Diligent’s Vivian Chu and Labrador’s Mike Dooley will discuss assistive robotics at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI

Too often the world of robotics seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Assistive robotics, on the other hand, are among one of the primary real-world tasks existing technology can seemingly address almost immediately.

The concept for the technology has been around for some time now and has caught on particularly well in places like Japan, where human help simply can’t keep up with the needs of an aging population. At TC Sessions: Robotics+AI at U.C. Berkeley on March 3, we’ll be speaking with a pair of founders developing offerings for precisely these needs.

Vivian Chu is the cofounder and CEO of Diligent Robotics. The company has developed the Moxi robot to help assist with chores and other non-patient tasks, in order to allow caregivers more time to interact with patients. Prior to Diligent, Chu worked at both Google[X] and Honda Research Institute.

Mike Dooley is the cofounder and CEO of Labrador Systems. The Los Angeles-based company recently closed a $2 million seed round to develop assistive robots for the home. Dooley has worked at a number of robotics companies including, most recently a stint as the VP of Product and Business Development at iRobot.

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TRI-AD’s James Kuffner and Max Bajracharya are coming to TC Sessions: Robotics+AI 2020

With the Tokyo Summer Olympics rapidly approaching, 2020 is shaping up to be a big year for TRI-AD (Toyota Research Institute – Advanced Development). Opened in 2018, the research wing is devoted to bringing some of TRI’s work into practice. The organization is heavily invested in both autonomous driving and other key robotics projects.

TRI-AD’s CEO James Kuffner and VP of Robotics Max Bajracharya will be joining us onstage at TC Sessions Robotics+AI on March 3 at UC Berkeley to discuss their work in the field. The company has been working to promote accessibility, both in terms of its work in automotive and smart cities, as well as robotics aimed to help assist Japan’s aging population.

The Summer Olympics will serve as an opportunity for TRI-AD to showcase those technologies in practice. Kuffner and Bajracharya will discuss why companies like Toyota are investing in robotics and working to make every day robotics a reality.

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US patents hit record 333,530 granted in 2019; IBM, Samsung (not the FAANGs) lead the pack

We may have moved on from a nearly-daily cycle of news involving tech giants sparring in courts over intellectual property infringement, but patents continue to be a major cornerstone of how companies and people measure their progress and create moats around the work that they have done in hopes of building that into profitable enterprises in the future. IFI Claims, a company that tracks patent activity in the US, released its annual tally of IP work today underscoring that theme: it noted that 2019 saw a new high-watermark of 333,530 patents granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

The figures are notable for a few reasons. One is that this is the most patents ever granted in a single year; and the second that this represents a 15% jump on a year before. The high overall number speaks to the enduring interest in safeguarding IP, while the 15% jump has to do with the fact that patent numbers actually dipped last year (down 3.5%) while the number that were filed and still in application form (not granted) was bigger than ever. If we can draw something from that, it might be that filers and the USPTO were both taking a little more time to file and process, not a reduction in the use of patents altogether.

But patents do not tell the whole story in another very important regard.

Namely, the world’s most valuable, and most high profile tech companies are not always the ones that rank the highest in patents filed.

Consider the so-called FAANG group, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google: Facebook is at number-36 (one of the fastest movers but still not top 10) with 989 patents; Apple is at number-seven with 2,490 patents; Amazon is at number-nine with 2,427 patents; Netflix doesn’t make the top 50 at all; and the Android, search and advertising behemoth Google is merely at slot 15 with 2,102 patents (and no special mention for growth).

Indeed, the fact that one of the oldest tech companies, IBM, is also the biggest patent filer almost seems ironic in that regard.

As with previous years — the last 27, to be exact — IBM has continued to hold on to the top spot for patents granted, with 9,262 in total for the year. Samsung Electronics, at 6,469, is a distant second.

These numbers, again, don’t tell the whole story: IFI Claims notes that Samsung ranks number-one when you consider all active patent “families”, which might get filed across a number of divisions (for example a Samsung Electronics subsidiary filing separately) and count the overall number of patents to date (versus those filed this year). In this regard, Samsung stands at 76,638, with IBM the distant number-two at 37,304 patent families.

