Curated Insights 2018.05.13

Who’s winning the self-driving car race?

Only Waymo has tested Level 4 vehicles on passengers who aren’t its employees—and those people volunteered to be test subjects. No one has yet demonstrated at Level 5, where the car is so independent that there’s no steering wheel. The victors will also need to pioneer businesses around the technology. Delivery and taxi services capable of generating huge profits is the end game for all.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. predicts that robo-taxis will help the ride-hailing and -sharing business grow from $5 billion in revenue today to $285 billion by 2030. There are grand hopes for this business. Without drivers, operating margins could be in the 20 percent range, more than twice what carmakers generate right now. If that kind of growth and profit come to pass—very big ifs—it would be almost three times what GM makes in a year. And that doesn’t begin to count the money to be made in delivery.

Waymo had three collisions over more than 350,000 miles, while GM had 22 over 132,000 miles.

After Waymo, a handful of major players have demonstrated similar driving capabilities. It’s hard to say anyone has an edge. One advantage for GM: There’s a factory north of Detroit that can crank out self-driving Bolts. That will help GM get manufacturing right and lower costs without relying on partners. Right now, an autonomous version of the car costs around $200,000 to build, compared to a sticker price of $35,000 for an electric Bolt for human drivers.

Musk wants to use cameras and develop image-recognition capabilities so cars can read signs and truly see the road ahead. He has said Tesla is taking the more difficult path, but if he can come up with a better system, he will have mastered true autonomy without the bulky and expensive hardware that sits on top of rival self-driving cars. “They’re going to have a whole bunch of expensive equipment, most of which makes the car expensive, ugly and unnecessary,” Musk told analysts in February. “And I think they will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.”

China’s got Jack Ma’s finance giant in its crosshairs

The rules will force Ant and some of its peers that straddle at least two financial industries to obtain licenses from China’s central bank and meet minimum capital requirements for the first time, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing private information. The companies’ ownership structures and inter-group transactions will also be restricted, the people said, adding that the rules need approval from China’s State Council and are subject to change.


Starbucks: A big deal should mean a sharper focus

The deal appeared positive because it ”accelerates the reach of Starbucks’ channel development segment globally by providing Starbucks with a strong distribution partner; and enables Starbucks to step up shareholder returns.

CEO Kevin Johnson said as much on the conference call. “We’ve been very focused on streamlining the company in a way that allows us to put our focus and energy behind the highest priority value creation drivers for the company,” he said. “And certainly, our retail business in the U.S. and China are the two big growth engines.”


Tinder: ‘Innovation’ can help it fight off Facebook

“In digital, and especially on mobile, there is always one brand that defines each core use case,” Ross wrote. “In dating, it is Tinder, whose user base and subscription base continue to explode globally. We don’t see that changing, even with scaled competition from Facebook.”

Tinder’s brand, scale and “freemium” model—with free basic access and the opportunity to pay up—should continue to make it appealing to users (particularly younger ones) even as new competitors emerge, according to Ross. “There is no real reason for singles not to still use the platform,” he wrote.

“The hard paywall brands tend to be those that are for the more serious online dater,” Ross noted, including older users and those seeking comparatively long-term relationships. “This is not only where Facebook has said it will focus, but also where it can best leverage its data and recommendation capabilities.”


Why A.I. and cryptocurrency are making one type of computer chip scarce

Crypto miners bought three million G.P.U. boards — flat panels that can be added to personal and other computers — worth $776 million last year, said Jon Peddie, a researcher who has tracked sales of the chips for decades. That may not sound like a lot in an overall market worth more than $15 billion, but the combination of A.I. builders and crypto miners — not to mention gamers — has squeezed the G.P.U. supply. Things have gotten so tight that resellers for Nvidia, the Silicon Valley chip maker that produces 70 percent of the G.P.U. boards, often restrict how many a company can buy each day.


PayPal: How it can fight back against Amazon Pay

“Given its two-sided network of 218 million consumers in the PayPal digital wallet and 19 million merchants for whom PayPal provides online & mobile merchant acquiring services, plus Xoom and Braintree, PayPal benefits from one of the most extensive payments ecosystems globally. Within this ecosystem, PayPal offers the best mobile wallet with an 89% conversion ratio from shopping cart to payment, creating strong consumer and merchant lock-in.”

It has other ways to provide incentives. “PayPal enjoys strategic alliances with Visa, Mastercard, Google, Facebook, Apple, Alibaba, Baidu, and a number of financial institutions, including Bank of America and HSBC, allowing it access to a vast customer base and potential consumer incentive plans,” they wrote, noting an HSBC offer to pay customers $25 if they link their cards to PayPal.

Etsy CEO: ‘Signs of progress’ in boosting repeat business

Etsy isn’t trying to become a place people shop every day, but it does want people to shop there more often. (The company cites figures saying 60% of customers buy just once a year.) It said both new and repeat buyers were up 20% year-over-year in Q1, which Silverman called “early signs of progress.”

Management wants to increase the “lifetime value” of a shopper by creating a cycle in which the company pays an acceptable rate for a new user, converts them to a buyer and then a repeat buyer, and then translates the money that buyer provides into more efficient marketing that acquires more new customers.

As Warren Buffett’s empire expands, many jobs disappear

Despite Buffett’s folksy image, Berkshire has thrived for years by keeping things lean and buying companies that—in his own words—are run by “cost-conscious and efficient managers.” The result? Buffett hasn’t shut down many operations during his five decades atop the firm. But more than two dozen of his companies employ fewer people today than they used to.

Berkshire often doesn’t note in the data when one of its businesses buys another, which can make it seem like there’s hiring when the conglomerate is just absorbing people. The company also doesn’t always make clear when units are combined or spun out of others.

The formula behind San Francisco’s startup success

Losing money is not a bug. It’s a feature. Not making money can be the ultimate competitive advantage, if you can afford it, as it prevents others from entering the space or catching up as your startup gobbles up greater and greater market share. Then, when rivals are out of the picture, it’s possible to raise prices and start focusing on operating in the black.

You might wonder why it’s so much better to lose money provided by Sequoia Capital than, say, a lower-profile but still wealthy investor. We could speculate that the following factors are at play: a firm’s reputation for selecting winning startups, a willingness of later investors to follow these VCs at higher valuations and these firms’ skill in shepherding portfolio companies through rapid growth cycles to an eventual exit.

