Rise Programme participants, these fast-growing scaleups represent the best of the best in Dutch innovation. Here’s what they had to say: 

Go where your customers are

ChannelEngine logo and CEO Jorrit Steinz

When choosing a spot for a brick-and-mortar store, everyone knows the most important consideration is location, location, location. You want to set up your store where your customers like to hang out and shop regularly. According to Jorrit Steinz, CEO of ChannelEngine, your ecommerce strategy should be no different. 

And just where is your audience shopping online? According to a study by Digital Commerce 360, sales on marketplace sites accounted for 62% of global web sales in 2020, with the top online marketplaces in the world selling $2.67 trillion in products. 

“While consumers were first searching on a search engine, now they’re searching on marketplaces. Even if they’re searching on Google, they will still find marketplaces so it’s essential for brands to be where consumers are searching,” Steinz said.

Even if consumers do start with a Google search, individual retailers still have to compete with marketplaces for top spots in search results. 

Most new webshops completely rely on Google driving traffic. Then you see the marketplaces competing for the same set of keywords. On top of that, Google itself is competing with Google Shopping. So it’s getting harder and harder to optimize for your own webshop. There’s a whole ecosystem of brands that are only selling on marketplaces, social media, and not even on their own webstore.

ChannelEngine is a software as a service platform that connects brands, retailers, and wholesalers to online marketplaces. Instead of having to manage an Amazon account, eBay listings, and a Zalando portal, companies can manage multiple marketplaces across the globe from this one platform. This means stock levels and orders can be synchronized, product updates can be made automatically, and price levels can be controlled in one place. 

For brands looking to break into new markets, rather than spending time on translating websites, researching keywords, and creating specialized campaigns, the transition can be as simple as selecting the marketplace with the best reach in that country. 

As Steinz pointed out, it’s not just about traditional marketplaces. Social media channels are also now transitioning towards becoming virtual shopping malls.

A lot of click channels, like Instagram, Google, and comparison sites, are all turning into transactional channels, which is basically a marketplace. So that means there’s going to be more and more entry points for potential customers.

Instead of navigating to an online shop, consumers will now have their credit cards linked to their Instagram accounts, allowing them to simply click on an ad and buy directly in the app.

“That’s going to be a massive shift for any ecommerce retailer and, if they’re not prepared, it’s going to cost them some potential revenue,” Steinz predicted.

You get the best customer insights by simply listening 

Wonderflow logo and CEO Riccardo Osti

“We’re always talking about digital data sources now online. The tendency is to think that ecommerce is something and then traditional retail is something else. This is absolutely not true,” said Riccardo Osti, CEO of Wonderflow. 

BazaarVoice found that 56% of online shoppers and 45% of brick and mortar buyers read reviews online before purchasing a product. This has created a multiplier effect for some product categories, meaning that each dollar a company makes online is equal to between four and six dollars they make offline. 

“Whatever happens online has an impact on the real world. When I buy something offline, I first read reviews online. Then I go to the shop already knowing which products I want to see and buy,” Osti said.

The more companies realize this and begin to combine online and offline data to inform their strategy as a whole, the better. 

I think a very big mistake is that most companies don’t try to connect with their audience. Historically many brands, especially ones that have a very technical product offering, focus a lot on their product and not on their customers. But times have changed.

Customers are more than willing to share their opinion and connect with brands in the form of online reviews, NPS scores, and customer center feedback. This means there’s already a plethora of customer data at companies’ fingertips. The problem is, many simply don’t know how to translate this data into usable information. 

Wonderflow is a Voice of the Customer (VoC) analytics solution that allows companies to glean insights from different customer feedback sources. Their platform leverages natural language processing to aggregate and analyze all of this feedback (both public and private) in one place.  

The next, and more difficult step, is to translate this information into actionable advice and that’s where Wonderflow’s strength lies. Their predictive technology is able to take current consumer insights, and use them to create actionable predictions for the future. Osti explained:

At Wonderflow we’re now trying to predict what your future appreciation score or new star rating of a specific product is going to be in one month or in one year. 