Part of this can be explained when you consider their businesses: Samsung makes a huge range of consumer and enterprise products. IBM, on the other hand, essentially moved out of the consumer electronics market years ago and these days mostly focuses on enterprise and B2B and far less hardware. That means a much smaller priority placed on that kind of R&D, and subsequent range of families.

Two other areas that are worth tracking are biggest movers and technology trends.

In the first of these, it’s very interesting to see a car company rising to the top. Kia jumped 58 places and is now at number-41 (921 patents) — notable when you think about how cars are the next “hardware” and that we are entering a pretty exciting phase of connected vehicles, self-driving and alternative energy to propel them.

Others rounding out fastest-growing were Hewlett Packard Enterprise, up 28 places to number-48 (794 patents); Facebook, up 22 places to number-36 (989 patents); Micron Technology, up nine places to number-25 (1,268), Huawei, up six places to number-10 (2,418), BOE Technology, up four places to number-13 (2,177), and Microsoft, up three places to number-4 (3,081 patents).

In terms of technology trends, IFI looks over a period of five years, where there is now a strong current of medical and biotechnology innovation running through the list right now, with hybrid plant creation topping the list of trending technology, followed by CRISPR gene-editing technology, and then medicinal preparations (led by cancer therapies). “Tech” in the computer processor sense only starts at number-four with dashboards and other car-related tech; with quantum computing, 3-D printing and flying vehicle tech all also featuring.

Indeed, if you have wondered if we are in a fallow period of innovation in mobile, internet and straight computer technology… look no further than this list to prove out that thought.

Unsurprisingly, US companies account for 49% of U.S. patents granted in 2019 up from 46 percent a year before. Japan accounts for 16% to be the second-largest, with South Korea at 7% (Samsung carrying a big part of that, I’m guessing), and China passing Germany to be at number-four with 5%.

  1. International Business Machines Corp 9262
  2. Samsung Electronics Co Ltd 6469
  3. Canon Inc 3548
  4. Microsoft Technology Licensing LLC 3081
  5. Intel Corp 3020
  6. LG Electronics Inc 2805
  7. Apple Inc 2490
  8. Ford Global Technologies LLC 2468
  9. Amazon Technologies Inc 2427
  10. Huawei Technologies Co Ltd 2418
  11. Qualcomm Inc 2348
  12. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co TSMC Ltd 2331
  13. BOE Technology Group Co Ltd 2177
  14. Sony Corp 2142
  15. Google LLC 2102
  16. Toyota Motor Corp 2034
  17. Samsung Display Co Ltd 1946
  18. General Electric Co 1818
  19. Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson AB 1607
  20. Hyundai Motor Co 1504
  21. Panasonic Intellectual Property Management Co Ltd 1387
  22. Boeing Co 1383
  23. Seiko Epson Corp 1345
  24. GM Global Technology Operations LLC 1285
  25. Micron Technology Inc 1268
  26. United Technologies Corp 1252
  27. Mitsubishi Electric Corp 1244
  28. Toshiba Corp 1170
  29. AT&T Intellectual Property I LP 1158
  30. Robert Bosch GmbH 1107
  31. Honda Motor Co Ltd 1080
  32. Denso Corp 1052
  33. Cisco Technology Inc 1050
  34. Halliburton Energy Services Inc 1020
  35. Fujitsu Ltd 1008
  36. Facebook Inc 989
  37. Ricoh Co Ltd 980
  38. Koninklijke Philips NV 973
  39. EMC IP Holding Co LLC 926
  40. NEC Corp 923
  41. Kia Motors Corp 921
  42. Texas Instruments Inc 894
  43. LG Display Co Ltd 865
  44. Oracle International Corp 847
  45. Murata Manufacturing Co Ltd 842
  46. Sharp Corp 819
  47. SK Hynix Inc 798
  48. Hewlett Packard Enterprise Development LP 794
  49. Fujifilm Corp 791
  50. LG Chem Ltd 791

Yahoo Japan and Line Corp confirm merger agreement

SoftBank Corp announced today that it has reached an agreement to merge with Z Holdings (the SoftBank subsidiary formerly known as Yahoo Japan) and Line Corp, in a move they hope will better position them against competitors. The merger, which was first reported by Nikkei last week, is expected to be completed in October 2020.

