• Meet Phoenix, the robot with “human-like” intelligence
  • A cleaning robot-as-a-service (RaaS)?
  • Buying a beer? Be sure to scan your palm first

Dear Reader,

Sports, for those who are fans of one team or another, is a form of entertainment. Being a sports fan can involve a sense of belonging, pride, and sometimes disappointment as it relates to supporting our favorite hometown teams.

For some, it can be a fun hobby. And for the very talented few, it can actually be one heck of a career.

But whatever we see, enjoy, or feel about our teams, one thing is certain… Sports are massive businesses. Billions of dollars are at stake.

I was reminded of this over the last couple of days when the news came out about a merger between the Professional Golfers Association of America (PGA) and Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf. I don’t follow golf at all, but this is such an interesting story. It provides insight into big-money business strategies that can only be carried out by entities that have very deep pockets.

Saudi Arabia has long been making efforts to diversify its wealth beyond oil through its Public Investment Fund (PIF). Sports, specifically football (soccer), had been a target for the PIF. In 2020, it took over Newcastle United. And just a couple of days ago, it took over the four leading football clubs in its own country.

And yet, the developments with LIV Golf are even more interesting. For years, the PGA rebuffed any interest from outside investment. The management team wanted to maintain tight control over the very profitable company, as well as tight control over the golf players that toured.

There have been major points of contention between the PGA management and players for years, which is what created such an interesting opportunity for Saudi Arabia to form LIV Golf last year.

LIV Golf came out swinging with a total prize money of $255 million for its first season, over $100 million more than what the PGA offered its players. And due to its deep pockets, LIV was able to make some outrageous offers to recruit players to come on board.

Greg Norman was hired to be the CEO of LIV Golf, and LIV signed Dustin Johnson $150 million to join and Phil Mickelson $200 million to do the same. Many players rejected the offers, but a long list of well-known names took the money.

The reason for all the discord between the players and the PGA was well explained by some comments from Mickelson:

They’ve [the PGA Tour] been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want [the Saudi Golf League] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.

The players were making immense contributions to the league after a lifetime of developing their skills, and the management at PGA was manipulating the players and keeping a disproportionate amount of the earnings for themselves.

LIV Golf and the Saudis knew that, and they wanted to invest in the lucrative sport of golf. By creating their own league and siphoning off some of the biggest names in the golf business, LIV weakened the PGA and demonstrated that they could do a lot more damage.

Making matters worse, both parties were entangled in legal battles with one another, which is a terrible distraction from their core business – making money through golf. When asked about a possible merger, Jay Monahan said, “It’s not in the cards” and took a high and mighty moral stand about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

That’s why the news from yesterday came as such a surprise – the PGA and LIV Golf are merging together.

Those players who turned down the money are shaking their heads right now, and those who joined LIV and received massive contracts are right back where they want to be, with a large part of the change that they wanted when they left.

But the most brilliant part of the business strategy is that Saudi Arabia got what it wanted, a big chunk of the PGA. Its startup costs may have been large for LIV, probably on the order of $1 billion, but it was able to affect a major deal with the PGA in less than 18 months and forced something to happen that would have otherwise never been possible.

The hypocrisy of the PGA is grossly obvious. It’s all fine now! Great deal! We’re happy to announce… And all the typical rhetoric that comes with announcements like this.

It’s a great example of some deep-pocketed hardball with cutthroat tactics played by the PIF and LIV Golf. Whether we agree with it or not, it’s a great example of what happens all the time in the big leagues… and a reminder that at the end of the day, sports are all about the business.

Sanctuary AI announces a new humanoid robot…

Regular readers may remember a startup called Sanctuary AI. We highlighted the company’s vision for a general-purpose robot with human-like intelligence in March of last year.

Well, the team has been hard at work since then. And it just announced its new robot which is designed to have “human-like” intelligence. It’s called Phoenix. Here it is:

Here we can see Phoenix waving and shaking hands. This gives us a feel for how Sanctuary envisions Phoenix interacting with the real world.

Sanctuary AI’s goal is for Phoenix to be able to perform many of the same manual labor tasks that we can. This requires both advanced hardware and artificial intelligence (AI) software… and that’s just what the company has built.

As we can see above, Phoenix has a very similar range of motion with its arms, hands, and fingers that humans do. In fact, it has 20 degrees of freedom (DOF) which gives it the ability to move and manipulate objects in the way that we do.

Plus, Phoenix is loaded with cameras and depth perception sensors. This enables the robot to interact with the real world in a logical way.

Sanctuary’s goal is for Phoenix to be fully autonomous. It wants the robot to be able to do meaningful work without any supervision or guidance required.

And Sanctuary has an interesting approach to making this a reality. The company is loading up human volunteers with all kinds of sensors while they perform all sorts of different tasks. The team then collects the data produced by those sensors and feeds it back to the AI. That video and data are actually used to train and improve Sanctuary’s AI, which is what “runs” Phoenix.

This is the exact same technique Tesla uses to improve its self-driving AI. Tesla collects video and data from every car out on the road operating in self-driving mode and then feeds it back to the AI, thus improving its performance over time.

Sanctuary is employing the same model to humanoid robotics. That makes perfect sense and is exactly what Tesla will be doing as it develops Optimus.

There’s still plenty of work to do before Phoenix will be fully autonomous. But Sanctuary’s on the right path. This is a great view of how multi-modal AI will power human-like robots and make them incredibly useful to augment humans in tasks that are arduous, dangerous, or time-consuming.