We start by analyzing what customers say about the product and we identify where there’s space for improvement. So, for example, if the star rating is 3.8 out of five, we can tell you ‘if you want to get a 4.5-star rating in the future, you need to improve features x and y.’ 

The second step we’re working on is the prescriptive part. This allows us to tell you which action you should take to make that improvement happen. For example, ‘run an engineering workshop to identify what the problem is with this specific component of the product.’

Perhaps one of the most exciting things about this new technology is that, by providing narrative text-based prescriptions, absolutely anybody in your company will be able to glean insights from them, not just data analysts. 

“This is the big change that we will see in the industry for the next few years, moving from the old fashioned, unreadable business intelligence platforms that we’ve seen for decades, to intuitive charts and narratives,” Osti told TNW. 

Embrace niche audiences

SocialDatabase logo and CEO Thomas Slabbers

Thomas Slabbers, CEO of SocialDatabase, believes that the biggest mistake companies make when it comes to connecting with their audiences is not spending enough time defining who those audiences are.

At SocialDatabase, we believe in the following formula: RESULT = CONTENT X DATA. Brands spend a lot of time creating the right content, but when it comes to creating the right audience, they often fall short. With just native targeting options available and limited access to data, brands struggle with reaching the right audience. We believe that enriched public data should be the starting point of every campaign.

SocialDatabase created a unique solution for this.

By amplifying publicly available Twitter data, we’ve created SUPERAUDIENCES. SUPERAUDIENCES allow brands to selectively target more relevant audiences through a deeper analysis of public data. These are custom audiences designed to match campaign goals, increasing receptivity and media effectiveness, without using third-party data.

But do we really want to narrow our audience? Isn’t casting a wider net better?

“First of all, the majority of social media users feel the communication coming from brands is irrelevant or unimportant to them. A more narrow audience would make ads more interesting and relevant. Secondly, reducing the waste in a target audience simply saves a lot of budget that would have been spent on the wrong audience. Finally, a more focused audience enables brands to make more impact in a shorter amount of time,” Slabbers explained.

SUPERAUDIENCES are particularly relevant for use cases where quality is more important than scale, whether you’re looking for a niche, B2B, or relevant consumer audience.

As a Formula 1 partner, Heineken used SUPERAUDIENCES to distinguish hardcore F1 fans from casual fans during the Grand Prix of Australia, China, and Spain. Meanwhile, Nutricia, a company that specializes in therapeutic food and clinical nutrition, is using SUPERAUDIENCES to specifically reach healthcare professionals.

There you have it, location, listening, and spending more time in defining your audience will help you build a stronger connection with them. Although brick and mortar stores are starting to open up again in some countries, the continued rise and preference for ecommerce is not something that’s going away. But, as Osti explained, combining your retail and ecommerce strategies is the best way to get ahead of the game.

Covid 19

US banks turn to AI to tell homeless people to go away — along with fraud prevention and stuff

Banks have long embraced surveillance systems to prevent robbery. But they’re also using the technology to monitor customers, workers, and homeless people.

Several US banking giants are implementing AI cameras to analyze customer preferences, track what staff are doing, and observe activities around their premises, Reuters reports.

The tools are being used for a variety of purposes. Wells Fargo is leveraging the tech to prevent fraud, while City National plans to deploy facial recognition near ATMs as authentication methods.

JPMorgan, meanwhile, has been using computer vision to analyze archive footage of customer behavior. Their early analysis found that more men arrive before or after lunch, while women are more likely to visit in mid-afternoon.

[Read: The biggest tech trends of 2021, according to 3 founders]

One unnamed bank is using AI to arrange their layouts more ergonomically, while another is monitoring homeless people setting up tents at drive-through ATMs. An executive told Reuters that staff can play an audio recording “politely asking” the loiterers to leave. Sounds delightful.

All these new applications of AI come amid growing concerns about AI-powered surveillance.

Biometric scans can encroach on democratic freedoms, and facial recognition is notorious for misidentifying people of color, women, and trans people.