SoftBank and Naver, the owner of Line, will each hold 50% of a new holding company that will operate Line and Z Holdings. By uniting, SoftBank and Naver hope that they will better position search portal Yahoo Japan, Line’s messaging app and their other businesses to compete against rivals from the United States and China.

In its announcement, SoftBank said “in the Internet market, overseas companies, especially those based in the United States and China, are overwhelmingly dominant, and even when comparing the size of operations, there is currently a big difference between such overseas companies and those in other Asian countries, other than China.”

Line is one of the most popular messaging apps in Japan, Taiwan and Thailand, but has struggled to compete in other markets, despite offering a wide array of services that includes Line Pay, Line Taxi and Line Music. Yahoo Japan is one of the country’s biggest search engines, but it competes with Google and its other businesses, including e-commerce, are up against rivals like Rakuten and Alibaba.

Once merged, SoftBank and Naver say cooperation between their subsidiaries and investment portfolio companies will enable them to make more advances in artificial intelligence and other areas, including search, advertising and payment and financial services.

The merger would entail taking Line private by acquiring all outstanding Line shares, options and convertible bonds. The tender offer for Line’s remaining shares will be 5,200 yen, a 13.41% premium over the closing price of Line’s common shares, listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, on Nov. 13, before reports came out about the potential merger.

Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 starts shipping

Earlier this year, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Microsoft announced the second generation of its HoloLens augmented reality visor. Today, the $3,500 HoloLens 2 is going on sale in the United States, Japan, China, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand, the same countries where it was previously available for pre-order.

Ahead of the launch, I got to spend some time with the latest model, after a brief demo in Barcelona earlier this year. Users will immediately notice the larger field of view, which still doesn’t cover your full field of view, but offers a far better experience compared to the first version (where you often felt like you were looking at the virtual objects through a stamp-sized window).

The team also greatly enhanced the overall feel of wearing the device. It’s not light, at 1.3 pounds, but with the front visor that flips up and the new mounting system that is far more comfortable.

In regular use, existing users will also immediately notice the new gestures for opening up the Start menu (this is Windows 10, after all). Instead of a ‘bloom’ gesture, which often resulted in false positives, you now simply tap on the palm of your hand, where a Microsoft logo now appears when you look at it.

Eye tracking, too, has been greatly improved and works well, even over large distances, and the new machine learning model also does a far better job at tracking all of your fingers. All of this is powered by a lot of custom hardware, including Microsoft’s second-generation ‘holographic processing unit.’

Microsoft has also enhanced some of the cloud tools it built for HoloLens, including Azure Spatial Anchors that allow for persistent holograms in a given space that anybody else who is using a holographic app can then see in the same spot.

Taken together, all of the changes result in a more comfortable and smarter device, with reduced latencies when you look at the various objects around you and interact with them.

Japanese instant-credit provider Paidy raises $143 million from investors including PayPal Ventures

Paidy, a Japanese financial tech startup that provides instant credit to consumers in Japan, announced today that it has raised a total of $143 million in new financing. This includes a $83 million Series C extension from investors including PayPal Ventures and debt financing of $60 million. The funding will be used to advance Paidy’s goals of signing large-scale merchants, offering new financial services and growing its user base to 11 million accounts by the end of 2020.

In addition to PayPal Ventures, investors in the Series C extension also include Soros Capital Management, JS Capital Management and Tybourne Capital Management, along with another undisclosed investor. The debt financing is from Goldman Sachs Japan, Mizuho Bank, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation and Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank. Earlier this month, Paidy and Goldman Sachs Japan established a warehouse facility valued at $52 million. Paidy also established credit facility worth $8 million with the three banks.

This is the largest investment to date in the Japanese financial tech industry, according to data cited by Paidy and brings the total investment the company has raised so far to $163 million. A representative for the startup says it decided to extend its Series C (announced last year) instead of moving onto a D round to preserve the equity ratio for existing investors and issue the same preferred shares as its previous funding rounds.