Cheap innovations are often better than magical ones

Much of what we call “artificial intelligence”, say the authors, is best understood as a dirt-cheap prediction. Sufficiently accurate predictions allow radically different business models.

If a supermarket becomes good enough at predicting what I want to buy — perhaps conspiring with my fridge — then it can start shipping things to me without my asking, taking the bet that I will be pleased to see most of them when they arrive.

Another example is the airport lounge, a place designed to help busy people deal with the fact that in an uncertain world it is sensible to set off early for the airport. Route-planners, flight-trackers and other cheap prediction algorithms may allow many more people to trim their margin for error, arriving at the last moment and skipping the lounge.

Then there is health insurance; if a computer becomes able to predict with high accuracy whether you will or will not get cancer, then it is not clear that there is enough uncertainty left to insure.


The future of digital payments? Computational contracts, says Wolfram

Wolfram anticipates at least three levels of computational contracts, from minor transactions (less than $50) to mid-level (thousands of dollars) and high-end (in the millions).

“The lowest level–typically involving small amounts of money–one will be happy to execute just using someone’s cloud infrastructure (compare Uber, AirBnB, etc.),” he writes in his blog post. “There’s then a level at which one wants some degree of distributed scrutiny, and one expects a certain amount of predictability and reliability. This is potentially where blockchain (either public or private) comes in.

“But at the highest level–say transactions involving millions of dollars–nobody is going to realistically want to completely trust them to an automated system (think: DAO, etc.). And instead one’s going to want the backing of insurance, the legal system, governments, etc.: in other words one’s going to want to anchor things not just in something like a blockchain, but in the ‘weightiest’ systems our current society has to offer.”

A hedge-fund fee plan that only charges for alpha

Consider a hypothetical traditional hedge firm that has $1 billion of assets under management and another that charges a fulcrum fee of 0.75 percent, plus a quarter of the profits. If the markets rise 10 percent and the fund outperforms by 200 basis points, or 2 percent, a traditional hedge fund would charge $20 million (2 percent of $1 billion), plus a performance fee of $24 million (20 percent of the $120 million in gains) for a total of $44 million. Our hypothetical fulcrum fund would charge $12.5 million — a management fee of $7.5 million (0.75 percent of $1 billion), and a performance fee of $5 million (25 percent of the 2 percent above-market gain). The breakdown of the $24 million performance fee portion of the traditional hedge fund works out to $20 million for plain old beta and $4 million for alpha. That total is five times more than what the fulcrum shop charges for investment gains.

Now imagine a scenario where the market is up by 10 percent and a fund is up only 8 percent, or has 2 percent underperformance. The traditional hedge fund would have charged $20 million (2 percent of the $1 billion in assets under management) plus a performance fee of $16 million (20 percent of the $80 million in gains) for a total of $36 million dollars. Meanwhile, the fulcrum fund would charge $7.5 million (the 0.75 percent management fee), but it also would give a refund of $5 million (25 percent of the 2 percent, or $20 million, in underperformance). The net charge to clients would be $2.5 million. This is a small fraction of the amount charged by a standard hedged fund.

Why winners keep winning

With that 20% initial advantage, the final market share increases significantly. What is even more amazing is that this advantage was only given in the first round and everything after that was left to chance. If we were to keep increasing the size of the starting advantage, the distribution of final market shares would continue to increase as well.

The purpose of this simulation is to demonstrate how important starting conditions are when determining long term outcomes. Instead of marbles though it could be wealth, or popularity, or book sales. And most of these outcomes are greatly influenced by chance events. We like to think in America that most things come down to hard work, but a few lucky (or unlucky) breaks early on can have lasting effects over decades. If we look at luck in this way, it can change the way you view your life…

I ask you this question because accepting luck as a primary determinant in your life is one of the most freeing ways to view the world. Why? Because when you realize the magnitude of happenstance and serendipity in your life, you can stop judging yourself on your outcomes and start focusing on your efforts. It’s the only thing you can control.

Curated Insights 2018.03.25

What’s next for humanity: Automation, new morality and a ‘global useless class’

“Time is accelerating,” Mr. Harari said. The long term may no longer be defined in centuries or millenniums — but in terms of 20 years. “It’s the first time in history when we’ll have no idea how human society will be like in a couple of decades,” he said.

“We’re in an unprecedented situation in history in the sense that nobody knows what the basics about how the world will look like in 20 or 30 years. Not just the basics of geopolitics but what the job market would look like, what kind of skills people will need, what family structures will look like, what gender relations will look like. This means that for the first time in history we have no idea what to teach in schools.”

Leaders and political parties are still stuck in the 20th century, in the ideological battles pitting the right against the left, capitalism versus socialism. They don’t even have realistic ideas of what the job market looks like in a mere two decades, Mr. Harari said, “because they can’t see.” “Instead of formulating meaningful visions for where humankind will be in 2050, they repackage nostalgic fantasies about the past,” he said.

Investing is hard

On April 1st 1976, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne founded Apple. Wayne drew the first Apple logo, wrote the three men’s original partnership agreement, and wrote the Apple 1 manual. Jobs and Wozniak each owned 45% and Wayne 10%. Two weeks later, he sold his 10% interest for $800. This 10% interest would be worth $90 billion today. He was closer than anyone to the visionaries of Apple, and he still sold.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, in 3 paragraphs

In June 2014, a researcher named Aleksandr Kogan developed a personality-quiz app for Facebook. It was heavily influenced by a similar personality-quiz app made by the Psychometrics Centre, a Cambridge University laboratory where Kogan worked. About 270,000 people installed Kogan’s app on their Facebook account. But as with any Facebook developer at the time, Kogan could access data about those users or their friends. And when Kogan’s app asked for that data, it saved that information into a private database instead of immediately deleting it. Kogan provided that private database, containing information about 50 million Facebook users, to the voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica used it to make 30 million “psychographic” profiles about voters.