Critics have also noted that consumer monitoring can lead to income and racial discrimination. In 2020, the drug store chain Rite Aid shut down its facial recognition system after it was found to be mostly installed in lower-income, non-white neighborhoods.

Bank executives told Reuters that they were sensitive to these issues, but a backlash from customers and staff could stall their plans. Their deployments will also be restricted by a growing range of local laws.

A number of US cities have recently prohibited the use of facial recognition, including Portland, which last year banned the tech in all privately-owned places accessible to the public. The Oregon Bankers Association has asked for an exemption, but their request was rejected.

Still, in most places in the US banks are free to roll out AI monitoring tools. It’s another step in the sleepwalk towards surveillance capitalism.

Greetings Humanoids! Did you know we have a newsletter all about AI? You can subscribe to it right here.

Covid 19

Ora’s copycat electric Beetle has a truly wild interior

Cast your mind back to last week, when images of a new electric car that looked totally like a Beetle surfaced from China.

Well, that car has been officially unveiled at Auto Shanghai, and it’s great. It’s a four-door electric hatchback from Chinese EV brand Ora. It has a name now too: it’s called the Punk Cat. Maybe they should have called it the Copy Cat — oh meow!

The name was chosen following an internet consultation. Other options included Elf Cat, Noble Cat, Royal Cat, Big Orange Cat, and Persian Cat. Yeah, if you didn’t realize, Ora likes naming its cars as different types of cat. It also makes the Lightning Cat and the Good Cat.

ev, ora, great wall motors
Credit: Ora
The Ora Punk Cat is a throwback to the classic VW Beetle, but it’s not a Beetle. It’s from China.

Ok, so this thing looks exactly like a classic 1960s VW Beetle. But that’s no bad thing! I said that last week when images first surfaced, and I’ll say it again. The fact this looks like a classic Beetle is no bad thing.

Sure, the likeness is undeniably brazen, but the product that Ora has come up with is just stunning.

The original Beetle was just three doors, the Punk Cat on the other hand is a slightly longer four-door take on the format, making it a tad more practical.

ev, ora, punk, cat
Credit: Ora
The Ora Punk Cat sticks up its middle paw to convention and plays by its own design rule book… which must have been the same rule book that VW used 50 years ago.

But the best bit of all is the car’s interior. Seriously, get a load of it:

ev, ora, interior, cat, punk cat
Credit: Ora
I have never seen a car interior quite like this before. It’s stunning, it’s flashy, but still elegant.

The interior of the Punk Cat is decidedly not punk. It’s over the top, lavish, and flashy. It blends modern features like steering wheel-mounted controls, and a massive navigation screen, with classic glossy gold details, and two-tone upholstery.

It’s 100% not my style, but I love it all the same. It’s wild and different, we need more of this in the car world.

When everything goes electric, most cars will accelerate and sound largely the same, so we need to look at these kinds of details to bring out our vehicles‘ personalities.

And would you look at that: I’ve gone through this whole article without mentioning anything about batteries, motors, or range. When a car looks this good, I just don’t care.

Do EVs excite your electrons? Do ebikes get your wheels spinning? Do self-driving cars get you all charged up? 

Then you need the weekly SHIFT newsletter in your life. Click here to sign up.

Covid 19

Elon Musk casts doubt over Autopilot involvement in fatal Tesla crash

Tesla figurehead Elon Musk has commented on the US crash in which two men died. Casting doubt on the situation, Musk’s input now asks more questions than it answers.

Musk claims that Autopilot was not engaged at the time, and that the vehicle in question didn’t have the Full Self Driving package.

Replying to a Twitter account critiquing the WSJ article on the incident, Musk said that the data recovered so far “show Autopilot was not enabled and this car did not purchase FSD.”

It seems this is Musk’s only response to this crash.

The account Musk is replying to suggests that Autopilot won’t work if no one is in the driving seat, and holding on to the steering wheel.

While this should be the case, we know the system has been gamed in the past, and the driver monitoring sensor on the steering wheel can be hacked with an orange.

