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Artificial Intelligence

ISEE brings autonomy to shipping yards with self-driving container trucks

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Robotaxis may still be a few years out, but there are other industries that can be transformed by autonomous vehicles as they are today. MIT spin-off ISEE has identified one in the common shipping yard, where containers are sorted and stored — today by a dwindling supply of human drivers, but tomorrow perhaps by the company’s purpose-built robotic yard truck. With new funding and partnerships with major shippers, the company may be about to go big.

Shipping yards are the buffer zone of the logistics industry. When a container is unloaded from a ship full of them, it can’t exactly just sit there on the wharf where the crane dropped it. Maybe it’s time sensitive and has to trucked out right away; maybe it needs to go through customs and inspections and must stay in the facility for a week; maybe it’s refrigerated and needs power and air hookups.

Each of these situations will be handled by a professional driver, hooking the container up to a short-haul truck and driving it the hundred or thousand meters to its proper place, an empty slot with a power hookup, long term storage, ready access for inspection, etc. But like many jobs in logistics, this one is increasingly facing a labor shortage as fewer people sign up for it every year. The work, after all, is fairly repetitive, not particularly easy, and of course heavy equipment can be dangerous.

ISEE’s co-founders Yibiao Zhao and Debbie Yu said they identified the logistics industry as one that needs more automation, and these container yards especially. “Working with customers, it’s surprising how dated their yard operation is — it’s basically just people yelling,” said Zhao.  “There’s a big opportunity to bring this to the next level.”

Two ISEE trucks without containers on the back.

Image Credits: ISEE

The ISEE trucks are not fully custom vehicles but yard trucks of a familiar type, retrofitted with lidar, cameras, and other sensors to give them 360-degree awareness. Their job is to transport containers (unmodified, it is important to note) to and from locations in the yards, backing the 50-foot trailer into a parking spot with as little as a foot of space on either side.

“A customer adopts our solution just as if they’re hiring another driver,” Zhao said. No safe zone is required, no extra considerations need to be made at the yard. The ISEE trucks navigate the yard intelligently, driving around obstacles, slowing for passing workers, and making room for other trucks, whether autonomous or human. Unlike many industrial machines and vehicles, these bring the current state of autonomous driving to bear in order to stay safe and drive as safely as possible among mixed and unpredictable traffic.

The advantage of an automated system over a human driver is especially pronounced in this environment. One rather unusual limitation of yard truck drivers is that, because the driver’s seat is on the left side of the cabin, they can only park the trucks on the left as well since that’s the only side they can see well enough. ISEE trucks have no such limitation, of course, and can park easily in either direction, something that has apparently blown the human drivers’ minds.

Overhead view of autonomous and ordinary trucks moving around a shipping yard.

Image Credits: ISEE

Efficiency is also improved through the infallible machine mind. “There are hundreds, even thousands of containers in the yard. Humans spend a lot of time just going around the yard searching for assets, because they can’t remember what is where,” explained Zhao. But of course a computer never forgets, and so no gas is wasted circling the yard looking for either a container or a spot to put one.

Once it parks, another ISEE tech can make the necessary connections for electricity or air as well, a step that can be hazardous for human drivers in bad conditions.

The robotic platform also offers consistency. Human drivers aren’t so good when they’re trainees, taking a few years to get seasoned, noted Yu. “We’ve learned a lot about efficiency,” she said. “That’s basically what customers care about the most; the supply chain depends on throughput.”

To that end she said that moderating speed has been an interesting challenge — it’s easy for the vehicle to go faster, but it needs the awareness to be able to slow down when necessary, not just when there’s an obstacle, but when there are things like blind corners that must be navigated with care.

It is in fact a perfect training ground for developing autonomy, and that’s kind of the idea.

“Today’s robots work with very predefined rules in very constrained environments, but in the future autonomous cars will drive in open environments. We see this tech gap, how to enable robots or autonomous vehicles do deal with uncertainty,” said Zhao.

ISEE co-founders Yibiao Zhao (top), Debbie Yu (left), and Chris Baker.

ISEE Founders

“We needed a relatively unconstrained environment with complex human behaviors, and we found it’s actually a perfect marriage, the flexible autonomy we’re offering and the yard,” he continued. “It’s a private lot, there’s no regulation, all the vehicles stay in it, there are no kids or random people, no long tail like a public highway or busy street. But it’s not simple, it’s complex like most industrial environments — it’s congested, busy, there are pedestrians and trucks coming in and out.”

