Google Has A Secret Fleet Of Automated Toyota Priuses; 140,000 Miles Logged So Far.

It all makes sense now.

At our TechCrunch Disrupt event a couple weeks ago in San Francisco, Google CEO Eric Schmidt took the stage to give an impressive speech across a wide range of topics. But the most interesting thing he had to say what about automobiles. “It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers,” he said. “Your car should drive itself. It just makes sense.”

Well guess what? Surprise, surprise: Google has been working on a secret project to enable cars to do just that.

As they’ve revealed on their blog today, Google has developed a technology for cars to drive themselves. And they haven’t done it on a computer, or in some controlled lab, they’ve been out on California roads testing this out. “Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research,” Google engineer Sebastian Thrun (the brainchild of the project who also heads the Stanford AI lab and co-invented Street View as well) writes.

Further, The New York Times, which has a bit more, says a total of seven cars have driven 1,000 miles without any human intervention (the 140,000 mile number includes occasional human control, apparently). These cars are a modified version of the Toyota Prius — and there is one Audi TT, as well.

So how does this work? The automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors, and a laser range finder to locate everything around them (these are mounted on the roof). And, of course, they use Google’s own maps. But the key?

This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.

Google says it gathered the best engineers from the DARPA Challenges (an autonomous vehicle race that the government puts on) to work on this project. They also note that these cars never drive around unmanned in the interest of safety. A driver is always on hand to take over in case something goes wrong, and an engineer is always on hand in the car to monitor the software. Google also says they’ve notified local police about the project.

So has it worked? Apparently, yes. There has been one accident so far, but it was when someone else rear-ended one of these Google cars.

Google notes that 1.2 million people are killed every year in road accidents — they think they can cut this number in half with the tech. It will also cut energy consumption and save people a lot of time.

I want this yesterday. This is all kinds of awesome.

But don’t get too excited just yet. “Even the most optimistic predictions put the deployment of the technology more than eight years away,” according to NYT.


[image via NYT]

Information provided by CrunchBase

Meet NELL. See NELL Run, Teach NELL How To Run (Demo, TCTV)

A cluster of computers on Carnegie Mellon’s campus named NELL, or formally known as the Never-Ending Language Learning System, has attracted significant attention this week thanks to a NY Times article, “Aiming To Learn As We Do, A Machine Teaches Itself.”

Indeed, the eight-month old computer system attempts to “teach” itself by perpetually scanning slices of the web as it looks at thousands of sites simultaneously to find facts that fit into semantic buckets (like athletes, academic fields, emotions, companies) and finding details related to these nouns. The project, supported by federal grants, a $1 million check from Google, and a M45 supercomputer cluster donated by Yahoo, is trying break down the longstanding barrier between computers and semantics.

This is not the first time researchers have tried to tackle one of the great, elusive white whales of the programming world, but as the NY Times points out, the way NELL proactively creates and continues to expand its knowledge base is unique.

And yet despite all of NELL’s initiative and innovation, she needs help.

She is accurate 80-90% of the time, according to Professor Tom Mitchell, the head of the research team (see our demo with Mitchell above). For that 10-20% where NELL misses the mark the results can be somewhat comical— for example, according to NELL, AOL’s parent company is CarPhone and the Palm Treo is an Apple product. Mitchell and his small team are trying to clean up errors as they surface but with nearly 400,000 facts and counting, it’s a gargantuan task.

That’s where the online community comes in.

Currently, you can access NELL’s knowledge base, via the “Read The Web” project homepage. Here you can peer into NELL’s brain by searching for terms or download the entire database, if you so desire. The next step is turning readers into pseudo-editors. Starting sometime next month, Mitchell will open NELL ‘s database to anyone who wants to help edit and flag errors. “We’re soon going to be adding some buttons by these beliefs, as you browse, so if you see a mistake you’ll be able to click a button and say I don’t believe this… I think that will be very valuable to us,” Mitchell says. “

While this may remind you of Wikipedia’s model with its crowdsourced method of submission and editing, the NELL community will be tinkering with the content and more importantly, the engine. Every correction helps NELL “learn” about facts, relationships and the mechanics of language, which will help it avoid future mistakes. By unleashing the power of the internet on NELL, the system’s intelligence has a chance to grow exponentially, which will help the CMU researchers achieve one of their ultimate goals: to get computers to read, fully understand and return complete sentences.

To help with this process, Mitchell is also looking at alternative avenues to up NELL’s IQ, including gaming mechanics. He gave TechCrunch a first look at an upcoming game he plans to launch called “Polarity,” created by Edith Law, Burr Settles and Luis Von Ahn. In this game, a user will be randomly assigned to another user on the web. Each player will be given a keyword like “longtail salamander,” one user will have to click on the words that describe the keyword, while the other user will have to click on the words that do not describe the keyword. All these answers will feed into NELL’s engine and augment the system’s understanding of relationships.