Numerous videos have circulated online, where drivers have climbed into the passenger seat and the Tesla has continued driving as if everything is as it should be.

The thing is, investigators are certain that no one was in the driver’s seat of the vehicle. Reports say that one person was found in the front passenger seat, and the other in the back seat.

Musk also said that Autopilot wouldn’t work on a street that doesn’t have lane lines. The road where the crash took place, doesn’t have lines.

If Tesla’s systems worked as intended, and there was no one in the driver’s seat, the car simply should not have been moving.

It’s evident that something unusual was going on, but right now, we can’t say exactly what. And any attempt to say what happened is speculation.

More to come

This is not the last we’ll hear on this matter, you can be sure of that.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have launched investigations into the crash.

Bear in mind, the NHTSA is already investigating 27 other Tesla crashes.

According to CNBC, the police and federal investigators are yet to complete their analysis of the crash. No conclusions can yet be drawn.

And as you might suspect, despite what Musk has said, a big question mark remains over whether driver-assistance systems were engaged before or during the crash.

Do EVs excite your electrons? Do ebikes get your wheels spinning? Do self-driving cars get you all charged up? 

Then you need the weekly SHIFT newsletter in your life. Click here to sign up.

Covid 19

NASA just made history by flying an autonomous helicopter on Mars

NASA has made history after successfully conducting the first-ever controlled flight on another planet.

The space agency’s Ingenuity helicopter briefly flew over Mars this morning, in what NASA previously described as a “Wright Brothers” moment.

The 1.8 kg chopper ascended three meters above the red planet, hovered for around 30 seconds, made a turn, and then touched back down on the Martian surface.

“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Ingenuity took this photo while hovering over Mars.

[Read: The biggest tech trends of 2021, according to 3 founders]

The autonomous drone arrived on Mars inside NASA’s Perseverance rover on February 18. It was slated to make its first experimental flight on April 11, but the launch was twice postponed due to technical issues.

At around 07:00AM EST, NASA confirmed that the maiden voyage had been successful. Ingenuity will now attempt a series of more challenging flights.

While pilots planned the chopper’s route, Ingenuity had to fly autonomously because of communication delays. A combination of sensors and computer vision navigated the flight path.

Cameras on the helicopter will capture a new perspective of conditions on Mars. But Ingenuity’s primary mission is testing the potential of flying on other worlds.

NASA will use insights from the flights to develop future helicopters, which could one day help astronauts explore the red planet.

Greetings Humanoids! Did you know we have a newsletter all about AI? You can subscribe to it right here.

Covid 19

I used to be great at my job… then I founded a startup

Usually, I’d hit my groove in a job when I was about 6 months in. At that point, all the little things that had confused me at first started making sense and my performance started to reflect that. But during the whirlwind last 6 months of launching my own startup with another first-timer — I’ve realized I’ll never experience that again.

So herein lies the memoir of a relatively new founder (or flounder?), which will explain why you’ll never be ‘great at your job’ again after starting your own company.

Sweet safety of being given goals

I used to be great at my job. I solved problems. I got shit done. I did more than what was expected of me. At a relatively young age, I touched down in Europe with what I considered to be my dream job.

My job description was flexible, and as I moved across the continent, I knew what I had to do when I touched down in each of the markets, from Norway to Portugal, the UK to Israel. And I got it done reliably. 

Within 6 months of that job, I was getting really good at what I did. People started coming to me to solve their local challenges in a way that made me feel like they only trusted me to fix them. I was the oddball in my team, but I quickly became known as the multi-use jack-of-all-trades (master of only a couple). 

I brought with me an entrepreneurial attitude to the work I did in my team. I built quickly, iterated often, constantly questioned focus, strategy, and priority to ensure the best work was being devoted where it needed to be. 

I was presented with problems, I solved them, and my superiors were happy.

Needing a bigger challenge

After doing that for a few years, I felt as though I was somehow treading water. Personally, I wasn’t developing at the pace I set for myself, and my projects were getting cycled through the business so quickly that I felt the opportunity to build momentum had completely vanished. 