Launched in 2014, Paidy was created because many Japanese consumers don’t use credit cards for e-commerce purchases, even though the credit card penetration rate there is relatively high. Instead, many prefer to pay cash on delivery or at convenience stores and other pickup locations. While this makes online shopping easier for consumers, it presents several challenges for sellers, because they need to cover the cost of merchandise that hasn’t been paid for yet or deal with uncompleted deliveries.

Paidy’s solution is to make it possible for people to pay for merchandise online without needing to create an account first or use their credit cards. If a seller offers Paidy as a payment method, customers can check out by entering their mobile phone numbers and email addresses, which are then authenticated with code sent through SMS or voice. Paidy covers the cost of the items and bills customers monthly. Paidy uses proprietary machine learning models to score the creditworthiness of users, and says its service can help reduce incomplete transactions (or items that buyers ultimately don’t pick up and pay for), increase conversion rates, average order values and repeat purchases.

WeWork confirms an up to $8 billion lifeline from SoftBank Group; names new executive chairman

Confirming earlier reports, The We Company and SoftBank Group agreed to a new capital infusion which will see SoftBank committing $5 billion in new financing and issuing a tender offer for another $3 billion in buybacks for shareholders.

The company also said it would accelerate an existing commitment to put $1.5 billion into the short-term real estate rental company.

Under the specific terms of the deal, WeWork will receive $1.5 billion committed from SoftBank’s April 2020 cash infusion into the company at $11.60 per share. With that money expected to come in seven days after the deal is signed (subject to shareholder approval).

There’s also the tender offer for up to $3 billion worth of non-SoftBank owned shares at a price of $19.19 per share, which will begin in the fourth quarter of this year, with closing subject to regulatory approvals.

Finally there’s a joint venture share swap where all of SoftBank Vision Fund’s interests in regional joint ventures outside of Japan will be exchanged for WeWork shares at a price of $11.60 per share’ and a debt facility consisting of $1.1 billion in senior secured notes, $2.2 billion in unsecured notes, and a $1.75 billion letter of credit facility, which will occur after the tender offer is completed.

After the closing and the tender offer, SoftBank will own approximately 80 percent of the We Company, according to a statement.

But SoftBank will not actually will not hold a majority of voting rights at any stockholder or board of directors meeting,  thanks to WeWork’s convoluted ownership structure. Therefore, even with its 80 percent stake in the business, WeWork isn’t a subsidiary, but an “associate” of SoftBank.

As part of the agreement, the company confirmed that Adam Neumann will become a board observer and Marcelo Claure, the chief operating officer of SoftBank Group will assume the position of executive chairman of the board of directors of WeWork — as soon as the company receives its $1.5 billion payment from SoftBank.

“SoftBank is a firm believer that the world is undergoing a massive transformation in the way people work. WeWork is at the forefront of this revolution. It is not unusual for the world’s leading technology disruptors to experience growth challenges as the one WeWork just faced,” said Masayoshi Son, chairman and chief executive of SoftBank Group Corp, in a statement. “Since the vision remains unchanged, SoftBank has decided to double down on the company by providing a significant capital infusion and operational support. We remain committed to WeWork, its employees, its member customers and landlords.” 

The vision may remain unchanged, but the story that SoftBank will have to tell about its new “associate”. Under Neumann’s stewardship,  We Company was a cash-burning, globe-spanning, all-encompassing community developer that would usher in a new kind of capitalism, operating under the banner of “We”.

Now, the company is more like a struggling purveyor of temporary office space, which has a mountain of leases it owns and is looking down the barrel of a potential cash crunch — even with the SoftBank lifeline. 

Still, SoftBank’s executives and WeWork’s new leadership are standing by their rhetoric for what the company is… and can be.

“WeWork is redefining the nature of work by creating meaningful experiences through integrating design, technology and community. The new capital SoftBank is providing will restore momentum to the company and I am committed to delivering profitability and positive free cash flow,” said Claure in a statement. “As important as the financial implications, this investment demonstrates our confidence in WeWork and its ability to continue to lead in disrupting the commercial real estate market by delivering flexible, collaborative and productive work environments to our customers.”

