• How AI is an essential tool in the fight against coronavirus
  • Your neighborhood delivery truck could soon drive itself
  • Japan’s bleeding-edge technology will be on display at the Olympics… sort of

Dear Reader,

I was hoping that my predictions about the coronavirus were going to be wrong, but my gut was correct.

I woke up this morning to learn that there are more than 17,000 cases of coronavirus infections, and the rate continues to grow exponentially. Just a couple of days ago, it was less than half that. The devastating impact of the virus will far outweigh what we saw from SARS in 2003.

In a remarkable effort to manage the outbreak of the virus, China built a large 1,000-bed hospital in Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, in just 10 days. Based on the growth rate of the coronavirus infections, it won’t be enough.

The China equity markets are down significantly. The Shanghai Exchange is already down more than 12% from this month’s highs, and the Hong Kong Hang Seng is down more than 9% in the same time period.

Apple announced that it is closing its stores and corporate offices in mainland China until February 9. The consumer electronics giant is also suffering from supply issues. The company is already having trouble getting components for manufacturing.

While this is certainly affecting some technology and biotechnology companies in the U.S., we wouldn’t know it by the strength in the broad markets. The U.S. equity markets are all up across the board, a clear reflection of the strength in the U.S. economy.

As investors, it’s critical that we stay on top of these developments. If the coronavirus isn’t controlled, this will be a tough quarter for many manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies, which will struggle with their supply chains. The impact will, however, be temporary, and it will likely create some great buying opportunities.

And speaking of coronavirus…

Artificial intelligence is tracking the coronavirus pandemic…

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). That means coronavirus is officially a pandemic.

As a reminder, coronavirus is the SARS-like virus that originated in Wuhan, China. It’s spreading faster than SARS ever did back in 2003. And the number of infected people has exceeded SARS infections at their peak.

And we know this largely thanks to artificial intelligence (AI).

As it turns out, a form of AI called machine learning has been scouring internet and social media sites to find patterns related to the outbreak. The AI has been able to identify specific locations where a new outbreak has occurred.

This is something that would have been impossible back when the SARS outbreak occurred. AI technology was not as advanced back then. Plus, we didn’t have large social media platforms with real-time information like we do today.

And think about this – AI gives us a good way to compare what is officially reported to what appears to be happening in the field.

As we know, the Chinese government is notorious for obfuscating when it comes to “on the ground” conditions for crises like this.

In fact, recent videos have surfaced on Twitter showing Chinese government officials going to the homes of its citizens and threatening its own citizens who tweeted information about the severity of the virus. They demanded that the citizens admit that they made a “mistake” and state publicly that they tweeted incorrect information.

So AI can give us a way to calibrate whether information from a state agency seems accurate or not.

So this is yet another real-world application for artificial intelligence.

In fact, with its ability to recognize patterns and tune out the noise, AI suggested that coronavirus was a global pandemic before the WHO or other human authorities did.

AI will be an essential tool for identifying outbreaks like the coronavirus and be a valuable resource for the global medical community to have a broader set of information from which it can make more informed decisions.

UPS is going big on self-driving technology…

Big news – UPS just announced that it is teaming up with Waymo, Google’s autonomous vehicle division, to deploy self-driving minivans in the Phoenix area. To start with, UPS will use Waymo’s modified Chrysler Pacifica vans to deliver packages between Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona.

As we discussed last October, Waymo has been testing fully autonomous cars in Phoenix. UPS will piggyback on this work. It will still employ safety drivers at first. Then, as data comes back, UPS will put a strategic plan in place to transition to fully autonomous vehicles with no driver. That’s how the company can increase efficiency and reduce labor costs.

Of course, UPS isn’t new to self-driving tech. The company invested in self-driving truck company TuSimple’s $215 million Series D funding round. And it has been testing out self-driving trucks using this technology.

UPS also announced that it is buying 10,000 electric minivans from a U.K. startup called Arrival. These will be used to build a self-driving fleet. So UPS is going big on self-driving tech.

Why is UPS doing this? To me, this looks like a company fighting desperately to compete with Amazon.

As we talked about last month, Amazon now delivers about half of all its packages in the United States. It is eating away at UPS’s market share.

And think about this – UPS’s gross margins are down to just 12%. They used to be above 20%. That means the business is getting less profitable. And it is barely growing.

If we look at the company’s financial snapshot, we can see why UPS is interested in self-driving technology. The environment is more competitive today than it was 10 years ago. That’s thanks to Amazon. And over time, as Amazon continues to build out its own logistics network, it will use UPS less, not more.

And speaking of financials, the timing of this announcement was interesting. It was made a day before UPS’s quarterly earnings release. And the earnings report was a disaster. The company’s performance was so bad, the stock dropped 7% in response.

Clearly, management was trying to provide some good news to soften the blow.

So UPS views self-driving technology as its last chance to right the ship… something to help the company address its rapidly declining margins. This is not a company I’d be going long on… My bet is on Amazon.

Japan plans to showcase advanced technology for the summer Olympics…

This last story made me chuckle…

Japan is gearing up for the 2020 summer Olympics. And the country views this as a chance to put its advanced technology on display.

As part of its grand display, Japan will have working 5G wireless networks in Tokyo as well as a fleet of self-driving vehicles. In total, about 80 self-driving buses, minivans, and SUVs will shuttle passengers between the airport, Olympic Village, and various other locations around the city.

Japan wants to show the world that it is leading in self-driving technology and has the infrastructure to support it. But there’s a catch…

As I dug through the information, I learned that these vehicles will have a driver in the front seat. They won’t be fully autonomous. I got a chuckle from this because it highlights a quirky part of the Japanese tech industry.

As regular readers know, I spent two decades working in Tokyo as a technology executive. I’ve traveled just about everywhere in the country and worked closely with the biggest Japanese corporations.

I have deep respect for products designed and manufactured in Japan. The product quality is markedly better than anything produced anywhere else in Asia. And Japanese design principles tend to overbuild products for unusual use cases. This is why Japanese consumer electronics companies’ products tend to be much more expensive than products from South Korea or China.

But even with highly automated technology, Japan often doesn’t take advantage of its tech.

For example, Japan was one of the first countries to roll out automated ticket gates at train stations. But then it made sure there was always a person standing at the automated gate, just in case it broke down. Not much of a productivity gain.

That person would often take your ticket for you and insert it into the machine… which completely defeated the purpose of having an automated gate.

So I’m not expecting much from the self-driving technology during the Olympics. Self-driving cars supplemented by human drivers will likely be the result.

But at least the world will certainly get to see 5G wireless technology operating by the time of the Olympics in Tokyo. And I hope to see for myself when I visit in April.


Jeff Brown
Editor, The Bleeding Edge

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