So why should we care about NELL,  a computer system that is still riddled with errors and so far seems pretty useless compared to Wikipedia or Quora? Because the engine behind NELL, and similar computer systems, could dramatically alter our relationship to computers and the web, the way we search (Google’s participation is no coincidence), how we gather information, or get our morning news. Although NELL doesn’t exactly “learn as we do”—- I don’t know many people that scan thousands of webpages simultaneously for statistically relevant information— this project is about helping machines comprehend the world the way we do by building a knowledge base that mimics the ones we (as individuals) spend decades building.

Going The Distance: Nike+ GPS Vs. RunKeeper

As someone who ostensibly tries to keep fit, I’ve found the best way to pretend to lose weight is to fiddle around with iPhone apps during my workout. First, it reduces the mind-crushing pain of exercise and allows me to go to a place in myself where I can avoid the boredom of exertion.

To that end I decided to test out the new Nike+ GPS app alongside an old favorite, RunKeeper.

Both apps have their pluses and minuses. Clearly RunKeeper is aimed squarely at the professional or at least obsessive runner, while the Nike+ software is aimed at a more casual user. Both have their value in the training arsenals of the average runner, and many of the hardware-specific features of Nike+ have been stripped out of the new GPS version, thereby putting both apps on equal footing.

Continue reading…

Women Don’t Want To Run Startups Because They’d Rather Have Children

Editor’s note: The following is a guest post by Penelope Trunk.

My company, Brazen Careerist, is moving from Madison, WI, to Washington, DC, where our new CEO lives.

Running the company has been absolute hell. Not that I didn’t know it would be hell. It’s my third startup. Each has had its own hell before we were solidly funded, but this one was so bad that my electricity was turned off, and I really thought I was going to die from stress.

So while my company moves its center to DC, I’m staying in Wisconsin. I just married a farmer and my two young sons and I are learning to live among the wonders of pigs and cattle and corn.

I thought I would be sad that the company is moving. It’s weird to be the founder of a company and not be where all the action of the company is. But honestly, I’m relieved.

There is good evidence that you have to be crazy to do a startup. Jeff Stibel, writing in the Harvard Business Review, calls entrepreneurship a disease. Because you are not likely to make money – you are likely to die broke. And you work insane hours – longer than any other job – and you do it over and over and over again. This is not sane.

In fact, David Segal reports in the New York Times that there is a mania that entrepreneurs exhibit that is very attractive to investors. The trick is to make sure you’re investing in someone who is on the border of insane, but not insane.

So I had a going away party. To say goodbye, but also to acknowledge that I am officially not crazy enough to spend another year missing out on being with my kids. There is still an office in Madison, but the company is running well enough that I don’t have to be the center of it.

It’s hard to not be the center, but I want to be the center of my family. There are enough articles in the last year alone to fill a book (not to mention conference panels) about why women don’t get funding for startups. But really, you could tell that story on one page: Startups move at break-neck pace, under a lot of pressure to succeed bigger and faster than any normal company. And women don’t want to give up their personal life in exchange for the chance to be the next Google. Or even the next Feedburner. Which is why the number of women who pitch is so small, and, therefore, the number of women who get funding is small.

Did you know that in Farmville, women make colorful, fun farms, and men make big, sprawling farms? And I don’t think it’s a social pressure sort of thing. My sons are under no pressure from me to beat each other up with anything that they can turn into a sword, which is everything. And the girls who visit are under no social pressure to sit quietly, and watch. Boys and girls are fundamentally different even before they get to Farmville.

Women are under real pressure to have kids, though. They have a biological clock. So women who are the typical age of entrepreneurs—25—need to be looking for someone to mate with. Think about it. If you want to have kids before you’re 35—when your biological clock explodes—then you need to start when you’re 30, allowing for one miscarriage, which is more probable than most young people think. If you need to start having kids when you’re 30, you probably need to meet the guy you’re going to marry by the time you’re 27, so you can date for a year, get married, and live together for a year before kids. If you need to meet that guy by 27, you are very distracted during your prime startup time. (I have done years of research to come to this conclusion. Here’s the post.)

And I’m not even going to go into the idea of women having a startup with young kids. It is absolutely untenable. The women I know who do this have lost their companies or their marriages or both. And there is no woman running a startup with young kids, who, behind closed doors, would recommend this life to anyone.