Cambridge Analytica has significant ties to some of President Trump’s most prominent supporters and advisers. Rebekah Mercer, a Republican donor and a co-owner of Breitbart News, sits on the board of Cambridge Analytica. Her father, Robert Mercer, invested $15 million in Cambridge Analytica on the recommendation of his political adviser, Steve Bannon, according to the Times. On Monday, hidden-camera footage appeared to show Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, offering to bribe and blackmail public officials around the world. If Nix did so, it would violate U.K. law. Cambridge Analytica suspended Nix on Tuesday.

Cambridge Analytica also used its “psychographic” tools to make targeted online ad buys for the Brexit “Leave” campaign, the 2016 presidential campaign of Ted Cruz, and the 2016 Trump campaign. If any British Cambridge Analytica employees without a green card worked on those two U.S. campaigns, they did so in violation of federal law.


Facebook and the endless string of worst-case scenarios

“I have more fear in my life that we aren’t going to maximize the opportunity that we have than that we mess something up” Zuckerberg said at a Facebook’s Social Good Forum event in November. Perhaps it’s time for that fear to shift more towards ‘what could go wrong’, not just for Zuck, but the leaders of all of today’s tech titans.

Most recently, Facebook has found its trust in app developers misplaced. For years it offered an API that allowed app makers to pull robust profile data on their users and somewhat limited info about their friends to make personalized products. But Facebook lacked strong enforcement mechanisms for its policy that prevented developers from sharing or selling that data to others. It’s quite likely that other developers have violated Facebook’s flimsy policies against storing, selling, or sharing user data they’ve collected, and more reports of misuse will emerge.


The Facebook brand

This episode is a perfect example: an unintended casualty of this weekend’s firestorm is the idea of data portability: I have argued that social networks like Facebook should make it trivial to export your network; it seems far more likely that most social networks will respond to this Cambridge Analytica scandal by locking down data even further. That may be good for privacy, but it’s not so good for competition. Everything is a trade-off.


Inside Apple’s secret plan to develop and build its own screens

Controlling MicroLED technology would help Apple stand out in a maturing smartphone market and outgun rivals like Samsung that have been able to tout superior screens. Ray Soneira, who runs screen tester DisplayMate Technologies, says bringing the design in-house is a “golden opportunity” for Apple. “Everyone can buy an OLED or LCD screen,” he says. “But Apple could own MicroLED.”

Creating MicroLED screens is extraordinarily complex. Depending on screen size, they can contain millions of individual pixels. Each has three sub-pixels: red, green and blue LEDs. Each of these tiny LEDs must be individually created and calibrated. Each piece comes from what is known as a “donor wafer” and then are mass-transferred to the MicroLED screen. Early in the process, Apple bought these wafers from third-party manufacturers like Epistar Corp. and Osram Licht AG but has since begun “growing” its own LEDs to make in-house donor wafers. The growing process is done inside a clean room at the Santa Clara facility.

The secretive company that pours America’s coffee

Keurig is offering distribution services to an increasingly broad network of outside brands through its Dr Pepper Snapple deal. It will also be able to sell its coffee, part of an armada of 125 beverage brands, to new customers. Peet’s distribution system is a regional one that doesn’t cover certain retailers such as convenience stores, popular stops for consumers who don’t want to wait in line at larger stores. Dr Pepper’s larger fleet will enable Peet’s ready-to-drink beverages to get into more stores.

Drake and Fortnite create a “crossing the chasm” moment for gaming

While the gaming market is large, generating $100 billion in revenue globally, it reaches relatively few people compared to the music market. Interestingly, music touches almost everyone on earth but generates only $16 billion in revenue per year.

Twitch is the other beneficiary, of course. Twitch is cementing its position as a modern-day ESPN with 15 million daily viewers who spend on average almost two hours per day on the platform.


Oasis hedge fund boss bets on Japan’s professional gaming scene

Strict anti-gambling laws had prevented paid competitions for years, but the industry’s move this month to issue professional gamer licenses is allowing them to sidestep the regulations. Fischer says that lays the groundwork for publishers to grow audiences, sell more games and begin generating new revenue from broadcasting rights and advertising.

Worldwide esports revenue, including media rights, advertising, ticket sales and merchandising, will reach about $5 billion annually by 2020, almost as much as the world’s biggest soccer league today, according to market researcher Activate. The total audience for competitive gaming will grow to 557 million people by 2021 from 380 million this year, according to researcher Newzoo.


Why watch other people play video games? What you need to know about esports

Competitive video game playing, more commonly known as esports, drew 258 million unique viewers globally last year, according to research firm SuperData. For perspective, the National Football League said 204 million unique viewers tuned into the 2016 NFL regular season in the U.S., based on Nielsen data. Just like “real” sports, esports makes money off of investments, branding, advertising and media deals, raking in $1.5 billion in revenue last year, said SuperData. The firm expects the esports industry to hit 299 million viewers this year and top $2 billion in revenue by 2021.

The two things we look for in a management team

As the slide mentions, Verisk decides on buybacks or M&A depending on the available opportunities. Even if they don’t always make the correct assessment in hindsight, we like that there’s a process in place. We were further impressed that Verisk followed the above slide with IRR results from their capital allocation decisions. Again, this level of transparency is rare, but we welcome it and would like more companies to follow suit.

Samsonite wants to spend up on handbags

Parker said Samsonite isn’t actively approaching potential buyers, and the company will likely spend the next year or two consolidating after its $1.8 billion acquisition of luxury bag maker Tumi Holdings Inc. in 2016 and the $105 million purchase of online retailer eBags Inc. last year. The non-travel products market could be a potential space for deals in the future, he said in a separate interview with Bloomberg TV on Thursday.


How one investor turned a bet on the Swiss Central Bank into millions

Still, the root of the gains for Mr. Siegert and the SNB’s other 2,191 private investors is a bit of a mystery. The SNB isn’t like other stocks and pays a tiny dividend. It is governed under laws for both public and private institutions, and owned primarily by individual Swiss states, known as cantons, and cantonal banks. Public-sector bodies own almost 80% of voting shares.

Shareholders have no say in the SNB’s monetary policy or how it manages its massive 790 billion franc war chest of foreign-currency stocks and bonds, built up through years of interventions to weaken the franc.

On the plus side, the SNB is ultrasafe. It prints its own currency—and the franc is among the world’s strongest—which it uses to buy assets. When the SNB loses money, it can always print more. Recently, its profit has been on a tear, aided by rising global stock markets, low bond yields and a weaker franc. The SNB earned a record 54 billion francs in profit last year.