Although it’s an MIT spinout with a strong basis in papers and computer vision research, it’s not a theoretical business. ISEE is already working with two major shippers, Lazer Spot and Maersk, which account for hundreds of yards and some 10,000 trucks, many or most of which could potentially be automated by ISEE.

So far the company has progressed past the pilot stage and is working with Maersk to bring several vehicles into active service at a yard. The Maersk Growth Fund has also invested an undisclosed amount in ISEE, and one detects the possibility of an acquisition looming in the near future. But the plan for now is to simply expand and refine the technology and services and widen the lead between ISEE and any would-be competitors.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/08/isee-brings-autonomy-to-shipping-yards-with-self-driving-container-trucks/

Artificial Intelligence

Nvidia’s Canvas AI painting tool instantly turns blobs into realistic landscapes

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AI has been filling in the gaps for illustrators and photographers for years now — literally, it intelligently fills gaps with visual content. But the latest tools are aimed at letting an AI give artists a hand from the earliest, blank-canvas stages of a piece. Nvidia’s new Canvas tool lets the creator rough in a landscape like paint-by-numbers blobs, then fills it in with convincingly photorealistic (if not quite gallery-ready) content.

Each distinct color represents a different type of feature: mountains, water, grass, ruins, etc. When colors are blobbed onto the canvas, the crude sketch is passed to a generative adversarial network. GANs essentially pass content back and forth between a creator AI that tries to make (in this case) a realistic image and a detector AI that evaluates how realistic that image is. These work together to make what they think is a fairly realistic depiction of what’s been suggested.

It’s pretty much a more user-friendly version of the prototype GauGAN (get it?) shown at CVPR in 2019. This one is much smoother around the edges, produces better imagery, and can run on any Windows computer with a decent Nvidia graphics card.

This method has been used to create very realistic faces, animals and landscapes, though there’s usually some kind of “tell” that a human can spot. But the Canvas app isn’t trying to make something indistinguishable from reality — as concept artist Jama Jurabaev explains in the video below, it’s more about being able to experiment freely with imagery more detailed than a doodle.

For instance, if you want to have a moldering ruin in a field with a river off to one side, a quick pencil sketch can only tell you so much about what the final piece might look like. What if you have it one way in your head, and then two hours of painting and coloring later you realize that because the sun is setting on the left side of the painting, it makes the shadows awkward in the foreground?

If instead you just scribbled these features into Canvas, you might see that this was the case right away, and move on to the next idea. There are even ways to quickly change the time of day, palette, and other high-level parameters so they can quickly be evaluated as options.

Animation of an artist sketching while an AI interprets his strokes as photorealistic features.

Image Credits: Nvidia

“I’m not afraid of blank canvas any more,” said Jurabaev. “I’m not afraid to make very big changes, because I know there’s always AI helping me out with details… I can put all my effort into the creative side of things, and I’ll let Canvas handle the rest.”

It’s very like Google’s Chimera Painter, if you remember that particular nightmare fuel, in which an almost identical process was used to create fantastic animals. Instead of snow, rock and bushes, it had hind leg, fur, teeth and so on, which made it rather more complicated to use and easy to go wrong with.

Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / Google

Still, it may be better than the alternative, for certainly an amateur like myself could never draw even the weird tube-like animals that resulted from basic blob painting.

Unlike the Chimera Creator, however, this app is run locally, and requires a beefy Nvidia video card to do it. GPUs have long been the hardware of choice for machine learning applications, and something like a real-time GAN definitely needs a chunky one. You can download the app for free here.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/23/nvidias-canvas-ai-painting-tool-instantly-turns-blobs-into-realistic-landscapes/

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Artificial Intelligence

How one founder realized satellite internet didn’t have to be fast or expensive to be useful

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It’s hard to understand just how steeply the cost of launching and operating satellites has dropped, particularly since the introduction of lower cost launch services from a number of commercial players, and the maturation of the smartphone supply chain. Swarm co-founder and CEO realized just how much the cost curve had changed when she and her co-founder Ben Longmeir realized that they could outfit tiny satellites Longmeir had created as a kind of space lover’s hobby with the equipment needed to provide low-bandwidth connectivity to low-powered devices around the world.