Japan will participate in NASA’s Lunar Gateway project for the Artemis program

Japan has officially announced that it will participate with NASA’s Lunar Gateway project (via NHK), which will seek to establish an orbital research and staging station around the Moon. The Lunar Gateway is a key component of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first American woman and the next American man on the surface of the Moon by 2024.

Japan’s involvement was confirmed on Friday at a meeting of the country’s Strategic Headquarters for National Space Policy, at which Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was present. The governing body accepted a recommendation from a panel established to study the possibility that Japan should indeed join NASA’s efforts.

Working with NASA on its Lunar Gateway will serve to benefit Japan in a few ways, the panel determined, including by boosting its profile as a technology leader and by strengthening U.S.-Japan relations when it comes to ensuring space is a place where international collaboration on peaceful ventures and research can take place.

Further details about how Japan will participate aren’t yet available, which makes sense given this decision has only just been made. Japanese lunar exploration startup ispace welcomed the news, and anticipates possibly being able to contribute in some capacity, specifically via the partnership it announced with Draper earlier this year.

“We welcome this development with great optimism for the future of lunar exploration, as well as the relationship between Japan and the United States,” said Takeshi Hakamada, Founder & CEO of ispace in an emailed statement. “We firmly believe the Draper-ispace partnership can complement the US-Japan efforts for a sustainable return to the Moon at the commercial level.”

Waymo and Renault to explore autonomous mobility route in Paris region

Waymo and Renault are working with the Paris region to explore the possibility of establishing an autonomous transportation route between Charles de Gaulle airport and La Défense, a neighborhood just outside of Paris city limits that plays host to a large number of businesses and skyscrapers, including a large shopping center. This is part of the deal that Renault and Nissan signed with Waymo earlier this year, to work together on potential autonomous vehicle services in both Japan and France.

This route in particular is being explored as a lead-up project to potentially be ready in time for the Paris Olympic Games, which are taking in place in Summer 2024. The goal is to offer a convenient way for people living in the Île-de-France area where Paris is located to get around, while also providing additional transportation options for tourists and international visitors. The region is committing €100 million (around $110 million) to developing autonomous vehicle infrastructure in the area to serve this purpose, across a number of different projects.

“France is a recognized global mobility leader, and we look forward to working with the Ile-de-France Region and our partner Groupe Renault to explore deploying the Waymo Driver on the critical business route stretching from Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport to La Défense in Paris,” said Waymo’s Adam Frost, Chief Automotive Programs and Partnerships Officer, in an emailed statement.

Defined routes designed to meet a specific need, especially in time for showcase events like the Olympics, seems to be a likely way that Waymo and others focused on the deployment of autonomous services will work in terms of pilot deployments, since it’s a perfect blend of demand, regulatory exemption and motivation and city/partner support.

Google brings its Jacquard wearables tech to Levi’s Trucker Jacket

Back in 2015, Google’s ATAP team demoed a new kind of wearable tech at Google I/O that used functional fabrics and conductive yarns to allow you to interact with your clothing and, by extension, the phone in your pocket. The company then released a jacket with Levi’s in 2017, but that was expensive, at $350, and never really quite caught on. Now, however, Jacquard is back. A few weeks ago, Saint Laurent launched a backpack with Jacquard support, but at $1,000, that was very much a luxury product. Today, however, Google and Levi’s are announcing their latest collaboration: Jacquard-enabled versions of Levi’s Trucker Jacket.

These jackets, which will come in different styles, including the Classic Trucker and the Sherpa Trucker, and in men’s and women’s versions, will retail for $198 for the Classic Trucker and $248 for the Sherpa Trucker. In addition to the U.S., it’ll be available in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K.

The idea here is simple and hasn’t changed since the original launch: a dongle in your jacket’s cuff connects to conductive yarns in your jacket. You can then swipe over your cuff, tap it or hold your hand over it to issue commands to your phone. You use the Jacquard phone app for iOS or Android to set up what each gesture does, with commands ranging from saving your location to bringing up the Google Assistant in your headphones, from skipping to the next song to controlling your camera for selfies or simply counting things during the day, like the coffees you drink on the go. If you have Bose noise-canceling headphones, the app also lets you set a gesture to turn your noise cancellation on or off. In total, there are currently 19 abilities available, and the dongle also includes a vibration motor for notifications.

