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Is AI in a golden age or on the verge of a new winter?



The global rush forward of AI development continues at a breakneck pace and shows no signs of stopping. Stanford University recently called on the U.S. government to make a $120 billion investment in the nation’s AI ecosystem over the course of the next 10 years, and reports from France show 38% more AI startups in 2019 with government and investor backing. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is planning a major initiative to use AI to speed up scientific discoveries and will soon ask for an additional $10 billion in funding. Dozens of countries have acknowledged that AI is going to be increasingly important for their citizens and the growth of their economies, resulting in widespread country-level investment and strategies around AI.

This trend supports arguments that AI is entering a “golden age.” And why not? Some have claimed the transformative impact of AI is similar to electricity. The golden age theory is further supported by the 2019 “AI hype cycle” from Gartner that shows many AI technologies climbing the innovation slope, providing more fuel for the AI fire.

Indeed, the public interest grows apace as the upward trend in news stories about AI technologies continues to track up and to the right as shown is this graphic from CB Insights.

While interest is at an all-time high, it’s not all positive. There is growing negative feedback about AI, whether worries about current misuse of the technology or potential long-term existential threats. For example, several Outback Steakhouse franchises recently had to back away from plans to implement AI-powered facial recognition in their restaurants due to consumer backlash. Several cities have issued an outright ban of the technology over worries about the potential for dystopian surveillance systems.

Other threats are perceived due to AI-created deepfake videos and the possible misuse of new natural language generation capabilities. Specifically, misuse of these could supercharge “fake news” and further undermine democratic norms and institutions. This has led the U.S. Senate to pass legislation requiring the Department of Homeland Security to publish an annual report on the use of deepfake technology and how it is being used to harm national security. In addition, discussions are ongoing about inherent bias in the datasets used to train AI algorithms amid concerns about if it is even possible to eliminate these biases.

Are these issues fundamental or merely noise in the machine of progress? A Brookings Institution article on regulating AI suggests the latter. The paper cites worries about previous technological breakthroughs that proved to be unfounded. For example, people worried that steam locomotives would stop cows from grazing, hens from laying, and precipitate economic havoc as horses became extinct and hay and oats farmers went bankrupt. And there was concern the telegraph’s transmission of messages by “sparks” might be the work of the devil.

A technological idyll or another winter in the making?

AI winters as experienced in the mid-1970s, the late 1980s, and the 1990s occur when promises and expectations greatly outpace reality and people become disappointed in AI and the results achieved through it. For instance, we’ve all seen and heard the many visions of self-driving cars, but the reality is that for most people this is 20 years away, possibly longer. As recently as 2016 there were predictions that 10 million self-driving cars would be on the road by 2020. Not going to happen. This spring, Ford CEO Jim Hackett admitted in a colossal understatement, “We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles.” This despite the intense hype and $35 billion invested globally in their development.

The reason for the slow development is unanticipated complexity. Similarly, promises of treating heretofore incurable brain afflictions such as autism and schizophrenia through embedded brain-machine interfaces is enticing but also likely still far into the future. It’s unrealized or dashed promises that lead to AI winters. As projects flounder, people lose interest and the hype fades, as does research and investment.

This is the current conundrum. On the one hand, there are huge advances being made nearly every day, from training AI to help the paralyzed to write with their minds, to rapidly spotting new wildfires and improving Postal Service efficiency. These look like promising applications. Yet Stanford professor David Cheriton recently said that AI has been a promising technology since he first encountered it 35 years ago, and it’s still promising but “suffers from being overpromising.”

This overpromising is reinforced by a new Gartner study that shows AI adoption lagging expectations, at least in the enterprise. The top challenges are the lack of skilled staff, the quality of available data, and understanding the real benefits and uses of AI. An even more significant limitation Gartner cites is the lack of vision and imagination for how to apply AI.

Will it be different this time?

This is the nearly $16 trillion question — the amount that PWC estimates AI will deliver annually to the global economy by 2030. Will something close to this be achieved, led by the golden age of AI, or will the technology hit a wall over the next several years and lead to a new winter?

An argument for winter is that all the advances so far have come from “narrow AI,” the ability of an algorithm to do one thing only, albeit with superhuman abilities. For example, computer vision algorithms are excellent at making sense of visual information but cannot translate and apply that ability to other tasks. Strong AI, also known as Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), does not yet exist. An AGI machine could perform any task that a human can. Surveys suggest it will be until 2060 before AGI exists, meaning that until then narrow AI algorithms will have to suffice.

Eventually, the use cases for narrow AI will be exhausted. Another AI winter will likely arrive, but it remains an open debate about when. If Microsoft president Brad Smith is right, winter won’t be coming soon. He recently predicted AI will transform society over the next three decades through to 2050. For now, as evidenced by the increased funding, the number of AI-related technologies climbing the hype cycle, and an almost stampede mentality, we are basking in the golden light of an AI summer.

Gary Grossman is the Senior VP of Technology Practice at Edelman and Global Lead of the Edelman AI Center of Excellence.


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SoftBank sells stake and gives up board seats in embattled startup Wag




wag dog walking appLarry French/AP

  • SoftBank’s Vision Fund is giving up its nearly 50% stake in the dog-walking startup Wag, as the company continues to struggle. 
  • A memo circulated among Wag employees informed them that the company was parting ways with SoftBank and cutting a significant number of jobs. The news was first reported by the Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo. 
  • The dog-walking startup has faced significant obstacles lately, including the departure of its former CEO Hilary Schneider last month. This happened while the company reportedly shopped around for buyers and sought to sell itself for a lower price than its original valuation, according to Bloomberg.
  • SoftBank’s Vision Fund invested $300 million in Wag last year, an investment that has drawn close scrutiny lately after a series of high-profile investment flops, like WeWork’s implosion, have left the company reeling. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

SoftBank is selling back its nearly 50% stake in Wag to the embattled dog-walking startup, while the startup struggles to turn around its performance.