So I bailed. I joined a good friend full-time on a startup. Our first foray into business ownership, tech platforms, software sales, content creation, you name it. It was all new.

We were green… and still are. 

Building a business from the ground up meant everything changed. My ‘jack-of-all-trades’ skillsets suddenly accounted for nothing — because I suddenly had to take everything from A to Z on my own.

I anticipated this to a large degree and flooded my bookshelf with the kinds of wisdom I knew I would need. My bookshelf is still totally out of control, but I’m getting through it.

I started building relationships with people who I knew I could learn from. I saw this change in many ways as going back to school. It turned out I was right. But I forgot how brutal school can be. 

What makes me a good employee now?

As I got more settled in my new role as founder, I realized the common metrics I was chasing down before didn’t mean shit anymore — especially the ones I used to determine if I was ‘great at my job.’ In the startup world, there is an endless sea of tasks to do, people to talk to, and things to learn. It still overwhelms me frequently.

Without colleagues or superiors, it can be incredibly difficult to know where to focus your attention at times. What makes this particular task more important than the other? Who decides if you’re ‘great’ at your job?

I had to get comfortable with multitasking on a level I didn’t quite know how to handle at first. The biggest challenge has been focusing on a supremely small, extremely important set of tasks, and protecting the time you need to get it done.

This includes the time you need for yourself to eat, sleep, relax, do things you love, and be around the people dear to you. Don’t skimp on this.

So if you’re planning on jumping from a corporate monster into your own startup. Absolutely do it. Or don’t. It’s impossible for anyone to tell you if you’ll love it, hate it, or anything in between.

But if you do make the jump, be prepared to kiss being a good employee goodbye — those days are officially gone.

Instead, you’re finally just… you.

So whether my startup journey turns out to be a raging success or an embarrassing flop that takes me straight into the therapist’s chair, I wouldn’t change this experience for anything.

I’m having fun, I’m challenging myself, I’m finding my feet in a sea of toes that I try not to step on too often. I’m finding more and more ways to do what I’m great at as time goes by. I’m no longer a good employee, but I’m finally me.

Covid 19

How to paste attachments into Gmail in Chrome with just a keyboard shortcut

Welcome to TNW Basics, a collection of tips, guides, and advice on how to easily get the most out of your gadgets, apps, and other stuff.

Chrome 90 has a cool trick that enables support for pasting files from your desktop right into web pages where they’re supported — like in Gmail.

That should shave off a few seconds’ work when sharing attachments in your email messages. Here’s how to enable the feature and use it:

And that’s it. As Android Police noted, Safari users already have access to a similar feature, and it’s hella handy, to the point where it makes you wonder why we didn’t have this in Chrome already.

Did you know we have a newsletter all about consumer tech? It’s called Plugged In – and you can subscribe to it right here.

Covid 19

What Waymo’s new leadership means for its self-driving cars

Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car subsidiary, is reshuffling its top executive lineup. On April 2, John Krafcik, Waymo’s CEO since 2015, declared that he will be stepping down from his role. He will be replaced by Tekedra Mawakana and Dmitri Dolgov, the company’s former COO and CTO. Krafcik will remain as an advisor to the company.

“[With] the fully autonomous Waymo One ride-hailing service open to all in our launch area of Metro Phoenix, and with the fifth generation of the Waymo Driver being prepared for deployment in ride-hailing and goods delivery, it’s a wonderful opportunity for me to pass the baton to Tekedra and Dmitri as Waymo’s co-CEOs,” Krafcik wrote on LinkedIn as he declared his departure.

The change in leadership can have significant implications for Waymo, which has seen many ups and downs as it continues to develop its driverless car business. It can also hint at the broader state of the self-driving car industry, which has failed to live up to its hype in the past few years.

The deep learning hype

In 2015, Krafcik joined Google’s self-driving car effort, then called Project Chauffeur. At the time, there was a lot of excitement around deep learning, the branch of artificial intelligence that has made great inroads in computer vision, one of the key components of driverless cars. The belief was that, thanks to continued advances in deep learning, it was only a matter of time before self-driving cars became the norm on the streets.

