Seattle Week in Review: AI, Remitly, Spaceflight, Sound as UI, More

The leaves soak up the early fall sun and we wrap up another busy news week. We’re reviewing big artificial intelligence announcements from Microsoft and its chief competitors; more funding for Remitly; a conversational competition from Amazon; a milestone launch for Spaceflight; and more. Details:

—Big news from Microsoft, which is devoting a 5,000-person division to developing artificial intelligence technologies and products that use them.

Meanwhile, Microsoft, Amazon, Google/DeepMind, Facebook, and IBM formed the Partnership on AI to research social and ethical issues raised by the rapid advance of technologies such as machine learning, computer vision, and natural language understanding. We spoke with Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft technical fellow and co-chair of the partnership.

Eric Horvitz


It’s worth noting that all five of the participating companies have significant Seattle-area operations. Amazon and Microsoft, of course, are based here. Google and Facebook have already or are developing some of the largest engineering centers outside of their Silicon Valley headquarters in the region.

Then there’s the ongoing work in the field at places like the University of Washington and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Seattle is not only the cloud capital of the tech industry, it’s also a major hub of work on AI.

(To keep up on AI news from around the country, be sure to check out Xconomy’s Robotics and AI channel.)

Remitly, the Seattle-based mobile, international money transfer company, announced Friday it brought in $38 million of new equity and debt funding from World Bank Group member IFC, and Silicon Valley Bank. It also expanded its service to seven new markets in Latin America: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

In April, the company announced a $38.5 million Series C funding round from venture capital firms Stripes Group, Vulcan Capital, DFJ, DN Capital, Bezos Expeditions, and Trilogy Equity Partners.

—Amazon wants university students to develop a better conversational artificial intelligence, and it’s hanging out $2.5 million in prizes and stipends as an incentive. The Alexa Prize competition, which the company inaugurated this week, challenges students to create “a socialbot, a new Alexa skill that converses coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics and news events,” and can carry on a conversation for 20 minutes.

Interested teams can apply here. The deadline is Oct. 28. The competition begins Nov. 14 and lasts a year.

Speaking of the importance of speech and sound as a new user interface, here’s a great read from The California Sunday Magazine on how sound design—and the more specific practice of sonic branding—is evolving as we talk and listen to more and more objects and systems.

The sound designers quoted in the piece argue that sound “is more direct and emotional than visual imagery because, as sonic brander Julian Treasure puts it, humans have no earlids. Earlids.”

Sound by Human. Photo via Human

Sound by Human. Photo via Human

But aren’t headphones and earbuds earlids? Seattle startup company Human, which is marketing a new over-the-earlobe headphone hasn’t branded its wares as “earlids,” at least not that I’m aware of. Human calls its headphones Sound. They feature an “ambient noise system to tune out the world, or increase the volume of one’s surroundings,” according to the company.

Spaceflight Industries, the Seattle-based space company that in 2013 began a new business in satellite imaging, launched the first of what it intends to be a large cluster of imaging satellites last Saturday. Lifted to orbit aboard India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, the BlackSky Pathfinder-1 satellite reached a sun synchronous orbit. Spaceflight plans to have 60 of the mini-fridge-sized satellites orbiting the Earth by 2020, providing near-real time imaging across much of the planet at 1-meter resolution to government and commercial customers.

—GeekWire’s Lisa Stiffler took an in-depth look at TAF Academy, the STEM-focused school that is a centerpiece of the Technology Access Foundation, which celebrates its 20th anniversary with a big bash on Saturday. Here’s our piece profiling TAF and co-founder Trish Millines Dziko from earlier this month.

—What more can be said about this week’s presidential debate? I watched part of the debate with my daughters on the iPad we usually use to video-call my parents. Oldest daughter, 4, asks a few minutes in: “Can Hillary see us?”

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