For men it’s different. We all know that men do not search all over town finding the perfect ballet teacher. Men are more likely to settle when it comes to raising kids. The kids are fine. Men are more likely than women to think they themselves are doing a good job parenting. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Men have to trust that the kids will be okay so that they can leave and go get food or make more kids.

Before you tell me there are exceptions, I’m going to let you in on a secret: I’m a magnet for high-powered women with stay-at-home husbands. And when the men aren’t listening, the women always tell me that their men don’t pay enough attention and they (the women) are really running the household. They would never say this to the men. It would de-motivate them. So even the most child-oriented men are not as child-oriented as their wives.

And this is why women don’t have startups: children. It’s not a complicated answer. It’s a sort of throw-back-to-the-50’s answer. You could argue the merits of this, but you could not argue the merits of this with any woman who has kids and has a startup.

There’s a reason that women start more businesses than men, but women only get 3% of the funding that men do. The reason is that women want a lifestyle business. Women want to control their time, control their work, to be flexible for their kids. This seems reasonable: Women start more lifestyle businesses and men start more venture-funded businesses. This does not, on face value, seem inherently problematic.

But wait, let’s ask why so many men with kids are doing startups? Why aren’t they with their kids? A startup is like six full-time jobs. Where does that leave the kids? We use social service funding to tell impoverished families that it’s important for dads to spend time with their kids. But what about startup founders? Is it okay for them to leave their kids in favor of 100-hour weeks? For many founders, their startup is their child.

My startup is me and a bunch of twenty-something guys. And if you’re a woman launching a startup, my advice is to stick with this crowd. They never stop working because it’s so exciting to them: the learning curve is high, they can move anywhere, they can live on nothing, and they can keep wacky hours.

The problem with that mix is that someone who is not a guy in his 20’s has different priorities. And that’s something we saw really clearly at Brazen Careerist. The more I became focused on my personal life, the more annoyed everyone got with me. Sure, they understood, but they were pissed also.

I think our new setup will alleviate much of that stress. I’m on the farm, Ryan Paugh is in Madison, and Ryan Healy is in DC. It’s not how I imagined the company evolving when we started it, but that’s part of the fun of entrepreneurship: you never get what you imagined, ever.

Startups Started By Former Yahoo Employees [Graphic]

Oh Quora! You’ve done it again. This time with the utterly fascinating “What startups have been started by former Yahoo employees?” thread which provides a pretty comprehensive list from to (Quick, some ex-Yahooer start a Z-word startup!) of startups founded by former Yahoo employees, which, as we’ve already pointed out, are a force to be reckoned with.

Inspired by the sheer scope of Yahoo defector startups (Hunch! Ycombinator! Tunerfish! Tinyspeck! Onetruefan!) we and the folks at Pearltrees are working on the above visualization, which currently runs through “M.” So go ahead, click on one of the nodes and explore the ever expanding house that Y! built.

Information provided by CrunchBase

Show Soulja Boy His @Replies, Twitter! (And The Rest Of Us Too)

I thought Twitter had been awfully quiet for a Friday night. It turns out that @replies appear to be very broken at the moment — and have been for a couple of hours now. Hip hop artist Soulja Boy has just confirmed the problem to his 2.5 million followers. “Show me my @replies @twitter !!!,” Boy tweets.

Neither the Twitter Status blog nor the official Twitter account seem to acknowledge this problem which makes Twitter almost useless. If you can’t communicate with people, you’re just communicating at them. The work-around hack, of course, is to do a manual search for your Twitter username, and you’ll see what you’re missing.

Hundreds of tweets each minute show that the crowd has sourced the problem. And it appears to affect as well as all the clients. Help us Twitter, we need to know what people are saying about us! And so does Soulja Boy!

Update: Twitter is aware of the problem and is working on it. They have a status update on their Status Blog — but now Tumblr (which hosts it) is down.

Information provided by CrunchBase

Kosmix Kills Off MeeHive’s Custom News Service As It Focuses On TweetBeat

Back in March 2009 I wrote about MeeHive, a service launched by Kosmix that promised to give users custom-built newspapers by piecing together stories from blogs and news sites across the web. At the time I wrote that it seemed to work pretty well, but questioned if people would actually wind up using it given the plethora of RSS aggregators available, not to mention the similar startups have tried (and often failed) to make this work. Alas, it looks like things haven’t worked out for MeeHive after all: Kosmix has emailed users to inform them that it will be shutting down later this month.

Here’s a portion of the email:

We’re planning to retire MeeHive on Oct 19 to focus on Tweetbeat, our new social media filter. This means that, as of Oct 19, the MeeHive site will no longer be available and your MeeHive account will be deleted. We want to make this transition as easy as possible for you, so we encourage you to contact us at [email protected] if you have questions or thoughts about this. We’d especially like to thank those of you who shared your ideas and feedback with us over the past months.