In this week’s episode of Found, Sara walks us through how she went from an engineering career that included stints at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Google, to building Swarm as a first-time founder and CEO. We covered a range of topics including how Sara and Ben decided who would be CEO, what it’s like leading a small but growing team, and how to evaluate your decisions as a founder, and commit to a course of action to move forward.

Sara was extremely candid with us about her experience as a founder and CEO, and this is definitely one of our most open and honest conversations to date.

We loved our time chatting with Sara, and we hope you love yours listening to the episode. And of course, we’d love if you can subscribe to Found in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on Google Podcasts or in your podcast app of choice. Please leave us a review and let us know what you think, or send us direct feedback either on Twitter or via email at found@techcrunch.com. And please join us again next week for our next featured founder.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/23/how-one-founder-realized-satellite-internet-didnt-have-to-be-fast-or-expensive-to-be-useful/

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Artificial Intelligence

As clinical guidelines shift, heart disease screening startup pulls in $43M Series B

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Cleerly Coronary, a company that uses A.I powered imaging to analyze heart scans, announced a $43 million Series B funding this week. The funding comes at a moment when it seems that a new way of screening for heart disease is on its way. 

Cleerly was started in 2017 by James K. Min a cardiologist, and the director of the Dalio Institute for Cardiac Imaging at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical College. The company, which uses A.I to analyze detailed CT scans of the heart, has 60 employees, and has raised $54 million in total funding.

The Series B round was led by Vensana Capital, but also included LVR Health, New Leaf Venture Partners, DigiTx Partners, and Cigna Ventures. 

The startup’s aim is to provide analysis of detailed pictures of the human heart that have been examined by artificial intelligence. This analysis is based on images taken via Cardiac Computer Tomography Angiogram (CTA), a new, but rapidly growing manner of scanning for plaques. 

“We focus on the entire heart, so every artery, and its branches, and then atherosclerosis characterization and quantification,” says Min. “We look at all of the plaque buildup in the artery, [and] the walls of the artery, which historical and traditional methods that we’ve used in cardiology have never been able to do.”

Cleerly is a web application, and it requires that a CTA image specifically, which the A.I. is trained to analyze, is actually taken when patients go in for a checkup. 

When a patient goes in for a heart exam after experiencing a symptom like chest pain, there are a few ways they can be screened. They might undergo a stress test, an echocardiogram (ECG), or a coronary angiogram – a catheter and x-ray-based test. CTA is a newer form of imaging in which a scanner takes detailed images of the heart, which is illuminated with an injected dye. 

Cleerly’s platform is designed to analyze those CTA images in detail, but they’ve only recently become a first-line test (a go-to, in essence) when patients come in with suspected heart problems. The European Society of Cardiology updated guidelines to make CTA a first-line test in evaluating patients with chronic coronary disease. In the UK, it became a first-line test in the evaluation of patients with chest pain in 2016.

CTA is already used in the US, but guidelines may expand how often it’s actually used. A review on CTA published on the American College of Cardiology website notes that it shows “extraordinary potential.” 

There’s movement on the insurance side, too. In 2020, United Healthcare announced the company will now reimburse for CTA scans when they’re ordered to examine low-to medium risk patients with chest pain. Reimbursement qualification is obviously a huge boon to broader adoption.

CTA imaging might not be great for people who already have stents in their hearts, or, says Min, those who are just in for a routine checkup (there is low-dose radiation associated with a CTA scan). Rather, Cleerly will focus on patients who have shown symptoms or are already at high risk for heart disease. 

The CDC estimates that currently 18.2 million adults currently have coronary artery heart disease (the most common kind), and that 47 percent of Americans have one of the three most prominent risk factors for the disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or a smoking habit. 

These shifts (and anticipated shifts) in guidelines suggest that a lot more of these high-risk patients may be getting CTA scans in the future, and Cleerly has been working on mining additional information from them in several large-scale clinical trials.

There are plenty of different risk factors that contribute to heart disease, but the most basic understanding is that heart attacks happen when plaques build up in the arteries, which narrows the arteries and constricts the flow of blood. Clinical trials have suggested that the types of plaques inside the body may contain information about how risky certain blockages are compared to others beyond just much of the artery they block. 