Tencent’s 60,000% runup leads to one of the biggest VC payoffs ever

The stake Naspers bought for just $32 million in 2001 — when Tencent was an obscure Web firm in a nation where few people used the Internet — is now worth $175 billion.

The sale of 190 million shares, worth $10.6 billion based on Tencent’s closing price in Hong Kong on Thursday, will cut the stake held by Naspers to 31.2 percent from 33.2 percent. It’s the first time Naspers has reduced its holdings in Tencent since investing in the company. Naspers won’t sell more shares in the company for at least three years, it said.

Has China overtaken the U.S. in terms of innovation?

In 1996, China invested 0.56 percent of its GDP in R&D, while the U.S. invested 2.44 percent of its GDP. In 2015, China invested 2.06 percent of its GDP, whereas the U.S. invested 2.79 percent. That is, the R&D intensity in China increased by 1.5 percentage points and in the U.S. by only 0.3 percentage points.


Harvard’s nutty idea: Cracking into the almond market

Around 80% of the world’s almonds are currently produced in California, whose almond plantations in its Central Valley have generated strong returns for investors for many years. Volatile weather in recent months, including frost and storms, have hurt estimates for the state’s almond harvest this summer, helping to push wholesale export prices for U.S. almonds to near a two-year high of $6,807 a metric ton.

Consumption of almonds grew 15% from 2012 to 2017, according to estimates from Euromonitor International, which forecasts 4% annual growth through 2021.

In Australia, nuts generate gross revenue of 8,097 to 12,146 Australian dollars (US$6,314 to US$9,471) per acre, roughly 40 times that of grains for the same area, according to the Australian Nut Industry Council. At current wholesale prices of about US$7 per kilogram in Australia, almonds offer a gross margin of around 45% before overhead costs and other expenses, according to Tim McGavin, chief executive of Laguna Bay Pastoral Co., an agricultural asset manager in Brisbane.


Elderly in U.S. are projected to outnumber children for first time

The Census Bureau projects the country would grow to 355 million by 2030, five million fewer than it had estimated three years ago. That is an annual average growth rate of just 0.7%, in line with recent rates but well below historical levels.

Lower population growth could drag on economic growth. This year’s prime-age workforce—ages 25 to 54—is about 630,000 smaller than the Census Bureau projected it would be just three years ago. The bureau projects the prime-age workforce will grow 0.5% a year through 2030, down from a 2014 projected annual rate of 0.58% for the same period.

The share of Americans who are foreign-born, now about 13%, is expected to reach a record 14.9% by 2028, topping a mark set in 1890. That share would rise to 17.2% by 2060.

Does indexing threaten the market?

But from the above results and others, it does not appear that the current level of indexing is a significant problem. This assumes the 24.9% figure for index equity mutual funds and indexed ETFs as a fraction of all U.S. equity mutual funds. As mentioned above, there are no firm figures for institutional indexing or international markets, but it seems unlikely that overall indexed investments exceed the level of roughly 25%.

Along this line, we remain concerned about the fact that many new index ETFs might not be truly independent of the creation of the index, as mentioned above. Even more importantly, given that many of these ETFs and indices are designed via a process of computer exploration of many different component weightings, these ETFs are highly vulnerable to backtest overfitting. As mentioned above, a 2012 Vanguard report found that while 87% of newly published indexes outperformed the broad U.S. stock market over the time period used for the backtest, only 51% outperformed the broad market after inception of the ETF tied to the index.


“I hope for Goldman Sachs’ bankruptcy”: Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Skin in the Game

Our conversation concludes on an optimistic note: “We’ve survived 200,000 years as humans,” says Taleb. “Don’t you think there’s a reason why we survived? We’re good at risk management. And what’s our risk management? Paranoia. Optimism is not a good thing.” Is the paradox, I ask, that human pessimism offers grounds for optimism? “Exactly,” Taleb replies. “Provided psychologists don’t fuck with it.”


What your fund management job will look like in a decade

Asset managers are being squeezed as increased regulation drives up costs and investors shift more money into lower-cost investment products. The solution? The greater use of technology and data-mining to defend margins, reduce expenses and win more client business.

While alternatives still only account for about a tenth of assets, they contribute about 30 percent of revenue, and Oliver Wyman sees that growing to about 40 percent by 2025. That trend will continue to benefit the bigger players able to offer a wider range of investment strategies.

Asset managers that analyze their customer relationship information in conjunction with the asset allocation preferences of both existing and potential customers will gain an advantage. The bigger the firm, the more data it will have available and the more resources it can throw at improving its analytic capabilities.


NASA study: Astronaut’s DNA no longer identical to his identical twin’s after year in space

Though most of Kelly’s biological changes returned to baseline levels after returning to Earth, seven percent of his genes point to possible long-term changes, according to the study. NASA’s preliminary findings were validated this week, according to Space.com. “The Twins Study has benefited NASA by providing the first application of genomics to evaluate potential risks to the human body in space,” according to a release from the agency.

Curated Insights 2017.10.29

How Intuitive Surgical turned medical sci-fi into reality

Intuitive’s devices are now used at all of the top-ranked U.S. hospitals for cancer, urology, gynecology, or gastroenterology—including venerable institutions like New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, and the Cleveland Clinic. More than 4,100 da Vinci base units have been installed worldwide as of June 30, including 2,703 in the U.S., 698 in Europe, 538 in Asia, and 210 in the rest of the world.

The systems aren’t cheap: The list price for the fourth-generation da Vinci Xi is $1.9 million, and that doesn’t include the cost of various surgical appendages, which can add tens of thousands of dollars more to the price tag. Still, the robots keep selling—and surgeons are increasingly adopting them in their practices.

The company says that more than 4 million minimally invasive surgeries have been performed with da Vinci systems since 2000—a new one begins every 42 seconds somewhere around the globe, Intuitive CEO Gary Guthart tells Fortune. The number of those procedures done worldwide spiked 15% in 2016 compared with the previous year, and Intuitive pro­jects an additional 14% to 15% rise in the number by the end of 2017. Indeed, for certain more complicated procedures, such as radical prostate removal, robotic-assisted surgeries now account for nearly 90% of operations.

