The Five Best Things: Apr 4, 2021

What do cancer and pastry have in common?

Quick updates from this week below -

The Five Best Things

  1. The New Yorker: The Pastry A.I. That Learned To Fight Cancer

    • Profile of Japanese firm BRAIN co, which developed a model called AI-scan to detect pastries in Japanese bakeries and helped operators charge the right price. Recall that Japanese culture loves variety - there are over 300 kinds of KitKat for e.g. So this project was painstaking and took years. It does not use Deep Learning, due to which it can make a prediction with just a few examples instead of the thousands that Deep Learning requires, as well as trace back to why a decision was made. Recognizing that cancer cells look like bread, the system has been adapted for detecting cancer now.

  2. MSCHF: Project Gucciberg

    • MSCHF created a deepfake bot of Gucci Mane’s voice, and has the bot read classic novels like Anna Karenina, War of the Wolds, Sherlock Homes etc. I expect deepfaked voices - or voice clones - to become a massive trend very shortly.

  3. Noah Smith: Interview with Patrick Collison, co-founder and CEO of Stripe

    • An interview with the CEO of America’s most valuable startup ($95B in a round announced just days after this interview was conducted). Patrick has wide-ranging interests and is very articulate about them. The biggest technology trends that excite him include (30 years into its mainstreaming) internet-enabled businesses, energy storage and synthetic biology. He also talks about Progress studies, the theory that technological progress is deflationary in nature, but brings prosperity to ever more people and opens the aperture for yet more progress to be made. There is some more discussion on the meta-history of productivity via technology, and government’s valuable role as an incubator of the riskiest ideas. Highly suggest you read this in it’s entirety.

  4. The Atlantic: Why the Pandemic Experts Failed

    • Although Patrick has idealistic visions about the role of government (which I agree with), it cannot be denied that tracking of data around the pandemic and making informed decisions from it has been an utter failure in the U.S. The Covid tracking project was a volunteer effort that sprung up in the early days and is finally concluding its work in May. It has become the de-facto data repository in the US, in the absence of comprehensive and validated efforts from the agencies who should, in theory, be in charge of this. Part history, part lessons learned, this article profiling the project is eye opening, even as it leaves you hopeful that the deadliest of the pandemic may be over in the US by summer. Detaching oneself from the seriousness of the subject, it is also a good lesson in how to operate big data projects in the real world.

      Our leaders should also put some faith in the capabilities of those whom they govern. The COVID Tracking Project clung to one principle: We told people the truth as we could discern it. We didn’t say what we wanted to be true, nor what we hoped would engender a specific public response.

  5. The Hustle: How Trader Joe’s $2 wine became a best-seller

    • History of how the Two Buck Chuck wine at Trader Joe’s came to be. The original Charles Shaw went to elite schools and was an investment banker before turning to wine, drove the winery into bankruptcy and fire sale to Fred Franzia (yes, of the Franzia wine family). Franzia took advantage of a California wine production bubble burst in the ‘90s to buy vineyards on the cheap, and bet that cheap wine would open up the market to many non-wine drinkers. Spoiler alert, he was right.

      Priced at a mere $1.99 to $3.79 per bottle, this magical ether is cheaper than most bottled water. It’s been knighted as the “darling of the discount wine world” by critics, and boasts a cult following among price-minded consumers.

      For Trader Joe’s, the wine is also a gold mine.

      The grocery chain has sold 1B+ bottles of Two Buck Chuck since debuting the beverage in 2002. Today, some locations sell as many as 6k bottles/day — or ~16% of the average store’s daily sales.

Honorable Mentions

  • This year’s AI Index report is out, and has great data and insights as always. Curated by Stanford’s Human-Centered AI Center, the top 9 takeaways this year are - 1. AI investment in drug design and discovery increased significantly, 2. 65% of graduating North American PhDs in AI went into industry—up from 44.4% in 2010, highlighting the greater role industry has begun to play in AI development, 3. Generative text, audio and images are of sufficiently high quality to be indistinguishable from the real thing, 4. The field has pernicious diversity issues, 5. China overtook the US in AI journal citations, 6. The majority of the US AI PhD grads are from abroad—and they’re staying in the US, 7. Surveillance technologies are fast, cheap, and increasingly ubiquitous, 8. AI ethics lacks benchmarks and consensus, 9. The 116th Congress is the most AI-focused congressional session in history with the number of mentions of AI in congressional record more than triple that of the 115th Congress.

  • A consortium of high performance supercomputing that was put together to expedite pandemic research hit one year. The group is advocating for a strategic national reserve of supercomputing resources to deal with similar large crises in the future. I am proud to be associated with this work.

  • Bireme capital assesses if we are in a bubble, categorizing the transcenders, contenders, and pretenders, along with building a barbell strategy for countering inflation where you counterweight tech stocks with cyclicals like heavy manufacturing.

  • When cancel culture comes for companies. In case you haven’t heard, Swedish fast-fashion retailer H&M has been disappeared from China virtually overnight, when it announced that it would stop sourcing cotton made by forced Uighur labor.

  • As we finally start to put the pandemic in our rearview mirror, some good things to reflect on: the amazing light-speed with which new vaccines were developed portend great things for the future, digital infrastructure and connectivity helped keep much of society afloat and will surely get better and even more widespread, and peer-review research is no longer being held back by for-profit journals.

  • This 1 min long drone’s eye view of an Icelandic volcanic eruption is mind blowingly cool

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not represent my employer.