Kosmix offers a search engine that will dynamically build ‘topic pages’ for your query, pulling from sources like Wikipedia, blogs, and content written by the Kosmix community. MeeHive essentially took that technology and applied it to news, but it obviously it didn’t catch on. In the email announcing the closing of Meehive, Kosmix writes that it’s directing its attention to Tweetbeat, a real-time Twitter search engine that launched at TechCrunch Disrupt. The company also recently launched Tweetbeat Firsthand, a browser plugin that will let you mouse-over proper names to see that person’s recent tweets (for example, you can mouse-over President Obama’s name in a news story to see his tweets).

Update: If you’re wondering why this sort of personalized news startup so often fails, there’s an excellent thread on Quora that discusses this.

We’ve reached out to Kosmix for more details on the shutdown of Meehive.

Information provided by CrunchBase

Hey New MySpace Logo, New Gap Logo Has Some Words For You

The new MySpace logo or the new Gap logo, which do people hate more? It seems to close to call at this point. But after days of sitting back and taking a beating, Gap logo is on the offensive now — on Twitter.

That new MySpace logo? I mean I know I have very little room to talk but holy shit,” Gap logo writes in a tweet today that is currently setting Twitter ablaze with retweets.

Them fightin’ words.

Myself, I like the comment Joey Daoud left on our MySpace post — er, My ____ post:

Only two more characters left and myspace will forever be deleted from the internet

Oh _____!

Update: Or:

(via @issaco)

Oh and:

(via Chris Dalonz)

Also, this happened:

Information provided by CrunchBase

Uh Oh AT&T, Verizon Getting The Talk+Surf Feature Too — Not That It Really Matters

The Verizon iPhone nears. And that’s great news. I can’t wait to get one on day one and leave AT&T far in my rearview. But wait, it’s not all peachy-keen as The Wall Street Journal reminds us today. AT&T does have two advantages over Verizon right now: its GSM technology is more widely used around the world (meaning the phone can roam around the world), and you can use data while on a call. But it sounds like the latter is about to get eliminated.

Over the last year, we’ve had to listen to Luke Wilson tell us that “the nation’s fastest 3G network” is also the one that lets you “talk and surf at the same time.” Currently, Verizon cannot do that due to a decision the people behind CDMA (the technology that Verizon uses in its phones) made to split data and voice into separate signals. But as WSJ reports:

Now, they’re working to overcome it. A solution that will allow CDMA networks to carry voice and data simultaneously will become commercially available in the first half of next year, said Brad Shewmake, spokesman for the CDMA Development Group, an industry organization.

Verizon won’t commit to a date for such a feature, but they are working on it. From the story:

Verizon Wireless is working on providing that capability, said Verizon executive Brian Higgins. He wouldn’t say when it will be ready, but played down the need for handling voice and data at the same time.

But the last part is important. I’ve had an iPhone for over three years now and I can only recall a handful of times when I needed/wanted to use data while on a call. And almost all of those times have been when I was on hold. And probably half of those were when I was on hold with AT&T.

AT&T touts the feature, but it’s simply not that important. Certainly, it’s not important enough to stop me from switching from a service that has poor coverage in some big cities, to one that has great coverage in those same cities. Coverage is a much more important feature.

But I’ll admit that the global roaming ability is nice. I was in Japan earlier this year and was able to buy a (ridiculously expensive) plan from AT&T so my phone would work there. With a CDMA phone, I would have likely be out of luck. But again, a small price to pay for my phone to work 99 percent of the rest of the time.

So, for an encore, let’s enjoy one of Luke Wilson’s lovely AT&T commercials below. You’ll note that instead of being 4 to 1 in favor of AT&T, come next year, it looks like it will be more like 1 to 1 (and I’m sure Verizon would argue that they have the fastest 3G network — there are only about a billion studies that say different things).

Hollywood’s Adam Rifkin: “You Don’t Need Permission From The Gatekeepers”

Earlier this week Sarah met not one but two Adam Rifkins – the first Adam Rifkin is based in Silicon Valley and organizes a networking group for entrepreneurial engineers called 106 Miles; the second Adam Rifkin is a (quoting from the video below) “big time Hollywood big shot”, responsible for family-friendly movie romps including Mousehunt, Small Soldiers and Bikini Squad. Together the Rifkins (who aren’t related) have developed LOOK, a drama for Showtime about the thoroughly modern world of hidden cameras.