Get ready for robotics-as-a-service…

Speaking of robots, a company called Matician just launched the very first consumer-facing cleaning robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) offering. This is interesting…

Matician developed a floor-cleaning robotic called Matic. It’s very similar to iRobot’s popular Roomba in that it autonomously vacuums and mops the floor according to a set schedule.

Matic’s design is a bit different from Roomba. But its functionality is very similar. That said, the business model is completely different.

iRobot sells versions of a Roomba for anywhere from $279 to $799, depending on the model. It’s a one-time purchase.

Matician is not selling Matic directly. Instead, the company is licensing the robot out for $125 a month.

We may wonder why anyone would want to pay $125 a month indefinitely when they could buy a high-end Roomba for about $800. And that’s where the beauty of the RaaS model comes in…

Like Sanctuary AI, Matician is also taking a play out of Tesla’s playbook. The company is collecting data from every Matic out in the field. Matician feeds that data back to the AI to improve the robot’s performance. Then it pushes out periodic software updates to all Matics in operation. That makes the robots better over time.

All these future updates come at no extra cost for consumers who have a Matic subscription. That’s one perk.

Matician also fully insures each Matic. If the robot breaks for any reason, consumers can send it back and get a replacement unit at no cost. That’s another great perk.

Then there’s an interesting dynamic regarding the robot’s consumables.

Each Matic comes with a vacuum bag and various brush and mop rolls. These are parts that must be replaced over time… And Matician takes care of that as part of its RaaS offering.

Because Matician is collecting data on each robot’s usage, it knows when these various parts need to be replaced. So when a replacement is triggered for a particular unit, the company ships it out automatically. This saves users the hassle of tracking their own replacements. That’s another great perk.

I see this as a very compelling business model. I think many consumers would prefer having a subscription to owning their robot outright and being responsible for all the repairs and maintenance.

I do think Matician’s price point is a bit too high at $125 a month. But if it can get that down well below $100, I think it’ll find a sweet spot. At that point, Matic could catch on in a big way.

And if Matician is successful, I expect other robotics companies will adopt a similar model. After all, it’s unlikely that consumers will want to take responsibility for the maintenance and repairs of an autonomous robot.

And I expect public companies that can perfect this model will be rewarded by investors. As we likely know, software-as-a-service (SaaS) has been one of the most popular business models for software companies in recent years. This kind of model tends to be higher margin. It allows a company to project future revenues with more certainty, and investors reward them with a higher valuation multiple.

In the near future, we may not buy autonomous robotic systems, but subscribe to them…

Amazon One pushes ahead with biometric IDs…

We’ll wrap up today with another big move by Amazon.

A few months ago, Amazon announced that it had licensed its Amazon One palm-scanning system to popular fast-casual restaurant Panera Bread. That was the first time Amazon had deployed this technology outside of its own business.

Longtime readers may remember the Amazon One system. It rolled out back in October 2020.

Amazon One is biometric identification tech. It links a consumer’s palm print to their Amazon account, a credit card, and a mobile phone number. This allows consumers to access a storefront and make purchases simply by scanning their palms.

Amazon has been using this technology at Amazon Go stores, certain Whole Foods locations, and Panera Bread. And now, Amazon is taking it even further…

Amazon just announced that it is applying these palm-scanning systems to perform age verification as well. This will allow consumers to purchase alcohol with just a palm scan. The days of showing an ID are over.

The first adopter of this technology is Coors Field in Denver, CO. That’s the Colorado Rockies’ baseball stadium. Fans will now be able to buy a beer at the game simply by scanning their palms. Here’s what that looks like:

Source: Amazon

Here’s the compact palm scanner sitting on the counter of a beer vendor. And we can see that the scanner displays a green check mark when the person scans their palm. That indicates that they are 21 years or older.

What we don’t see is that the device also displays a picture of the person to the vendor behind the counter. That’s just an additional verification metric to ensure the person scanning their palm is the person who owns the Amazon account.

It may seem like a small thing, but this is a great application.

For starters, this system is incredibly convenient for consumers. Especially for those buying a beer at the baseball game. Fans can simply scan their palm, grab their beer, and go back to their seats. No more showing ID or swiping credit cards. That will speed up the transaction, which is great for a fast-moving business.

And there’s also a privacy protection aspect.

When we show a physical ID, the person checking it can get a lot of information about us. Full name, birthday, address, drivers’ license number – all of it. This is highly sensitive data. Bad actors could use it to stalk people or even steal their identity.

The Amazon One palm scanner ensures that vendors do not see any of that data. They only see a green or red check mark and the account holder’s picture. Nothing else.

For this reason, I think we’ll see these systems adopted very quickly. Eventually, most bars and night clubs will deploy this technology to protect their patrons. It just makes too much sense.

Of course, the downside is that we have to trust Amazon to store our sensitive data properly. If Amazon makes our data susceptible to hackers, that mitigates the benefit of shielding our data from the vendors we engage with.

Fortunately, Amazon has been pretty good about this. It’s not like Google and Facebook who constantly seek to sell access to our private data to the highest bidder. But we still need to be vigilant and ensure Amazon remains a good steward.

Regardless, this is the future of payments. I’m sure we’ll be seeing these palm scanning devices pop up at more and more vendors in the months to come.


Jeff Brown
Editor, The Bleeding Edge