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What’s maybe most important, though, is that this (re-)launch sets up Jacquard as a more modular technology that Google and its partners hope will take it from a bit of a gimmick to something you’ll see in more places over the next few months and years.

“Since we launched the first product with Levi’s at the end of 2017, we were focused on trying to understand and working really hard on how we can take the technology from a single product […] to create a real technology platform that can be used by multiple brands and by multiple collaborators,” Ivan Poupyrev, the head of Jacquard by Google told me. He noted that the idea behind projects like Jacquard is to take things we use every day, like backpacks, jackets and shoes, and make them better with technology. He argued that, for the most part, technology hasn’t really been added to these things that we use every day. He wants to work with companies like Levi’s to “give people the opportunity to create new digital touchpoints to their digital life through things they already have and own and use every day.”

What’s also important about Jacquard 2.0 is that you can take the dongle from garment to garment. For the original jacket, the dongle only worked with this one specific type of jacket; now, you’ll be able to take it with you and use it in other wearables as well. The dongle, too, is significantly smaller and more powerful. It also now has more memory to support multiple products. Yet, in my own testing, its battery still lasts for a few days of occasional use, with plenty of standby time.

jacquard dongle

Poupyrev also noted that the team focused on reducing cost, “in order to bring the technology into a price range where it’s more attractive to consumers.” The team also made lots of changes to the software that runs on the device and, more importantly, in the cloud to allow it to configure itself for every product it’s being used in and to make it easier for the team to add new functionality over time (when was the last time your jacket got a software upgrade?).

He actually hopes that over time, people will forget that Google was involved in this. He wants the technology to fade into the background. Levi’s, on the other hand, obviously hopes that this technology will enable it to reach a new market. The 2017 version only included the Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket. Now, the company is going broader with different styles.

“We had gone out with a really sharp focus on trying to adapt the technology to meet the needs of our commuter customer, which a collection of Levi’s focused on urban cyclists,” Paul Dillinger, the VP of Global Product Innovation at Levi’s, told me when I asked him about the company’s original efforts around Jacquard. But there was a lot of interest beyond that community, he said, yet the built-in features were very much meant to serve the needs of this specific audience and not necessarily relevant to the lifestyles of other users. The jackets, of course, were also pretty expensive. “There was an appetite for the technology to do more and be more accessible,” he said — and the results of that work are these new jackets.

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Dillinger also noted that this changes the relationship his company has with the consumer, because Levi’s can now upgrade the technology in your jacket after you bought it. “This is a really new experience,” he said. “And it’s a completely different approach to fashion. The normal fashion promise from other companies really is that we promise that in six months, we’re going to try to sell you something else. Levi’s prides itself on creating enduring, lasting value in style and we are able to actually improve the value of the garment that was already in the consumer’s closet.”

I spent about a week with the Sherpa jacket before today’s launch. It does exactly what it promises to do. Pairing my phone and jacket took less than a minute and the connection between the two has been perfectly stable. The gesture recognition worked very well — maybe better than I expected. What it can do, it does well, and I appreciate that the team kept the functionality pretty narrow.

Whether Jacquard is for you may depend on your lifestyle, though. I think the ideal user is somebody who is out and about a lot, wearing headphones, given that music controls are one of the main features here. But you don’t have to be wearing headphones to get value out of Jacquard. I almost never wear headphones in public, but I used it to quickly tag where I parked my car, for example, and when I used it with headphones, I found using my jacket’s cuffs easier to forward to the next song than doing the same on my headphones. Your mileage may vary, of course, and while I like the idea of using this kind of tech so you need to take out your phone less often, I wonder if that ship hasn’t sailed at this point — and whether the controls on your headphones can’t do most of the things Jacquard can. Google surely wants Jacquard to be more than a gimmick, but at this stage, it kind of still is.

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