Innovation Wrap: Shopify’s New Heights, Facebook Gaming, Dino DNA

By Thomas Rice | More Articles by Thomas Rice

Here’s your weekly wrap of technology, innovation, and finance news.

? Artificial Intelligence

Facebook is testing changes to their platform on hundreds of thousands of bots that simulate user behaviour before those changes are rolled out to real users.

Automatic design: While the scenarios play out, the system automatically adjusts different parameters in the simulation, such as the bots’ privacy settings or the constraints on their actions. With every adjustment, it evaluates which combination of parameters achieves the most desired community behavior, and then recommends the best version to Facebook’s platform developers.

Adobe researchers developed custom software that quickly transforms objects in images through a few simple controls. Transformations include adjusting the shape of objects, the lighting and perspective, changing certain object types (convertibles into hatchbacks), and more.

? Finance

Oil futures went negative for the first time with West Texas Intermediate futures settling at negative $37.63. Speculators often buy oil futures to bet that the oil price will rise, then sell the futures before they expire and they’re required to take physical delivery of oil. In this case, few buyers emerged to buy those futures because the oil glut means storage tanks are mostly full, including in Cushing, Oklahoma where oil is delivered for these particular futures.

Robinhood is in the process of raising $200 million at an $8 billion valuation. Their core business has thrived as market volatility has driven retail trading revenue to historic levels.

⚙️ Mobility

Zoox showcased an impressive video of their autonomous vehicle driving through San Francisco for an hour. The video, which is sped up, runs for 27 minutes and comes with running commentary from two of Zoox’s executives.

Uber researchers have proposed a new technique for autonomous vehicles to improve traffic movement predictions in a pre-print paper.

The researchers report that SC-GAN reduced off-road false positives — a metric measuring the percentage of predicted trajectory points that were off-road, or outside of the drivable region for each car — by 50% compared with a baseline. Furthermore, it outperformed the existing state-of-the-art GAN architectures for motion prediction, decreasing both average and final prediction error numbers “significantly.”

The US Air Force believes that electric vehicles with vertical takeoff and landing could be used by 2023, and is investing in companies developing these vehicles through a program called Agility Prime. The Agility Prime program also aims to provide certifications for these vehicles that could help drive wider commercial adoption over time.

☁️ Cloud Computing

Jeff Bezos released the annual Amazon Shareholder Letter which discussed (among other things) why AWS is inherently more efficient than a traditional in-house data centre. He also talked up their environmental credentials.

That’s primarily due to two things—higher utilization, and the fact that our servers and facilities are more efficient than what most companies can achieve running their own data centers. Typical single-company data centers operate at roughly 18% server utilization. They need that excess capacity to handle large usage spikes. AWS benefits from multitenant usage patterns and operates at far higher server utilization rates. In addition, AWS has been successful in increasing the energy efficiency of its facilities and equipment, for instance by using more efficient evaporative cooling in certain data centers instead of traditional air conditioning. A study by 451 Research found that AWS’s infrastructure is 3.6 times more energy efficient than the median U.S. enterprise data center surveyed. Along with our use of renewable energy, these factors enable AWS to do the same tasks as traditional data centers with an 88% lower carbon footprint. And don’t think we’re not going to get those last 12 points—we’ll make AWS 100% carbon free through more investments in renewable energy projects.

▶️ Streaming

Netflix is now worth more than Disney ($192 billion vs. $184 billion) as people staying at home drives demand for streaming services. While Disney’s streaming service, Disney+, is also benefiting from this trend, their theme parks and movie businesses are hurting.

?️ Ecommerce

Shopify stock has rallied 82% from its recent low as the company benefits from more consumers staying at home and buying online. Heinz started selling direct to consumers for the first time through its Heinz to Home online store, which took seven days to get online using Shopify’s platform.

That has benefited Shopify as lockdown measures intended to curtail the coronavirus pandemic have closed bricks-and-mortar storefronts and upended traditional consumption patterns. Last week, a Shopify executive said on Twitter that it was “now handling Black Friday level traffic every day.”

Stripe has also benefited from commerce shifting online, and the private company has capitalised on this with a $600 million raise at a $36 billion valuation. Listed competitors Square and PayPal are currently valued at $26 billion and $131 billion, respectively.

The San Francisco-based payment company’s revenue is largely tied to growth in online shopping. Stripe highlighted the recent Covid-19 outbreak that is “pushing the economy online” and said “several years of offline-to-online migration are being compressed into several weeks.”

“People who never dreamt of using the internet to see the doctor or buy groceries are now doing so out of necessity. And businesses that deferred moving online or had no reason to operate online have made the leap practically overnight,” John Collison, co-founder and president of Stripe, said in a press release. “We believe now is not the time to pull back, but to invest even more heavily in Stripe’s platform.”