Deep learning models rely on vast amounts of training data to develop stable behavior. And if the AI algorithms were ready, as it seemed at the time, reaching deployment-level self-driving car technology was only a question of having a scalable data-collection strategy to train deep learning models. While some of this data can be generated in simulated environments, the main training of deep learning models used in self-driving cars comes from driving in the real world.

waymo self-driving car technology
Self-driving cars use deep learning to make sense of their surroundings.

Therefore, what Project Chauffeur needed was a leader who had longtime experience in the automotive industry and could bridge the gap between carmakers and the fast-developing AI sector, and deploy Google’s technology on roads.

And Krafcik was the perfect candidate. Before joining Google, he was the CEO of Hyundai Motor America, had held several positions at Ford, and had worked in the International Motor Vehicle Program at MIT as a lean production researcher and consultant.

Under Krafcik’s tenure, Project Chauffeur spun off as Waymo under Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and quickly transformed into a leader in testing self-driving cars on roads. During this time, Waymo struck partnerships with several automakers, integrated Waymo’s AI and lidar technology into Jaguar and Chrysler vehicles, and expanded its test-driving project to more than 25 states.

Today, Waymo’s cars have driven more than 20 million miles on roads and 20 billion miles in simulation, more than any other self-driving car company.

The limits of self-driving technology

Like the executives of other companies working on driverless car technology, Krafcik promised time and again that fully autonomous vehicles were on the horizon. In Waymo’s 2020 Web Summit, Krafcik presented a video of a Waymo self-driving car driving in streets without a backup driver.

“We’ve been working on this technology a long time, for about eight years,” Krafcik said. “And every company, including Waymo, has always started with a test driver behind the wheel, ready to take over. We recently surveyed 3,000 adults across the U.S. and asked them when they expected to see self-driving vehicles, ones without a person in the driver’s seat, on their own roads. And the common answer we heard was around 2020… It’s not happening in 2020. It’s happening today.”

But despite Krafcik’s leverage in the automotive industry, Google’s crack AI research team, and Alphabet’s deep pockets, Waymo—like other self-driving car companies—has failed to produce a robust driverless technology. The cars still require backup drivers to monitor and take control as soon as the AI starts to act erratically.

The AI technology is not ready, and despite the lidar, radar, and other sensor technologies used to complement deep learning models, self-driving cars still can’t handle unknown conditions in the same way as humans do.

They can run thousands of miles without making errors, but they might suddenly make very dumb and dangerous mistakes when they face corner cases, such as an overturned truck on the highway or a fire truck parked at the wrong angle.

So far, Waymo has avoided major self-driving scandals such as Tesla and Uber’s fatal accidents. But it has yet to deliver a technology that can be deployed at scale. Waymo One, the company’s fully driverless robo-taxi service, is only available in limited parts of Phoenix, AZ. After two years, Waymo still hasn’t managed to expand the service to more crowded and volatile urban areas.

The company is still far from becoming profitable. Alphabet’s Other Bets segment, which includes Waymo, had an operating cost of $4.48 billion in 2020, against $657 million in revenue. And Waymo’s valuation has seen a huge drop amid cooling sentiments surrounding self-driving cars, going from nearly $200 billion in 2018 to $30 billion in 2020.

The AI and legal challenges of self-driving cars

Waymo driverless car

While Krafcik didn’t explicitly state the reason for his departure, Waymo’s new leadership lineup suggests that the company has acknowledged that the “fully self-driving cars are here” narrative is a bit fallacious.

Driverless technology has come a long way, but a lot more needs to be done. It’s clear that just putting more miles on your deep learning algorithms will not make them more robust against unpredictable situations. We need to address some of the fundamental problems of deep learning, such as lack of causality, poor transfer learning, and intuitive understanding of physics. These are active areas of research, and no one has still provided a definitive answer to them.