The boom has driven Intuitive to $2.7 billion in 2016 global revenue, with more than 70% of sales being recurring in nature—a fact that underscores the advantage that comes from being the first major player in a rapidly growing market.

It isn’t clear whether robotic surgery uniformly leads to better outcomes. (Don’t look to the extensive medical literature for a clear-cut answer; conclusions differ from study to study.) But surgeons who swear by their robotic arms tend to return to the same words of praise: They tout the “speed of recovery” for patients, who typically don’t need to spend days or weeks in a hospital as they might after traditional open surgery. They speak of the “clarity” of its camera, the “flexibility” of its instruments.

A survey by investment and research group RBC Capital last year found that American surgeons think that within five years, 35% of operations will involve robots in some form, compared with 15% today.

 

Shake Shack founder on changing the way restaurants do business

And I think what fine-casual is doing is, “If you’re willing to give up waiters and waitresses and bartenders and reservations and table cloths and flowers, we’re gonna s– we’re gonna give you about 80 percent of the quality that you would have gotten in a fine-dining restaurant. We’re gonna save you about 80 percent of the money you’d spend in a fine-dining restaurant. And we’re gonna save you about 60 percent of the time.”

So by saying, “Hospitality included,” it’s basically saying, “You see that price that it costs to get the chicken? That includes everything. That includes not only the guy that bought the chicken and the guy that cooked the chicken, but it also includes the person who served it to you and how they made you feel.”

 

AlphaGo Zero: Learning from scratch

Previous versions of AlphaGo initially trained on thousands of human amateur and professional games to learn how to play Go. AlphaGo Zero skips this step and learns to play simply by playing games against itself, starting from completely random play. In doing so, it quickly surpassed human level of play and defeated the previously published champion-defeating version of AlphaGo by 100 games to 0.

It is able to do this by using a novel form of reinforcement learning, in which AlphaGo Zero becomes its own teacher. The system starts off with a neural network that knows nothing about the game of Go. It then plays games against itself, by combining this neural network with a powerful search algorithm. As it plays, the neural network is tuned and updated to predict moves, as well as the eventual winner of the games.

 

Nike’s focus on robotics threatens Asia’s low-cost workforce

For Nike, the shift to greater automation has two huge attractions. By driving down costs, it could lead to a dramatic improvement in profit margins. It would also allow the company to deliver new designs more quickly to fickle, fashion-conscious customers at a premium. A pair of Nike Roshe shoes costs $75 without Flyknit uppers, compared to as much as $130 with Flyknit.

The potential upside for Nike of greater automation is immense. Analysts at Citibank estimate that by using the Flex manufacturing process to produce Nike’s 2017 Air Max shoes, one of its top-selling lines, the cost of labour would decrease 50 per cent and materials costs would fall 20 per cent. That would equate to a 12.5 percentage point increase in gross margins to 55.5 per cent, according to analysts Jim Suva and Kate McShane. If Flex were to produce 30 per cent of Nike’s North American footwear sales, Nike could save $400m in labour and material costs, representing a 5 per cent benefit to earnings per share, according to Citibank estimates.

Traditional shoe production has required as many as 200 different pieces across 10 sizes, often cut and glued together by hand. The new manufacturing process being developed by Flex has introduced two ideas once thought impossible: the gluing process has been automated and lasers are used to cut the Flyknit material. Lead times in the shoe industry once ran to several months: Flex has promised to help Nike speed up lead times, which can be three to four weeks for a customised pair of sneakers.

Nike has reduced its supply chain by nearly 200 factories in the past five years to focus on fewer “quality, long-term partnerships”. However, the process of closing a factory, including those with compliance issues, can be a long and costly process for “brand-sensitive companies like Nike” to mitigate the disruption to local economies.


Birth of a Hidden Champion: TSMC & Morris Chang

Morris Chang said Intel’s advantage lies in its robust technological power and strong business operation foundation, having maintained No. 1 in the global semiconductor for decades. But its biggest drawback rests with its inexperience in the wafer foundry sector that highlights a service-oriented corporate culture, as Intel’s technology departments have long served the company’s own needs, totally different from the core culture of serving others seen in the pure-play foundry sector. With his 25-year experience at Texas Instruments before founding TSMC, Chang said he realized very well what kind of corporate culture was needed for the foundry sector. He said when establishing TSMC 30 years ago, he was able to easily inject the service-oriented culture into the TSMC at the very beginning.


Apple’s COO Jeff Williams recounts how business with TSMC began with a dinner at the founder’s home

Williams said that in the next 10 years, the biggest problem lies not in computing performance, but in the lack of sufficient visions to apply new advanced technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence) as well as how to safeguard privacy.

He said Apple has many expectations for AI applications, but what the company needs is neither to make chips with faster computing performance or to make cars able to fly, but to utilize advanced technologies to change the world, such as making use of semiconductors to achieve medical technology innovations.”


Apple supplier TSMC says Moore’s Law is no longer valid

Chang said that the time frame set in Moore’s Law is no longer applicable. He said TSMC has kept increasing transistor density, but not at a pace according to the law. Chang continued by noting that discussions about the applicability of Moore’s Law in recent years have often focused on ASML, a leading semiconductor lithography equipment supplier, because the company is now the world’s only supplier of EUV (extreme ultraviolet) lithography equipment and EUV technology bears a great responsibility of keeping Moore’s Law valid. Chang said major semiconductor firms have been keen to incorporate EUV technology into their 7nm process.


ChowNow, a GrubHub competitor, raises $20 million Series B round

ChowNow prides itself on being different from the likes of GrubHub and Seamless. ChowNow’s flagship service offers restaurants a white-label platform that enables restaurants to own their customer data, and feel confident their customers aren’t constantly fending off menus and discounts from competitors. Unlike its competitors, ChowNow charges an upfront monthly cost of $150/month per location instead of taking a commission on all orders.

“Yes, our software supports delivery but we have a unique place in the restaurant where we don’t play in the delivery space outright,” Webb said. “We’re also not a traditional marketplace either. Shopify for restaurants is an accurate way to describe us. Restaurants can plug in to our system and integrate it into their delivery backend.”

In charts: has the US shale drilling revolution peaked?

