Weekend Roundup: Valve CEO’s Space Oddity; Uber and Lyft at Risk

What a week, huh? Let’s distract ourselves from all the election stuff for a brief moment with a rundown of some interesting tech stories that we didn’t cover over the past few days. Let’s kick off with Valve CEO Gabe Newell spending his money in the best way possible: Launching unexpected things into orbit.

It’s 2020; Let’s Launch a Gnome into Space

It’s become something of a truism in the tech world: When you make a fortune as a tech CEO, you use that money to launch things into space. Elon Musk founded SpaceX, which builds rockets that orbit the Earth before landing again; Jeff Bezos is pumping billions of dollars into Blue Origin, his own spacecraft venture; Richard Branson, who isn’t a tech CEO but nonetheless invests heavily in technology ventures, has been struggling for years to launch Virgin Galactic. 

And then you have Gabe Newell, who wants to launch a gnome where no gnome has gone before.

Newell is the CEO of Valve, which not only publishes ultra-popular video games such as “Half-Life,” but also maintains Steam, the massive online game marketplace. Thanks to game sales and a cut of developers’ Steam revenue, he’s a billionaire. And when you’re a billionaire, you can do things like take a 150mm model of a garden gnome (nicknamed ‘Gnome Chompski’) and place it inside a rocket that positions satellites in orbit. 

“Gnome Chompski will be accompanied by 29 other satellites at Rocket Lab’s November 16th launch from the southern tip of the Mahia Peninsula,” wrote The Verge (just to spare you the Wikipedia lookup, the Mahia Peninsula is in New Zealand, where Newell has reportedly taken refuge during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The small satellites loaded on the Kick Stage of the company’s Electron rocket span a wide range of uses from satellites focused on communications and maritime surveillance to New Zealand’s first student-developed satellite, the Waka Āmiorangi Aotearoa APSS-1.”

In a socially redemptive twist, Newell will donate a dollar to a New Zealand children’s hospital for every viewer who views either the launch’s livestream or the post-event recording. Meanwhile, Gnome Chompski will take a huge step for gnome-kind. 

Uber and Lyft Can Continue with ‘Independent Contractors’

California’s state government threatened to upend the business models of Uber and Lyft by forcing the ride-share giants to reclassify their drivers as full-time employees rather than independent contractors. The companies claimed that reclassification would drive up costs and potentially force them to pull out of the state, and pushed Proposition 22, which would carve out an exception to California’s rule.

Following Election Day, Proposition 22 seems to have passed. Uber and Lyft are happy, while critics of the gig-economy system—who argue that workers are aggressively exploited in the name of tech-company profit—are furious. According to TechCrunch, other gig-economy firms such as DoorDash may move more aggressively toward an IPO, now that they know one of the nation’s largest markets won’t force them to reclassify workers and potentially raise prices. 

Can We Train A.I. to Recognize COVID-19? 

A new MIT paper suggests that A.I., once properly trained, can distinguish a cough caused by COVID-19. In theory, that could open up a whole sub-industry of “cough apps” that can quickly scan people for infection. 

The MIT team used 70,000 recordings of people coughing as the foundation of the study (with 2,680 confirmed COVID-19 cases among them). With that dataset, the team built out A.I. models that eventually attained COVID-guessing accuracy of 98.5 percent. With asymptomatic COVID cases, the accuracy hit 100 percent, which is surprising, but also potentially good news as the world scrambles for a way to detect COVID cases with no symptoms. 

According to IEEE Spectrum, a number of groups are already pursuing such a solution, including “a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded initiative, Cough Against Covid, at the Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Mumbai; the Coughvid project out of the Embedded Systems Laboratory of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland; and the University of Cambridge’s COVID-19 Sounds project.” If these efforts ultimately prove successful, they could open the door to sound-based A.I. tools in healthcare.

Have a great weekend, everyone! Stay safe.