Edited, a startup based in London, announced that they had raised $29 million. The company keeps track of 375 million products and 2.5 billion SKUs worldwide and uses AI to help 200 brands optimise their product pricing.

Edited competes to a degree with firms like Yieldigo, Perfect Price, and Pricefx, which similarly tap AI to optimize prices. But it demonstrated success early on with the retailers using its platform (which is now available in 30 countries), who have seen revenue growth of around 15% year-over-year on average. Boohoo notched a 40% increase in revenue after adopting Edited, while Otto Group, a mail-order company based in Hamburg, Germany, recorded a €1.8 billion (~$1.95 billion) overall sales uptick.

?️ Space

NASA plans to launch a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to send two astronauts to the International Space Station on May 27. If the launch goes ahead, it will be the first time an American rocket carries passengers to space since the final space shuttle launch on July 8, 2011.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft for Demo-2 arrived at the launch site on Feb. 13, 2020.

Scientists discovered a distant planet, Kepler-1649c, that seems similar to Earth.

Kepler-1649c is located 300 light-years from Earth. NASA described it as the “most similar to Earth in size and estimated temperature” out of the thousands of exoplanets discovered by Kepler. The planet is located in its star’s habitable zone, a region where it’s possible for liquid water to exist.

? Gaming

More people at home means more people watching others play video games. According to estimates from TwitchTrackerTwitch has seen their average viewership rise to 2.8 million users from 1.1 million users a year ago.

Those people are watching anything from demon slaying to soccer to tropical island furnishing. Whatever the game, a typical stream offers not just an escape from reality, but the company of others.

Facebook has decided to enter this game live streaming market with the launch of Facebook Gaming. Originally slated to be launched in June, the service’s launch has been fast-tracked in response to the pandemic. Facebook Gaming is currently available on the web and Android, with an iOS release coming soon.

The free app caps several years of investment at Facebook, which said more than 700 million of its 2.5 billion monthly users already engaged with gaming content. The app is designed largely for creating and watching live gameplay, a fast-growing online sector where Facebook is battling Amazon’s Twitch, Google’s YouTube and Microsoft’s Mixer services.

Animal Crossing is developing a reputation as coronavirus therapy as people who are new to gaming find connection in its gentle, comforting gameplay.

“I think the value proposition is a lot clearer,” says Scott. People who had never played games before the current crisis could now suddenly see how games could help them connect, he says. Even the WHO is now encouraging people to stay home and play video games, using the hashtag #PlayApartTogether. That’s certainly helping to erase some of the stigma around games and the specter of video-game addiction. “It’s incredible,” says Kowert. “They’re switching the narrative of moral panic.”

Matthew Ball wrote an essay examining the conflicting interests that underpin the business of esports.

Another example from a team owner was more cynical: “Publishers aren’t excited about creating, let alone pushing, virtual goods that tie into their little-watched leagues and require paying us a royalty. They’d rather make unbranded items that appeal to all players, not just esports fans, and include no royalty. And if they’re going to pay a royalty, they’d rather it be for, say, Marvel IP, not our team logo.”

Microsoft added RTX support to the latest Minecraft beta, which serves as a pretty good showcase for NVIDIA’s real-time deep-learning-enabled ray tracing technology.

⚡ Other Snippets

The Australian Government will start forcing Google and Facebook to share revenue with traditional media companies. Details of how this tax will operate are not yet known, with the Government aiming to finalise the compulsory code by July.

The decision to mandate compensation for news articles displayed on Facebook pages or in Google search results — important drivers of traffic for those platforms — comes as the coronavirus pandemic accelerates years of advertising losses at media outlets large and small.

GitLab released its 2020 Global Remote Work Report, which is based on a survey of 3,000 adult professionals who work remotely or have the option to work remotely. GitLab is known for being the world’s largest all-remote company with 1,200 team members located in 65 countries around the world.

86% of respondents believe remote work is the future. But it’s also the present, as evidenced by 84% of those surveyed saying that they are able to accomplish all of their tasks remotely right now.

Optus in Australia is considering extending work from home arrangements once coronavirus risks subside.

But Optus vice-president of customer care Mark Baylis said the changes had proved so successful that once the lockdown was lifted, Australia-based call centre workers would be encouraged to continue to work from home.

Last week I watched Jurassic Park with my kids. On a semi-related note, scientists may have found dinosaur DNA.

The tiny fossil is unassuming, as dinosaur remains go. It is not as big as an Apatosaurus femur or as impressive as a Tyrannosaurus jaw. The object is a just a scant shard of cartilage from the skull of a baby hadrosaur called Hypacrosaurus that perished more than 70 million years ago. But it may contain something never before seen from the depths of the Mesozoic era: degraded remnants of dinosaur DNA.

About Thomas Rice

Thomas Rice is the portfolio manager for the Perpetual Global Innovation Share Fund, based in Sydney, Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @thomasrice_au.

View more articles by Thomas Rice →