The self-driving car industry also faces several legal complications. For instance, if a driverless car becomes involved in an accident, how will culpability be defined? How will self-driving cars share roads with human-driven cars? How do you define whether a road or environment is stable enough for driverless technology? These are some of the questions that the self-driving car community will have to solve as the technology continues to develop and prepare for mass adoption.

In this regard, the new co-CEOs of Waymo are well-positioned to face these challenges. Dologov, who was Waymo’s CTO before his new role, has a PhD in computer science with a focus on artificial intelligence and has a long history of working on self-driving car technology.

As a postdoc researcher, he was part of Stanford’s self-driving car team that won second place in DARPA’s 2007 Urban Challenge. He was also a researcher at Toyota’s Research Institute in Ann Arbor, MI. And since 2009, he has been among the senior engineers in Google’s self-driving car outfit that later became Waymo.

In a nutshell, he’s as good a leader you can have to deal with the AI software, algorithm, and hardware challenges that a driverless car company will face in the coming years.

Mawakana, on the other hand, is a Doctor of Law. She had led policy teams at Yahoo, eBay, and AOL before joining Waymo and becoming the COO. She’s now well-positioned to tackle the legal and policy challenges that Waymo will face as self-driving cars gradually find try to find their way in more jurisdictions.

The dream of self-driving cars is far from dead. In fact, in his final year as CEO, Krafcik managed to secure more than $3 billion in funding for Waymo. There’s still a lot of interest in self-driving cars and their potential value. But Waymo’s new lineup suggests that self-driving cars still have a bumpy road ahead.

This article was originally published by Ben Dickson on TechTalks, a publication that examines trends in technology, how they affect the way we live and do business, and the problems they solve. But we also discuss the evil side of technology, the darker implications of new tech and what we need to look out for. You can read the original article here.

Covid 19

The latest Tesla crash is another tragic reminder that cars can’t drive themselves

Last week, we had to read the sad story of the death of two men that were traveling in a Tesla that left the road at high speed, and crashed into a tree. It subsequently burst into flames, it took firefighters hours to subdue the blaze.

It’s believed that Autopilot was engaged at the time, and local media reports that no one was in the driver’s seat. The men, one aged 59 and the other 69, were reportedly in the front and rear passenger seats of the vehicle.

Moments before setting off, the two men had been discussing the car’s Autopilot feature, investigating constable Mark Herman said.

This incident serves as yet another painful reminder that cars are not capable of driving themselves, and that drivers are being grossly misled by overzealous and irresponsible marketing.

Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self Driving systems are not capable of driving a vehicle without significant human assistance. Before engaging the system, drivers are warned by the car to pay full attention to the road at all times. They must be ready to take control at any moment.

The company’s self-driving suite is a Level 2 system, by SAE classification, meaning that it is designed to assist the driver with partially automated features, like speed control, and lane keeping.

However, considering how Full Self Driving and Autopilot are named and marketed, it’s easy to see why drivers would believe their car is capable of taking full control of driving duties, even though that’s not the case.

Spend some time on YouTube, the Tesla forums, and Tesla subreddits, and it becomes clear there is a significant contingent of fans that truly believe the vehicles are capable of driving themselves, and that it’s just regulations and The Man standing in Musk’s way.

What we’re actually witnessing is autonowashing, a phenomenon coined by human-machine interaction researcher Liza Dixon. It describes the difference between what drivers think their partially automated vehicle is capable of doing, and what it’s actually capable of doing.

It’s far from a harmless misunderstanding of technology, and as we’ve witnessed again this weekend, can result in people losing their lives.

It’s worth educating ourselves more deeply on the state of  supposed autonomous cars, and the potential dangers that can result from misunderstanding and misuse of advanced driver assistance systems.

Ed Niedermeyer, who is part of the PAVE (Partners for Automated Vehicle Education) campaign has listed some useful resources that are essential reading for anyone interested in the self-driving car debate.

You should also read SHIFT’s interview with Liza Dixon here, and our deep dive into self-driving car technology and what happens when we don’t get it right.

Do EVs excite your electrons? Do ebikes get your wheels spinning? Do self-driving cars get you all charged up? 

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