Throughout its existence, the shale oil industry has consumed cash. Companies have been unable to cover their drilling costs from their incomes, and have needed constant infusions of debt and equity financing. They have had little difficulty in raising that money, in part because investors wanted to share in the productivity miracle that the companies represented. If the miraculous days are over, and a more humdrum reality is setting in, will investors still be prepared to back the industry so willingly? Already equity raising by US exploration and production companies has slowed sharply this year. Plenty of attractive investment opportunities still exist in shale: internal rates of return of 30 per cent and higher are available in the Permian Basin, according to S&P Global Platts Well Economic Analyzer. Will there be enough of those attractive opportunities to keep US oil production rising, as the government’s Energy Information Administration and others expect? The industry says yes, but the drilling and productivity numbers will be worth watching closely over the months to come.

 

Australia’s got a lock on supply of the metal used for EV batteries

“Australia’s importance has been cemented by offtake deals and equity investments in mines,” Alice Yu, a Hong Kong-based consultant at CRU, said by phone. Backing from major battery manufacturers and auto producers could also see the nation add processing facilities to develop exports of higher-value lithium chemicals, she said.

Still, Macquarie Group Ltd. has warned there’s a bearish outlook for lithium prices in the short-to-medium term as “too many Australian rock producers are crowding in” with new projects. The surge is threatening to create a period of oversupply before rising demand for electric vehicles clears the surplus from about 2021, the bank said in a note this month.

Even with a wave of new supply, including from Australia, the lithium market is likely to remain tight with a stronger demand outlook than anticipated, according to Melbourne-based UBS Group AG analyst Lachlan Shaw. “We have had increased supply this year, and all the while lithium prices have kept going up,” he said. “The market is probably underestimating demand.”

How Saudi Arabia is building its $2 trillion fund

The kingdom plans to transfer ownership of Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, to the PIF. An initial public offering of a small Aramco stake — probably just under 5 percent — will provide investment cash. That sale could raise about $106 billion, according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute. Transferring Aramco to the PIF would allow the government to get its revenue from investments, rather than oil, according to the Prince, and along the way transform the PIF into the world’s biggest sovereign fund.

 

Bogle: Vanguard’s Size a Worry

The economies of scale just can’t keep going on much longer. We’ve only got 12 basis points to go, and let me say it: There’s an irreducible minimum, no matter how big you are, just for the fun of it, 8 basis points, cost a lot of money to run this business. We’re now talking about a 4 basis point improvement in cost. I just don’t think it’s worthwhile, hyping and trying to bring in more and more money.

The David Rubenstein Show: Masayoshi Son

On his US$100bn Vision Fund: He thinks that machines will become more intelligent than humans across a wide range of subjects within the next 30 years, an event referred to as the singularity. This will have a profound and largely positive impact on humankind. The fund will invest in companies that underpin the global shifts brought on by artificial intelligence.

On the Alibaba investment: Invested US$20m early on in the company’s history. He met with Jack Ma, who at the time had no business plan, zero revenue and only 35-40 employees. Still, he could tell from the way he talked (with “strong, shining eyes”) that he had a vision and impressive leadership skills. Similar story with Jerry Yang and the Yahoo! investment.

On his recent investment in ARM: Biggest investment to date. UK-based semiconductor company that has an overwhelming market share for semiconductor designs used in mobile phones and other mobile devices. He says they will ship more than 1 trillion IoT chips in the next 20 years.

Chinese women are getting rich by simply livestreaming their days

In China, young women like 23-year-old Huan Huan can earn up to $20,000 a month livestreaming themselves just doing regular things. That’s about 30 times more than the average college graduate makes at their first job.

In China, which banned online porn in 2000, PG-rated livestreaming has become a $4 billion-a-year industry with nearly 350 million followers — more than the entire population of the United States.


How do I get my daughter interested in computers?

Nobody becomes a software engineer because they love writing code; they become a software engineer because it allows them to build out ideas. This is a useful skill to have. Except that most software engineers aren’t realizing their own ideas. They’re getting paid to build someone else’s pet project. Software engineers are the wage labourers of the tech industry.

The most important tech skill, then, isn’t computers or engineering — It’s the art of getting paid to control vast amounts of money. Then you can make programmers build out whatever dumb ideas you like. Parents who want their daughters to succeed in Silicon Valley need not worry about teaching their girls to code: Teach them about capitalism instead.

Curated Insights 2017.08.06

The data that transformed AI research—and possibly the world

Today, many consider ImageNet solved—the error rate is incredibly low at around 2%. But that’s for classification, or identifying which object is in an image. This doesn’t mean an algorithm knows the properties of that object, where it comes from, what it’s used for, who made it, or how it interacts with its surroundings. In short, it doesn’t actually understand what it’s seeing. This is mirrored in speech recognition, and even in much of natural language processing. While our AI today is fantastic at knowing what things are, understanding these objects in the context of the world is next. How AI researchers will get there is still unclear.

“One thing ImageNet changed in the field of AI is suddenly people realized the thankless work of making a dataset was at the core of AI research,” Li said. “People really recognize the importance the dataset is front and center in the research as much as algorithms.”

Apple Glasses are inevitable

There is room for Apple to create value by controlling both the hardware and software comprising AR glasses. The sum will be greater than its parts. Apple’s big bet on AR will represent the catalyst for turning glasses and sunglasses into something more. An engaged base of iOS developers experimenting with ARKit will give Apple Glasses a hospitable app environment.

Apple’s success with Apple Watch has done much to calm some of my fears and hesitation regarding face wearables. With 29 million Apple Watches sold to date, Apple has turned the dynamic of tech meeting fashion on its head. Apple has been able to get people to wear an item that was increasingly losing its place in a smartphone world.

The idea of a product having a “killer app” has been misconstrued over the years. The iPhone really doesn’t have a killer app. Instead, the device itself has turned into the killer app – the most valuable computer in our lives. In addition, the iPhone’s role in our lives has evolved over time – a true sign of value. Apple Glasses would provide an improved view of the world to its user. For some, this will come in the form of clearer vision plus additional context. Others will gain value just from receiving additional context.


