Summary List Placement
Hello, and welcome to the Wednesday edition of the Insider Tech newsletter, where we break down the biggest news in tech.
This week: When pigs walk on treadmills and smartphones grow from trees, tech has gone off script.
For an industry built on innovation, tech can be an amazingly predictable business. September means a new iPhone launch event, Facebook will suffer a privacy snafu at least once a quarter, and you can bet there will be another flying car prototype sometime this year.
But one thing you can say about the events of the past week – whether it was treadmill trotting pigs or smartphone-sprouting trees – is that things veered pretty far from the standard script.
Let’s start with the pigs. You can thank (or condemn) Elon Musk for one of the most bizarre product demos in recent memory, in which a handful of hogs took center stage to show off the success of a brain-computer interface developed by Neuralink.
- Musk, who cofounded Neuralink in addition to his other jobs as CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, explained that the coin-sized chips implanted into the animals’ brains allowed researchers to observe real-time spikes in neural activity as the pig sniffed around in a pen. As some on Twitter pointed out, the demo – complete with EKG-like beeping sounds and flickering graphs – was heavy on pizzazz and light on details.
- The hyperbolic claims (it’ll eventually “save and replay memories” and endow us with “superhuman vision“) didn’t help dispel the skepticism, even if Musk’s track record means you shouldn’t dismiss Neuralink as vaporware. But if Neuralink ever does become a commercial product, it’s worth thinking about the security of these bluetooth connected brain chips. Because if hackers can use wireless tech to take control of a Jeep Cherokee on the highway and cut the ignition, it doesn’t take a science-fiction writer to imagine some miscreant remotely controlling the chip in your skull.
And then there’s the mysterious phone tree (arboris iphonium). According to Bloomberg, which reported the story, gig economy workers have staked out trees near Amazon delivery stations and Whole Foods stores in Chicago and are festooning the branches with phones. Why? To get an edge over other contract drivers by snagging the latest orders out of the ether nanoseconds before the competition.
- In one sense, it’s an ingenious hack that brings to mind the notorious schemes of high frequency traders who install computer servers as close as possible to stock exchange servers, shaving milliseconds of data latency that can provide a trading advantage over everyone else.
- But it’s also a disturbing sign of the downward pressure of gig economy work. As a source in the Bloomberg story explains, the tree phones allow a contractor who meets Amazon’s work requirements – such as having a valid driver’s license and US work status – to re-sell jobs to people who don’t qualify to be Amazon contract workers. An Amazon delivery order that pays $18 an hour can be farmed out to another worker will do the job for $10 an hour, for example.
- It sounds a bit like the kind of informal economy that’s prevalent in emerging markets. And if you’re worried that gig economy workers don’t have the same rights and legal protections as full time employees, imagine how vulnerable a gig economy worker’s informal subcontractor is.
And do you remember when Apple became the first $2 trillion company? That was just two weeks ago, on August 19. Apple finished Tuesday’s trading session with a market cap of $2.29 trillion. In other words, it’s already nearly one-third of the way to a $3 trillion market cap.
- It took Apple 38 years to reach $1 trillion. 24 months to reach $2 trillion. And at the current rate, Apple could soon prove the old adage that the third trillion is the easiest.
Back in June, Google announced a new accelerator focused on women-led startups. Now Google has revealed the 12 startups, selected by Google senior employees from a pool of 800 applicants, to represent its inaugural class. The early-stage startups (between seed stage and Series A), are focused on a rich mix of sectors, from water recycling and AI-driven waste management to medical devices and collaborative GIFs.
Over the next three months, the startup founders will receive mentoring and technical support from Google employees who specialize in tech infrastructure, product management, and machine learning.
You know you’re having a good year when your quarterly revenue surpasses the entire revenue of the previous year. That’s exactly what happened in the latest chapter of video conferencing app Zoom’s remarkable year. The impressive 90% growth rate that Zoom was clocking before the pandemic now looks veritably sluggish: Zoom’s latest annual guidance would represent nearly four-fold growth from the prior year. And with this week’s results alone, CEO Eric Yuan added $5 billion to his net worth.
“It started out with just me doing these little dinners on my own, sharing my own vulnerable stories. And then I ended up realizing that a lot of other startup founders are going through similar stuff.”
– John Meyer, CEO of Homebound, discusses the “vulnerability dinners” he organizes every quarter, in which startup founders open up about personal problems and mental health issues. The waitlist for the dinners – now moving to Zoom- can stretch into the hundreds.
Not necessarily in tech:
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading, and if you like this newsletter, tell your friends and colleagues they can sign up here to receive it.