Wag CEO Garrret Smallwood circulated a memo around the company on Monday, informing employees that it was cutting jobs and it was was “amicably parting ways” with SoftBank. SoftBank was also giving up two seats on the board.

The news was first reported by the Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo,who wrote that SoftBank was selling the shares back at a price “well below” the $650 million valuation that Wag commanded when SoftBank bought the shares last year.  

“Today, we said goodbye to a number of our friends and colleagues as we align our organization with the needs of our business,” Smallwood wrote in the internal memo, reviewed by Business Insider. “This was an extremely painful and difficult step. But it was also an important one for our future.” Wag declined to comment on how many employees were laid off, or disclose any further financial details. 

SoftBank’s Vision Fund first invested in the dog-walking startup last year in January, pushing up the company’s valuation to around $650 million. But the startup has struggled to compete, and sought to sell itself beginning this fall. Smallwood only became the Wag’s CEO last month, after the company’s former CEO Hilary Schneider left to join another firm. 

SoftBank’s Vision Fund investments have drawn close scrutiny over the past few months, after a series of high-profile investments flopped and left the company reeling, like WeWork’s pre-IPO implosion this fall. SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son seemed to express concern about Wag in his latest investor presentation, as he referred to a dog-walking company as one of Vision Fund’s more troubled investments. 

SoftBank’s sale of its stake followed a disagreement within the company’s board on its path to future profitability, one person familiar with the talks told Business Insider. 

SoftBank’s Vision Fund did not respond immediately to a request for comment. 


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Apple has ‘deep concerns’ that ex-employees accused of theft will flee to China




SAN JOSE, California (Reuters) – Apple Inc on Monday told a federal court it has “deep concerns” that two Chinese-born former employees accused of stealing trade secrets from the company will try to flee before their trials if their locations are not monitored.

FILE PHOTO: The Apple Inc. logo is seen hanging at the entrance to the Apple store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 16, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar

At a hearing in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, prosecutors argued that Xiaolang Zhang and Jizhong Chen should continue to be monitored because they present flight risks.

Federal prosecutors alleged Zhang worked on Apple’s secretive self-driving car program and took files related to the project before disclosing that he was going to work for a Chinese competitor. Federal agents arrested Zhang last year at the San Jose airport as he was about to board a flight for China.

Prosecutors allege Chen took from Apple more than 2,000 files containing “manuals, schematics, diagrams and photographs of computer screens showing pages in Apple’s secure databases” with intent to share them. Agents arrested him in January at a train station on his way to San Francisco International Airport for a trip to China.

The men were each charged with one count of criminal trade secrets theft and pleaded not guilty. They were released on bail shortly after their arrests and have been monitored since then.

Attorney Daniel Olmos, who represents the men, said Monday that both had family reasons to visit China and had shown no signs of violating their pre-trial conditions so far.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Marissa Harris argued that if either man fled to China, it would be difficult if not impossible for federal officials to secure their extradition for a trial. Three Apple employees sat in the courtroom to support prosecutors, including Anthony DeMario, a strategic adviser to Apple’s global security group and veteran of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Harris read Apple’s statement to U.S. District Judge Edward J. Davila in San Jose, California.

“Apple’s intellectual property is at the core of our innovation and growth,” the statement said. “The defendants’ continued participation in these proceedings is necessary to ensure a final determination of the facts, and we have deep concerns the defendants will not see this through if given the opportunity.

Zhan stood listening through an interpreter and was dressed in a white and blue dress shirt, black jeans and Nike sneakers. Olmos told Davila GPS monitoring was unnecessary to secure Zhang’s appearance at trial.

“This is not an espionage case,” Olmos said. The government “is not requesting detention, but they are requesting essentially indefinitely location monitoring.”

Harris said Zhang’s wife told federal agents that Zhang, who is a permanent U.S. resident, attempted to flee to Canada when agents searched his home.

During that search, agents found a laptop at the bottom of a laundry hamper that they allege contained trade secrets about Ethernet technology from Zhang’s prior employer, chip supplier Marvell Technology Group Ltd, according to court documents.

Chen, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from China in 1991, listened to the proceedings through an interpreter and wore a dark blue hoodie. He has been under radiofrequency monitoring, which is less precise than GPS tracking.


Prosecutors allege that Chen is a flight risk in part because they found documents from several other former employers – including General Electric Co and Raytheon Co – at Chen’s second residence in Maryland, where his wife and son live. Prosecutors said in court papers they found a 2011 document from Raytheon that they later determined was classified as “confidential,” the lowest level of sensitivity in the U.S. government system.

“This document contains information relating to Raytheon’s work on the Patriot Missile program and was not (and is not) permitted to be maintained outside of Department of Defense secured locations,” prosecutors wrote.

Olmos, the defense attorney, said it was not a file, but a single paper document “sitting in a box somewhere” in Chen’s home.

Trial dates have not been scheduled. A hearing is scheduled for February.

Reporting by Stephen Nellis in San Jose; Editing by Leslie Adler and Cynthia Osterman

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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