The Priceline party, the world’s largest online-travel company

Over the past decade Priceline’s pre-tax earnings have grown at a compound annual rate of 42%, faster than Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Alphabet. It also boasts a 96% gross margin. Its share price has risen by more than 50% over the past 12 months, about four times faster than the broader stockmarket. On July 26th the firm’s market value rose above $100bn.

Priceline’s focus on accommodation helps explain why it is more profitable and more highly valued than Expedia, a rival online-travel company that operates sites such as Orbitz, Travelocity, Trivago and Hotels.com. Expedia does more business booking flights, but these are not as lucrative. Online-travel firms take a meaty commission of 15-18% of a hotel room’s price, compared with a slim 3-4% for airfares.

The most dangerous rival, however, may well come from somewhere else entirely. “We’re all waiting for the moment when a big Chinese company comes in and tries to take market share,” says Erik Blachford, a former boss of Expedia. Ctrip, a giant based in Shanghai and worth an estimated $30bn, is the obvious candidate. But if it indeed makes a move, Priceline will not necessarily suffer. Not only is its Chinese business growing nicely, but it has also invested nearly $2bn in Ctrip’s debt and equity. Small wonder that some analysts consider Priceline the best-run internet company after Amazon.


Why Alibaba could double in two years

China online advertising is $50 billion market, currently Alibaba has about 20% market share. Entire online advertising market will grow at 15% to 20% for next eight years, I expect Alibaba to take incremental share and possibly increase to 30%+ market share of online ads in five years.

AliCloud is No. 1 in China by a huge margin.

Alibaba has a ton of equity investments made over the years. Core holdings include a 33% stake in Ant Financial, 30% stake in Weibo, and 47% in logistics network operator Cainiao.


Amazon moves into self-distribution with Woody Allen’s ‘Wonder Wheel’

Amazon is moving into self-distributing its own movies, putting it on the path to becoming a full-fledged film studio.

With their deep pockets and big ambitions, Amazon and Netflix have upended the film distribution landscape, although they have taken different approaches. Netflix is solely focused on servicing its streaming service subscribers. Amazon believes in premiering movies in theaters before offering them on its Prime digital service. With the move into self-distribution, Amazon now offers all of the services that a traditional film studio boasts — from financing to production to rolling out a picture in cinemas.


Amazon’s ‘Beehive’, drone-carrying trains reinforce focus on logistics tech

CB Insights’ analysis shows that the retail giant has been focused on shortening the distance between warehouses and consumers for some time. They have considered various formats for expanded warehouse networks, including flying warehouses, mobile truck-based mini warehouses, underwater warehouses, local re-stocking stations for drones, and a multi-level drone-docking fulfillment center.


This Amazon threat just got even more real

Already, the price transparency that’s characteristic of Amazon’s consumer e-commerce platform has exposed major flaws in Grainger’s model, forcing the company to roll out price cuts that have squeezed its margins and darkened its EPS outlook. In the face of Amazon’s staggering customer growth, Grainger CEO DG Macpherson’s admission earlier this year that the company hasn’t been able to acquire a new customer under its namesake brand in years and has struggled to use digital marketing to draw business becomes even more worrisome.


Foursquare eyes Amazon Alexa partnership as its tech is quietly built into Snapchat and Apple Maps

In the past four years, the company has been shopping its technology around to other companies, a task that turned out to be surprisingly easy. In an interesting development, Foursquare has found that a lot of companies looking for data or location tech come to Foursquare before Facebook or Alphabet’s Google because those two giants are trying to kill those companies who need help. “We’re like the independent broker of this awesome technology and you’re not tying yourself to Google or Facebook, yet you get these great tools to build competitive products,” Crowley explained.

The partnerships take different formats, with Foursquare sharing its tech in exchange for exposure, revenue or partnership deals, he explained. Facebook and Google haven’t teamed up with Foursquare due to competing products and because the Silicon Valley players have built up their own ecosystems, he said. But that’s a rare exception. Snapchat, Twitter, Uber, and Pinterest are using a version of its geotagging tech. Samsung’s new Galaxy S8 phone, launched in April, has Foursquare baked in to tell users where their photo was taken and what it was taken of. Finally, Apple is using Foursquare in its Apple Maps product.


Redfin set out to disrupt real estate—it was harder than it looked

Zillow and Trulia make money by referring customers to independent real estate brokers. Redfin, in contrast, aimed to disrupt the real estate business by becoming a real estate brokerage itself.

In a traditional real estate transaction, the agent on each side of the deal gets a three percent commission. Redfin offered a do-it-yourself model where buyers would do more of the work themselves, lowering Redfin’s costs and allowing it to pay thousands of dollars in rebates.

This approach sounded great in theory, but there was a big problem: customers hated it. Buying or selling a home is a complex, stressful, and often once-in-a-lifetime transaction. People wanted a personal agent who had plenty of time to understand their situation, answer questions, and guide them through the steps of the home-buying process. Redfin’s early approach—with an ever-changing cast of agents showing homes and writing offers but not doing much else—left most customers unsatisfied.

…some of the biggest opportunities for innovation were on the seller’s side of the market, because sellers ultimately set the terms of real estate transactions. And because home sellers tend to be older and more risk-averse, it has taken longer for Redfin to build up a customer base on the seller’s side of the market.


A look back in IPO: Google, the profit machine

Sources are saying that Microsoft was previously courting Google, pursuing options ranging from a kind of merger to an outright takeover. It appears that their overtures failed to materialize any deal, so now the Redmond will have to wait; Google is headed in the IPO direction, and if there’s a merger to be had, it’s likely going to be with a post-IPO Google.

“It’s still expensive at these levels,” said Will Dunbar, managing director with Core Capital Partners, a venture capital firm with no stake in Google. “There will be substantial competition in the near future and that’s one of the things that gives me pause about the price.”

Janco’s Pyykkonen adds that he was hearing it was difficult for traders interested in short-selling Google to find shares to borrow from the banks and brokers involved in the auction.

And according to an informal poll on CNN/Money, 85 percent of more than 23,000 respondents said that they did not plan on buying shares of Google once it began trading.

Inside Jeffrey Katzenberg’s plan to revolutionize entertainment on mobile screens

Katzenberg’s plan involves nothing less than the creation of a whole new species of entertainment targeting 18- to 34-year-olds: short-form video series produced with budgets and production values you might expect from primetime TV, along with top-shelf creatives on both sides of the camera. For example, imagine a drama akin to “Empire” or “Scandal” but shrunk to 10-minute episodes made for mobile consumption. Or a five-minute talk show, or a two-minute newscast — all with high-profile talent attached.