Hollywood Adam Rifkin is this week’s guest on Why Is This News, where we discuss the democratisation of filmmaking and the growing supremacy of raw talent over financial resources. Also Sarah calls Paul a snob and Paul accuses Sarah of being the new Christine O’Donnell.  

Video below.

MySpace Unveils New, Artsy Logo

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve probably realized that logo redesigns are a kind of a big deal. Today at the Warm Gun Design conference in San Francisco, butt of too many design/user experience jokes to mention social networking site MySpace unveils their new logo which is, get this, the word “my” in Helvetica and then a symbol delineating a space.

MySpace VP of User Experience Mike Macadaan explains the philosophy behind it, “MySpace is a platform for people to be whatever they want, so we’ve decided to give them the space to do it.” Apparently the blank space to the left will be filled with user generated artwork when users hover over it on the redesigned site, like this:

If the iTunes 10 logo and Gap logo fiascos have taught us anything, it’s that people hate logo change, so people are inevitably going to hate this (I can’t wait for the comments section of this post).

But, in all fairness, the new logo’s art school abstractness and UGC element is better than the human centipede + Arial “myspace” blandness of the old logo (see above), and from Macadaan’s presentation it looks like it will have some Google Doodle-like interactive features once the MySpace redesign launches as the end of this year.

In any case, please put your inevitable redesign suggestions the comments, or on Dribbble if you prefer.

Netflix’s Reed Hastings on the New War for the Digital Livingroom [TCTV]

As promised, here is the second part of my interview with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. In the last clip we talked about how Hasting navigated the company through huge changes in technology, a revolution in online video, and two formidable competitors in Wal-Mart and Blockbuster.

In this clip, we talk about Hasting’s vision for the future, including what life will be like when TV-as-we-know-it is gone, Netflix’s plans for international expansion and life amid two new formidable online video entrants, Apple and Google.

For the whole video go here, or go here for a podcast of the entire talk.

Facebook Complies Imperfectly With DMCA, Suffocates Fan Group

As Facebook expands its territory and allows for more and richer content, its responsibilities towards that content (and their users, and the law, etc.) become deeper and more complicated. While the structure of Facebook isn’t nearly as permissive as, say, a private message board or tracker site, the sheer amount of activity produced by hundreds of millions of users demands a level of vigilance matchable only perhaps by that exerted by YouTube administrators.

But like YouTube, they must also work within the law, and while the right to make a fan page for someone else’s work isn’t the most critical example of free speech, it serves for a quick lesson in DMCA compliance.

Continue reading…

Angry about Education? Go Here.

I seem to be finding myself writing about education a lot lately, whether it’s the latest round of elearning startups, innovative solutions that use technology to solve education problems in the developing world, or the wave of powerful figures in technology who are galvanizing around the new film “Waiting for Superman” and throwing huge sums of money towards either fixing public schools or starting a new with better, entrepreneurial Charter Schools.

There’s clearly a groundswell happening in our industry around this issue, which is surprising because education is typically a vertical startups and investors avoid, and let’s face it– most of the people funding these efforts have the resources to send their kids to private schools. It seems less about personal needs and more about a cause, the way the Valley swelled around global warming a few years ago.

A fad? Maybe. But like the whole green-fad, if it’s a fad that helps the world, there’s nothing wrong with trendiness. If you’ve seen the film and want to get more involved, you may want to join an online town hall happening tonight with Ariana Huffington, director of “Superman” Davis Guggenheim, producer Lesley Chilcott and New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein. There will be a group specifically set up for TechCrunch readers here.

60mo Gives QuickBooks A Minty Dashboard

For businesses both big and small, planning for the future is integral to a company’s success financially. There are a number of software applications that help companies create forward looking profit and loss statements and more, but 60mo is hoping to disrupt this space by offering a dead simple web-based application for both small businesses and enterprise companies.

The tool, which launched at TechCrunch Disrupt’s Startup Alley, allows you to import your financials from a number of accounting software programs including QuickBooks and FreshBooks, as well as directly from financial institutions, including Bank of America, Chase and American Express. The startup will also ask new users a set of questions regarding their industry, business model, office location(s), staff, shareholders, and accounting system. 60mo will then create an optimal account structure with built in projection trends, reports, and more for each company.

Of course, the ability to share this information within a company (i.e. with accountants, shareholders, lawyers, payroll companies etc.) is also integral to any application that automates financial forecasting. 60mo will allow users to give service providers controlled access to financial projections, profit and loss rollups, HR data, cap tables, and more.

In terms of pricing, 60mo seems fairly affordable at $19 per month for an unlimited amount of users.

60m is sort of like a for small businesses. It’s similar in some ways to recently launched Indinero.

Information provided by CrunchBase