A trial on 25,251 patients found that, indeed, the percentage of construction in the arteries increases the risk of heart attack. But the type of plaque in those arteries identified high-risk patients better than other measures. Patients who went on to have sudden heart attacks, for example, tended to have higher levels of fibrofatty or necrotic core plaque in their hearts. 

These results do suggest that it’s worth knowing a bit more detail about plaque in the heart. Note that Min is an author of this study, but it was also conducted at 13 different medical centers. 

As with all A.I based diagnostic tools the big question is: How well does it actually recognize features within a scan? 

At the moment FDA documents emphasize that it is not meant to supplant a trained medical professional who can interpret the results of a scan. But tests have suggested it fares pretty well. 

A June 2021 study compared Cleerly’s A.I analysis of CTA scans to that of three expert readers, and found that the A.I had a diagnostic accuracy of about 99.7 percent when evaluating patients who had severe narrowing in their arteries. Three of nine study authors hold equity in Cleerly. 

With this most recent round of funding, Min says he aims to pursue more commercial partnerships and scale up to meet the existing demand. “We have sort of stayed under the radar, but we came above the radar because now I think we’re prepared to fulfill demand,” he says. 

Still, the product itself will continue to be tested and refined. Cleerly is in the midst of seven performance indication studies that will evaluate just how well the software can spot the litany of plaques that can build up in the heart.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/23/as-clinical-guidelines-shift-heart-disease-screening-startup-pulls-in-43m-series-b/

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Fundbox, a Financial Platform for Small Businesses, Appoints Hilliard Terry to its Board of Directors

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Fundbox, the financial platform for small businesses, revealed on Tuesday (June 22, 2021) that they’ve appointed Hilliard Terry to their Board of Directors.

As mentioned in a note shared with CI, Mr. Terry is an experienced executive leader, corporate board member and advisor to private equity backed portfolio firms.

The announcement also mentioned that Mr. Terry presently serves on the board of directors of Umpqua Holdings Corporation (NASDAQ: UMPQ), a financial services firm.

Terry also serves on the board of directors at Upstart Holdings, Inc. (NASDAQ: UPST), an AI-powered consumer lending platform, and on the board of TLG Acquisition One Corporation (NYSE: TLGA-UN), a special purpose acquisition company or SPAC.

Prashant Fuloria, CEO of Fundbox, stated:

“Hilliard is an accomplished public company CFO and a seasoned board member with an impressive record of achievement at the intersection of technology, finance, and banking. We are thrilled to benefit from his operating and board experience in this time of opportunity and growth post-COVID.”

Recently, Terry acted as an advisor to private firms and previously as EVP and CFO of Textainer (NYSE: TGH). Prior to working at Textainer, Mr. Terry was VP and Treasurer at Agilent Technologies (NYSE: A), and was also working as the Head of Investor Relations during their IPO and “subsequent spin-off from Hewlett-Packard.”

The update also mentioned that prior to joining Agilent, Terry worked in marketing and investor relations for HP’s VeriFone subsidiary. During his extensive career, he has also held key positions in investor relations and investment banking with Kenetech Corporation and Goldman, Sachs & Co., respectively.

Terry is a “qualified financial expert with operating experience and in-depth knowledge of accounting, treasury, investor relations, financial planning & analysis, risk management and corporate development,” the announcement noted.

Terry remarked:

“Through their AI-powered platform, Fundbox is providing access to credit for a much broader community of small businesses, a sector that has been underserved in the past. This is critically important and fundamentally different from anything that has ever been done before. There is a massive market opportunity ahead and I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and diving into areas like governance and compliance, which are critical fields of investment for a company at this stage.”

The firm is set to experience considerable growth as the SME economy begins to recover and expands post-COVID. Research has revealed that US residents launched numerous businesses last year. There was nearly a 25% increase from the year prior in new American business, and “the first time in history that new businesses have increased during a recession.”

Fundbox offers access to financial tools that allow SMEs to cover business-critical operating expenses. The Fintech firm’s AI tech “enabled the company to scale quickly through automation while increasing access to capital through superior predictions and credit decisions.”

Fundbox’s process is “fully automated, and 99% of their decisions are made without human intervention.”

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Source: https://www.crowdfundinsider.com/2021/06/177005-fundbox-a-financial-platform-for-small-businesses-appoints-hilliard-terry-to-its-board-of-directors/

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