Disney CEO Bob Iger, whose company is considering producing for what Katzenberg has tentatively dubbed New TV, sees the merits in the idea. “The explosion of short-form video is obvious to all of us, but a lot of what we’ve seen is the production of amateurs — user-generated content,” Iger says. “Taking a professional approach to this kind of content, we haven’t seen that yet in a concerted way, and I think that’s a smart thing to try.”


Alphabet wants to fix renewable energy’s storage problem — with salt

It can be located almost anywhere, has the potential to last longer than lithium-ion batteries and compete on price with new hydroelectric plants and other existing clean energy storage methods. “If the moonshot factory gives up on a big, important problem like climate change, then maybe it will never get solved,” said Obi Felten, a director at X. “If we do start solving it, there are trillions and trillions of dollars in market opportunity.”

X is stepping into a market that could see about $40 billion in investment by 2024, according Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Roughly 790 megawatts of energy will be stored this year and overall capacity is expected to hit 45 gigawatts in seven years, BNEF estimates. Existing electrical grids struggle with renewable energy, a vexing problem that’s driving demand for new storage methods. Solar panels and wind farms churn out energy around midday and at night when demand lulls. This forces utilities to discard it in favor of more predictable oil and coal plants and more controllable natural gas “peaker” plants.

A new book ranks the top 100 solutions to climate change. The results are surprising.

The number one solution, in terms of potential impact? A combination of educating girls and family planning, which together could reduce 120 gigatons of CO2-equivalent by 2050 — more than on- and offshore wind power combined (99 GT). Also sitting atop the list, with an impact that dwarfs any single energy source: refrigerant management. Both reduced food waste and plant-rich diets, on their own, beat solar farms and rooftop solar combined.

Our models include a lot of things that were excluded from other models. One is land use. It’s given passing reference, but hasn’t been given much credibility by the IPCC. They don’t include, for example, farmland restoration — over a billion hectares of abandoned land all over the world. We know how to regenerate that, using animals, using cover, using no-till. Is there a transition cost? Yeah. But it’s a big sink.

First of all, let’s be honest: The US has never led in this area. Ever. When they’ve tried on an executive level, they’ve never been supported by Congress. States have led, cities have led, but never the federal government. Now the federal government is what it is. When [Trump] was elected, I went over every one [of the Drawdown solutions]. I said, “What can the [US federal] government do?” And it really isn’t that much.


The world’s first floating wind farm could be a game changer for renewable power

The first floating wind turbine has been placed about 20 km (12 miles) off the coast of Peterhead in Scotland. Another four turbines will be added to the farm, which together will generate enough energy to power 20,000 households.

Floating wind turbines cannot currently compete with fixed turbines, which have seen their cost plummet by more than 30% since 2012. However, Statoil believes that as floating wind farms are built at scale, they will soon be able to compete with traditional offshore wind turbines without subsidies.


It goes completely against what most believe, but out of all major energy sources, nuclear is the safest

Based on historical and current figures of deaths related to energy production, nuclear appears to have caused by far the least harm of the current major energy sources. This empirical reality is largely at odds with public perceptions, where public support for nuclear energy is often low as a result of safety concerns.

Whilst the share of energy production from renewable technologies is slowly growing, 96 percent of global energy production is produced from fossil fuels, nuclear and traditional biomass sources. Our global transition to renewable energy systems will be a process which takes time—an extensive period during which we must make important choices on bridging sources of energy production.

 

In fund management, churn is not necessarily burn

What may be more surprising is that we found no evidence of any relationship across all other styles of US equity fund, even in small-caps where the costs of trading are noticeably higher. On average, high turnover US equity funds have been able to add at least enough value to offset the additional transaction costs they incur. The moral is that pursuing a reduction in transaction costs without considering the consequences is misguided. Consistency between investment process and turnover is more important than the level of turnover itself.


Cities’ success leaves them vulnerable in the next downturn

But the specialization of high-end jobs and wealth in cities could end up being their undoing. The city model of old was like a grocery store — a balanced mix of all types of different products, from milk and bread to a pharmacy to some splurge items like cupcakes and Champagne. In tough times, cupcake and Champagne sales might fall, but people are still going to buy their milk, bread and toiletries, keeping the store afloat.

Cities today increasingly resemble endless aisles of Champagne and cupcakes. If tough times strike again — perhaps in a tech downturn, or in a stock market crash — the pain will be concentrated here. And while the well-paying white-collar jobs migrating to cities now are coveted, there’s no guarantee the best jobs will always be urban. The next economic cycle may well bring a different pattern.


Many Indians don’t know the real architect behind the country’s economic reforms

On that monsoon day in Hyderabad in 2015, no one could recall that a long-time inhabitant of that city, Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao, PV as he was always known to the Telugus, was, in fact, the author of the most radical shift in India’s economic policy since Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous Industrial Policy Resolution of 1956. Nehru’s resolution had declared that India would strive to establish a “socialistic pattern of society”. In 1991 PV moved away from that pattern to unleash private enterprise.

PV was India’s first “accidental” prime minister, and a path-breaking one. He took charge of the national government and restored political stability; assumed leadership of the Congress, proving that there was hope beyond the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty; pushed through significant economic reforms; and steered India through the uncharted waters of the post-Cold War world.


NASA has a way to cut your flight time in half

…NASA will begin taking bids for construction of a demo model of a plane able to reduce the sonic boom to something like the hum you’d hear inside a Mercedes-Benz on the interstate. The agency’s researchers say their design, a smaller-scale model of which was successfully tested in a wind tunnel at the end of June, should cut the six-hour flight time from New York to Los Angeles in half.

Over the next decade, growth in air transportation and distances flown “will drive the demand for broadly available faster air travel,” says Peter Coen, project manager for NASA’s commercial supersonic research team. “That’s going to make it possible for companies to offer competitive products in the future.” NASA plans to share the technology resulting from the tests with U.S. plane makers, meaning a head start for the likes of Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing, and startups such as Boom Technology and billionaire Robert Bass’s Aerion.